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Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Plant of the Month (July) : California verbena – Verbena lasiostachys

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - Mother Nature's Garden of Health

Summer has truly begun by July.  The days and nights are warm and the early buckwheats are in full glory.  But tucked around the garden are some other summer-flowering perennial treats.  One of these – blooming now in the Garden of Health – is the California verbena.  The scientific name for this plant is pronounced ver-BEE-nuh  laz-ee-oh-STAY-kiss.

The stems of Verbena lasiostachys are square in cross section.  California verbena belongs to the Vervain Family (Verbenaceae).  The Verbenaceae is closely related to the Mint Family (Lamiaceae), which also features square stems and aromatic foliage.  In fact, some species formerly included in the Verbena Family have recently been reclassified as Mints. 

The genus Verbena includes a number of species grown as garden plants.  This genus, mostly native to the Americas and Asia, includes annuals and perennials with small flowers that are usually pink, purple or white.   They are often planted to attract butterflies.  But many Verbena species also have a long history of use as medicinal plants.   So one sees them in herb or medicinal gardens as well.

Eight Verbenas are native to California, but only Verbena bracteata, V. scabra and V. lasiostachys grow in Los Angeles County.  While most native verbenas have limited ranges, California verbena can be found in many sites throughout the California Floristic Province (west of the Sierra Nevada Range), from Oregon to Baja California, Mexico.  But it particularly likes the ocean-influenced climates of western California. It can still be seen growing wild in the lowlands and foothills of Western Los Angeles County and on Santa Catalina and San Clemente Islands. 

California verbena (also commonly known as Western vervain and Western Verbena) is a sub-shrub or perennial of the Coastal Scrub, Chaparral and Oak Woodlands, rarely appearing above about 7500 ft. (2500 m.) elevation.  It tends to grow among and around the larger plants, usually in sunny or partly-shady spots that may be seasonally moist or fairly dry.

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - growth form
While Verbena lasiostachys is classed as a sub-shrub or part-woody perennial, its form varies greatly depending on the circumstances in which it grows.  We’ve seen it growing as a low-growing sprawler, as well as a more upright, open sub-shrub.  We suspect the differences in form are related to the amount of light, soil type and possibly also how far it dies (or is eaten) back each year.   At any rate, its open form means it thrives around and between other plants.

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - the branches
 need pruning

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - new
 growth in spring
The foliage of California verbena is typical for the genus: leaves that are coarsely toothed and larger/more developed near the base of the plant, becoming smaller up the stems.   Plants have several to many stems, adding more stems each year.  Plants die back to semi-woody stems in fall.  We usually prune our plants back in late fall.  New foliage appears with the spring rains – usually about the time the Miner’s lettuce is flourishing in February (see above).

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - foliage
The variety scabrida, which is native to Santa Catalina Island and the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountain foothills, has rough-textured leaves.  The variety lasiostachys, also native to the South Bay (including the Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve), has smooth, hairy leaves (see above).   Both varieties do well in local gardens.   And both look different than just about any other native plant (other than the tall Verbena hastata).

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - flowers,
 shady location
But the real reason for growing any verbena is the flowers.  The genus verbena equates with small flowers, usually violet in color, tightly packed on upright flowering spikes.  Verbena lasiostachys has the violet-colored flowers typical of the genus.  The individual flowers are small – perhaps ¼ inch – but the flowering spikes are up to 4 inches (10 cm.) in length.  The flowers have five petals, fused to form two distinct lips (see below).

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - flower spike
One nice feature of the verbenas is that flowers open sequentially, from the bottom to the top of the spike.  This is a godsend for habitat gardeners; the plants remain in bloom for weeks to months.  And the flowers attract a wide range of pollinators, from the European honey bee to native bees, butterflies and even hummingbirds. If for no other reason, California verbena deserves to be planted as a pollinator plant.

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - flowering plant
While not a long-lived perennial, Verbena lasiostachys is easy to grow and will re-seed in many gardens.  It has a reputation for being an aggressive re-seeder; we suspect this is mostly so in regularly watered gardens.  We’ve had only occasional seedlings appear in our water-wise gardens, and those mostly close to the parent plant.   The seedling’s leaves are distinctive and readily noticeable.  Seedlings can be removed in late spring if needed.

California verbena grows in just about any S. California soil, from sandy to poorly-draining clays.  It does best in part-shade (afternoon shade) in most gardens.  It likes flat ground (it’s not one for the sides of a berm).   And it also likes good winter-spring water, even tolerating seasonal flooding.   We give our plants occasional water (every 2-3 weeks) through the flowering season, then taper off irrigation in late summer. 

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - Native Plant
 Garden,  Madrona Marsh Nature Center, Torrance CA
We like this plant for its habitat value and old-fashioned charm.  Since it dies back, plant it among evergreen plants or local sub-shrubs.  It will find its way amongst the other plants each spring.  It works well with most of the local natives, including the grasses and sedges.  We’ve never grown it in a pot, but suspect it would do fine.  We have grown the shrubbier Lilac verbena in containers; it does just fine (http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2016/09/plant-of-month-september-lilac-cedros.html)

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - with Wooly bluecurls,
 Mother Nature's  Garden of Health, Gardena Willows.
And, of course, California verbena is a pretty addition to the herb or medicinal garden.  Verbenas, including Verbena lasiostachys, have been used as a general tonic for many years.  Flowers and foliage are often used as a tea or tincture for fevers and at the onset of colds and sore throats.  This remedy also helps calm and settle queasy stomachs.  The plants make chemicals that likely reduce inflammation, a useful trait for a medicinal plant.

In summary, California verbena is a sweet little native perennial.  It’s not a summer show-stopper; that honor goes to the sunflowers and buckwheats.  But it is a charming pollinator plant, perfect for gardeners who love purple and a medicinal plant to boot.  What’s not to like?

California verbena (Verbena lasiostachys) - pretty perennial

For plant information sheets on other native plants see: http://nativeplantscsudh.blogspot.com/p/gallery-of-native-plants_17.html



We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com


1 comment:

  1. This is a plant I wasn't familiar with. Thanks for the introduction!