Exploring the Getty Center garden and seeing an unexpected standout amid the floral frenzy – Orange County Register
Throatwort Trachelium caeruleum (Photo by Joshua Siskin)
Throatwort Trachelium caeruleum (Photo by Joshua Siskin)
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The Getty Center horticulturists deserve high praise for creating a gardener’s garden instead of a landscape. Landscapes are characterized by a few plant species where design considerations are often based on economics. Low-maintenance perennials are selected and left to grow without having to fuss too much over their care.

Truth be told, an imposing low-maintenance garden is installed at the Getty that consists entirely of cacti and succulents. It’s quite a sight to see but of interest primarily for the sculptural qualities and contrasts in size, shape, and color of the featured specimens, rather than for the horticultural inspiration they provide.

The Getty’s central garden, on the other hand, is a cornucopia of visual delights that will captivate the veteran plant person no less than the neophyte gardener. Yet a lesson to be learned from the expansive circular planters that surround a serpentining azalea maze is that one type of plant – in this case, the dahlia – can provide a reassuring sense of constancy despite a wide diversity of species on display. While perambulating the circular planters, repetitive encounters with giant dahlias – whether in red, yellow, purple, or pink – create a sense of stability and order in the midst of a wild, out-of-this-world floral frenzy.

  • Sea Holly Eryngium planum (Photo by Joshua Siskin)

  • Firecracker vine mina lobata (Photo by Joshua Siskin)

  • Icee Blue Podocarpus (Photo by Joshua Siskin)

  • Throatwort Trachelium caeruleum (Photo by Joshua Siskin)

  • Twister Agapanthus (Photo by Joshua Siskin)

  • Bat-faced cuphea Cuphea llaeva (Photo by Joshua Siskin)

  • Purple wings (Photo by Joshua Siskin)

  • Crepe myrtle underplanted with variegated society garlic (Photo by Joshua Siskin)

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Dahlias are among the most pleasing summer flowers. Dwarf-to-giant types are available. Dahlias grow from tubers which, to last more than a year, must be lifted in the fall and covered with sand, sawdust, peat moss or perlite. Store them in shoe boxes or paper bags in a cool, dry place such as a garage during winter before planting them again the following spring. If you want a real garden show stopper, consider planting a tree dahlia. Tree dahlias grow up to 20 feet tall. They may die back to their roots in the winter (if not, cut them down to six inches) but do not have to be lifted like their smaller cousins and will regrow the following spring. You can order a Bell Tree Dahlia (Dahlia imperialis) with lavender-pink, six-inch diameter blooms from anniesannuals.com.

Speaking of giants, I recently learned that a Lady Banks rose in Tombstone, Arizona, may be the largest arboreal rose in the world. Planted from a cutting in 1885, it sports thousands of roses each spring during its six-week bloom period. Lady Banks roses are widely available in white or yellow. If you are looking for a botanical heirloom to bequeath to your descendants, this just might be it.

I saw two vines at the Getty Center garden which are unique among their genre of plants. One is purple wings or butterfly vine (Dalechampia aristolochifolia). Its most notable feature is shared with the poinsettia, a fellow member of the Euphorbia family. Large purple bracts, as big as its leaves, are equivalent to the red or pink bracts that provide poinsettias with their color. Unlike poinsettia, however, the butterfly vine displays its bracts throughout the year, albeit more abundantly during summer and fall. It can handle soil on the dry side but to keep the bracts coming, regular watering is recommended. You can order purple wings from any nursery supplied by San Marcos Growers (smgrowers.com).

Firecracker vine (Mina lobata) is another distinctive climbing specimen at the Getty Center garden. Neatly arranged tubular flowers glow in yellow, orange, and red. Although an annual, firecracker vine clambers up to a height of 10 feet in a single growing season. Where soil is rich and fast-draining, it self-sows and you will enjoy a repeat floriferous vining experience year after year.

Sea holly (Eryngium planum) is an outstanding perennial in the Getty botanical collection. It has a unique look and it will grow anywhere in Southern California. Violet-blue protuberances are surrounded by what look like thorns but are actually soft, if jagged, flower parts. Sea holly blooms can be preserved for months in cut flower arrangements, as their beauty persists beyond the garden walls. Sea holly is cold hardy, drought-tolerant, and is suitable for both a dry garden and as a container subject. It is a relative of dill, fennel, and cilantro, and attracts beneficial insects, such as bees and hoverflies, as they do. On top of that, butterflies flock to it but deer stay away.

Throatwort (Trachelium caeruleum) is a star performer in the Getty garden. It comes from southwest Europe and thus has the Mediterranean qualities that allow it to flourish in Southern California as Mediterranean plants generally do. Its genus name is derived from trachelos, the Greek word for neck, due to its efficacy in curing sore throats. The flowers of throatwort are produced in delicate sprays borne in profusion for months on end. This is a plant for close-up viewing since its flowers are not at all shrill; their beauty is whispered rather than shouted out loud.

The eminently garden-worthy and lightly fragrant throatwort has, for some inexplicable reason, been all but absent from the nursery trade. It certainly deserves wider recognition and use, owing to its lace-cap clusters of lavender florets and long bloom period. It grows no more than a compact three feet in height, is cold hardy and, cut back in winter, will reliably return in the spring. Throatwort is also a favorite cut flower selection; its colors include many shades of blue, as well as purple, pink, red and white. Finally, it grows well in containers and its flowers are highly suitable for cut flower arrangements.

If you want to bring a curious but heavily blooming creature into your garden, consider bat-faced cuphea (Cuphea llaeva), a large planting of which is highly visible in the Getty garden. Bat-faced cuphea has flowers that bear an extraordinary resemblance, colors notwithstanding – ears are red and heads are purple – to the eponymous flying creatures.

You may think of lily of the Nile (Agapnathus spp.) as having either blue or white flowers. But the Twister variety, in full bloom now at the Getty has violet-blue bases that transition into white trumpets. It is a pleasant shock to the system after being accustomed to solid color Agapanthus blooms all these years.

The one landscaping touch – and it’s a good one – at the Getty Center garden is a row of crepe myrtle trees underplanted with variegated society garlic, whose creamy pinkish mauve flower color approximates that seen on the crepe myrtles. The society garlic is growing right up to the trunks of the crepe myrtles without any sign of discomfort on the part of the trees.

There is nothing like an Icee-Blue yellow-wood (Podocarpus elongatus var. Monmal) to cool you off on a hot afternoon. I saw a cluster of them at the Beverly Hills Park on Santa Monica Boulevard last week. This blue-leafed Podocarpus is much tamer than the green-leafed species typically seen and reaches a height of only 15-25 feet with a columnar growth habit.

Suggestion: Have one of the Getty horticulturists on hand once a month for an open house where gardeners can inquire about the plants on display in order to learn their names, their cultural requirements, and where they can be acquired.

The Getty Center is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. every day except Monday. Tickets to the museum and garden are free but must be ordered in advance. There is a parking fee of $20.

Tip of the Week: If you are a do-it-yourself enthusiast who has considered growing food indoors, “Home Hydroponics” (Cool Springs Press, 2021) is the book for you. Author Tyler Baras has developed hydroponic systems for kitchen, dining room, living room, bedroom, and bath. Even if you live in an apartment where little if any sunlight gets through, you can still grow hydroponically due to artificial lighting options. Install suction cup planters on a window sill; repurpose a bar cart as a mobile hydroponics system; convert an armoire into a growing space; build a hydroponic wall in your living room. Videos of the author’s forays into hydroponic growing can be found at farmertyler.com.

Please send questions, comments, and photos to joshua@perfectplants.com.