Tom Karwin, on gardening | Mexican Perennials – Santa Cruz Sentinel


Take care of your garden

We continue our introductions to garden plants from selected areas which, like the Monterey Bay area, thrive in a Mediterranean or dry climate in the summer. This series of themed columns is timely in regards to the fall planting season, which gives newly established plants time during the winter months to establish roots and prepare to decorate gardens and delight them. gardeners in spring.

A gardener friend reminded me that the current season is also a great time to move dormant plants that are already in the garden. They too are taking advantage of having time to relocate to a new location and prepare for spring.

As it happens, with skilled help, I moved several plants around my garden today as I prepared to write this week’s column. They were all succulents, which will be the subject of a future column.

For this week we are focusing on perennials native to Mexico. Our neighbor to the south has various environments for garden-worthy plants, from sea level to mountains, dry to tropical, and calm to windy. While these environments are not considered typical of dry climates in summer, many plants native to Mexico do well in coastal gardens in California.

The following paragraphs briefly describe a sample of the Mexican perennials in my garden. There are several other specimens to share, but still a fraction of Mexico’s botanical treasures. In a future column, we’ll describe Mexican succulents, but for today we’re focusing on perennials.

Pink Cigar Plant (Cuphea ‘Starfire Pink’). This plant, a hybrid of C. ignea and C. angustifolia, is a fast-growing evergreen subshrub that grows to 3 to 4 feet tall by 5 to 6 feet wide with lanceolate blue-green leaves. Over a long flowering period, it produces numerous fuchsia pink and lavender tubular flowers that are hummingbird magnets. There are over 260 species of Cuphea native to North and South America, mainly Central America and Mexico; there are also many hybrids, including the very similar C. ‘Kirstens Delight’.

Marguerite (Montanoa grandiflora). When I first saw this plant on a garden visit to Big Sur years ago, I decided to add it to my garden. It has since worked reliably, spawning delicious daisy-like flowers on stems 8 to 12 feet tall, having been cut to the ground each year after blooming. The flowers have a scent reminiscent of chocolate or vanilla. Another plant native to Mexico in my garden with a similar growth cycle, the Tree Dahlia (Dahlia imperialis) produces spectacular flowers on hollow stems about twenty feet high.

Hardy Fuchsia (Fucshia genii ‘Aurea’). This Fuchsia cultivar is distinguished by its yellow-green foliage and fine red and purple flowers. The Royal Horticultural Society awarded this plant the Garden Merit Award, recognizing its easy cultivation and attractive appearance. It thrives in full sun to partial shade and grows on a small side, but its arching stems can reach 4 × 4 feet.

Mexican Pitcher Sage / False Salvia (Lepechinia hastata). This semi-evergreen shrub, 4 to 6 feet tall and wide, produces sage-like magenta flowers on flower spikes one foot long. Its generic name pays homage to Russian scientist and plant explorer Ivan Lepechin. Its specific name, hastata, refers to the triangular shape of its leaves, suggesting the spearhead of a halberd.

Four o’clock (Mirabilis jalapa). The generic name, Mirabilis, refers to this plant’s “miraculous” production of different colored flowers on one plant. Colors range from pink, pink, red, magenta, yellow, and white, in patterns that include solid colors, sectors, flakes, and spots. Additionally, the flowers may change color as they mature. The flowers appear late in the day (four hours or more), attract long-tongue moths (nocturnal pollinators) with a sweet scent, and close in the morning. This plant grows up to 3 × 3 feet and self-seeds vigorously. Each season’s seedling burst can be easily thinned out before they develop tuberous roots.

Pineapple Sage (Salvia elegans). This popular Salvia has an attractive and distinctly pineapple scent from the crushed foliage and elegant, long-lasting scarlet red flowers on 8-inch terminal tips. It will spread by underground runners to form colonies in the garden. Like most salvias, it can be cut to the ground during the winter, then grow to 4 feet tall and 2-3 feet wide in a single growing season.

Mexican marigold (Tagetes lemoniid). This evergreen bushy shrub grows 4 to 6 feet tall and 6 to 10 feet wide and produces copious amounts of orange-yellow flowers. With enough space, it will be a good foundation plant. When rubbed, the foliage releases a pungent scent like marigolds, along with lemon and mint. Some gardeners don’t like the scent, which also makes deer refuse to munch on the leaves. Management tip: “Prune heavily in late spring (after flowering) and / or fall (before cool season growth) to stimulate growth and flowering.

Mexico is the home territory for many other desirable garden plants, including dahlias (Mexico’s national flower, widely hybridized), bougainvillea, and Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia). The list goes on, making plants from this country beautiful additions to gardens in the Monterey Bay area.

Improve your gardening knowledge

For images of popular Mexican flowers, visit

Upcoming webinar:

The Cactus and Succulent Society of America will present a webinar, “Brazil, Bahia to Minas Gerais,” Saturday at 10 a.m., with tales of plant explorations in two states, Bahia and Minas Gerais, both located in the south. is from Brazil. The presentation will focus on several genera of cacti and other succulents. Presenter Woody Minnich has been involved in the world of cacti and succulents for over 52 years, as a grower, field explorer, club and organization leader, writer, photographer, speaker and presenter. For more information and to register for this free event, visit

Enrich your gardening days

Consider a thematic approach to developing your landscape. Today’s column suggests a Mexican theme as one idea among the range of options that appeal to the individual gardener.

Enjoy your garden!

Tom Karwin is the past president of the Friends of the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, the Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Suclent Society, and the Monterey Bay Iris Society, and UC Lifetime Master Gardener (certified 1999-2009). He is now a board member and garden trainer for the Santa Cruz Hostel Society. To view photos of his garden daily, To find an archive of previous gardening columns and gardening coaching information, visit Contact him with comments or questions at


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