In the Garden: Weathering drought

Lavender shouldn't need more than a weekly watering, and bougainvillea and oleander are fine with one good dousing a month.

Bougainvillea 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy of Forest and Kim Starr)
Bougainvillea 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy of Forest and Kim Starr)
When thinking about water thrifty plants, cactus invariably comes to mind. Yet many leafy, long-flowering plants sip a minimum of water and deserve consideration when designing a drought-tolerant garden. The two most colorful candidates for low-water gardens are oleander and bougainvillea. After crossing the Red Sea, when the people were parched and cried out for water, only a bitter water source at Marah appeared. So God showed Moses (according to a midrash) an oleander plant (harduf) which Moses threw into the water, turning it sweet. Oleander grows along dried-up river beds or wadis and, once established in the garden, even in the hottest weather, requires no more than a single monthly soaking. It flowers throughout the summer and is available in red, pink, salmon and white. Standard oleanders grow up to seven meters tall and make wonderful living screens. Semi-dwarf varieties grow to two meters and dwarf varieties reach slightly more than one meter in height. Oleander is one of the most poisonous plants, so watch toddlers playing in its vicinity and do not use its stems in a barbecue. Bougainvillea, a tropical plant from Brazil, is encountered in a rich spectrum of colors, including purple, deep red, fuchsia, light and dark pinks, orange, yellow and white. These colors appear in crepe-textured bracts, modified leaves that are often mistaken for flowers. Actual bougainvillea flowers are small appendages topped with cream-colored stars that grow from the center of the bracts. Established bougainvilleas, like oleanders, do not need to be watered more than once a month. Bougainvilleas can be easily encouraged to grow into vines reaching 10 meters. "Rosenka," with orange and pink bracts, is a shrubbier type and "Torch Glow" has unique candelabra branches that are covered with tightly held rows of leaves and red-bronze bracts. There are also dwarf selections. Of the vining varieties, fuchsia and purple are the most vigorous. Therefore, resist the temptation to create a tapestry hedge by planting these colors next to the others. Bougainvillea may be severely damaged, if not killed, in a frost so cover it with burlap when freezing weather is forecast. Both bougainvillea and oleander, if properly pruned when young to encourage formation of a single trunk, can be trained to grow into small trees. AS THE Talmud teaches, smell was the only one of the five senses not to be corrupted by the wily serpent in the Garden of Eden. The reason for this is that the sense of smell, distinct from the other senses, has a uniquely spiritual quality. After eating or drinking, blessings are recited for appreciation of a sustaining, yet finite physical pleasure. After inhaling a fragrance, no blessing is recited since, as the sages instruct, the sensation of a sweet scent is infinite and everlasting. There is no blessing recited after smelling a flower since there is no "after" to this pleasure. A pleasant aroma enters and mixes with the soul, which lasts forever. Rosemary and lavender are highly fragrant, water-thrifty plants. The closer you are to the coast, the less you need to water them. Yet during hot weather, even in inland areas, rosemary should not need water more than twice a month and lavender should do fine with a single weekly soaking. The name rosemary means "dew of the sea." (In Latin, ros is dew and marinus is sea.) This refers to its sea facing, cliff dwelling habitat from Portugal to Greece and all along the North African coast. Lavender comes from the Latin word for washing (lavare) and refers to its use in bath salts and essences for both medicinal and aromatic effects. Throughout the gardens of the Haas Promenade on the edge of the East Talpiot neighborhood in Jerusalem, rosemary and lavender are heavily planted. Rosemary blooms in either pale or royal blue, depending on the variety, and there is also a prostrate form that may be used as a ground cover, as a drape over a sunny balcony, or in patio containers. Lavender, on the other hand, has several major types: standard English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), dwarf English lavender, French lavender (Lavandula dentata), Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas), and California lavender (Lavandula pinnata). ENGLISH LAVENDER is the lavender of commerce, a robust species that grows in the French Alps, with intensely fragrant blue flowers and gray leaves. The other lavenders have more ornamental value - the dwarf English ("Hidcote" and "Munstead" cultivars) with distinctive silver-gray foliage, the California with finely cut lacy leaves, the French with serrated leaves and large woolly flowers and the Spanish with dark purple winged bracts all along its flower spikes. These names are often mixed up, since English lavender is native to France, French lavender is native to Spain, California lavender originates in the Canary Islands and Spanish lavender is found growing in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. One of the favorite uses of lavender is as a low, informal hedge, with heights ranging from 60 cm. to 120 cm., depending on the species. Such a hedge is cut back only when it finishes flowering. In the larger types, the plants may be cut back by half with no ill effects; with the dwarfs, shear off faded flower spikes but prune foliage sparingly. Under the best circumstances, lavender will probably live for no more than five or six years. This should not be a matter of concern, however, since it is easily propagated by shoot-tip cuttings. When the plant finishes flowering, take 10- to 15-centimeter shoot tip cuttings and root them in a mix that is half sand and half peat moss. Rosemary may also be propagated in this manner. Lavender makes a wonderful tapestry hedge with plants of similar stature and cultural requirements but contrasting foliage. It makes a vivid display in combination with green santolina and dwarf red-leaf barberry (Berberis).