Thursday, August 16, 2012

Ökenliv (Desert Life 2012 Part IV) - Faux Desert Themes

Continuing along the theme of the boulder placements from yesterday's post, let's get into the right landscaping plants that not only accent and compliment the rock features, but let's recreate a Faux Desert Theme from Arizona, Anza Borrego or Baja California and transform that Temperate or Boreal forest environment into a Living Desert Oasis of sorts with it's illusion of warmth where such is uncommon.

Rock Outcroppings and Desert Plants. One interesting side note here on Plants and Rock outcroppings in the wild. Focusing on all plant communities in the southwestern United States (this is also applicable worldwide) where there are clearly drier habitats whether low desert, high desert, chaparral or any other type of dryland plant community, one thing they all share in common are larger more successful plant groupings where boulders are present. Now why is that ? Consider rocks and boulders as the perfect mulch. Mulch ? Yes mulch. They clearly cover the ground perfectly and permanently. The Sun's rays are unable to sap any moisture from underneath them other than evapotranspiration through plant foliage which is desirable. They also tend to concentrate rainfall totals. In areas where there is typically low average rainfall, even light showers flowing off of boulders and other rock features concentrate water within cracks and crevices giving a sort of micro-climate uniqueness to the plant community within the geologic feature. As an example if rainfall total is an inch or two, it becomes concentrated within this region giving more measurable rain as if anywhere from 3 to five inches. Instead of a thundershower spitting rain on parched earth only to runoff and to quickly evaporate from a mere couple inches of ground soaking, a boulder outcropping region may soak in several feet depending on the soil and organic matter built up over centuries. Let's take an illustration about contrasting landscapes here below.

Image - The Press Enterprise

I remember noticing such classic vegetation contrasts between boulder strewn areas and open bare country on frequent drives from the San Jacinto Valley on Highway 79 north to Beaumont California. The route taken on Highway 79 is called Lamb's Canyon. Here's the opening to the canyon route above from the valley that I'm referring to above. Google Earth the map and see what I mean as far as the lower canyon with coastal and interior low sage scrub and contrasting that with the boulder strewn upper hills of the canyon where large chaparral specimens like Hollyleaf Cherry, Sugarbush and other plants the size of small trees. Notice also that these large granite boulder plant habitats are on steep southern exposure which normally doesn't allow for large plant growth. Notice also the marked contrasts where such larger vegetation ceases where boulder borders end.

If you ever take the drive up lambs Canyon on Hwy 79 from the San Jacinto Valley up tp the Beaumont-Banning area where I-10 runs between Los Angeles & Palm Springs, you will notice the marked contrast in vegetation types north of the Lamb's Canyon Landfill turnoff which is exactly at the halfway point. To restate my point, most of the vegetation type is interior sage-scrub, very similar to coastal sage scrub along Southern California's coastline. These large granite boulders stand out in stark contrast to the surrounding landscape. Traveling north, this is encountered just past the county Landfill turnoff. Once at the top of the Canyon on the Beaumont plateau, the vegetation changes as the boulders are absent once again. Still, the contrast is amazing and should educate and provide lessons here for those with such natural features in their acreages when developing plans for the landscape and incorporating boulders and other smaller rocks. Boulders are like a giant mulch for plants and concentrate rainwater into various niches in between them. Plants thrive here and if you are fortunate enough to have boulder and other rocks, don't curse them, cherish them instead.

So let's take a look at those folks less fortunate cold and rain soaked regions of earth but who want to have a desert theme in their region. Here's the first illustration of a real life Desert Plant community foundation plant example followed by it's Faux replacement.
Elephant Tree ( Bursera microphylla )
Take a look first at this gallery of a native desert tree on and around rocky outcroppings. Notice every detail and pattern around the silhouette and within the trees interior. Notice is bark smoothness and colouration. This is going to come in handy when looking for non-desert plants with similar qualities and characteristics for you faux desert theme landscape.

photo by David Allen 
Vizcaino Desert, Baja California, Mexico

photo by Spencer Woodward
Now pay close attention to the twisted picturesque interior of an average Elephant Tree. Seriously, pay attention now.

