Last week’s visit to the bone-dry west coast is still on my mind. Southern California has an ideal mediterranean climate; winters are wet, summers are dry. Mild year-round temperatures created a huge population boom in an environment with insufficient water.
Some feel that southern California is finally forced to live within the means offered by a very low natural water budget, rightly pointing to the extensive environmental damage resulting from decades of ‘stealing’ water from more northern parts of the state. At the same time, the country and the world is discovering a planet broadly damaged by policies based in ignorance, greed or shifting priorities.
Southern California offers an opportunity to answer questions about how plant material reacts to deep drought. This week, a look at a few plants actually thriving in a low-water regime, and the adaptability of those plants to sub-tropical Florida.
But first, a slight detour.
As they say, you can’t take it with you, so what does a billionaire do with his money? In 1982, J.Paul Getty endowed a world-class museum in the hills overlooking Los Angeles. It’s a stunning place with deeply detailed gardens and evocative architecture designed by Richard Meier.
Critics uniformly praise the architecture and garden, but many decry the art holdings as mediocre, a claim that is true, at least in part. However, Getty endowed the museum for the long term with an endowment of $4 billion that will create a world-class collection in the coming decades.
While we were there The Getty presented a retrospective of Frank Gehry of New York’s Guggenheim Museum fame, among others. His design casts ‘form follows function’ to the realm of history, taking architecture into a new universe where form inspires emotion.
Another billionaire with sensible notions endowed the Huntington Gardens and Library in 1919; art holdings focus on European and American work. There is also the wondrous Japanese Garden, recently expanded to include a Chinese Garden. And the Library holdings are over-whelming, including an original Gutenberg Bible, among other similarly priceless books.
Back in Florida
How many of us remember Florida’s last drought? From 2006 to 2008 Florida’s rainfall was lower than anytime since 1932. Water restrictions were widely imposed. Among the restrictions were a requirement that forced many gated communities to upgrade irrigation facilities because they were allowed a single eight hour window per week to water the entire grounds.
In the long term, growth in Florida will force an evaluation of water policies. For the foreseeable future, though, the water situation in Florida is neither as intractable as California, nor is it as dependent on immense public works. Water usage is rightly on our radar, though; irresponsible usage can’t be excused. While the amount of Florida water used in the landscape industry is vanishingly small, one fact stands out: about half of potable, treated drinking water is used for landscape irrigation. This is bad.
My own office makes every effort to reduce the extent of turf grasses and to specify
the least water-intensive varieties. We also design intelligent irrigation systems that provide only required water and nothing more. Where client preferences and site conditions allow, we provide areas that are planted but not irrigated beyond the initial establishment period.
As I traveled around California, I made note of plant material used in both Florida in California, with special emphasis on drought performance. As my space here is limited, have a look at my web page for notes on specific plants.
My observations of a few plants thriving in the California drought teach us how to handle shared plants we can use in non-irrigated areas (in alphabetical order):
Aechmea Bromeliads (and many other bromeliads);
Agapanthus produced more flowers with denser leaves;
Aspidistra (Cast Iron Plant) thrives but no direct sun;
Bombax (Red Silk Cotton Tree) is huge and seen often;
Bougainvillea is easily damaged by the application of water;
Bulbine produces yellow flowers and will be denser with less water;
Calliandra (Powder Puff) thrives with low water;
Carissa grandiflora, deep green and fine textured shrub;
Chamaerops (European Fan Palm) is a true Mediterranean, achieving natural, branched form;
Cortaderia (Pampas Grass) produces stunning flowers in California;
Cycas (any of the Sago Palms) will form thickets from basal pups;
Euphorbia (Crown of Thorns), especially the Thai varieties;
Euphorbia (Pencil Plant) is an interesting and prolific accent;
Furcraea foetida (False Agave), a colorful choice for a shallow bowl or in masses;
Lantana (All colors), although I noticed some Yellow Lantana that had escaped;
Nerium oleander (All Colors)
Phoenix palms include Date Palms and Silver Date Palms, are all native to parts of the world that share California’s mediterranean climate and will thrive without supplemental water once established;
Podocarpus (Both types), although the weeping form is seen more often;
Strelitzia (Bird of Paradise)
Zamia furfuracea (cardboard Palm)