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Editor's Picks for 2021

This Month's Pick + Editor's Pick Archive Index

Each month our editor, Laura Lukes, highlights an outstanding plant, interesting insect, or helpful tool.


coral yucca

Red or coral yucca (Hersperaloe parviflora)

Occasionally, avid gardeners encounter new-to-us plants that make us want to smack our foreheads and say, “How is it I don't have a half-dozen of these?”

Red or coral yucca (Hersperaloe parviflora), a tough and attractive evergreen succulent, checks pretty much all my gotta-have-it boxes. It's cold hardy, as well as plenty heat and drought tolerant, and very low maintenance: the only upkeep required is the occasional removal of dead flower spikes. Its striking, strappy leaves add a strong architectural element to the landscape. Great so far, but wait: there's so much more. Pull up a chair after your newbie has had a year or two to settle in, because that's when the show really starts. These hesperaloes explode in exuberant flower spikes that reach for the sky, broadcasting their nectar-rich bounty to every hummingbird in the neighborhood. Plenty of insect pollinators will join the party, too. And if all that isn't quite enough, here's the clincher: sterile varieties bloom year-round!

Varieties differ in rosette size, flower color and habit, and leaf texture (look for types with spineless leaves if planting near walkways). Full sun, well-drained soil, minimal summer water.

Editor: Barbara Hill
Photographer: Fritz Hochstätter 



Floral Superhero, or Super Villain?

Inula (or Dittrichia) viscosa AKA sticky fleabane, a flowering plant in the daisy family, is a common roadside weed from the Mediterranean basin that’s recently made its way to northern California. Though humble, this weed has some serious nutraceutical superpowers. Extensively used in traditional medicine since Roman times, its leaves contain compounds with antibacterial, antitumor, anti-inflammatory, antifungal, and other pharmacological properties, which modern-day doctors use to combat a wide variety of diseases and disorders. Most recently, scientists discovered it to be a super-foe of a brain-eating amoeba that causes a deadly form of meningoencephalitis: in laboratory studies, it causes the amoebae to commit cell suicide. POW!

But before lobbying Marvel to give this tough perennial a cape, mask, and cool moniker, beware its dark side. Grazing animals can be sickened and killed after eating its flowers; the oil of its leaves and stems can blister skin; and Inula self-sows so freely it’s considered a nasty invasive in areas where it has spread beyond its native habitat. Australia has been battling this scourge for years, and the CA Department of Food and Agriculture recently determined it to be a “pest of known economic or environmental detriment,” with eradication efforts underway in nearby Sonoma County. Too close to home, especially considering it favors disturbed soil, with fire-scarred areas being a particular favorite.

More about nutraceuticals.

Editor: Barbara Hill
Photographer: Rickjpelleg 


wild orchid

Bletilla striata, AKA Chinese ground orchid

When we think of orchids, we likely imagine them as denizens of exotic, tropical climes. Stateside, we see stunning hothouse specimens arcing from elegant planters, or trailing from tasteful vases. They’re exquisite in a corsage, elegant as a boutonniere, and evince the epitome of “Aloha” in a lei.

But thriving in a Butte County garden?

Enter Bletilla striata, AKA Chinese ground orchid. This UC Davis All-Star is billed as the “easiest orchid to grow in the Central Valley.” It’s tough. It’s hardy. And one plant quickly becomes many, eventually spreading to form a sizable colony. Its arching leaves are beautifully pleated, bringing a taste of the tropics to shady garden beds. In the spring, wiry stems emerge, each bearing numerous fairy-like pink flowers that nod in the breeze, and attract more than human admirers: hummingbirds, butterflies, and other beneficials will flock to their sweet scent. Remove seed pods for a tidy appearance, and divide the corm-like pseudobulbs every three to four years. One to three feet high and wide; part to full shade; low to medium water.

Editor: Barbara Hill
Photographer: Midori 


coral bells

Heuchera (Coral Bells or alumroot)

Despite what you may have heard, Heuchera is pronounced “HOY-ker-uh” not “hook-ruh.” It’s named after Johann Heinrich von Huecher (1677–1746), a German physician and botanist. (Plants named after people are pronounced how it is pronounced by the person even if Latin would be different.) 

This native to North America boasts almost 40 species that grow in varied habitats, so species can look quite different from one another, and have varying preferences regarding temperature, soil, and other factors. In our Mediterranean climate, this lovely addition to the garden prefers afternoon shade and is primarily evergreen.

‘Canyon Melody’ is native to California, and forms dense rosettes about 3 inches tall to 1 foot wide. Small, lobed leaves are about 1 inch wide. The pink flowers nodding above this basal mat are also small, and finely formed. You will need to water your Heuchera about weekly during the summer months, and be sure to provide it afternoon shade. In ideal conditions, your Canyon Melody will expand annually, offering year-round beauty and a seasonal pop of graceful color.