Elephant Tree, Anza Borrego State Park
Okay, shifting gears here now!!!
Now take a look at a cooler climate subsitute found at the Göteborg Botanical Gardens with many of the same identical features and patterns with regards leaves, bark colouration and twisted form and sillouetted appearance as that of a large Bonsai. The Tree is called Magnolia x soulangeana of which their are numerous cultivators. Take note of the similar twisting nature and multitrunked habit. Clearly you can also manually prune to shape as nature often does this to the Elephant Tree depending on it's exposed location. 

Magnolia x soulangeana

Photo: Mine
Closer inspection of the interior features of the Magnolia almost as a mirror image of Bursera microphylla or Elephant Tree. Isn't this a beautiful replacement ?

Photo: Mine
Beautiful example and notice to the right of this display and in the background there was another variety example of yet another Magnolia dwarf tree inserted within the red rock hardscape. Take note also of the dwarf variety of Yucca which may be found at almost any nursery. Perhaps in cooler climates even several varieties of New Zealand Flax may be substituted for the Yucca. Notice how well it fits into the rock outcropping landscape theme. Same contortion and twisted unique appearance. Now take a look at a couple of pictures of some larger examples in the park. Notice once again the bark colouration and the multitrunked twisted appearance. 

Photo: Mine
Magnolia x soulangeana just outside of the retail Nursery of Göteborg Botanical Gardens. Again, notice the almost identical twisted multi-trunk form of the Desert southwest Elephant Tree

Interesting features of the multitrunked Magnolia
The bottomline here is that in a Temperate Climate or Boreal Forested environment, you can substitute other plants with similar features of colour, bark, leaves, silhouette etc and create a Faux Desert Theme even though the plants are totally opposite and unrelated. Shifting some gears again now on an entirely different Subtropical Tree which has Temperate Forest cousins in the Northwest. Texas Madrone (Arbutus xalapensis) also can be found in similar rock outcroppings and of similar Sedona red rock like settings as examples in the Guadalupe Mountains of southern New Mexico.

Texas Madrone (Arbutus xalapensis)
Like Manzanita and Redshank or Ribbonwood, Texas Madrone also has a similar peeled bark appearance
Acer griseum - China
Now take a look at a great substitute found at the Göteborg Botanical Gardens. This tree is not what it may appear at a distance or even up close, yet it has many of the same similar silhouetted qualities and deep red bark characteristics of it's trunk down to the smallest twig details as the Texas Madrone. Clearly the leaves are different, but the overall form and pattern really work with the background of rocks and boulders. In other ways this small tree also reminds me of another plant I had in abundance on my acreage in the San Jacinto Mountains above Palm Springs. That chaparral small tree or shrub is Redshank or Ribbonwood (Adenostoma sparsifolium). 

Acer griseum Paperbark Maple

Example of Leaf shape and size

Same Tree but from different upper 
elevation angle.

Photo: Mine
I enjoyed this view as they incorporated the same earth toned light red stone in a stacked staggered design and used ferns to fill in the gaps between the stones.
The experience at this year's Botanical Garden desert display was certainly an educational experience and yet I had seen these very plants and thought about their uses over 6 years ago when I first visited these gardens. But until now never gave a thought as to writing about them. This quality of thinking and problem solving for solutions is admittedly related to my exposure and influence with hispanic culture who like other cultures less privileged in the material world sense have had to rely on intuitiveness and McGuyver-like problem solving for survival which I wrote about here:
Mexican Ingenuity: If Anyone Can a Mexi - Can
I'm grateful for the hispanic influence in my life. I've had a few businesses which required an incredible amount of creativity and intuitive problem solving and many of the products I used to accomplish various tasks were totally unrelated for the use I put them to. The same could be said for landscaping. Use your BRAIN and THINK, MEDITATE & PONDER about creative ways to accomplish mountain-like seemingly impossible landscaping tasks. Also remember the absolutely necessary reasons for replicating what you observe out in Nature and dump many of the old school conventional failed science-based technologies which have presently brought our natural world to it's knees over these past 100 years. Hopefully some are benefited here to create an amazing hideaway of sorts that they originally thought they could never have.

