Having just returned from The Great Park’s Board of Directors meeting I was once again reminded of how significant California’s native plants can be to our landscapes. Head designer Ken Smith, along with renown landscape architect Mia Lehrer, designer Enrique Norton and ecologist Steven Handel anticipate that native selections will comprise over 40% of the parks new sixty acre botanical garden. California’s native plants are finally also making their way into our home gardens. With the pressures of water, urban runoff, groundwater pollution and green waste the use of our native plants is an appropriate response.
To the gardener, incorporating local native flora into an urban garden requires some adjustments that we must make to be successful. At first thought, the idea of adding native plants to a garden seems obvious and straightforward. In theory, at least, they grew here long before we came along . . . what could be easier? Drop by the garden center, select some native plants, plant them, and turn the sprinklers off, or at least way down. Not quite.
A native plant, inserted into an ultimately contrived and artificial garden environment may struggle without an understanding of its unique needs. These cultural needs, mostly unique to our native flora, usually spoil such a simplistic attempt to “go native”. California’s native flora is incredibly diverse and may come with some unyielding needs. These might include rigid planting seasons, summer water, quick soil drainage, excess nitrogen, soil microorganisms and their compatibility with other garden plants.
Thorough information about gardening with native plants would fill several pages of this newspaper and is beyond the scope of these few words. For those of contemplating native in your garden I suggest the new landmark book, California Native Plants for the Garden, written by my friend David Fross of Native Sons Nursery, along with Carol Bornstein of The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden and Bart O’Brien of the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. The introductory chapters especially are invaluable.
More information about cultivating our native plants is available through the Orange County Chapter of the California Native Plant Society (www.occnps.org). Monthly meetings are entertaining, informative and attended by lots of knowledgeable and passionate native plant enthusiasts.
The beginning of our rainy season, from now through December, is the strict planting season for most of our native plants. Since planting should be soon, below are a few of the easiest native plants that could fit into most coastal gardens. These four are easy, handle soils from sand to clay and tolerate a moderate level of summer water, making them a good beginning to a native plant garden.
Toyon or Christmas Berry – Heteromeles arbutifolia
If you’ve explored Newport Back Bay, the canyons of Newport Coast or the Environmental Nature Center you are familiar with this bushy evergreen large shrub or small tree. Summers cluster of white flowers become winters red berries, a favorite of visiting flocks of Cedar Waxwings. The berries are quite a show, California’s alternative to the colder climate Hollies of eastern and northern gardens. Toyon can also be used as a loose hedge and is a good alternative to Myoporum or Oleander.
Matilija Poppy – Romneya coulteri
One of California’s most renowned flowers. Standing five to six feet tall, its eight-inch flowers are a glistening white with hundreds of golden stamens clustered at the center, hence the other common name, fried-egg plant. A large plant, it is best placed behind other low growing plants or on the down side of a slope where the showy flowers can be seen from above. This is a spreading/clumping plant that may need to be contained if in tight quarters.
Cleveland Sage – Salvia clevelandii
Salvias are well known to local gardeners. Most are foreign, but Cleveland Sage is a local native. In addition to its heavy spring show of lilac purple flowers, I find the resinous fragrance of the foliage a delight in any warm Mediterranean garden. The leaves can also be used as a richly flavored substitute for culinary sages. The flowers are favored our native Anna’s and Allen’s Hummingbirds. The hybrid ‘Winifred Gilman’ has even darker flowers and grows about four feet high and five to six feet wide.
California Lilac – Ceanothus ‘Concha’
Dave Fross, probably the foremost expert on Ceanothus, considers this as one of the best garden performers of the dozens of popular Ceanothus species and hybrids. ‘Concha’ is upright and bushy, more compact than most and tolerates summer water and heavy soils. The flowers are an especially dark, deep blue and are so abundant they nearly cover the plant. Highly recommended.
California Fuchsia – Epilobium californicum
The brilliant lipstick-red flowers of this low, spreading native will rival any plant in the garden during its bloom period of late summer and fall. Often referred to by its former name, Zauschneria, this is an adaptable native plant that handles clay soils and summer water better than most. Its growth is low and spreading, filling the role as a bushy, spreading landscape groundcover.
These are only a few of the possibilities. Trees such as Western Sycamore (Platanus racemosa), White Alder (Alnus rhombifolia), California Bay (Umbellularia californica) and Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) deserve to be on any native plant list as well as shrubs like Santa Cruz Island Buckwheat (Eriogonum arborescens) and the many Manzanita choices (Arctostaphyllos). Native grasses and grass-like plants are now common in local commercial landscapes and are making their way into our gardens. These include meadowgrasses like San Diego Sedge (Carex pansa, praegracilis and tumulicola) and the bushy Deer Grass (Muhlenbergia rigens). Annuals like California Poppies, Tidy tips, Lupines and Nemophila add accent color where needed.
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar