A death to report….and a small cheery thing

Fremontodendron californicum May 2015
Fremontodendron californicum in flower, Tostat, May 2015

I am really gutted.  I had grown this Fremontodendron californicum from a tiny 0.25m stripling to such a big tree, which was a bit of a shock so we had to lop it back a few years ago.  It was one of the first plants I  bought when we moved here eleven years ago, and it was a Spring show-stopper, absolutely covered in these vibrant, custard yellow, waxy flowers in Spring.  It was in a hot, south-facing position, and although it was never that fond of a wet Spring, it had always come back fighting.  Not this year.  It is definitively dead, and we will need to chop it down as it is the height of the house, say 7m.  Las Pilitas, the nursery in California on the link above, hints at sudden death syndrome in garden conditions, but my stony, poor soil should have been ok for it.  Who knows, and as with small babies, you have to learn that things happen and knowing the reason why is actually of no help at all.

Dahlia imperialis photo credit: strangewonderfulthings.com

So, although I will have to try a bit of a bodge to beef up the soil situation, I am tempted to try out one of my wilder purchases in the Fremontodendron’s place.  On a whim, I bought a tree dahlia, Dahlia imperialis, on ebay last summer, and I have been nursing it through the winter with leaves on in our cold hallway near the back door.  It is only a sproglet, but look at what Louis the Plant Geek has managed to do with his.  I love his blog.  It manages to combine botanical accuracy and scientific advice with a loopy sense of humour and trenchant words on occasion.   So, that is my current plan, to be executed in May when I can really 100% confident of no frost, and once we have committed the dead thing to the wood heap.

On the plus side,  all my seedlings of Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Xanthos’ are up and away, on the sunny window ledge of our sitting room.  I have been rubbish with annuals in the past, but this time, eating humble pie, and instead of winging it, actually reading and using the excellent detailed instructions from one of my favourite seed sites, Seedaholic, I have had success.  ‘Nuff said.


Deanna Durbin sang this song sometime in the 1930s. I was brought up on old musicals on the telly as a child, and my Mum was always very partial to Deanna. She ended up living in a chateau in the South of France, believe it or not.  I really enjoy using Californian nursery sites, and two of the very best are Annie’s Annuals in Richmond, and Las Palitas in Escondido.  Both are thoroughly reliable in terms of plant descriptions, and in Annie’s case really colourful!, and give sound botanical information about growing the plant, including hardiness- which is more key for me than for them!

Take for example, Fremontodendron Californicum, which was one of the first plants I bought for the garden specifically to cope with a hot, dry spot facing South. I wasn’t to know how tested the plant would be by some of our winters, but despite a bashing, including being almost felled in the January storms of a few years ago, it is a spring flowering small tree I would not be without.  I bought it measuring 6 inches. Now, it has already been topped off by us as it was blocking our upstairs bedroom window! So, ten years later, it measures over around 5m. And it has withstood cold temperature down to -10C and a bit more, as long as it is not sitting in soaking wet soil, I suspect.

Fremontodendron californicum webFremontodendron_californicumOn the left, my Fremontodendron propped up after the storms, and on the right, a close-up of the amazing waxy flowers, credit: Las Palitas Nursery.

It usually flowers late February, though last year as it was so wet with us, it waited till April.  During the hot summer, it is dormant and should not be watered, in case you were thinking of it. What falls as rain will be ample, and it is best planted in free-draining poorish soil, against a warm wall and facing South. Wetness is not it’s thing. It’s no great looker apart from the flowers, but they are extraordinary. Almost waxy, a gorgeous warm lemon yellow, and the tree will be covered with them top to bottom,  People always ask me what it is, as it is so striking. So I forgive it a rather boring appearance the rest of the year, and leave it alone.  And if you want to be cheered up on a weekly basis, I can think of nothing better to recommend than to sign up for Annie’s weekly email newsletter (fill out the order form for a catalogue and tick the box for the weekly email) or her blog.  It will do you the power of good.