Sep 10, 2009

Monster and Mystery Gumplants

Recently I am informed that the corner quadrant of my post-ivy yard looks, let’s see, what’s the word? Oh yes, “terrible.” Which is not what I envisioned last fall as I was swinging the pick ax and dreaming. My general idea for the corner was to anchor it with a Manzanita, place some medium-sized plants like sages in a somewhat naturalistic arrangement around it, and then line the border along the sidewalk with ground-hugging flowers that would drape gracefully over the moss-rock edging. I assigned the low-elevation task to Grindelia stricta var. platyphylla, a cute little gumplant that according to my reading would be tailor-made for the role, giving the sidewalk a gold lining with its cheery blossoms all summer. I also wanted to line the railroad-tie stairs in draping plants (mostly to cover my artfully installed visible rebar!) and I thought I’d try the gumplant along with a number of other plants there.

So I bought a half dozen of the gumplants in 4” pots in January, from a nursery whose description said, and I quote: “Stems are prostrate, forming a 6-8 inch tall plant that grows to 2 feet wide.” They ended up sitting in the driveway for a good couple of months, owing to my sloth-like pace installing the stones and railroad ties, but I finally got them in the ground some time in March, and wasn’t too worried because I know gumplants are tough cookies and would probably settle in quickly. Boy did they. By mid April, I was concerned they were getting unwieldy. By mid May, I was sure they were, and by June they were by far the dominant feature in the landscape. I started to forget what plants might be hiding behind them, save for the occasional glimpse through the odd opening in the Gumplant Thicket of Doom. I think the “6-8 inches tall and 2 feet wide” description was accurate for about one hour some afternoon in early April. The plants are now 3 to 5 feet tall and wide, with an ungovernable urge to sprawl across the sidewalk. My patient neighbors have not complained, even though my yard is located on a major evening constitutional thoroughfare, and strolling couples have had to walk single file to pass my Monster Gummies all summer. I attempted to reign them in by tying them to stakes, and that mostly made them look freakish and distorted, like zombies recoiling from a spritz of holy water. I should have just chopped them back, but the wily gumplants blackmailed me by dangling their flowering stems out over the sidewalk, so that if I cut them back, the corner border would be bloomless. Sucker for blooms that I am, I capitulated and resorted to tying, but it just looks stupid and I find myself increasingly looking forward to dispatching them with Spod (Swinging Pick of Doom) as though they were ivy.

I’m not suggesting gumplants are evil like ivy, it’s just that these were apparently mislabeled. I do have a couple real Grindelia stricta var. platyphylla that I got from
Garden Natives, and they have behaved like they are supposed to—somewhat spreading and very low. The identity of the monsters, I’m afraid, is unknown to me. In certain situations they’d be great, like if you had a vast space and needed unbelievably quick cover that required zero care and also provided sunny flowers. They have a bit of an unpleasant odor, though—sort of an eau de forgot-to-take-the-laundry-out-of-the-washing-machine-for-three-days—so would be better suited well away from the evening constitutional superhighway that is my sidewalk.

Still, I figure even a ragged thicket with some yellow flowers is better than bare ground, so I’ll leave the Monster Gummies till (re)planting time. I’ve noticed Grindelias are pretty enthusiastic about reseeding, so I anticipate pulling a whole lot of Children of the Monster Gummies over the winter. They could easily be utilized like annuals, but I don’t think this year’s look is a look I want recreated.

However, there is also some Mystery Gummy species that has behaved quite differently, and which I won’t be taking out at all, as long as it keeps looking so fabulous. I am embarrassed to say I don’t know its identity either.
I think I had some seeds of straight Grindelia stricta that I tossed about randomly (note to self, start keeping records), so it may be that, but I see that plant on hikes, and it tends to be, oh, a quarter the size. Granted, many of the plants in the corner quadrant have gone Michael Jordan on me, for some reason I’ve yet to understand, and these Mystery Gummies are over six feet high. No, for real. I can stand next to them and they tower above me. They have only a few stems each, so they’re marvelously willowy and haven’t intruded on neighboring plants at all; they’re like Grindelia trees that add a nice vertical element to the space. I adore their silhouettes against the sky as I stand on the sidewalk looking up at them, and I plan to keep them as long as they keep doing what they’re doing.

So to sum, Mystery Grindelias in, Monster Grindelias out. Once the monsters are out, I may go to a nursery and ask the real Grindelia stricta var. platyphylla to stand up, and I’ll get several, in order to fulfill my original gold-lined vision. In addition, I think I’ll mix in another sunny yellow low-grower that I’m very pleased with so far, Eriophyllum lanatum. I bought just one last year, but it’s proved very easy to propagate by cuttings, so I now have several. I quite like its daisy flowers--the center is the same sunny yellow as the rays, which I find very charming, like little suns in a kid’s drawing. It crossed my mind to also try edging with some more of the plants that have worked well lining the stairs, such as Heterotheca sessiliflora and Erigeron glaucus ‘Wayne Roderick’, but I think the heat blast from the sidewalk may prohibit their traveling too low in the yard. I also just recently realized that there are cultivars of Epilobium that are supposed to stay low, and they should be able to take the heat, so I may throw them into the border mix for a perky red-and-gold ensemble.

Please post any suggestions you might have!


  1. Having seen these Gum-Zillas first hand I can tell you that Jess isn't exaggerating. Truly huge. However on behalf of Pinoles native bee population - Nice Work!

  2. That's true, the bees do like them--I guess bees like stinky things. Actually, the bees are pretty easy to please and I think they'll be happy with whatever replaces the GumZillas--nice name for them, they probably could knock down buildings and smash busses.

  3. Fun times with unruly plants. Epilobiums can sometimes be the same way, too, actually, unafraid to act on genes you didn't know they had.

  4. Hi Ryan, you're right, there are actually some epilobiums in a house down the street from me that are insanely tall. I told the instructor of one of the design classes I'm taking about my monster gummies and he guesses it's just a case of the soil being too fertile from them. Grindelia sticta is typically a coastal dweller used to sandy soil, whereas I've placed them in soil with more clay than sand. Live and learn! Thanks for reading! I had a look at your website and it looks very cool--love yards with lots of rocks.

  5. Isn't it interesting! I've also found that plants can't read and will just do their own thing.
    I have a very nice low-growing Epilobium septentrionale "Select Mattole", and have also heard that "Brilliant Smith" is a low growing selection. Of course they won't bloom until August (if you're lucky), but they'll keep going until December.

    Have fun!

    (BTW, I'm always happy enough if the neighbors' dogs don't find my front garden too inviting to pee in)

  6. Hi Town Mouse, thanks for reading! I actually just bought a couple Select Mattole on a whim, then went home and read that they tend to be a bit fussy, so we'll see how they go. I'll look for the Brilliant Smith. Thanks for the suggestions!

  7. I think you got Grindelia stricta variety angustifolia which gets really tall! Bummer!