Transplanted to Sonoma
By SCMG Lorri Levy-Comer
I'm a Sonoma transplant, like so many other residents of this lovely county and have only been here for three years. As a native New York girl, from Queens, I did not have much of a gardening background. I'm just loving the country life out here. While I am learning what it means to live in a 'Mediterranean climate’, I am also having a glorious time discovering my own property's garden. Aside from just trying to maintain the trees, whose limbs break and fall each season, and constantly pulling, tugging and hacking at the ivy, I have found a treasure of 'volunteer' plants and apparently some gardener of the past had planted some real gems:
Tibouchina urvilleana, whose common names are princess flower, glory bush, purple glory bush and lasiandra. It is a member of the Melastomataceae, or the meadow beauty family, is a native of Brazil with soft, red hairy stems and green to dark green leaves. It has large purple flowers: 3' - 5' wide with hooked stamens. They are sometimes called spider flowers since the inner parts of the flowers resemble a spider's legs creeping out from in between the petals. Tibouchina urvilleana prefers sunny situations yet appreciates afternoon shade in areas with high summer temperatures. It likes moist but not soggy conditions and will survive short periods of drought. Not only is this evergreen a beauty, it's easy to grow and has few pest problems. It adds texture and color to your garden. (Note: Tibouchina is frost tender. If you live in areas of the County that see freezes, consider treating it as an annual (or at least one that will freeze to the ground every year) or planting it in a pot and removing it to a sheltered place in winter.)
Another big learning curve for me in researching my hidden garden came when I found that two of the plants had the same common name. It took some sleuthing for me to get the drift on this. Although both are referred to as Chinese lantern, the herbaceous plant Physalis alkekengi and the shrub Abutilon x hybridum are two different plants, not even in the same family. The Abutilon x hybridum is also commonly called flowering maple, but it is not a maple. Now I know why they use those complicated Latin names. I have become a fan of botanical nomenclature.
The Physalis is also called Japanese lantern, tomatillo, and husk-tomato or ground-cherry. It could very well be a volunteer plant as it grows somewhat twisted in my chain link fence and smashed behind my fig tree. This plant, like mint, has rhizomes that spread horizontally, meaning that even if you chop down the plant without dropping any seeds, it might pop up in another part of your garden. That’s why Physalis would do best planted in either a contained garden, or in a pot. Or even a pot that is buried in the ground, perhaps disguised with some cedar mulch.
Physalis alkekengi has large, brightly colored, inflated papery husks that resemble miniature Chinese lanterns. A small tasteless scarlet fruit is inside of each 2' long husk. It is related to the tomatillo that is grown for salsas and other Mexican dishes. Physalis is a genus of herbaceous plants belonging to the solanaceae (nightshade family), related to tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, used for culinary and in dried flower arrangements. This is a real looker, showing off colors of deep reds and oranges contrasting garden greens. It's a ‘must have’ for me.
Abutilon x hybridum
Abutilons are members of the mallow family and are closely related to hibiscus, and most of the hundred or so species have pendulum, hibiscus-like flowers. Cultivars produced by hybridizing some of the South American abutilons have all been placed in one group known as Abutilon x hybridum.
In Sonoma County, Abutilons are evergreen shrubs (in colder spots they lose their leaves or die back to the ground in winter) with lantern-like buds that open to a single bell or cup-shaped flower (to 3” diameter) with five overlapping petals and columns, typical of the mallow family. Flower colors include white, pink, red, yellow, orange and salmon. They prefer rich, moist, well-drained soil with full sun to part shade. Any name confusion aside, both Abutilon x hybridum and Physalis alkekengi are sure to keep your garden looking green and rich with color. An added plus is that humming birds love them! These are just three of the jewels in my 'garden discovery quest’ and this just a small part of my front yard. I have more than acre in back!