Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Garden Surprises, Yucca and Opuntia

Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise. – Alice Walker 

Doesn't seem to be much, until you realize what you're looking at.
Big time surprises here in the country, at least in our flower gardens. Two plants are going to bloom this year.

On the face of it that might not seem like much to be excited about. But when you realize what two plants are setting blooms – well, then you get excited. They are two that many don’t think could survive our winters.

This is a bud (I hope). We have several!
Cactus in Nova Scotia?
First up – an outdoor cactus. Opuntia humifusa, also known as Eastern Prickly Pear or Indian Fig, is a cactus found in most of eastern North America. 

Naturally it grows as far north as Massachusetts but according to the USDA it is hardy to Zone 6(ish). That means southern Ontario, parts of Québec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. And British Columbia of course.

This strange beast is composed of flat paddles that are covered with spines. These spines are composed of very fine hair-like stickers that can go into your skin quite easily. And they’re quite irritating. This is first-hand knowledge. 

New paddles grow out from the same spots as the spines on the edge, if conditions are right. I was told when we purchased them they were “iffy” and that they may never bloom for us. Apparently our conditions, and location, are right. We have buds set!

I’m looking forward to the flowers. They’re bright yellow , blooming from the edge of the paddles. They’re supposed to bloom late spring but since we’re setting buds right now I expect in perhaps a month we’ll have flowers. 

Photo: vikisuza, Flickr ccl
Sometimes the flowers have red centres. The individual blooms can be 2” wide. Small, yes – but it’s a cactus blooming in your yard!

If you’re really lucky (or have a longer growing season), the blooms will ripen into prickly pear fruit, which are edible. They start off green but turn a dark purple-red, with deep magenta coloured flesh. They’re also full of very tough seeds. Watch your teeth.

The architectural yucca
The second is an exotic that will not only last through our Nova Scotia winters but will increase if given the right conditions. It’s Yucca filamentosa, otherwise known as Adam’s Needle. 

The flower stock, starting to emerge – a a rapid rate.
Yucca are hardy perennials that have a range of USDA Zones 3 to 10. That’s pretty wide. Essentially that covers from the Florida Panhandle in the USA to most of the lower parts of Central Canada’s provinces and both Canadian coasts.

Yucca can grow between 12” in height to a glorious 5’ (60”) when their flower spikes are in full glory. They’re quite a sight and demand attention in the garden.

Some other common names for Yucca include Spanish Dagger and Spanish Bayonet. There are nine species and 24 subspecies of Yucca, and their distribution covers a wide area of Central and North America. Some yuccas are extremely exotic looking – nothing at all like Y. filamentosa. Yucca filamentosa is usually what is sold here in garden centres. You can even get variegated varieties. We have two, plus five of the green leaved ones.

For much of the growing season, yucca are a mass of architecturally interesting sword shaped leaves. They’re quite rigid and can be a bit sharp so watch small pets and children. The leaves are usually in the form of an upright clump emerging from the ground. This makes them a favourite in garden border designs. They’re very structural.

Last year's stocks
But then they do something a little unexpected. They flower, a lot. Yucca (can) flower from the middle of summer through autumn, when they carry masses of white 2”-3” hanging bells. These flowers, that can appear in the dozens, are borne on very rigid stalks that emerge from the centre of each plant. 

After many seasons of doing nothing but growing leaves, last year two of them bloomed. This year is seems to be a third one’s turn. If I understand their growth pattern correctly, the ones that bloom divide themselves the next year. The two that bloomed last year have now turned into four.

I believe it’s mostly my fault that I had to wait so long. I’m pretty certain I was a little unkind to them in both the soil and location choices. It makes a great difference. My yucca survived but did not “flourish” for quite some time.

If you’re looking for some “ooh and aah” plants for your garden borders, look no further than opuntia and yucca. You can find yucca at pretty much any garden centre. The cactus is a little harder to find. You can get then at the Village Nursery just outside Bridgewater.

That is where I’m heading later today. Since they’re apparently happy where we have them, I may as well get a couple more!

(I did get two more at $7.99, which I thought was very reasonable for the size. Hopefully they will be happy too.)


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