Shrubby Late Bloomers
from September 2000

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There is a quiet time in the garden, when summer has not quite yielded to fall, and a warm glow settles over the landscape. Summer-blooming shrubs and perennials are beginning to look a little tired, and the dramatic fall burst of color has not yet begun. The few plants which actually begin their main show at this time should be particularly welcome guests. Here are a few which deserve more attention.

Vitex is a group of shrubs in the verbena family, long cultivated but largely forgotten in California. The best-known species is V. agnus-castus, the chaste tree, (don't ask me how it got its common name). This is a bushy deciduous shrub growing 10' or more high, with upswept 4-angled stems. Paired along them are toothed, narrowly parted leaves, often 4" long. Depending on your personal history, these may be more reminiscent of Japanese maples or of marijuana. At this moment, long tapered flower clusters are developing from the shoot tips. Small, irregular lavender to pink or white blossoms will open along them for several weeks. A bolder plant is V. negundo var. heterophylla, which grows more strongly upright to about 15'. Its leaves can be even larger than those of V. agnus-castus, and the lilac-colored flower clusters, 8" or more long. Given a decent November chill, the leaves take on pleasing yellow and golden shades before they fall. All of these are dramatic shrubs, of unusual form and texture. They should have moderate watering during growth and bloom but are adaptable to many soils and climates.

Malacothamnus is a group of mostly shrubby mallows widespread (though in some cases quite rare) in California. My personal favorite is M. fasciculatus 'Casitas', which I found near the lake of that name in southern California. This is a thicketing shrub (you may need to chop out volunteer shoots from time to time), growing as much as 10' high, yet willowy and graceful. The entire plant is rendered nearly white by tiny felted hairs. The leaves are sharply lobed, in the manner of some abutilons, and up to 4" long. Tipping the shoots are long, wandlike flower clusters. The cupped soft pink flowers open one by one. This is a fine plant for dry banks and other neglected parts of the garden, with reasonably well-drained soils and a sunny exposure. It is hardy at least into the middle 'teens.

Galvezia speciosa, island snapdragon, is a much smaller native shrub, allied to the true snapdragons. It has arching bright green stems which form a rough dome up to 3' high and 6' broad. The oval 1" leaves are grey green to bright green in color. In the cultivar 'Firecracker', received from Tree of Life Nursery several years ago, the entire plant is a rich, lush green. Set against this background are the bright red 1" blossoms, opening in long, loose clusters. As the common name suggests, they much resemble little snapdragons. This is a plant to show off in a sunny spot, with well-drained soil and moderate to occasional watering. It needs some protection where winter temperatures fall below 20 deg. F.

Orthosiphon labiatus is a charming South African shrublet belonging to the vast mint alliance. It grows upright to around 3' high. Closely set along the stems are broad, deeply veined leaves about an inch long. All parts of the plant are pleasantly aromatic. Dark, slender stalks extend above the shoot tips, carrying many pretty 1" flowers in separated whorls. Each of the blossoms has a calyx covered with purplish red hairs, contrasting nicely with the flared pink and white inner segments. This is a beautiful plant for both borders and mixed plantings. It delights in sun, with reasonably well-drained soil and moderate watering. Its hardiness is still not well tested, though it has recovered well after bouts of roughly 20-25 degrees F.