Archive | May 2013

The Bombax Tree, aka The Shaving Brush Tree



I bought this bombax tree back in 1985 when I was first getting interested in the more unusual specimens I would come across when searching for cactus and succulents. It was in a one-gallon container then and about a foot tall. Today it is in an 18-inch pot and the plant itself is 4 feet tall.

The tree only blooms in the spring before the leaves appear after the cold dry winter. What you see here is the second bloom this season. It opened yesterday; they only last a day, blowing away the next day. No blooms have formed on the trunk on the right, which makes me wonder if I have a male and female tree. I know it doesn’t look like much now, but by the end of the summer when I have to bring it in for the winter, it will have made a nice canopy of large leaves. Alas, I don’t think I have an older picture of it all leafed out. You will just have to use your imagination.

Back when I bought it, I did not realize I would some day wish I had paid more attention to identifying it precisely. The pot was just labeled bombax as I recall, and I didn’t think much of it until these last few years when I have been paying more attention to classifying my plants. So after some investigation, I think it is a pseudobombax ellipticum, or bombax ellipticum bombacaceae, a member of the kapok family, which is a member of the mallow family, which is where kapok comes from. The wood is very light weight and is used for carving, making dugout canoes, and coffins. Some parts are used for medicine, the oil from the seeds can be used to make soap, and the filaments from the flowers can be used for bedding and fillers. Now I don’t know that my bombax tree can be used for all that, but some varieties can. The tree is native to warm climates and rain forests, and I know some grow in Hawaii because they were pointed out and called a shaving brush tree when we visited there in the late 90s.



And you can see why they are called shaving brush trees when you see a fresh, newly opened flower. Some kapok and bombax trees have a different kind of flower and of different colors, but these flowers do sort of look like old-fashioned shaving cream brushes-for those of us old enough to know what those look like!


Some day the tree will be too tall to go through the door and I will have to cut it back, after which it will take on a different shape and the caudex, the fat bulb at the base of the trunk used for storing water,  will probably be fatter and even more interesting-looking.



And I suspect it will outlive me by many years.


The Cholla Says Winter Is Over

When winter arrives and the weather gets colder and icier, prickly pear and cholla get progressively droopy and sad-looking. Both plants are in the same cactus family of opuntia, so I guess they respond similarly to the cold.

By the end of winter, this is what one of my favorite chollas looked like:


By May when the weather was warming up, even though we had some late freezes, the cholla  had perked up and looked like this. The yellow pieces at the ends are what’s left from the blooms from last year:


Buds are now forming, and in a few weeks, it will look like this picture, taken in May of 2012:


So don’t give up on these plants, thinking they have succumbed to the cold weather. Be patient; in what seems like overnight, they will have up-righted themselves and look good again. They will need a little pruning and shaping, but they will reward your efforts with flowers and robust growth in the new season.

Weeds and Cactus- A Few Things I Forgot

As I was finishing my weeding for the day, some things came up that I should have mentioned in the last post about weeding the garden. So let me add to the list of helpful hints.

I have found that if the ground is wet, or damp from rain or human watering, the weeds pull out a whole lot easier. And up here that means that before I try to weed an area, I will water by hand and let is soak in an hour or two before I try to weed. It really does help you to get the whole weed, roots and all, and if you don’t get the roots, well, the weed comes back even bushier than before.

Likewise, it is easier to pull up live weeds than dead ones, so I prefer to weed rather than spray and then have to pull out dead, unsightly brown weeds. As I mentioned last week, I don’t like to leave what I pull out in the garden; that becomes unsightly as well. Another reason I don’t like to spray is the danger of getting the herbicide on the plants I don’t want to kill. I usually use Round-up, which is not selective-it kills anything it touches, so don’t spray when it is windy and  perhaps cover any nearby plants to protect them from possible herbicide drift in the wind. The only thing I do spray is invading Bermuda grass because it is hard to get all of the runner and roots that don’t show when you just pull the green tops.

I mentioned having clippers handy to prune prickly pear and cholla so they don’t become overgrown and take over the area. I like to keep my pear and cholla trimmed and shaped and out of my way when weeding around them.

