Tuesday, April 9, 2013

More Chaparral Shrubs for the Garden

I've already talked about California Flannelbush (Fremontodendron californicum) as one beautiful example of a chaparral plant that can be used very effectively in the home garden. Today I want to talk about some others. Let's start with Lemonade Berry (Rhus integrifolia). It is in the Anacardiaceae (Sumac or Cashew) family.

In the photo above the Lemonade Berry is the shrub with visible trunk and branches. This plant is about 20 years old and has developed a really nice branch structure. I have pruned the lower branches and leaves so the structure of it can be seen. I also prune the top to keep it from getting too tall. To the right of it is a coast prickly-pear cactus (Opuntia littoralis). In the foreground with red-orange flowers is Sticky Monkeyflower (Mimulus aruantiacus). To the left of the Monkeyflower is a Baja Dudleya (Dudleya brittonii).

Lemonade Berry is not as showy as some other shrubs (such as Flannelbush) but it is easy to grow, very versatile and great for providing structure in the garden. The leaves are dark green, somewhat thick and leathery, and remain on the plant all year. It takes pruning very well and can even be sheared into a hedge. The flowers are very small and pink, pretty when seen up close and also popular with bees.  It is generally dioecious, meaning that it has male and female flowers on separate plants. In summer the female plants develop a red fruit that has a sour-tasting "slime" on the outside of the fruit. Native people of Southern California used this fruit to make a beverage, leading to the common name Lemonade Berry. If you want to try tasting this, pick a couple of ripe ones, making sure they are red and really slimy. Put them in bottle of water, shake well and drink.

The next chaparral shrub I want to talk about is Santa Cruz Island Gooseberry (Ribes Thacherianum), endemic to the California Channel Islands.

Like other members of this family (Grossulariaceae - Gooseberries or Currants), it forms a thicket of numerous slender, upright stems which can be more clearly seen in the photo below.

It is one of the earliest in my garden to bloom, typically in February. The flowers are small but lovely and borne in a profusion on the tips of the stems.

It has a few drawbacks. It is deciduous, so it is bare in winter. Because it is thicket-forming, it is somewhat invasive. It will spread itself across an ever widening portion of your garden unless you control it. I control mine by cutting back aggressively every year or so. If you cut back to ground level, the stump will resprout vigorously. If it comes up in a place that I really don't want it, I spray the sprout with an herbicide. This plant also has spines making it difficult to work around, so it is not for everyone. On the plus side, it is great for wildlife because birds and other critters can take refuge inside the thicket. It is also useful as a visual screen or as a physical barrier.

The last plant I will talk about today is another Currant - Fuchsia Flowered Gooseberry (Ribes speciosum). It has many similarities to R. thacherianum, but what is most distinctive about speciosum is its incredible profusion of ruby red flowers.

This one also has spines that you can see in the photos. It is deciduous. It flowers in from late January into March. I don't find it to be as invasive as thacherianum. I have trained mine so that it is up against a fence, and it seems willing to stay there. Hummingbirds love it. I love it.

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