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The Dry Garden: Snapdragons are alluring to hummingbirds

April 30, 2010 |  8:24 am
Galvezia 'Firecracker' 150dpiIf you are considering a hummingbird feeder, try buying a plant instead of a bottle.

For what seems like a year-round fountain of nectar, make that plant a bush snapdragon. Galvezia speciosa, as this Channel Island native is more properly known, flowers four out of four seasons and 365 days a year. Its bright red tubular blossoms clearly evolved with hummingbirds as pollinators, and the birds will stake out your garden the instant the plant goes in the ground. They are very hard to kill; Galvezia’s only weakness is susceptibility to freezing. Other than that, they can be used throughout most of Southern California. The bright green foliage takes salt air with equanimity, but it thrives inland (where it will thank you for some shade). Galvezia will also happily abide clay. Add to that, its water requirements are so minimal that in all but the hottest inland situations you could probably get away without watering it.

Not that you’d want to be quite so mean; outside its island range, Galvezia appreciates occasional summer water.

More on how to use Galvezia after the jump...

Were Galvezia used anywhere near its potential for erosion control, it might have become the city flower. But for some reason, Caltrans and developers have been slow on the uptake of this natural bluff-dweller. What makes it perfect for use on hillsides limits its use in gardens. Its tendril-like branches hang low, meaning cat-owners should not use it, because it will draw hummers into routine pouncing distance.

Be warned, however, this does not mean it’s small. While its long vine-like branches and flopping habit restricts the height to 3 to 4 feet, it can grow as large as 8 to 10 feet across. Cal Poly Pomona landscape professor emeritus Bob Perry recommends "Firecracker" for its compactness and "Boca Rosa" for smaller spaces and more profuse blooms.

If, like me, you have not only already planted the more sprawling species in too small a spot, and also too close to a public sidewalk, then pruning it will be a familiar chore. This should be done by hand, feeling your way down long stems and cutting at irregular intervals to avoid that just-buzzed look. Also, go in occasionally and clear out tangled interior wood to preserve the luminous light play in the foliage. For those who like fluffy loose hedges, do consider Galvezia -- provided that you are willing to prune by hand.  Galvezia

Beyond preserving the constant bloom for the hummers, a second reason to hand prune is another of Galvezia’s largely unsung virtues: It is stunning in flower arrangements. After pruning, the flowering branches are so slender that they mix well with the most delicate annuals. They can add flashes of hot red in mixed arrangements, or fill large vases on their own, or be trimmed down for centerpieces. By reducing the stems and using them in small vases, you will concentrate the focus on the flowers.

Unlike almost every cut flower, Galvezia will look fresh for up to two weeks, provided the water is refreshed often. A newly cut bunch can empty a vase on the first day, but then the draw will slow down. Water should be changed every two days at a minimum. For those worried that cutting amounts to taking candy from the mouths of birds, if you use the arrangement on a porch table, hummers will still visit them.

-- Emily Green

Photo: Galvezia speciosa 'Firecracker' at top; below, shown as a hedge at UC Davis. Credits: Bob Perry

Corrected: An earlier version of this post referred to Bob Perry as professor instead of professor emeritus.

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