For example, this prickly pear has fallen and ruins the overall look and shape of the plant, so it needs to come off during my next weeding session. The loose fallen pad underneath it needs to be taken out, too, so it won’t root while on the ground since I don’t want another plant there.

I failed to mention that when you weed, it also gives you the chance to catch other desirable but invasive plants before they get out of hand. Certain yuccas and agave are prone to spread, and if you catch them early, they are easy to deal with. I think most yuccas and all agaves make a much stronger statement as one single specimen rather than a mess of parent and babies anyway. And those clumps of parent and babies are harder to weed.

I like having this yucca as a specimen in my collection, but I don’t want a whole bed of it, so when the runners pop up, I take them out. Look closely in the first picture and you can see the little one peaking out as shown in the second picture. When I stated digging it out, one led to another and another, and I stopped counting at 25! But better to have found them lurking beneath the rocks and mulch than as full-fledged plants to be dealt with.

Something else that weeding lends itself to is discovering cactus seedlings that have come up voluntarily that might need to be relocated for best effect, and to trim tree branches that might be in the way as you weed. It is fun to find the babies, and it makes your job easier to get those extra tree branches out of the way and usually makes the bed look better anyway.

All these smaller cactus came up from seeds. I should have relocated some of them, but I kind of like the look of the cluster. I may still move a few of them.

Unfortunately, it is inevitable that a few cactus may die as time goes by, and when weeding, those are discovered and easily disposed of. Dead cactus distract from the look of your garden and need to come out.

One tool I might add to your list is a pair of plain old eyebrow tweezers. Spines in the fingers and other exposed skin is just a fact of life if you deal with cactus, so get used to it. If you get them out quickly, they really aren’t much of a problem, and a handy pair of tweezers helps.


So. Now you are fixed for the task at hand. Get out there in the cool of the early morning to work, then admire what’s blooming during the heat of the day, and  perhaps do a little more weeding as evening comes, and it will be done before you know it.

Weeds and Cactus

I was told once that the reason my cactus garden looks good is that I keep it free of weeds. Well, isn’t that a given? That the weeds should come out? Then I thought about it and realized that in fact too many cactus gardens don’t get weeded. I think that’s another misconception people have about cactus, that you can plant them and then forget them-after all they’re low maintenance and all, right? 

Wrong. The weeds have to come out. And I can tell you from experience that sooner is much better than later. If they get ahead of you, it is a monumental task to take care of business.


Case in point: this bed almost got out of hand when I was busy with some deadlines and uncooperative weather. But yesterday I took care of business. The right tools are helpful. The bucket is for the weeds and trash pulled out of the bed. I know some people just leave the grass and weeds they pull out.  If you do that, the bed still looks messy, so what’s the point in weeding in the first place? The knee pad is just that, protection for my knees. I kneel down to weed so  I won’t wear out my back and because it helps to be close to see what you are doing. Weeding around cactus spines is tricky business, and I just don’t see how you can do a good job if you aren’t up close and personal to the offending weeds. The fish hook extractor, or whatever it is called, is helpful to reach in and pull grass too close to spines. The weed popper is much better to use than a hand spade or shovel to loosen the offending weeds without also uprooting nearby cactus. Yes, I know gloves protect one’s hands from dirt and those pesky cactus spines, but gloves just get in the way. They are bulky and I can’t feel what I am pulling out, so I just don’t use them. I  bring them along just in case, but I seldom even put them on. The clippers are for the occasional pruning on cholla or opuntia or whatever. Look closely and you can tell that I have cleaned the area above my gloves and am moving to the left.


This is a shot of the rest of the bed before weeding.


And here it is after weeding. See how much better it looks now?




and after.


So now the claret cup blooms look even prettier in their pretty clean bed.


Weeding is always more pleasant with company; thank goodness I had some.

Now that my conflicting deadlines have been met and the weather acts like it is about to improve, it’s on to the rest of the weeds. Another thing that makes weeding manageable is to just do a section a day, not trying to cover the whole garden. And once all sections are done, I get to do them all over again. Weeding is a never-ending task, you know. But doing a little at a time makes weeding doable. I recommend it.