Exotic Gardening with Rare and Strange Plants


There I said it, summer is over.

The garden is as big as it’s ever going to get, my Castor beans, jerusalem artichokes and Tetrapanax are all breaking personal records. Growing tropical plants in the north is an exercise best saved for the insane (and broken backed). Sitting in the garden, enjoying an evening beverage it’s hard to believe I’m even in Victoria anymore. For a small garden I really have crammed in just about as many oddities as physically possible. I have plants from all continents sans Antarctica. Ranging from Europe to South America, coming from as far as the Himilayan Mountians, to the Canary Islands, Mexican deserts and beyond. In times that I’m not traveling on a plane I can travel through the story of the plants.

For those of you who are new to my plant rantings, let me just say, “Hello, My name is Nat, and I’m a plant hoarder”. Seriously though, some might call it a problem, but I’d like to think of it as a gift. My theory is as long as one’s plant collection is in good order, that being healthy and/or well organized, it’s not hoarding, but a botanical Ark. The purpose of this ark mostly being selfish of course. Who else really appreciates the effort put into a garden more than it’s creator and caretaker himself. It’s a plant lab for research and a playground for mental relaxation.

While I’d love to dream that my plants will live on when I’m gone, I’m afraid they’d mostly be lost without me. Agaves and cacti won’t soon be taking over the streets of Victoria, a guy can dream can’t he. Still hopeless or not I do my part and carry on the tradition in which we as people cultivate the plants that intrigue us. Hopefully passing them on and furthering their proliferation into the homes and lives of people wide and far. Be it to inspire or teach, or simply pass on a cutting that’s difficult to acquire. Call me the crazy plant man, let’s talk plants.

I’m hoping to create a tetrapanax forest in time. 

Truth be told I’ve not been writing as much as I’d like to be, but times have gotten busy. The fall chrysanthemum season kept my schedule full and my back on the verge of collapse. After a long road-trip in search of cacti and succulents, the everyday chore of watering an incredibly thirsty garden, and let’s not forget the nursery work. I was exhausted. Let’s rephrase that I’am exhausted, and for a moment I had contemplated if i had burnt out gardening all together. Certainly not, just a momentary lapse in energy. I’ll keep the coffee brewed, the plants strange and spirits high. Now for the annual migration of tropical plants to the greenhouse. A good rule of thumb for exotic gardeners on the west-coast of B.C is to have your tender plants in by October 31st just to be safe. That means only 30 days to move roughly 300+ plants indoors, I better get to stretching. I need staff, this one man botanical garden is lot of work.

Now before I start the process of the garden deconstruction I still need to do some proper photography. Why else do I grow such climatically fragile plant life if not to admire them at their largest and lushest time of year. Let’s take a look at what’s looking good this October 2012.

As mentioned earlier my castor beans have never looked better. This green Ricinus communis was grown from seed purchased in Germany, many many years ago. To think the budding young botanist at the time had no idea he would take it this far. A certain sentimental shout out goes to the plants that were there at the start, and this one was probably my first successful seed project. Out of a whole pack I only ended up with two and they’ve followed me this far. Now, how to get a 12 foot castor bean to the greenhouse in a VW Golf, I’ll make it work.

A tabletop of succulents, a highlight of some of my favorites which rotates as things come into flower and/or fade. Some notable appearances such as a lush, spiky Pachypodium lamerei, a neon flowered jatropha podagrica and an ever so strange Lophocereus schottii x monstrose.

Jatropha podagrica has bloomed almost all summer.

A large Pleiospilos bolusii has been blooming.

Old Aloinopsis schooneesii grow large underground tubers that can later be exposed for an interesting effect. Mostly a winter grower, A. schooneesii doesn’t mind a little summer water. Still looking forward to some flowers in the dark days. This one is staged rather nicely.

The smallest of the echeveria genus, E. minima is slow growing, stays dwarf in size and takes it’s time to offset. An interesting species to say the least.

I love the ribs on this Stenocactus sp.

Because it’s always a good time to take a photo of my favorite intergeneric oddity, Mangave ‘Bloodspot’.

Echeveria gibbiflora ´Carunculata´

A nice mix of succulents & bromeliads. Take notice of the second year dichondra repens to the left, it’s out of control, and incredible!

Crassula gollum is looking good this year.

Last photo of succulents I promise, my Trichocereus pachanoi seems to have developed a zit.

The cyclamen are out in full force. I can’t get enough of these reliable autumn beauties.  It looks so ethereal, practically unreal.

Cyclamen hederifolium

The twisted leaves of Begonia ‘Escargot’ add to the surrealism.

You’d think I’d be tired of chrysanthemums by now but really, they’re popular for a reason. A great hit of color in a month where blooms are at their fewest.

This westcoast (Blechnum spicant ) deer fern is thriving.  Crested saxifraga pour out of a broken ceramic. The yuccas, an unexpected surprise, former garden residents that refuse to leave. I dug this patch out last autumn, but here they are again. I’d sooner take yucca then pop weed I suppose, I mean, who wouldn’t!

