Blooming in the Park by Alice Lowe. First published in Let’s Talk Plants! April 2011, No.199
When you live in Southern California, especially near the coast, you learn to appreciate the subtle signs of the seasons. Japanese Maple and Liquidambar give us a little fall color, and at the height of winter, when mid-day temperatures plummet to the 50s, our spirits are lifted by the brilliant display of succulents with their orange, coral, and yellow spikes and bells. These southern hemisphere natives are mostly dormant in summer, exhibiting their rainbow hues against our pale winter sky.
Like a train whistle approaching the station, Pittosporum undulatum announces the upcoming spring with its bursts of tiny white blossoms and sweet pungent fragrance – often you can smell it before you see it. It seems distinctive, but I probably couldn’t distinguish it from jasmine in a blind test, unlike someone more in the know – more in the nose?
We compare it to the scent of orange blossom, which is why we call it Mock Orange. I pointed it out early one year to Geri, a friend who hailed from New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, and in her sweetly officious tone she sniffed, “That’s not mock orange.” It turns out that there is a deciduous shrub called Philadelphus (wouldn’t you know it) that is the mock orange of the East coast; it, too, has white flowers and a heady perfume.
P. undulatum – also known as Victorian Box, Australian Cheesewood or Native Daphne – can be a smallish shrub or a tree upwards of twenty feet tall. They’re numerous in my San Diego neighborhood, and I start to notice them on my morning walks in February – first by the smell, which I then trace to its source. My favorite one is at the Western entrance to the Balboa Park bridge. It shoots up from the freeway verge below, indistinguishable from the rest of the greenery until those sweet blooms put out their call.
Geri, who was a master gardener when she lived in the East, had a magic touch in seemingly impossible conditions. She put a P. undulatum in a five-gallon tub on her North-facing deck, but when she saw that it was failing from lack of sun, she offered it to me. It lived on my deck for two seasons, with a Southern exposure that’s blocked out much of the year by towering eucalyptus in the adjacent canyon. Each year it put on some tender new growth the color of young celery and sprouted a few blooms; I had to squat in front of it and stick my nose into them for just a whiff of fragrance. Clearly this wasn’t going to work either – it needed to be putting its roots down into rich soil in a bright sunny spot, and I passed it on to another friend who had the right conditions for it.
I respect the idiosyncrasies of growing things; I don’t take it personally if they don’t perform for me. I’m happy to adore and admire from afar the beloved varieties of flora with which I’ve tried and failed, to find and enjoy them where they’re happy. And so, I light up when P. undulatum first greets me from around a corner or in the park, and my sniffer is at the ready for the remaining weeks of their generous display.
Alice Lowe is a freelance writer, a succulents-in-containers gardener, and a Community-Supported Agriculture aficionado (since she can’t grow her own vegetables).
Pittosporum undulatum: The Story Continues by Walt Meier. First published in Let’s Talk Plants! May 2011, No. 200.
After reading Alice Lowe’s article in April on Pittosporum undulatum (Victorian Box or Mock Orange), I chuckled to myself, and thought she hasn’t been to Pasadena, California. My sister lived in a two-story colonial on State Street in Pasadena. The house was built in 1900, and in the back yard was a P. undulatum with a trunk three feet in diameter. It towered over her house at least 30 feet. Since I was in the tree business, she hired me occasionally to trim the branches touching or hanging near the roof. This was done to keep the rats off her house.
There are many large P. undulatum trees around the north/south section of Orange Grove Blvd. The soils are alluvial decomposed granite – many feet deep, which the trees require. They do not like their feet being wet, as they would be in heavy clay soils. They will not grow well and usually die a slow death if planted in wet soil.
My sister was having trouble keeping the school children from passing through her yard. She yelled at them and all they said was, “Sorry,” and the school couldn’t do anything either.
I said, “I know what to do.”
I placed five beehives in their passageway. Problem solved. It also stopped the neighbor boy from climbing up the rain gutter pipe to the second floor to my nephew’s bedroom.
When I robbed the hives right after the blooming season of the P. undulatum the honey was so sweet it made our teeth ache, so I gave it back to the bees.
The only drawback that I know of is that the berries will hang on until the first heavy rain, crack open and fall to the ground en masse. Inside are seeds that stick to your feet and that could be tracked into the house if the tree is in the wrong place. The berries smell like martinis.
When I was a child in New York, we did have another tree also called Mock Orange (in this case it was a Philadelphus) in front of our house that I absolutely adored. I used to sit on the front porch for hours sniffing that heavenly scented shrub when it was in bloom.