Caryopteris: You Can Grow That!

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If you want a shrub that bursts with mid- to late spring color and thrills butterflies and bees, you can grow Caryopteris (C. x clandonensis).  Also called bluebeard, blue mist, and blue mist spirea, caryopteris plants actually are part of the mint (Laminaceae) family, a recent change from their former placement in the verbena family. Regardless, they are nothing like a spirea, but the name has stuck.

 

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The mint-like leaves have a nice scent and color. The purple blooms burst with color in mid- to late summer.

About Caryopteris

Caryopteris is a drought-tolerant shrub that has pretty, sage-like pale green leaves. The leaves have a nice, light scent. They drop in winter (it is deciduous) but begin emerging in late spring or early summer. I leave the brown seed heads on for some winter interest; blue mist still will maintain its shrub shape with dry, light brown stems.

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Butterflies love the bright blossoms of caryopteris. Each time I walk past a plant, I feel like I am in a butterfly pavilion.

The plant comes from Asia, so it is not native to North America. That does not seem to bother my pollinators and I have not seen the plant spread invasively, unlike its mint relatives.  Still, you can prevent it from self-sowing (dropping seeds to create new plants) by pruning it in fall as soon as all the flowers fade.

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This caryopteris receives some afternoon shade but still blooms fully next to an Apache plume.

Where to Plant Caryopteris

This pretty and easy-care shrub can grow and bloom in either full sun or part sun in zone 5 through 8 Southwest gardens. Some cultivars are hardy down to zone 4. The plant can reach 3 feet wide and 4 feet high, but can grow a little taller in the right conditions. It is easy to shape and control. Blue mist can make a nice low hedge if planted close together or serve as a featured plant in a sunny area.

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Here is the caryopteris we lifted out, divided and replanted in nearly the same spot, just a little further from and above patio runoff.

Blue mist does not like to sit in soggy soil, especially in cooler weather, so choose a spot with soil that drains well. We had one near our house that seemed to be getting too much water from patio runoff. When we built a dry river bed to handle drainage, we created a low berm for the caryopteris. It still gathers water from the flowing rain runoff but does not stay too wet.

Caring for Caryopteris

In the first year, water caryopteris regularly, letting it dry a little between waterings. When temperatures stay above about 90 degrees, water blue mist every two weeks if you are not getting rain. To avoid root rot, cut back on watering when nights cool and for plants getting some shade.

Other than that, all you have to do is prune this stunning purple plant once a year. I prune mine in spring as new growth begins to appear near the ground, but you can prune in early fall after the plant fades if you are worried about self-sowing. You can trim the branches down to about 12 to 15 inches from the ground for a pretty shrub effect. We also had some planted together in one area of the garden that my husband shaped so they would frame the nearby Apache plume.

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Bees also love caryopteris and co-exist with us and the butterflies.

If you do get volunteer plants or your caryopteris outgrows its spot in your garden, it is an easy shrub to transplant. Carefully dig deeply around your small volunteers soon after their lower leaves green up in spring. We also divided the one we put back on the berm, and both plants have retained a nice round shape.

It’s drought tolerant, a pollinator magnet and easy care. You can grow caryopteris!

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Chocolate Flower: You Can Grow That!

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The daisy-like flowers of chocolate flower have a chocolate scent!

No, I’m not kidding. There is a flower that grows well in the Southwest that smells like chocolate. It’s like my two favorite things in one pretty package! Chocolate flower (Berlanderia lyrata) casts its rich scent throughout your garden. Be sure to plant it where you can bend over and take a whiff on those occasional days with no breeze. It’s an easy plant to grow and care for.

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The daisy-like blooms of chocolate flower.

Native to Dry Areas

No wonder chocolate flower is easy to grow in New Mexico; it is native to dry plains and hills of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Texas and Kansas. It grows best in elevations of 4,000 to 7,000 feet, so Berlanderia thrives in high deserts and intermountain areas like mine.

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Even the unopened buds on chocolate flower are pretty and delicate. Photo Courtesy of Plant Select.

