Just because it’s weird, doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful.
There’s been a tall weed growing in the front, which I’ve been eager to whack, but I’m such a slacker, I didn’t. So I watered the wild thing with the bougainvillea that shares the same slope.
Today that “weed” is flowering. Turns out to be a thistle. Violet blue like Liz Taylor’s eyes. And I love it.
There are many odd blooms that start out as crazy, hard pods or as weird growths on cacti and succulents. But, like anteaters, oddball plants have their own peculiar charms.
The blue thistle I now take care of started out as an ugly stalk with awful leaves. It looked like a dandelion on steroids. Later, its cool sci-fi looking spiky pods appeared. Then came the flower, which bees sit in for half a day and which attracts fritillary butterflies and goldfinch.
Thistle, from the family Asteraceae, is the common name given to flowering plants characterized by leaves with sharp prickles on the margins, (which protects the plant against herbivorous animals, discouraging them from feeding on the plant.)
Medieval writers thought the plant could grow hair on bald heads. Later on, it is said to be a remedy for headaches (caused maybe by rubbing it on a bald head?), plague, canker sores, vertigo, and jaundice.
Acanthus mollis (aka Bear's Breeches or "Oyster Plant") asks nothing of the Southern California gardener except shade. Lots of it. The leaves grow so big at the bottom you can wrap a human baby in just one. But don’t.
From the leafy launch pad are stiff stalks on which pale purple and white blooms are arranged in stacks like Dali-esque eyeballs.
Acanthus mollis is an herbaceous perennial. Each flower, about 2 inches long, is enclosed by three green or purplish bracts and packed into a two-lipped calyx, the upper being like a purple helmet, the lower white lip is its corolla.
Its flowers are pollinated by bees or bumble bees large enough to force themselves into the slim passage between the upper and lower sepals. They plant can survive for several decades and because it is drought-tolerant, acanthus is commonly found in the wild: roadsides and wastelands, rocky and bushy places.
This species flowers from May through August when its leaves do a heave ho and expire.
The acanthus is pretty indestructible up ‘til then.
A head turner is the flowering cactus.
Take the Prickly pear cactus with its unwelcoming paddle-like formations filled with needles. When it starts to bud, it looks like it has a colored growth. Then the growth blooms and you have a flower with petals as delicate as a rose’s.
The columnar saguero cactus has globules on top so surreal you have to ask yourself, “Really, did this just crawl out from under the sea?” And then they flower into pretty white disks.
More subtle flowering can be found on the crown of thorns succulents. They’re green green green with a spiny short stalk. Wait awhile. Because at the end of each stalk there appears little red or yellow flowers.
The Haworthia or zebra succulent—itself a decorative striped cluster—sends out thin long woody shoots much wider than the plant itself on which little blooms appear.
What have we learned? Embrace the weird. You might be surprised; you’ll definitely be rewarded in the garden.