If you want to plant a living fence that’s as impenetrable as barbed wire, consider gardenia.
Not just any gardenia, mind you, but a species native to South Africa that is as drought tolerant as the more hardy California native once established in the soil. South Africa’s climate is very similar to ours – a long, warm growing season followed (if we’re lucky) by a rainy season – so plants native to this country will also be tolerant of the crop. drought than those originating in California.
The plant I am referring to is the forest gardenia (Gardenia thunbergia).
About 20 years ago, before the Sherman Oaks Library was demolished and rebuilt, there was a magnificent hedge, about eight feet tall, of this species. It was located along the edge of a northwest facing wall so that it received good light but no direct sunlight. I was fascinated by the highly fragrant trumpet blossoms that end in swirling starry reels. These flowers open over a period that will extend over the next few months.
I must mention that this gardenia does not flower until the plant is about six feet tall. When it comes to flowering, the most vital criterion in determining when a species will flower is size. Each plant species must reach a certain height before flowering. You might not know, for example, that common English ivy is a flowering plant.
When grown as a ground cover, it shows only foliage, but when it climbs a tree, sign, or telephone pole, it will eventually start to flower. These flowers are not glamorous at all, just yellow-green lollipops. Ivy is the classic case of a plant that can be kept in a juvenile state and without flowering for years and years, perhaps all of its life. It will only become a flowering adult, capable of sexual reproduction, when we allow it to grow vertically.
I passed through this rarely seen gardenia without any effort on my part. I had bought a Gardenia jasminoides var. Mystery which, due to its tendency towards iron-deficiency chlorosis or yellowing of the leaves, had been grafted onto a forest gardenia rootstock at the nursery.
This rootstock extracts iron from the soil better than the ‘Mystery’ variety does when grown on its own roots. Everything was fine until the more vigorous forest gardenia rootstock grew too large for the ‘Mystery’ scion grafted into it. This is not a phenomenon foreign to any seasoned rose grower. Every now and then, you may see a wine rose suddenly appear in your rose garden where none have been planted. In the old abandoned gardens, you only see burgundy roses.
The reason for this is that almost all hybrid roses – that is, practically all the ones you see at the nursery – are grafted onto a Dr. Huey rose rootstock. Dr. Huey confers tremendous vigor on hybrid roses; the downside is Dr Huey’s propensity to sucker. If one of these suckers reaches a certain size, it will flower. Typically, when hybrid roses start to lose their vigor, Dr. Huey takes over.
This phenomenon is also frequent on citrus fruits, all grafted and whose rootstocks always give bitter fruit. If you see oranges on your orange tree that look different from the variety you are used to picking and are sour to the taste, they are from the rootstock below. If you see any odd looking lemons on your lemon tree, they are rootstock lemons.
Coming back to my forest gardenia, its impenetrability has nothing to do with the thorns but rather with its leaves and flower buds that end in sharp points. Its wood is extremely strong with little or no curvature in its branches. The flowers become kiwi-like fruits and remain on the plant for several years, adding ornamental interest.
I searched high and low for a nursery that grows forest gardenia but, alas, none could be found until I came across a nursery in Hawaii that grows it. As the Vintage Green Farms website (tom-piergrossi.squarespace.com) writes: “The plant does not flower when young, which is probably why it is not sold more.
Likewise, “The older the plant, the longer the flowering season, up to six months.” It is described as “A very few gardenia gardenia.” It is easy to grow, requires little soil, and produces hundreds of large, fragrant flowers. This gardenia grows to ten feet or more, the wood is very angular and light in color, which contrasts beautifully with the dark green foliage. The foliage is wrinkled when young, larger and more open with age. The root system absorbs nutrients better than other gardenias.
You might think shipping plants from Hawaii is expensive, but it isn’t. As the website explains, “Because we’re so isolated on the Big Island of Hawaii, we import almost everything, but it also means FedEx planes leave with a lot less stuff than they arrived and, because of this, the Hawaii Shippers Association was able to negotiate a lot. This means I can ship at better rates than anyone on the mainland. FedEx is also fast, plants typically take about 2-3 days and have tracking numbers.
I highly recommend browsing the exotic botanical dishes offered by Vintage Green Farms. If you have any questions about the beauties you see you can call Tom the owner on his cell phone (760-525-9426) and based on my experience he will answer you in person and gladly share his extensive acquaintances with you. . And, by the way, it doesn’t have a minimum order.
Among the plants particularly promoted by Vintage Green Farms are brugmansias, commonly known as angel trumpets. Members of the nightshade family, brugmansias are highly poisonous, but their gigantic, pendulous and flared flowers, reaching up to ten inches long and sitting side by side on some varieties, still make you want to grow them. Of the nine varieties offered at the Hawaiian Nursery, five are currently sold out and concerning ‘Double White’ – its flowers consist of a trumpet nestled in another – “only two are available”. However, San Marcos Growers (smgrowers.com) offers eleven varieties of angel trumpets in its outlets, including “Double White”.
Brugmansias are fragrant, especially at night, when they attract pollinating butterflies. The hornworm – which in its larval or caterpillar form is known as the tomato hornworm – has a long proboscis which is particularly well suited to harvesting the nectar found at the base of the deep flowers of Brugmansia. Be aware that Brugmansia seeds and leaves are potentially fatal when swallowed in excess.