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Lyonothamnus floribundus aspleniifolius (Santa Cruz Ironwood)

This is rarely seen even in its native California but considering its provenance, it seems remarkably tolerant of cold weather and I’ve seen finer specimens growing in Britain than the rather desiccated specimens in Santa Barbara Botanic Garden in their native habitat. I first discovered this extraordinary little tree in Ventnor Botanic Garden in the Isle of Wight around 1985. I thought I’d discovered a giant marijuana plant – it has a distinct similarity. Ventnor’s mild and as the tree comes from Southern California, I assumed it wouldn’t like chilly old Sussex. Always up for a spot of experimentation, I bought a plant from Hillier’s Nursery in Winchester and – even as a small plant, it survived -15°c in the harsh winter of ’86/’87.

When the old leaves drop, they tend to get stuck in the rest of the foliage. Look at a leaf and you’ll see why. They’re perfectly designed to do just that. This is the main reason for suggesting that a windy site can be good – it blows all the old dead stuff out of the way. Not right by the seaside but somewhere quite well ventilated. Go further and cut out all the dead stuff and pull off the peeling bark to reveal the beautiful colours beneath and you begin to understand Creative Maintenance. A truly delicious plant can be revealed merely by removing all the dead stuff. Even giving it a trim with a pair of shears can thicken it up and improve its looks.The flowers are white and frothy and don’t appear on the tree until it’s 10 years old or so. Like many Californian plants, it’s fast growing, doesn’t like having very wet feet and isn’t particularly long lived – probably about 35 years. It’s not particularly good on thin soil over chalk. It goes a bit yellow but if this happens you can cheer it up with a dose of Sequestrene – available from garden centres. Sequestrene is a powder you mix in a watering can and use the solution to drench the roots. It gives the plant the essential mineral elements that the plant can’t get because of the presence of the chalk. This is the reason why some plants can’t manage on chalk – it’s not because the chalk is toxic in any way.

Tends to grow to 10ft in 5 years but then growth rate slows right down. Can reach 25ft eventually but might take 20 years.

We propagate the plants ourselves from seed as – unfortunately – there seems no other way. As with all plants, one gets seedling variation and therefore this tree is variable. Some are more evergreen than others and some are more prone to getting spotty leaves as they mature. The spotty leaf thing doesn’t appear to be a disease – just one of those things; a part of growing old. The spotty leaves will fall and be replaced by new ones in the spring.

One day, we might figure out how to reproduce the perfect specimen (they do exist) – to produce this in the laboratory (by micropropagation) but for now, growing this tree must be treated as a horticultural adventure; predictability is just not its style.

N.B. When clipping several plants with the same tool, have a bucket containing a 5% bleach solution and swish your blades around for 30 seconds between plants to sterilise them. This will help avoid the chance of cross contamination of disease.

As with all woody plants, plant high, exposing as much of the taper at the base of the trunk as possible. Allowing soil to accumulate round the base of a tree can be fatal. Keep very well watered when first planted.

Hardiness traffic light amber

Hardiness level Amber

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Hardy in the Home Counties if sensibly sited (avoiding severe frost pockets, for example). Many Amber Labelled Plants are from cuttings from well-established plants that have survived many harsh winters in the South-East.

This is only meant as a guide. Please remember we're always on hand to give advice about plants and their frost hardiness.

Please remember that these coloured labels are only a rough guide.

General Point about Plant Hardiness: The commonly held belief that it's better to 'plant small' is perfectly true with herbaceous plants, but not necessarily true with woody plants. They need some 'wood' on them to survive severe cold - so plants of marginal hardiness in very cold areas should really be planted LARGER, rather than smaller, wherever possible.