Because it’s native, and probably because it looks and smells so great, chocolate flower attracts butterflies, bees and birds. And deer leave it alone! Need more reasons to grow chocolate flower? It reseeds naturally, but not aggressively, so one plant can turn into a few or more, depending on lots of conditions and where you plant the first one. Another great feature of this native is that it will reseed more naturally if planted near rocks or gravel mulch. The rocks “trap” the seeds when they blow in the wind.

Caring for Chocolate Flower

You can plant chocolate flower in nearly any type of soil, but it probably will do best if the soil drains well. Be sure to place it where it will receive plenty of sun – up to all day – and where its mature height (about a foot to 15 inches tall, and up to two feet wide) will work without overcrowding. Give it a little more water the first year, and then chocolate flower should grow and bloom with mostly rain only. Each spring, trim off dead flower stalks and some of the foliage if necessary to keep the plant base about three inches high.

unopened and spent blooms of chocolate flower plant
I first had trouble telling spent blooms from new ones for deadheading. Unopened blossoms have a pretty green and papery look. The circled one is a spent, dyring up bloom for deadheading or seed collection.

Chocolate flower is a perennial in zones 4 through 11, although ask for the variety best for your area. For example, High Country Gardens has introduced a new Mora County mix of B. lyrata that is particularly cold hardy (Mora County is a mountain and high plain area just northeast of Santa Fe). Deadheading, or removing spent blooms, keeps Berlanderia blooming.

chocolate flower above yellow desert zinnias in rock garden
I love the shape, color and scent of chocolate flower. When it and desert zinnia bloom at the same time, it’s a color explosion.

Enjoy Growing Chocolate Flower

Chocolate flower is in the daisy family, a relative of the sunflower and others, so it makes a nice cutting flower as part of an arrangement. You can bring that soft chocolate scent inside! I love the color of the flower buds – they look like a sage green paper flower. Its growth habit is bright and colorful but just wild enough to fit in a natural looking, xeric landscape. Leave some of the drying flower heads on your chocolate flower at the end of the season if you want it to reseed in your garden. Then watch in spring. If conditions are right, you might see a few new crowns of chocolate flower with the distinctive leaf pattern.

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See how this chocolate flower grows up against the rocks. You will learn to recognize the leaf shape.

It’s a good thing chocolate flower can spread, because you can’t move it. The plant has a tap root (which helps its drought tolerance) that doesn’t survive division or transplanting. Otherwise, chocolate flower is a perfect, sunny perennial for a xeric garden.

You can grow chocolate flower!

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Threadgrass: You Can Grow That

It sounds too good to be true: an ornamental grass that loves heat and looks beautiful all year gently swaying in the wind. But threadgrass (Nasella tennuissima) fits the bill — and is waterwise. This pretty low-water plant also is called silky thread grass or Mexican feather grass.

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Can you spot the tightrope-walking lady bug on this threadgrass?

Texture and movement can add to a garden’s design nearly as much as shape and color. Threadgrass has a delicate, windswept form that serves as an attractive backdrop to low-growing flowering plants like sedums or verbena. In summer, the grass is a nice green with feathery ends. In winter, the airy flower heads take on a golden, wheat-like appearance. Threadgrass is deer resistant, has no known diseases or pests, and is a native plant that grows in zones 5 through 10.

Planting Threadgrass

Plant threadgrass in spring, summer or fall. Because it likes heat, you might be able to fill in a summer bare spot with threadgrass after weather is too hot for most garden plants. If you want a swaying meadow effect, you’ll need to plant a few, and then wait for them to reseed. If you want immediate effect, plant several. Just keep in mind the plant grows to about 12 inches wide.

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Young threadgrass plants that came up next to their mother plant.

Your threadgrass plants should reach about 18 to 24 inches high when fully grown, sometimes higher when blooming. Plant it in full sun and in most any kind of soil. When you first plant or transplant your threadgrass, give it a little extra water, especially in high heat.