I know people have mixed feelings about ornamental cabbage & kale, but I for one enjoy them. A nice touch of color.

This Sinningia leucotricha has enjoyed it’s time outdoors. For a past post on this one, click here.

Euphorbia leuconeura & autumn colchicums make a lovely unlikely pair.

Zauschneria californica is native to California but hardy 3000kms north in Victoria. I’ll count this one as a win. Easy to grow, blooms late summer until frost.

Speaking of hardy obscurities, Leucosidea sericea is a tree from South Africa reported to be quite hardy. This one gets to live outside this season, as a test.

What is it about the cooling temperatures of late September & October that make the colors of flowers just that much more rich in color.  Desfontainia spinosa often has candy corn colored blooms, at this time of year, bright orange.

At first glance it looks like the blooms of an orchid, but that’s not the case. A lowly toad lily, Tricyrtis hirta surprises you with these mindblowing blooms, late summer until frost. A flower that require you to take a closer look, Tricyrtis are well worth growing for fall interest.

A new vine to me, Manettia bicolor (candy corn vine).

An update on my Begonia luxurians. It’s grown from a 4″ cutting to this in one season. No pests, dare I say spider mite resistant, partial shade with regular water.

While there might not be a Passiflora caerulea flower open everyday, there has been one every month (sometimes as many as 8-10 open at once) since the very start of the growing season. Hardy for me last season, this one is a winner.

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This is the biggest echium pininana I’ve ever seen, literally wider then my car and over 6 ft tall. I saw plenty of echiums on my drive south but none this lush. This one is planted out and will brave the winter storms, probably to it’s demise. Luckily if this one doesn’t work out I’ve got another 30 or so at the greenhouse, I will see one of these bloom. Someday.

Thanks for joining me on this tour.

While I will admit I’ve been spending considerably more time inside then out, there is still a small world of amazement going on outside. Although the majority of the flowers have disapeared, December allows you to appreciate all the incredible foliage you might normally miss during the fireworks of spring and summer. In an attempt to record the yearly progress of my garden I went out and had a little photo-shoot this afternoon. The weather has been incredible mild this winter and I for one am loving it. We’ve had almost 2 weeks of sunshine, with no more then a handful of -1 frosts. A surprisingly amount of tenders are still hanging on, and things don’t look nearly as bad as they did last year. I got a bit carried away with the photos on today’s post so enjoy. For those of you living in the north, I think we could all use a little bit more greenery in our lives.

December 2011 Garden Tour:

Euphorbia ‘Glacier’ was one of the first plants I planted in this garden almost half a decade ago. While some people don’t like a euphorbia’s unruly growing habit, selective pruning can maintain their shape. The nodding style of their growth tips let you know that they’re preparing to flower, a process that will take upward to 6 months to complete.

This Euphorbia wulfenii only had one bloom last season, it looks like this year it will have upwards to 10.

This Euphorbia rigida was planted around the same time as E. ‘Glacier although I’ve never had this species flower. It’s growth tips do look like their up to something though.

My one and only Rhododendron  (noid) is fully in bud preparing for it’s fireworks display in early spring.

Working at an annual nursery I often like to fill gaps with seasonal color. Some might not love English Daisies but tell me this, what else is flowering so prolifically this time of year?

Oh I forgot, that’s right, Mahonia media. The first time I noticed these was in front of the of Bay Center Mall downtown Victoria. Absolutely tropical looking from November till Febuary, this is by far the most electric plant doing it’s thing this time of year. Bonus points that it’s 100% hardy in Victoria, and would grow almost tree like if given the chance.

Somewhat of a border-line perennial up here in Victoria, Zauschneria californica (otherwise known as california fuchsia) has been attempting to flower for a couple week’s now. I’ve chanced it in the cold frame in the back yard and kept it on the dry side. It’s not exactly thriving but I think it will pull through.

Underrated as a 2″ annual Felicia amelloide has been in non stop bloom since I planted it mid summer. I’m unsure how much of a frost it can take but so far it’s untouched by the -1 light frosts we’ve been having.  100’s of delicate blue daisy flowers.

Some people on Dave’s Garden complain that Malva sylvestris is a bit of a weed, so far I’m not jaded by this opinion. I’ve always enjoyed growing other mallows (ie. Laviteria) and this one is impressive to say the least. We’ll see if a million of them pop up next spring and change my mind.  This sole flower was welcomed and appreciated in the dark gloomy days of December.

I think I like Cyclamen hederifolium’s foliage even more then the flowers. Nature’s art at it’s finest. It’s hard to believe conservationist  are ripping out 5-10 year old cyclamen corms from local parks because they consider them invasive.  That’s like complaining there’s too many gin and tonics, or sunshine, give me a break!

In such a small garden I don’t have a lot of space to dedicate to boring old hellebore , but Hellebore ‘Winter Moonbeam’ won it’s place in garden forever the first time I saw it as a small seedling. What incredible evergreen foliage.

It looks like a set of flowers are well on it’s way.

