Periodically, I go visit my sister in San Jose. Every time I do, I’m fascinated to see so many of the same plants I grow in Cincinnati’s wet and humid Zone 6 growing in San Jose’s arid Zone 9. Take her little cul de sac’s street trees. Among them, Ginkgo. “Do these trees ever get watered,” I asked. “Never,” she answered. “When was the last time you got rain?” “Ummmm, maybe March.” This was in July. I knew Ginkgos were tough but I didn’t know the rainfall of it’s native range in Asia. So fair enough. A lesson learned. But I live in the native range of Gleditisia triacanthos inermis (Honeylocust) and so I thought I knew what kind of rainfall they need. And there it was on her street, in the hell strip, doing fine, and, yet, never watered. How? So I went online and looked up the native range of honeylocust. Turns out, its range is massive. Most of Pennsylvania to Iowa, down into central Texas. Ahh, I thought, I should have known, that trickster “provenance.” I can’t prove the San Jose Gleditsia were originally sourced from Texan stock, just like I can’t prove that maybe Gleditsia began its evolution in Texas and worked its way to the wetter, colder Northeast, but at least the idea of growing it in San Jose seems more rational now than it did before.
In Karen’s backyard lives a lilac. It’s big and old, predates her living there, and she isn’t all that fond of it. I didn’t look at it close, but it was probably Syringa vulgaris. Here in Ohio, of course they live. They get mildew. They flower when they aren’t pruned incorrectly. Almost always, they’re pruned incorrectly. There in California, no mildew. Clean as a whistle. It probably does catch a stray extra drop or two when Karen does her weekly watering of her large collection of potted succulents, but, again, it gets nowhere near the amount of water it would get in Cincinnati. Lesson? Maybe watering lilacs during drought is a waste of time and money? Her roses, which do get watered more regularly but nowhere near Cincinnati’s annual rainfall, look amazing. In that dry air, they look so much better than they do here. Even hybrid teas. Reminds me of a crabapple I couldn’t identify in Park City, Utah. With no humidity, it lacked all the features by which we identify them in Ohio. No scab, rust, blight, ringworm, hives, blotches of unknown origin, leprosy, and more.
Later in the trip we visited Hearst Castle along the coast, and then we visited the Getty Museum and the L.A. Arboretum in Los Angeles. Of course, most of what we saw won’t grow in Ohio, but, again, we saw some of my old friends from back home. Abelia at the Getty. Probably A. chinensis. Borderline hardy here, for sure. Always wondered why some people questioned the hardiness of its hybrid offspring, Abelia x grandiflora, when I’ve never seen winter kill. Now maybe I at least understand the concern. Same with Vitex agnus-castus. For us, a reliable dieback shrub. It always comes back, achieves maybe 8′ of growth, then you cut it back sometime over winter and deja vu all over again. At the L.A. Arboretum, we saw it as it should be seen–glorious and barely recognizable.
Last winter was again fairly mild for us, but we did endure a bomb cyclone. A warm fall continued, continued, and continued into December. Then, a few days before Christmas, we fell from about 50F at 9:00PM to -8F at 3:00AM. It’s a wonder buildings didn’t crack and fall down. Everyone wondered what it would do to our plants. Come spring, I was pleasantly surprised. Overall, not as bad as I worried it would be. Oh, sure, the usual suspects took it hard–cherry laurels, boxwoods, et al., but I was somewhat taken aback by the outright death of some Chinese fringetrees (Chionanthus retusus). Key word in that sentence is “somewhat.” In general, I have found that to be a really tough tree. But there has always been talk amongst the old-timers of the presence of both a southern and a northern form, the southern form being typified by smaller, rounder leaves. Sure enough, those deemed southerners croaked. Outright. The others persevered just fine. I was pleased to see it at the L.A. Arb, beautiful habit and bedecked in small, round leaves.
The thing is, if you know the plants where you live, you’re never really a complete fish out of water when you travel somewhere else. You’ll see old friends and, when you do, you’ll learn a little something more about them. I’m not much of a botanizer, but even strolling the mountaintops of Utah, I was surprised by how many genera I could easily identify. Didn’t know which geranium, potentilla, or whatever it was, but could probably figure out the species easily enough based on what I recognized. I will admit that visiting the cactus and the Australia/New Zealand displays at L.A. Arb was something of a humiliation. Even when I threw my three best pitches, which were euphorbia, yucca, and agave, my ERA was still somewhere near 100. Looks like I won’t be going to the major leagues anytime soon.