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Show #34/4908. Desert Plants Are Tough, But Adaptable

Introduction
Ken Schutz is the Director of the Desert Botanical Garden (DBG) in Phoenix. Ken tells us that DBG was formed in 1939. The founder, at that time, was alarmed that the population in Phoenix, which at that time was 50,000, was increasing and the desert was being destroyed.

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Cactus
Joe has the misconception that these Cactus are fleshy inside. When cut open, water will gush out. That's not true. They actually have a woody structure inside. Water is stored inside the cells, in the pleats and in the central cortex of the plant. As the plant takes in water, the pleats visible on the outside, expand. The deeper the pleats, the less water the plants have to live on and the thirstier the plant.

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Agaves
The next plant is one of those Chad spent many nights in the library studying. It is one of the most common Agaves. It is called Agave Americana and is commonly known as the century plant.

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Aloes
We next look at Aloes. Joe can see from a quick glance why they could be confused with Agaves. Chad discusses some differences. With Agaves, on their new growth, all the new leaves are held tightly in the structure called the terminal bud. Also, another thing to look for is the presence and location of the spines. On Agaves, they'll only be out on the margins. On Aloes, at least some Aloes will have them on the surface, the top surface and on the bottom surface of the leaves. Other things to look for are the presence of spines on the tips.

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Making a Succulent Wreath
Joe tells Chad that Garden Smart viewers are pretty savvy gardeners, they love learning about different plants and seeing beautiful gardens but they also enjoy the information in each show that can be applied to their own homes and gardens. To this end Chad has created a beautiful wreath filled with plant material that was obtained either here at the gift shop or at the local craft store.

Click here for more info

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Show #34/4908. Desert Plants Are Tough, But Adaptable

Complete transcript of the show.

Plants that grow in the desert southwest must be tough. But, many are also adaptable to gardens throughout the country.

KEN SCHUTZ IS THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE DESERT BOTANICAL GARDEN (DBG) IN PHOENIX. Ken tells us that the DBG was formed in 1939. The founder at that time was alarmed that the population in Phoenix, which at that time was 50,000, was increasing and the desert was being destroyed. Today Phoenix has a population of nearly 4 million people and her foresight has been instrumental in preserving this corner of the desert. 150 acres were set aside to protect, preserve and propagate and share desert plants from all over the world, especially those from Arizona and the Sonoran desert.

This garden is unique in several ways. First, is temperature. It can reach 120 degrees in the summer. This is probably the hottest garden in the country. Gardening in this harsh environment is tough. Virtually all of the garden is outdoors, thus all displays must deal with and all the plants must survive in temperatures that range from very hot to often very cold. Nearly all species of Cacti are represented here but not all. That's because some grow in areas of higher humidity or lower temperatures. When a conservatory is built other varieties will be added. But it presently is the most complete collection of Cacti in the world. They have a large and healthy collection of Agavaceace, which are mostly indigenous to Arizona but also found throughout North America and into a little bit of Central America. They have a strong collection of Aloeceae which are an African species. As well, they have a large collection of shrubs, trees and wildflowers from around the state; especially those that occur in the low, hot deserts.

DBG is all about education. That can mean different things. The folks at DBG want whoever walks through the front door to leave knowing at least a little bit more and hopefully a lot more about ecology or botany and the role each individual plays in conservation. They have well developed school programs, serving close to 50,000 children each year and every one of those is a guided tour. There is always the temptation to hand them a map, create a treasure hunt and say go forth and explore. They don't do that, instead they have tours that require the adults and kids to think and ask questions. There is always a trained volunteer or paid staff member with the tour, guiding the learning process. For adults and for preschool kids and for all ages they have tailored programs that present botany and ecology. Whatever the day and whoever the visitor, education is critically important to what they do here.

Joe meets Chad Davis. Chad is the Curator of the Aloaceae and Agavaceace families at DBG. Chad tells Joe he is a transplant. He moved here from northern Illinois. His first job after moving here was working for a tree distributor. There he learned a lot about local landscaping and how landscaping is so very different in this part of the country. He decided this was what he wanted to do with his life, thus pursued a degree in Urban Horticulture from the local community college. His first job at DBG was as night ranger and was on property from 11 at night until 7 in the morning. That gave him a lot of time to hit the books, they have a great library and he studied. The position of horticulturist in charge of the Agave family became available just as he was finishing his degree. Although the position required a formal background in horticulture plus 6 years of on job training, he interviewed. He must have been doing some good studying and had a good interview because he got the job and it's the best job he's ever had. Chad is passionate about the job and that certainly helped.

