California Native Ground Covers

This spring’s flowers – there are just so many of them — cannot be compared to those of any spring in recent memory.

Perennial plants native to dry climates – and most of the woody and herbaceous (bulb type) plants in our gardens come from Mediterranean lands and the arid parts of South Africa and Australia, too — are especially prone to flowering more after heavy rains.  With their roots luxuriating in moist earth, dry climate plants “know” the soil will stay wet long enough for them to continue to absorb water through their roots and so remain fully hydrated to the tips of their shoots for an extended period.  This “knowledge” encourages them to make scads of flowers in whose ovaries seeds are formed.

After all, the only reason plants produce flowers is to attract pollinating insects that transfer male pollen to female stigmas in order to make seeds.  These seeds, enclosed in enticing fruits, will eventually be dispersed by birds and other animals, germinate when conditions are favorable, and grow into the next generation of plants.

Last weekend, I was privileged to take the Theodore Payne Foundation’s annual tour of residential gardens that feature California native plants.  Native plant gardens are for enjoyment, for education, and for schmoozing.  If you are accustomed to manicured gardens where everything is precisely tailored and conscientiously pruned so that each plant stands alone and no plant encroaches upon the space of any other, you will be in for a surprise.

In a California native garden, plants often touch like the members of one big happy family.  Natives come from different botanical families but they share common requirements (or maybe I should say lack of requirements) since an established garden of them will barely need to be watered, if at all, much less fertilized.

A discussion of natives will never be confined to their cultural needs, since everyone knows that these are minimal.  Instead, you will want to know about their precise habitat, their ethnobotany, and the wildlife that they attract.  No state makes a bigger deal out of their native plants than California and for good reason.  Of the 17,000 plants indigenous to the United States, 6,300 of them may be found in this state.

purple sage (Salvia leucophylla)

I could not get over the splurging purple sage (Salvia leucophylla) that spilled down the side of a sloping front yard.  Purple sage is generally seen as a 4-5 foot tall shrub but it is inclined to sprawl and tumble, too.  Unlike many California natives, purple sage will grow in heavy soil that contains clay but, like the rest of them, will thrive on slopes.  It may live for several decades and is not perturbed by sub-freezing temperatures.





California copperleaf (Acalypha californica)

I saw a ground cover with flowers resembling fuzzy red caterpillars that reminded me of that classic hanging basket subject known as chenille plant (Acalypha hispida).  Low and behold, I learned that this was its relative, California copperleaf (Acalypha californica).  Copperleaf grows in abundance on hills throughout San Diego County.  It grows up to three feet tall and its complimentary inch long leaves, the same length as its flowers, are tinged red.





Artemisia californica ‘Canyon Gray’

If you are in search of a ground hugging species with silver foliage, search no more.  You will find what you are looking for in Artemisia Californica ‘Canyon Gray.’  This ground cover can handle full sun near the coast but will benefit from some shade in hotter inland locations.







desert/apricot mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua)

Tip of the Week:  Desert mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua) is a classic California native that every garden should have.  It is distinguished by its rapid growth and floral display.  In its second year of life, flowers are already studded along three foot shoots that come up at all angles from the base of the plant.  It is often referred to apricot mallow since that is the typical color of its flowers.  However, I was told that if you plant 100 desert mallow seeds, five of them will grow into plants that flower in lavender, purple, pink, red, or white.  By the way, if the form of desert mallow flowers reminds you of abutilon, hibiscus, hollyhock, or okra flowers, it’s because desert mallow is related to these fellow members of the mallow family (Malvaceae).

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