Speaking of Plants


We did it. Four days ago our family moved 3000 miles from Wallkill, NY to San Jose, CA. To all our loved ones who checked in with us, I hope you didn’t roll your eyes when you asked how we were doing and I, of course, mentioned the plants.

When we drive down the highway, pull into Target or I look out the window of our development I don’t recognize a single thing growing. Nada. And I’m not taking it very well.

Our first day here it agitated me. The second day here I looked around wildly thinking “How long will I feel this way?” But by day three I’d already successfully id’d almost a half dozen plants and am finally ready to talk about it.

I explained it to husband, TF, like this: you speak english fluently, and as you pass through your environment your mind effortlessly reads every word it sees – on signs, packaging, etc – even if you’re not actively interested. It happens passively, and your fluency turns it into background noise you don’t even hear yourself reading. When you go to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and are surrounded by messages you can’t understand you notice them all, because your eyes still see them and your brain struggles to understand. It can be a little bit frustrating, tiring even.

After a few days, I now understand that’s what’s happening to me but with the plants. In New York I was always seeing every tree, shrub and groundcover encountered throughout the day; silently recalling their names and habits were like a second language. San Jose’s landscape palette – which isn’t completely alienating aesthetically – is not speaking to me.

Starr_010914-0062_Washingtonia_robusta150I’m taking my successful id’s to heart and feeling encouraged, motivated even! So I plan to start with what is right outside our windows and take it from there, and getting to know these few new leafy friends has made it begin to feel a little bit more like home already.

Mexican Fan Palm (Washingtonia robusta) – I started with the easiest to pick out of the crowd, and we certainly don’t grow this in the Northeast. Mexican Fan Palm is the very tall, sometimes rangy-looking frond palms we see peeking above everything when driving down the highway. (Photo: Forest & Kim Starr)

I also learned to identify the Canary Island Date Palm when coming across this entertaining story about the Bay Bridge.

GardenOn.PistacheChinese Pistache (Pisctacia chinensis) – Fall foliage makes for an easyish time identifying any plant who puts on a show, and Chinese Pistache is definitely standing out from the crowd right now. Fiery leaves and big, pendulous clusters of red fruit had me looking this up right away. Hey, even an easy victory is still a win!



Bird of Paradise (Strelizia reginae) – Another easy win, I was already familiar with Bird of Paradise but had no idea it would be blooming in December or was used as in mass planting. Looked pretty good too!



Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unendo) – This was my first a-ha! on the list. Young strawberry trees are planted right outside our apartment windows and I didn’t have a hard time guessing what they were, I had already looked it up when we visited in September. Coarse glossy leaves and outstanding bark. It’s possible these are ‘Marina’ which seems to be a popular hybrid for landscape design.



Chinese Elm (Ulmus parvifolia) – Is Chinese Elm planted in the Northeast and I just never noticed? Another great bark, this one stopped me on the street (there are currently no leaves to speak of) and after I matched the mottled pattern and learned who I was looking at, I was chagrined. This tree grows in zone 4-9. Should have known this one.



Dwarf Bottlebrush (Callistemon citrinus), possibly ‘Little John’? Seen underplanting trees here in our development. Somewhat familiar with this plant, I didn’t remember the name by looking at it, and had to search a dwarf variety that I found on the San Marcos Growers website, a great resource for me so far.

I assume it’s safe to say that if these plants are looking good at this time of year then they can withstand a long season with limited water and whatever other elements sometimes make a plant look beat up by seasons end.

Looking back, this isn’t too bad for week one! I’m feeling a little more comfortable and connected to our new home already.