When Joe thinks of plant diversity in the desert southwest he thinks of limited choices. That's just not so. When thinking of plants of the desert he first thinks of the Saguaro Cactus. There certainly are many on property but Chad first wants to talk about the Cardon, one of its' bigger cousins from Baja. And they are magnificent. Cardon, Pachereus pringlei is the first Chad shows us. This is in the Baja section, one of the oldest parts of the garden. All plants here are native to the Baja Peninsula. These are cousins of the Saguaro Cactus, but they are their larger cousins. They're larger because they branch earlier in their lifetime. The Saguaros generally must be more than 50 or 60 years old before they start producing their first branches. These guys produce their branches very early, very low and they grow faster. That's how they reach their enormous size of over 50 feet.
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JOE HAS THE MISCONCEPTION THAT THESE CACTUS ARE FLESHY INSIDE. When cut open, water will gush out. That's not true. They actually have a woody structure inside. Water is stored inside the cells, in the pleats and in the central cortex of the plant. As the plant takes in water, the pleats visible on the outside, expand. The deeper the pleats, the less water the plants have to live on and the thirstier the plant. In their native environment they can go several years without any rainfall. Joe notices several large holes in the side. Chad says those were made by woodpeckers that use these as housing. The holes are superficial, they don't hurt the cactus. Some of the Cactus are in flower. These have an early flowering season. They're night pollinated, have big white flowers and they close as the day goes on, opening up again at night.

Joe and Chad next look at a Boojum Tree, Fouquieria columnaris. Its name comes from a Lewis Carroll Stevenson poem. There is a forest in Baja, Mexico that is primarily covered with these as well as Cardoons. It is a really strange place. The Boojum is not common for a home landscape, it's more of a status symbol. They are expensive. Some at their latest plant sale were less than waist high and were $500. It would be a great plant to fill a narrow space though because they have a great columnar shape and are really cool and weird. The tree has summer dormancy. It drops all its leaves in the spring, In a few weeks it won't have any leaves left. It does that to reduce transpiration, during the summertime when it's really hot. That is when it goes into a dormancy state. It's not completely dormant because it does have photosynthetic material in the trunk. When one looks at the trunk, the bark is actually green, this allows them to make food for themselves, although at a reduced rate. It's amazing how these plants have adapted to survive throughout the year.

They next look at an Elephant tree, Pachycormus discolor. The pachy refers to Pachyderm and elephants; the cormus refers to foot. That makes sense because when looking at it the trunk looks like an Elephants foot. This too is native to the Baja Peninsula. It's a really long lived plant. They think upwards of 2,000 years. When historical photos are compared to modern photographs, the Boojums and Cardons in the area have completely lived out their life cycles. The Elephant tree remains pretty much unchanged. It is another summer dormant plant. Too much summer water can rot the roots. Joe says that makes sense because when dormant, it's not wanting to take up water, thus the roots can rot.
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THE NEXT PLANT IS ONE OF THOSE CHAD SPENT MANY NIGHTS IN THE LIBRARY STUDYING. It is one of the most common Agaves. It is called Agave Americana and is commonly known as the century plant. When the Europeans first discovered this plant they associated them with Aloes, which come from Africa, and generally bloomed during the wintertime every year. These plants only bloom one time in their lifetime. It took a long time for that to happen when first brought back here due to the shortened growing season. The life span of Agaves is from 6 to 60 years. Most Agaves bloom somewhere in the 20 to 24 year range. When they bloom they die but they can put up an impressive show. The bloom can grow to as much as 30 feet tall. Joe and Chad are looking at one that's at least 20 feet tall and looks like a giant asparagus. Chad says they are edible although Joe doesn't really want to find out. Even though they do die after blooming all is not lost. They reproduce in several different ways. There are pups that come up from the ground - risomes. They also produce gold bells which are formed on the inflorescence after the flowers are done. Those genetic clones are pretty tough. Chad tells a story about a gentleman finding one in his shed that had been there at least 4 years. He planted it and it is still growing.

This is a great plant for landscapes all across the country. They transplant easily and survive in a wide temperature range. They can withstand temperatures from unlimited on the top side to zero degrees.

Agaves come in many different sizes. The previous one was very big this one is very small. Queen Victoria's Agave is tough, a very durable plant. The Denver Botanical Garden actually grows this outdoors, down to zero degrees. It would be a great selection for a container and, again, can be grown across the country. Joe notices an even smaller Agave. Agave Parviflora when mature hits about 6 inches in diameter. All Agaves bloom at some point in their lifetime but they can be split into 2 different groups based on the type of inflorescence they produce. Most commonly people think of the candelabra style, the other type, the type we've seen make spike type inflorescences that don't branch. Joe feels that Agaves, especially the bigger ones, remind him of something prehistoric. Chad says that these plants have been around for thousands of years. They have had lots of different uses. The fiber in the leaves can be used to make sandals, rope, some even make a sugar substitute from them. This is a plant with a lot of uses.

