Debbie Arrington

‘Garden Gems’ add sparkle to water-wise landscapes

“Blondie in Lime” coral bells, a new heuchera with bright green leaves and flowers, will be featured in the UC Davis Arboretum’s “Garden Gems” collection.
“Blondie in Lime” coral bells, a new heuchera with bright green leaves and flowers, will be featured in the UC Davis Arboretum’s “Garden Gems” collection.

Ellen Zagory and her arboretum cohorts keep discovering more gems for water-wise gardens.

The director of public horticulture for the UC Davis Arboretum, Zagory coordinates the drought-tolerant collections that have made the arboretum a go-to source for local gardeners – both for information and for plants.

Starting with the “Arboretum All-Stars” in 2006, these popular collections feature easy-care, mostly low-water landscape suggestions that can thrive in the greater Sacramento area.

In the decade since the All-Stars debuted, the collections have featured such catchy names and themes as “Durable Delights,” “New Front Yard,” “Community Favorites,” “Plants You (Probably) Never Heard of – But Will Love” and “Life After Lawn.” So far, 269 drought-busting plants have been spotlighted including dozens of California natives.

Starting this week is “Garden Gems,” a new arboretum series of 45 water-wise plants to be featured in The Bee’s Home & Garden section. These plants also will be offered during the arboretum’s spring and fall public sales.

Think of them as “Life After Lawn II,” Zagory said. Or a water-saving version of garden bling.

 ‘Life After Lawn’ emphasized linking people to the environment, mostly through attracting wildlife,” Zagory explained. “(Those plants) reflect my obsession with pollinators.”

“Garden Gems” will have its share of bee- and butterfly-friendly flowers, too, but the inspiration comes from attracting people, not just pollinators.

“These plants are the little extras on top of your water-wise garden.” Zagory explained. “They’re the jewels in your garden’s crown. Each one is a little gem that adds sparkle to your garden.”

Among her favorite “Gems” are two varieties of hardy Chinese butterfly orchids and a bright green heuchera called “Blondie in Lime” coral bells.

“I’ve had them in my own garden and they never stopped blooming,” she said.

Coming up with new water-wise landscape suggestions can be a challenge. A lot of nursery professionals recommend the same standbys over and over.

“We wanted a lot of new and different plants,” Zagory said. “I love garden surprises and we have several in this collection.”

Those include some old favorites such as the repeat blooming “Golden Immortal” bearded iris and the aptly named “Wonderful” pomegranate.

“Some of these we’ve had in the arboretum for years, but have just never made it onto one of our lists,” she noted.

Examples are Albanian horehound and dwarf coastal sagebrush, Zagory said. “Maybe it’s not a ‘wow’ plant, but (horehound) is a tough, useful plant with a lovely soft and fuzzy look. That (sagebrush) we’ve grown in the arboretum for at least 30 years and it’s a very tough native plant.

“There are some really unusual plants, too, such as Cyprian woundwort,” she added. “It has pretty white foliage – fuzzy silver leaves – but the flowers are really interesting. They look like upside-down rain chains, bright green cups strung on a stem with little yellow flowers spilling out of each cup. People stop and stare at this plant, it’s so different.”

Out of the 45 “Gems,” there are only four repeats from other collections: “Pink Flamingo” Australian fuchsia, Elizabeth’s bush anemone (a California native shrub), “Evie” silk tassel (another native shrub) and purple-leaf false shamrock.

“The good thing – especially for gardeners tight on space – is that many of the ‘Garden Gems’ stay small,” Zagory said. “For the most part, these are little gems that you can feature along borders or at the front of the garden. This list was made for container gardening, too. If you have little space, these are the water-saving plants for you.”