Garden Clippings: Let's Get Surreal

These plants make for a garden of unearthly delights.

This week,  I walked by a parkway garden on Hillslope. There were twisted shapes and incongruous growths occupying white gravel outside the bright yellow bungalow. It was all so Dali-esque, I half expected to see melted clocks intertwined with the plantings. Then again the temp had topped 100 for the third day in a row, which may explain a lot.

Yes we have wondrous roses and gaudy bougainvillea. But nothing says we’re here on the border of Zone Desert more than the mirage-inducing, surreal plants that take root in the garden.

Surrealism—a French movement whose tenets include free association, non sequiturs, and weird juxtaposition—is hard to cuddle up to. Expect a similar feeling toward globe thistle flowers, which you won’t be putting in your hair anytime soon. And no...don’t be bending down to smell the barrel cactus flowers!

Yet to come upon a Disney-gone-mad prickly pear cactus in bloom or an open-beaked bird of paradise flower conjures wild flights of imagination akin to Curiosity landing on Mars or James Cameron’s other-worldly Pandora in "Avatar." It can be either the plant anatomy itself or the juxtaposition of it against a backdrop that references the surreal.

Surprisingly, many such plants attract birds, bees and butterflies. Ear-lobed calla lillies (Zantedeschia aethiopica), when grouped together provide additional shelter for birds. The mind-blowing geometry of passion flower vine is a pit stop for monarchs, Zebra Longwing and fritillary butterflies. Long-tongued Agaves attract bees. Or Dutchman’s Pipe vine (Aristolochia), which you might find in our shady, riparian climes, is a pipe-shaped plant that is decidedly not a pipe, which will delight Magritte fans and swallowtail butterflies alike.

Asparagus aethiopicus, Sprenger's Asparagus fern, is not a fern, has the behavior of a tulip, the shape of an inverted octopus, and hidden in its furry tentacles are bright red berries highly attractive to birds.

A spiny cactus that looks like an eviscerated piano grows flowers that attract doves and bees. It makes you wonder how it even evolved. Turns out the combination of a shallow root system and hooked spines facilitated seed dispersal. If a large animal passes it by and a piece of fur grabs the spine off, the plant can easily re-seed and take root. Plus the white spines reflect sunlight away from the plant.

If you’re headed to Costa Rica this winter, look for the Psychotria elata, which resembles Man Ray’s Monroe-like lips hanging over the Hollywood Hills. Butterflies love them. Or if you’re off to Asia, be on the lookout for Doll's-eyes (White Baneberry), reminiscent of the Dali/Bunuel film collaboration Un Chien Andalou, with its famous eyeball-splitting sequence. Baneberries, dead ringers for eyeballs, are highly poisonous and can lead to cardiac arrest and death in humans but are harmless to birds.

So for that out-of-body experience, that is decidedly not heat related, try some surreal landscaping.


Intersperse cactus and succulents in a groundcover of volcanic black rock or large white gravel for an outer space scenario.

Bird of Paradise,attractive to hummingbirds rich, likes well-draining soil. Avoid over-watering.

The closer you live to the Coast, the more likely you are to see Buddhas hand. In the Valley, look for it at the Studio City Farmers Market.

When planting Echeveria use at least 50% coarse pumice and when watering, do not get the center of the rosette wet.

Passion flowers grow and bloom best when the soil is kept moist. Plant along a west- facing wall so they get at least 4 full hours of sunlight a day.

STEAL THIS IDEA: For a hang-one-on party try Hangar One Buddha's Hand Citron Vodka. Then at bedtime, brew up some passion flower tea using 8 ounces of boiling water, 1 teaspoon of dried (tablespoon fresh) passionflower leaves.

Mitch Rabuchin August 14, 2012 at 03:51 PM
Dear Marla, Always glad to read something from a Chicagoite. I went to Lake View HS (46).My wife studied landscape architecture and botany. She grows food and flowers. Keep it going. Best, mrabuchin@aol.com
Marla Hart August 14, 2012 at 07:23 PM
Hey Mitch, Lived near Lake View High for quite awhile. To study Botany is the real deal, I salute your wife, as I am an amateur by comparison. Does she have a neighborhood garden she would like to showcase? best regards, marla hart
Rich Addams August 15, 2012 at 05:03 PM
How do we keep our plants from dying off in this heat? Any tips?
Nancy August 17, 2012 at 05:42 PM
Be careful of the common passion flower - it's a vining weed that if left alone will choke the plants they wind around. I live along the busway and the passion fruit vine has twisted around the Metro-planted shrubbery to above the top of the sound wall and is looking to go higher. Critters disseminate the seeds of the orange fruit and the invasive vines pop up all over. It seems impossible to control. Enjoy this plant on someone else's property.
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