Chad finishes his earlier story about Europeans first discovering Agaves. They thought they were Aloes. They both grow in the same type of environments, their habitat is often exposed hillsides where competition isn't as fierce as on more flat lands. They both have similar forms. They grow in rosette forms and both have succulent leaves.
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WE NEXT LOOK AT ALOES. Joe can see from a quick glance why they could be confused with Agaves. Chad discusses some differences. With Agaves, on their new growth, all the new leaves are held tightly in the structure called the terminal bud. Also, another thing to look for is the presence and location of the spines. On Agaves, they'll only be out on the margins. On Aloes, at least some Aloes will have them on the surface, the top surface and on the bottom surface of the leaves. Other things to look for are the presence of spines on the tips. Aloes can have sharp tips, but it's usually just dead leaf material that makes those tips. On an Agave, it's more like a fingernail and a separate appendage that a lot of times can be removed. The flowers are also different. The flowers on Aloes actually originate from down deep inside the leaf axils, as opposed to the Agaves, where it's the terminal bud that becomes the new growth and that's why they die after they bloom. They lose their growing point. The Aloe leaves are a bit more fleshy than the Agave and the leaves don't have those strong fibers running through them. The inside has a gelatiny, oozy substance. Some Aloes may also have spotting, little white spots, that are not found on Agaves. It's found on some other succulent plants but Agaves don't have spots. They may have variegations and stripes but not spots. Spots are a sure sign of an Aloe.

Agaves and Aloes grow in the same types of locations. But Aloes are found in Africa, in the old world while Agaves are found in the new world, mostly in Mexico but they also come up into the southwestern U.S.

One of Chad's favorite Aloes is from the state of Benevia in Southern Africa. It's called Aloe hereroensis. It's a tough plant. It can take the full desert sun which is something they look for in a plant here.

Another difference between Agaves and Aloes is the Aloes actually come in a variety of forms. Some are individual rosettes, much like an Agave, but some are shrubs. There is the Aloe dichotoma, which is a tree. In its habitat it can reach up to 30 feet high. These are an African species growing in Benevia in south Africa. It's got a very narrow climate range which is the winter rainfall area just along the Atlantic coast. These wouldn't do well when it's raining in the summertime. It wouldn't grow in Georgia, for example.

Chad next shows Joe an Aloe vera. It looks different because this is how they look in a landscape situation. Normally when one thinks of Aloe vera they think of burn protection and medicinal properties. There are 3 Aloes grown commercially for their medicinal properties. However, there are over 500 species all together and some are actually toxic to humans.

Joe and Chad next visit the Hummingbird garden. Arizona is the hotspot for Hummingbirds in the U.S. There are over 15 species that travel through here. Some are present year round. Hummingbirds like plants with long tubular flowers, like those we saw on the Aloes. Other desert annuals and perennials that have those features are Penstemons. They come in lots of different color variants and grow in lots of different environments. Fairy Dusters are another favorite. They don't have tubular shaped flowers but do produce lots of nectar. Aloes are a Hummingbird favorite. Hesperaloe parviflora is a relative of the Agave but has tubular shaped flowers. Hummingbirds are attracted to the color red, thus many flowers in this area are red.

We next visit the Butterfly Garden. Some of these plants are different. Butterflies are more attracted to yellow colors, thus lots of yellow plants. Leucaena retusa, the Lead Ball tree is a desert native and has wonderful little puff balls of yellow. A Butterfly Garden shouldn't have just nectar plants it needs host plants as well. Butterflies need something they can lay their eggs on. With both a nectar source and a place to lay their eggs one has a total butterfly habitat. Milkweed is a good choice for a host plant for Monarchs and Queen butterflies. Pipe vines, like Aristolochia, are host plants for the Swallowtails. Passion Fruit is another valuable host plant. Plus, it's a cool vine.

The desert has many night blooming plants thus here they have a night blooming garden. Many plants that bloom at night are pollinated by moths and bats. Some may want to bring bats into their garden if they have an insect problem. For example bats help keep mosquitoes under control. Many Agaves are pollinated by bats. Most of their nectar is formed just at sunset and this continues through sunrise. That is when they're most actively producing nectar. The Hesperaloe funifera is large, has nice, alien looking cup shaped flowers that are pollinated by moths. It's a Herperaloe and in the Agave family. It is confusing. Melampodium leucanthum is one of the staples in this garden. It's a tough plant, it keeps its flowers open during the day. They have a lot of Datura