A great trick for adding a extra greenery to your winter garden is planting italian parsley in autumn. I fill the odd gap with it and it thrives in the cool season. Extra points that being a cold weather crop it doesn’t go to flower and will be megasized come spring. I first saw a planting of this kind in Finland, and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Wasabia japonica otherwise known as true wasabi grows happily underneath some bamboo. This isn’t exactly an easy plant to grow and has given me stress throughout the hot months of summer. It turns out 99% of the wasabi you eat in restaurants isn’t in fact real wasabi at all, but dyed horseradish. Real wasabi has a much different taste, and fetches high prices if you learn how to grow it well ($70.00+/pound) I think I’ve figured this guy out, and since then it’s been doing much better, still the finest grown wasabi grows in running water, which produces a much tastier root.

Checking on the last few tropicals that I’ve cruelly left to chance outdoors shows Fuchsia gartenmeister holding on strong even it’s definitely seen some frosts. “I’m not even mad, I’m impressed”.

I really came to appreciate this undervalued 2″ annual,  Dichondra ‘Emerald Falls’ and I’m hoping it survives our unusual mild winter. This plant is vigorous to say the least and has really thrived in this planter. I had no idea it would grow as large as it did. I might be the crazy guy putting a blanket on it during the coldest of our frosts but that’s neither here nor there.

While many of my passion flower vines were cut down and brought to the greenhouse, Passiflora caerulea was left outdoors to chance. So far it’s doing just fine and looks completely untouched by the occasional frosts. My Acacia pravissima still has buds and also seems to be doing well. On the coldest nights I fold the leaves into that cloth to help it have extra protection, but so far it probably hasn’t needed it.

Acanthus ‘Tasmanian Tiger’ is a discontinued version of a Terra Nova hybrid because it didn’t prove as hardy as they would have hoped. The nursery threw out over 20 of these and I took some home. Before they were proved “inferior” they were selling for over $30.00 at garden centers. Although small, mine are growing, just fine!

December is a great month for mosses’ and lichens, my Sagina mound growing happily.

This Blechnum spicant (western deer fern) accidentally followed me home during a camping trip up the coast. It has absolutely thived in this pot, asking nothing in return for it’s good looks.

And look at this hardy Opuntia noid, it doesn’t seem to mind our cold, wet winters

This Soldanella  lives happily by the pond. It didn’t flower last year so I’m hoping it will do it’s thing this season. It’s one of the first plants to bloom come spring with dainty little purple umbrella flowers. Even as a alpine foliage plant it’s well worth having.

These Crocus sativus (saffron crocus)  have given me two seasons of grass like foliage and no flowers yet. How am I to ever make my famous saffron rice, the Indian potluck is going to be really disappointing this year.

I love these cladonia “pixie cup” lichen, and have been helping them thrive since the very first time I spotted them. About two years ago 1 or 2 “pixie cups” appeared and I’ve been watering this rock ever since. In the heat of summer they dry up, but when it rains they’re back instantly.

A closer look reveals the strangest forms. As I become more obsessed with plants I find myself noticing their smaller relatives more and more. Lichens are a symbiosis of two plant forms:  an algae and a fungus. “ooo interesting”

A cold season window planter. Decorative cabbage, oxalis, leadwort, ivy and pansys, wow.

Saxifraga ‘White Hill’  enjoys the cold weather. Such interesting geometry rosette.

Blue Fescue and Prarie Fire grass really shine this time of year.

The benefit to working at a wholesale nursery is you often come across a lot of great plants that need to find a home before they hit the compost. I planted over 50 of these in my front yard this autumn  and they really brighten up the place in the dull winter months.

I think I’ve finally found my favorite berry. Ugni molinae otherwise known as Chilean Guava is another borderline perennial the seems to do well in my Victoria zone 7-8 garden. The berries are somewhat like blueberries with a hint of juniper, sort of ginny. I love snacking on a handful while wondering about the garden in December. So far this one lives in my coldframe and seems untouched by the cold weather. Growing happily in a 5 G pot.

If you’ve never tried these before I highly recommend them, delicious! Said to be Queen Victoria’s favorite fruit. It’s a relatively carefree plant requiring little to no special attention during the growing season.

If you could believe it there’s more plants indoors as well. It’s so much fun but a bit overwelming at times. My roommates have joked around in the past about a plant intervention. I protested saying there is never enough plants and we left it at that. You’re telling me your complaining you live in a fully tending botanical garden? Sounds like paradise to me?

And last but not least, the downstairs grow lab. Things are thriving, and I’m waiting on some seeds to sprout. More plants anyone?

Let me tell you I drank a large Starbucks before this post and that was 2.5 hours ago, Thank you for joining me on this tour, of which ended up being considerably larger then I first imagined. Just a couple more months of winter and then we get to do it all over again!

Mr Nat. Gardener, Plant Nerd
Tips and tales about gardening in one of the most mild climates in Canada. Specializing in rare and strange plants from far out destinations, this is the story of an obsessed young gardener in Victoria B.C. Let's create more tropical gardens in the garden city on the southern tip of Vancouver Island.