Remember also even if you have the ideal habitat and climate to use the real deals as far as desert landscape themes, train the plants to grow deeper roots by proper water methods which replicate the reality. Withholding water is something most conventional gardeners are not trained to do. Get that landscape off life support which is what most conventional gardening only accomplishes. While all plants enjoy and need a rainy season, they do not need nor necessarily want this option on a continuous basis. With many southwest native plants if you water excessively, that is beyond their normal requirement needs found in nature, though they may grow somewhat aggressively and vigorously, you may actually be shortening their lifespan by many years. And who really wants to start over again and again ?

Next year in Spring of 2013 I'm coming out and will photograph many of the dryland chaparral natives like various forms of Manzanitas I planted before leaving for Europe. They ALL have received NO WATER beyond supplemental watering that first year. They are ALL on natural rainfall averages within the El Cajon CA area and nothing more. Their roots were inoculated with a great mycorrhizal mix from Mycorrhizal Applications Inc

Such innoculent is imperative especially with Manzanitas since unlike other plants do not have the same type of fine root hairs for absorption of water and nutrients.  They are totally dependent on this symbiosis. Don't believe that ? Then watch your Manzanita project fail big time. So deep watering to establish and mycorrhizal fungi and beneficial bacteria are a must. Don't worry about hot summers after that. So what if they appear to not be growing fast enough. Part of the true landscape success is being patient which most humans have a great inability to accomplish, especially when instant landscape is desirable. As Prof Todd Dawson discovered, even streamside trees in a riparian zone habitat take their water not from the surface waters, but from deeper subsoil layers. Educate yourself and understand the basics of just how the natural world works and what it wants will almost guarantee you sure success.
See previous post on Boulders and Rocks
Ökenliv (Desert Life) Part III - Sedona Arizona ?


  1. Great comparisons and substitutes to create a similar effect in different places! Some of those I would have never thought of - like the magnolia for elephant tree, or that Acer griseum for Arbutus xalapensis. But so right on.

    Your points on over-watering SW species is all too true, and as I commented before, those who prefer the plants of cold-wet places are best to move there.

    I think our society needs to change it's mindsets, as well as quit following the edicts of those (a few here) and being more connected to the set of things that make each place powerful. Hasn't happened in Abq in my 20 years, so am planning to move away for good.

    1. Yes I really like the comparisons too. But I'm constantly looking and thinking about such alternatives. Just habit I guess. I love trying to replicate situations I've seen even if they are not exact. These thoughts I've written down here are not relatively new. They first came to me over 6 years ago when I first saw them. Both trees have been there that long.

      So where in the world would you move to ? I'm guessing Tucson or the greater pheonix area. Of course Vegas or Coachella Valley are good choices. I can't imagine you going to the coast anywhere.


  2. That is truly remarkable. Good job with achieving the similar effect in your plantings. What climate zone are you in there? Can you grow arbutus menziessi?

    1. You know I've actually wondered about growing Arbutus menziessii, but I've never seen one here. I'm headed back for the Botanical Gardens tomorrow and I'll ask the head resident Botanist.

      I have to admit though that I am truly impressed by the Paperbark Maple. The pics are great but viewing it in real life is incredible. I'ts truly something you can't take your eyes off of. I'm wanting to do a bit of research on it's native habitat in china first.

      Thanks for stopping Louis.


  3. I like your comparisons here. Moving from Wisconsin to Arizona is quite the shift when it comes to landscaping but as you state...."Use your brain:)Imaganation" etc. similiar landscapes can be achieved with a good eye. I love the Maple you presented today. Gorgeous tree. I always have said to people, "You may not be able to grow ferns here but you can simulate the look with plants that have similiar leaf structure." I have a post coming up on this idea in several weeks for snowbirds wanting to bring the midwest into the desert. Love your topics.

  4. I really love both those trees. Pity I didn't even think or giver any consideration about getting either one of them for my own landscaping 6 years ago when I first saw them.

  5. I always envy the madrone when they come up on Town and Country Mouse's Californian garden blog.

    1. Someone asked me if Pacific Madrone would grow here in göteborg. I haven't seen it. But there are several varieties and even Manaznitas if you know what those are. I planted several species of Manzanitas at my Mum's house 6 years ago and plan on photographing them next spring when I visit there again. Some get much larger than that Paperbark Maple I referenced in the picture.



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