Solanaceae plants as well. It's a beautiful plant, the flower is upright and tubular with a nice cream color. It is also unusual because there aren't a lot of plants in the desert with large green leaves. Chad warns - the flowers are wonderful but if children or pets are around be aware they are poisonous. Arizona Queen of the Night is also a night blooming cactus that's got a large underground storage tuber. It smells good and the flowers are spectacular and can often be 10 times the size of the stem.
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JOE TELLS CHAD THAT GARDEN SMART VIEWERS ARE PRETTY SAVVY GARDENERS, they love learning about different plants and seeing beautiful gardens but they also enjoy the information in each show that can be applied to their own homes and gardens. To this end Chad has created a beautiful wreath filled with plant material that was obtained either here at the gift shop or at the local craft store. Chad proceeds to tell us how to make this wreath. (More information can be found by clicking on the link at the bottom of the page.) First choose about 60-75 plants, cuttings would be best. Chad has chosen small Crassula, Gasteria and Harworthia to make up the bulk of the wreath plant material. These are in the Aloe family or related to Aloes. Chad obtained a form from the craft store, you could make one. He also purchased moss and wire at the craft store. He then pressed the moss on the form, wrapping it in place. Do the same to the top part of the form. Really pack it in, so it holds all together. In the trench he put the potting soil. Chad used a succulent mix, a good sandy, well draining medium works best for most of the succulent plants. Put the 2 sides of the form together, mash it up tight, tie it. Next decide where you want the wreath to be. If something that hangs up, it will be planted differently than if it is going to sit down with a candle in the middle. Chad's will be laying flat. But if hanging up one would accent the bottom part. Remember to plant on either side of the central wire. A dribble is used to create holes. He puts a little Gasteria in the hole, making sure to get the roots in. This is why cuttings work best, they're easier to stick in. A little chopstick is used to help inch it in place and into the potting soil. If it becomes a problem getting the plant to stay it could be initially wired in with floral wire. Be careful not to overplant, remember these plants will be growing and will look their best in about 2 months. Joe thinks this is a great project, one he will try and feels it is one everyone across the country could complete and enjoy.

Joe thanks Chad for a great day. He has learned a lot and looks forward to visiting in the future. Thanks Chad.
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HOW TO MAKE A SUCCULENT WREATH

Items needed:
2-part wreath form, a dibble, a pair of chop sticks, some floral wire and plants.

To make the wreath form:
Soak green moss in water for 5 minutes to soften, wrap the outside of each piece of the form, fill the center trench area of the top piece with potting soil, preferably a succulent mix or a sandy mix, set the bottom piece (the flat one) over the top piece and "clamshell" the two together, secure one end of floral wire to the inside frame and wrap the wreath to secure the 2 pieces together. Once done, turn the frame back over so the rounded side is back on top.

To plant the wreath. First, prepare all plants - clean cuttings, trim roots, etc. Next decide if the wreath will be hung up or will lay down as a centerpiece. This will effect how it is planted. If hung up, stand it up and visualize the plants growing from it. Plants should not work against gravity too much. Then plant the face of the wreath - the bottom part on the inside and the top part on the outside. If lying down, plant the face and all the way around on the shoulders. Don't go too far down the sides or the plants may have issues with the table. Try to understand the growth habits of the plants utilized and plant them accordingly. Plant clumping and upright plants on the top or inside of an upright wreath or on the face of a flat one. Place trailers on the shoulders and mix in to fill. It's now time to plant. Use the dibble and chopsticks to "drill" small holes just big enough to get the cutting or plant's roots into the wreath. Remember the soil is in the middle, so try to plant cuttings about 1 inch deep. Use the chop stick to push soil and moss back around the plant to secure it, keeping in mind the empty form. On the face side of the wreath there is a strong wire running directly in the middle, so plant slightly on either side. The floral wire can be used to make "horse shoes" which can be used to secure plants with small root systems until they root into the soil. It's OK to move it around, even stand it up while planting to keep a visual of what you're trying to do. The finished wreath will not be packed with plants, but will fill in as plants grow and begin to trail.

Once done planting, the wreath needs to lay flat in a shaded location for 4-6 weeks to allow the plants to securely root themselves. If laid flat for its life this works fine, otherwise once rooted move the wreath to its desired location.

Water and maintenance -- water gently but throughly once a week (according to conditions). Periodically prune plants for looks and health and to keep the wreath full. Cuttings can be directly replanted into the wreath if desired.

Tips:
Do not hang on doors permanently. The back of the wreath is always damp and may cause damage. A garden gate, fence or trellis works well. Use succulents available in your area and place the wreath in the same conditions (light and exposure) as other succulents. Use cuttings from succulents you already own. Color scheme or themed wreathes are beautiful. Use hen and chicks or all gray plants, or other plants.
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