Editor: Laura Lukes
Photographer: A. Köhler 



Sphaeralcea munroana (Red Mallow)

Do you aspire to conserve water in your flower garden? Want a plant that blooms much of the year? Like landscaping with natives? Want to provide food to pollinators? Have a large bare space to fill in? Then look no further than the hardy yet delicate-looking red mallow, also known as orange globe mallow and desert mallow. With finely cut leaves, a small orange-red flower, and lower growing habit, this plant is the work horse of the native garden. A one-gallon start can, within just a year or two, spread to 4-6 feet wide and 2-4 feet high. Once established, it requires very little supplemental water, but will be happier if you give it some water once or twice a month during the height of summer. If it gets too sprawly, don’t be afraid to prune it back in the late fall or early winter. Fun fact: globe mallows are in the same family (malvacea) as the marsh mallow from which, yes, the candy is made. In days of yore, candymakers whipped sap from the marsh mallow root into a fluffy candy mold.

Photographer: Laura Kling



Stupice (stu-PEET-say) Tomato

Stupice tomatoes are small in size, but mighty in flavor. The fruit of this delicious heirloom comes on very early and stays late into the season, producing lots and lots of tomatoes. If you are looking for a tomato which you can pick and enjoy daily, choose the stupice. Its only drawback (in some people’s minds), is that if you are slicing for sandwiches you’ll have to cut two or three: perfectly bite-sized, I say. This indeterminate plant is a Czechoslovakian variety sent to the US in 1976. Personal experience has found that that the fruits are near to perfection in terms of appearance and flavor. They are a beautiful intense, glossy red with a rich tangy and sweet flavor. Note that they are not verticillium and fusarium wilt, nor nematode disease, resistant, so be sure to vary where you plant them from year to year. Because it’s guaranteed that once you try stupice, you will want to grow one every year.

Photographer: Satrina0 



Lagerstroemia indica (Crape Myrtle aka Crepe Myrtle)

Beautiful when blooming, striking when not, the crape myrtle offers bursts of brightness and color in the middle of summer. Its genus is Lagerstroemia, which yields around 50 species of deciduous landscape trees which love the heat! Although they are not a true myrtle, their small, neat leaves resemble those of that species, and the showy flowers have thin wrinkled petals, which resemble crape (or crepe) paper, hence the second half of its common name. They come in an astounding variety of colors: the lilac, hot pink, pale pink, white, deep maroon, and red varieties bloom for quite a few weeks before dropping their petals and carpeting the ground beneath these small to medium trees. Once the bloom and leaves have dropped, their beautiful bark becomes the focal point: bark will peel each year, leaving behind graceful, curving streaks of cream, beige, and reddish tones. Once the tree has reached full maturity, it’s showtime in summer from the blooms and winter from the bark.

Photographer: Tatters 



Arctostaphylos (manzanita)

This month we honor the manzanita, an evergreen shrub (sometimes a small tree) native to the western portion of our continent. This is one prolific species: there are 105 of them in the genus Arctostaphylos. And 95 of those species and subspecies occur in the Mediterranean climate zones and lower mountain areas of California, in our coastal areas, and as landscape plants in water-smart gardens. Manzanitas thrive in areas with marginal soils and on very little water. What makes them even more distinctive as a landscape choice is their attractive, smooth deep orange / red bark and the artful silhouettes created by their stiff and twisting branches. They are one of the first natives to flower – as early in the year as late January and into February – which means they provide sustenance to hungry pollinators when little else is available. The berries of many species, formed in spring and summer, are also edible. The common name translates from Spanish as “little apple,” which is what their berries resemble. Manzanitas come in a huge range of shapes and sizes, from low growing ground covers to small (up to twenty feet tall) trees. It’s interesting to note that locally many drought-tolerant natives are showing the strain of our abysmal winter rainfall, while manzanitas are, at least for now, holding their own!

Photographer: Laura Kling 


deer grass

Muhlenbergia rigens (Deergrass)

About twelve years ago, Verbena Fields (at the end of East First Avenue) was planted in native plants important to the culture and diet of indigenous peoples of this area, including the Mechoopda tribe. All of the natives you will encounter on a walk around this 17-acre park are doing quite nicely, thank you, with no supplemental water. A short list of these hardy specimens includes blue oak, datura, redbud, yerba santa, various buckwheat, and our feature this month: deergrass.

