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The Dry Garden: Instead of New Zealand flax,
try the giant wild rye called Canyon Prince

December 30, 2009 |  8:42 am

CanyonPrinceOf all the creatures that disperse plants in nature, we humans may be the quirkiest. Take how we distribute New Zealand flax. We fight back its blades along what seems like every other front walk.

This column is to commend an indigenous alternative to New Zealand flax for the gardens of greater Los Angeles: a type of giant wild rye called Canyon Prince. Ninety-nine percent of the time that flax is used in California, this cultivar of Leymus condensatus could perform the same function, but better.

The first reason is size. As beautiful as New Zealand flax is, it needs space. You could hide a rugby scrum behind many full-grown specimens. By contrast, the "giant" in "giant wild rye" is a relative term. This beautiful cultivar introduced by the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is giant only among grasses. It may reach 3 feet tall.

Plants that stay proportionate to the scale of most homes and gardens are rare. But in the case of Canyon Prince, its steel blue, sword-like foliage not only allows you to see the house but also flatters almost any building -- and vice versa. The effect is so striking that the first suggestion that comes to mind of Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden horticulturist Bart O’Brien is to place it “against blank walls, places where you can really see its structure.”

That said, leave some space so the plant is allowed to luxuriate to its full 2- to 3-foot diameter. There’s nothing sadder than a scrunched-up royal. For more recommendations, click to the jump.

If you’ve got the exposure, choose a sunny spot where Canyon Prince will throw up spires of pale blue flowers that mature into ripe yellow seeds. Planted in shade, you will still enjoy the leaves but can forget the golden waves of grain.

The seeds can produce offspring, but Canyon Prince is more likely to grow from the roots, particularly in sandy soil. Grass nurseryman John Greenlee advises propagating Canyon Prince by dividing it at the roots in his 1992 “Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses.”  This indeed works well, but allow the divided plants some time to sulk and recover.

That said, if left to spread, Canyon Prince won’t run wild. Instead, its ability to spread from the roots means that when nursery plugs are put in beds with an eye to forming drifts or hedges, they will fill in.

A Channel Island native, Canyon Prince can stand water, though too much will rot it at the crown. It can stand proud in coastal dry gardens with little or no supplemental water. If it becomes ratty or tired looking, it can be cut back clear to the ground, something best done midwinter. But it can go years, even a decade, without requiring much more than admiration.

For members of the modern meadow movement, O’Brien advises using Canyon Prince at the back of a bed, with lower and silkier grasses such as Festuca californica in the foreground. This cultivar of Leymus condensatus also does fine on its own as a specimen plant. It’s not called Prince for nothing.

-- Emily Green

Green's column on low-water gardening appears here weekly. She also blogs on water issues at chanceofrain.com.

Photo courtesy of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden


 
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