In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
May, 2005
Regional Report

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Pink fairy duster glows in the late afternoon sunlight.

Natural Backlighting Adds Atmosphere

There are so many important things to consider when siting plants in the landscape: optimum sun exposure, the plant's mature size, and providing shade for human respite and household energy conservation, to name a few. It sometimes seems that pure aesthetic value gets shuffled to the bottom of the list. But if you have a site that allows a plant to be backlit by the sun's low rays, your reward will be a visual spectacle that stops you in your tracks.

Plants That Glow
Many desert-adapted plants positively shimmer when sunlight's low rays (early morning or late afternoon) filter through. Fairy duster (Calliandra sp.) is an excellent example. The delicate flowers appear magical when low light streaks through. It's easy to imagine that Tinkerbell's cohorts might come by to snatch a new dust cloth from the descriptively named plant. (Although, if I had magical powers, I wouldn't waste my time dusting.)

The tall flower stalks of clumping grasses look great in backlit situations, and the ultimate for desert landscapes has to be Muhlenbergia capillaris 'Regal Mist'. In fall, deep pink flowers rise above the grass another 1 to 2 feet in a pink frothy meringue. First-time viewers never fail to ask, "What IS that plant?"

Another striking Mulie is bull grass (M. emersleyi 'El Toro'). Its flower spikes have a less distinct pinkish purplish color than 'Regal Mist', but they dry to a striking golden tan later in winter. M. Lindheimeri 'Autumn Glow' provides tall spires of yellowish gold flowers.

Golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) spines provide an attractive glow when backlit. Planting these mounding cacti in groups heightens the effect. Another great looker is the teddy bear cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii). The golden spines of this native cactus look cuddly soft in low light (just like a teddy bear), but in reality, this is one of the most quarrelsome grizzlies around. It is also called "jumping cholla" because sections of the cactus break off easily and imbed into unsuspecting passersby, including pets, kids, and the gardener's anatomy.

I finally had to remove my teddy bear because no matter how careful I thought I was, I inevitably let out a shriek as the cacti threw a chunk of itself at me, imitating those crabby apple trees in the Wizard of Oz. But if you have a large landscape with an outlying natural or habitat area, this cholla will provide an attractive glow. Cactus wrens love to build nests in its protective crooks.

A final suggestion for a backlit situation is Acalypha monostachya 'Raspberry Fuzzies'. This perennial provides a long bloom season from April through November. Its mounding shape is coated with pinkish red fuzzballs from April through November. Foliage drops after the first frost. Cut it back and it should revive in spring.


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