UNITED STATES—Roots are innately mysterious. They consume much of the resources that plants require. They stabilize the stems above them. Few plants can survive without them. Yet, roots are very secretive about their work. Almost all are invisibly subterranean. Consequently, they get minimal consideration. A lack of consideration is a root cause of many root problems.
Every plant species has distinct environmental preferences. Some plants require full sun exposure. Others tolerate or prefer partial shade. Some are more discerning than others. Similarly, plants that naturally disperse their roots extensively dislike confinement of their root systems. Small plants and some riparian plants are more adaptable to confinement.
Annual bedding plants and many small perennials perform well within pots, planters and small spaces because they do not need to disperse their roots extensively. Some woody plants with fibrous root systems, such as azalea, boxwood and andromeda, can adapt to confinement also. Occasional pruning can keep them proportionate to their root volumes.
Ironically, some of the most resilient plants are not resilient to confinement.
Most of the popular succulents perform remarkably well in confinement. Some types that disperse their roots extensively if necessary will adapt to confinement by dispersing their roots only as far as they must. If they get all they need within a pot, they need not go any farther. However, succulents that are endemic to dry desert regions are not as adaptable.
Desert plants can survive warm and dry summers because they disperse their roots very extensively. They cannot do so within the confinement of pots and planters. This should not be a problem that systematic irrigation cannot compensate for. Unfortunately though, these same plants are too susceptible to rot if their roots are damp during warm weather.
So, some plants that are the most resilient in the ground are the least resilient in pots. Of course, this is not an absolute rule. Yuccas from tropical and temperate climates perform well either in the ground or in pots. Those from desert climates are likely to rot in pots. In general, drought tolerance and container gardening are two fads that are not compatible.
Highlight: California Buckeye
Chaparral climates are not easy without irrigation. The long summers are warm and arid. California buckeye, Aesculus californica, knows what to do if it can not stay hydrated out in the wild. It simply defoliates. Yes, it goes bare right in the middle of summer. If it does it early enough, it refoliates after rain resumes in autumn, only to defoliate again for winter.
This ‘twice deciduous’ characteristic is likely why California buckeye is not more popular for unirrigated landscapes of other natives. Shade is an asset through warm summers. In coastal, riparian or irrigated landscapes, the original spring foliage lasts through summer to defoliate in autumn, like that of most other deciduous plants. It may get shabby though.
Nonetheless, California buckeye is a delightful small tree, typically with a broad and low canopy suspended by a sculptural branch structure. Not many get more than 20 feet tall, although some get twice as tall. Bark is strikingly pallid gray. The elegant leaves are palmately compound. Six inch long trusses of tiny white flowers are sweetly fragrant in spring.
Horticulturist Tony Tomeo can be contacted at tonytomeo.com.