by Arcangelo Wessells
I should have known it was a bad idea. I went back to Ippuku to find the name of the sake I loved so much last month. It was still delicious, but the magical taste was no longer there. It was the reverse of the Peony I described. The licorice flavor was there, but the mushroomy earthiness must have come from the evening itself.
The next morning I was sitting at the kitchen table, and had the joy of seeing a warbler land on the ground just outside the window, less than three feet away. Warblers are small, often shy, insect eating birds that visit the Bay Area in fall and winter. They are relatively new to our garden, and I had been trying sporadically for weeks to determine whether this was an Orange-Crowned Warbler or an immature or female MacGillivray’s warbler. It was olive above with a faintly grey head. This time I could clearly see that the bright yellow of the belly extended under the base of the tail. MacGillivray’s Warbler, I think. The weirdest thing is that this warbler was foraging in Csapodya splendens, formerly known as Deppea splendens.
Why is that weird? So much has been written about the famous Golden Fuchsia, extinct in the wild, but rescued to San Francisco. I first started going to Strybing Arboretum around 1993, and I was so struck by Deppea splendens and its flowers that I pressed a leaf into a pocket notebook. Somewhere I know I still have a golden flower inside a folded piece of paper, but I can’t find it. I had assumed that it was a small bush because that is all that was there after the freeze of 1990.
I was extremely fortunate to obtain a Deppea in 1999 and plant it in Vallejo. I live, as many of us do, on top of an ant hill. They are everywhere. As one experiments with growing new plants, so too do the ants. Their research involves the suitability of plants for scale insect (and aphid) cultivation. While juvenile scale are mobile and are often moved and tended by ants, the adults are immobile, attached to the stems and leaves, feeding on sap. They can completely cover the branches of Citrus and semi-woody shrubs like Mexican and South American Salvia, Iochroma and Deppea. I have made a lot of effort to replace these with plants that use less water, since these seem to also be less attractive to scales, but the Deppea was different. It was too rare and beautiful to let the scale get the upper hand.
I garden organically, and feel very strongly about this. As much as I pursue growing unusual plants, nothing is more rewarding than to see that the garden has attracted insects, birds and lifeforms that I never even dreamed I would see there. It takes quite a while for a garden to develop into an ecosystem. In general, the pests come first, hitchhiking in or attracted to the high fertility levels in container plants. Their numbers can grow unchecked, but I think an equilibrium can arrive. Some of the basic elements needed are: unmulched soil; flowers that provide nectar for tiny insects; plant cover for insects and birds; and food for birds. It can’t hurt to have a neighbor with a persimmon tree. A birdbath and some messiness also help. It still takes patience to let things happen on their own.
Having said that, I confess that I used a systemic insecticide for the Deppea for a number of years. There is something unsettling about seeing branches completely covered in scales. Maybe the scales weren’t the only issues, but the plant would put out a feeble display of flowers. I felt that it was being drained of its energy. I used a product that contained Imidacloprid. This is a neonicotinoid, a nerve toxin to insects, it is considered to be part of the cause of colony collapse disorder in honeybees. The flowers of Deppea splendens are not visited by honeybees, and generally not by insects. Neonicotinoids are considered to be less toxic to birds and mammals than other synthetic insecticides, but I felt great angst about using this product. I was tormented by concern for the hummingbird, but the Deppea never seemed to be its top nectar choice.
Fortunately or unfortunately, the Deppea showed increased growth and flowering. It is not a little bush after all, and it has grown to about ten or twelve feet. Big clusters of flowers hang from the branch tips by the thinnest of stems. The flowers, which are almost three inches long, are a wonderful color, like pale egg yolks or mango slivers emerging from the brick red calyces. It is a beautiful sight, but I stopped pretending that my specimen was important to the survival of the species. There are many places you can buy Deppea splendens now, and seeing hundreds of rooted cuttings, potted up and ready to sell puts scarcity into perspective. Or it puts one’s own illusions, delusions and perceptions of uniqueness into a different light.
What was most amazing, then, about the Deppea, is that the warbler was in it, hunting for insects. It had been a dead plant before. Birds avoided it. The flock of bushtits that hopscotch from tree to tree just flew over it. I haven’t used the Imidacloprid in well over a year. There is some scale, but it won’t kill the plant. I think more harm is done by the insecticide. So I am left with a beautiful golden flowered shrub that now attracts birds. In 2004, A. Borhidi’s revision of the Deppea complex was published, changing the name of Deppea splendens to Csapodya splendens. Most all references still use the name Deppea, and all say that it can’t tolerate frost. My plant is between my house and my neighbor’s house. It must receive some insulation from the buildings, because I have seen frost on our rooftops on several occasions without any damage to the foliage. Depending on the time of year, it is available from Annie’s Annuals, from Flowers by the Sea (by special order), as well as from several smaller growers.