Muhlenbergia rigens is a perennial bunchgrass, growing in tufts or bunches from a single root system. It is one of our most beautiful (and easiest to grow) native California bunchgrasses, topping out at about 3 or 4 feet tall and wide. While it won’t balk at supplemental irrigation during dry months, it really doesn’t require any to keep looking good. What is does require to maintain its beauty is to be cut back, or burned, annually in late fall or early winter, during dormancy. In dry garden and native plant landscaping designs, this plant offers texture, form, and color (its long, narrow leaves range from silver- green to purple). Give it well drained soil, and either full sun or part shade, and it will add interest and depth to your garden, with no added water.

Photographer: Brent McGhie 



Mahonia aquifolium (Oregon Grape)

Handsome, dependable, and undemanding, Mahonia aquifolium is a nice choice for a shaded corner of your yard. This small to medium slow growing evergreen shrub prefers little to no supplemental water, isn’t picky about soil, and requires no deadheading or leaf clean up. Its common names include Oregon grape and holly-leaved berberry. Leaves are shiny and spiny (hence aquifolium—Latin for sharp-leaved) and will turn attractive shades of dark red in the fall and winter. Late winter to early spring brings clusters of tiny yellow flowers, which later yield dusty, dark blue berries. This lovely, understated plant is a native to the North American West, from Southeast Alaska to Northern California. Its favorite natural setting is in among forests of Douglas fir, and on the brushy slopes of our western mountain ranges. There is some talk of it becoming invasive outside of its native range, in moister climates such as in southeastern US, but don’t let that deter you from considering it as an addition to your landscape. Did you wonder about the genus name? Charmingly, Mahonia is derived from Bernard McMahon, who stewarded the plant collections of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Photographer: Mahonia flowers by Syp, Mahonia berries by H. Zell 



Solidago californica (California goldenrod)

Here at the Butte County Master Gardener enews, we’ve made a pact to feature drought resistant plants, preferably native, in solidarity with our mission to educate gardeners in our region, and with a strong ethic of water conservation. We also want to highlight plants that could be an attractive and low-maintenance addition to your garden. A plant that meets these criteria is Solidago californica, or California Goldenrod. Solidago is a genus of about 100 to 120 species of flowering plants which are commonly called goldenrods, due to their golden yellow flowers on upright spikes. Solidago is Latin for "to make whole" and denotes an herb that can heal wounds. Goldenrod has been used to treat tuberculosis, diabetes, enlargement of the liver, gout, hemorrhoids, internal bleeding, asthma, and arthritis. In folk medicine, it is used as a mouth rinse to treat inflammation of the mouth and throat.

The species californica is a native perennial herb found throughout our state. It prefers open grassy places, but is also found among the oak woodlands, and grows at elevations from sea level to 7,500 feet. It produces masses of yellow flowers, often in fall when many other plants are entering dormancy. Birds and pollinating insects love this plant. It is perfectly adapted to a Mediterranean climate, enjoying wet winters / springs and dry summers. It will tolerate some supplemental summer water if you decide to plant it in an area in your garden that receives some irrigation. Be mindful of the water, though, as it spreads from a creeping rootstock and may become invasive; plant it where it will have plenty of room, as this plant is most attractive in large drifts.

Photographer: John Rusk 



Arbutus unedo (madrone)

December’s featured plant is native to Mediterranean climates around our globe and a popular landscape tree here in our region. Arbutus unedo (madrone) is a smaller, slow growing evergreen tree which offers year-round interest. Its Mediterranean heritage means it is adapted to wetter winters and long, dry, hot summers, and should need little supplemental summer water once established. This hardy beauty is commonly known as the strawberry tree, because its fruits, orange turning to red, look much like the sweet summer fruit. All Arbutus sport attractive dark red, smooth bark, along with an open limb structure. The tiny bell-shaped flowers look much like those of its cousin, the manzanita, and occur very late in the fall. Of particular interest where unedo is concerned is the many hats it wears:

It’s a pioneer plant: the first to colonize barren environments or previously rich ecosystems that have been disrupted by fire.

  • Its flowers provide nectar and pollen for bees, and its fruits offer food for the birds.
  • Its salt tolerance makes it ideal for wind barriers in lands close to the sea.
  • Its dense foliage throughout the year can be a shelter for insects and small animals during the winter.
  • Its extensive root system can help in stabilize soils.
  • Its fruits have culinary uses, mostly in jams, and, because of their high sugar content, in alcoholic beverages.
  • Its leaves have medicinal properties, including astringent, diuretic, antiseptic, intoxicant, rheumatism, tonic, and more recently, in the therapy of hypertension and diabetes, and as an anti-inflammatory.

All this and it’s beautiful to boot! But what makes it a real standout among landscape choices is that it bears its fruit and its flowers simultaneously, both in late autumn.

Photographer: Laura Lukes