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You also can bunch threadgrass for a meadow effect, like the grass in this Austin area garden.

Caring for Threadgrass

Once threadgrass is established, it should need nothing but rain water to grow and set seed. The plant is  a short-lived  perennial and should come back several years in a row, assuming typical low temperatures for the lower zones. It also reseeds (see below), creating new plants nearby. You can leave these to eventually replace the established ones, or dig them up and transplant them to another spot in your garden. They are easy to recognize.

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Tiny seedlings of threadgrass are easy to spot around other plants. Depending on where they show up and where you live, they are either free plants or invasive ones.

Each spring, as you begin pruning other plants in your garden, gently comb the grass blades with a fine rake and trim them for shape.

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How perfect is the texture of the fine stems of threadgrass as part of this xeric plant grouping!

Caution for Some Gardeners

The fact that threadgrass replaces itself by sprouting tiny plants from seed is a bonus to me. We get just enough seedlings to move around our garden, without them being a problem. But in some areas, threadgrass can be invasive, reseeding in places where it interferes with other plants. In fact, the  plant is prohibited in California because it is so invasive there and can crowd out grasses native to coastal areas. It also can crowd out pasture grasses. We have had no problems with that, however, and have only seen the plants pop up near mature ones.

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Ornamental grass like threadgrass is great for lining pathways.

Not sure yet? Check out the short video of the grass moving in the winter breeze I posted on Southwest Gardening Blog’s Instagram page.

Enjoy growing threadgrass and other ornamental grasses in your low-water garden!

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Christmas Cactus: You Can Grow That!

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Holiday flowers like paperwhites and amaryllis are fun and beautiful, but in the Southwest, we love succulents, and the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) is a fall and winter favorite in our homes.

A red Christmas cactus blossom. Image from Pixabay.

The Christmas cactus loads up with delicate flowers each winter, assuming you take a few steps to force the blooms. That might sound intimidating, but it really is simple. The blooms appear on small, flat “leaves,” which are really stem segments. Closely related plants – all with a holiday “theme” – are the Thanksgiving cactus (S. truncates) and the Easter cactus (Schlumbergeragaertneri). You can guess the approximate times each should bloom. There are some differences in the stem shapes, but overall care is similar.

Schlumbergera plants were discovered in Brazil’s rain forests, where they grow as epiphytes on trees or other plants without stealing their nutrients.  That makes them less parasitic than another holiday favorite, mistletoe.

The flowers have a long, tubular shape and truly are remarkable, especially considering they appear on an indoor succulent! Between all schlumbergera varieties, you can find red, salmon, white and orange blooms, as well as some bicolor flowers.

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Beautiful white Christmas cactus blossom. Image from Pixabay.

Here’s how to get your Christmas cactus to bloom: Place it in a dark closet in fall, usually around late September or early October. Once buds begin to form on the ends of the stem sections, after about a month or two of darkness, bring the plant out into natural light, but not to an extreme temperature or direct sunlight.

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This plant has been in a dark closet for about 35 days.

Christmas cactus thrives best in indoor temperatures (about 55 to 70 degrees F). Even though these are cacti, they come from a naturally humid setting. Mist the leaves from time to time and let the soil barely dry out between watering so it is consistently and lightly moist, but don’t overwater or let the plant sit in water.

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Two of the plants lined our sunny wall last winter.

Once your Christmas cactus blooms, the flowers last about a week, assuming they get some sun and appropriate water. The chain of blooming should last about a month. Some say the plant is unattractive when not blooming, but I disagree. I find the cascading form of the stems and their thick, succulent appearance attractive all year.

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The fleshy stems of a Christmas cactus are attractive even when it lacks blooms.

This plant is easy to grow, and you often get blooms without following any of the advice about dark periods. We’ve had blooms at various times of the year, and I’m okay with that. I just enjoy the plant, no matter when it rewards us with those fabulous flowers. You can find Christmas cactus in nurseries and just about anywhere this time of year. The plant makes a great gift.

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