California Native Wonders

island bush poppy (Dendromecon harfordii)

manzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.)

If you want to learn about the flowers of California native plants, now until the end of spring is a good time to do so.  Already, manzanita and ceanothus, the most classic of California classics, are in bloom.  And other delightful native treats, from island bush poppies to Baja fairy dusters, are covered with flowers.

Yet you don’t need to see blooms to appreciate California natives.  At the entrance to the Theodore Payne Foundation nursery in Sun Valley there is a generous expanse of ground hugging purple sage.  When I think of purple sage (Salvia leucophylla), an upright shrubby plant growing to four or five feet tall comes to mind.  However, a variety known as ‘Point Sal’ grows to only two feet tall as it spreads.  Mature plants will stretch as far as 12 feet (6 feet in every direction).  Although it will not flower until spring, the silvery gray foliage of ‘Point Sal’ is a sufficient recommendation for this decorous ground cover.
A mature, mounding chamise cultivar (Adenostoma fasciculatum ‘Nicolas’) is on display.  It is native to San Nicolas Island, the most remote member of the Channel Islands group.  It is a tough shrub that looks like it could grow anywhere.  Shoots cross over one another in a fascinatingly chaotic, yet symmetrical, fashion.  This mounding or so-called prostrate chamise grows up to three feet tall and spreads to six feet in diameter.  Flowers are short white batons.
If you appreciate the combination of silky yellow flowers and chalky blue foliage – and who doesn’t? – you will want to consider planting island bush poppy (Dendromecon harfordii).  This Channel Island endemic, a saintly plant, gives much without asking for anything in return.
Some people refer to poppies of any type as anti-depressant plants.   It is impossible to look at poppies without breaking into a smile.   Consider Iceland poppies , those cheery winter annuals, native to sub-polar regions of North America, Asia, and Europe.  They are also known as champagne glasses on account of the shape of their flowers.
And then there are those California native fried egg plants or Matilija poppies (Romneya coulteri). Flowers resemble giant fried eggs and blue gray foliage has unpredictable, but always curiously lobed, leaf margins.  This is an outstanding selection for erosion control as long as you keep distance between it and your more delicate selections.  Given half a chance, Matilija poppy rhizomes will send up shoots throughout your garden beds, squelching the growth of surrounding species.  Matilija poppies have also proven themselves as long lasting flowers for vase arrangements.
In 1977, there were only ten San Clemente Island bushmallow (Malacothamnus clementinus) in existence.  Due to the depradations of feral goats, this and other endemic species were close to extinction.  But then the goats were removed and today more than a thousand bushmallow thrive on their island home.  A magnificent specimen of this species is flowering now, in rosey pink, at Theodore Payne and its offspring, along with three other bush mallow species, are available at the nursery in one gallon containers.

golden currant (Ribes aureum)

You can find California native selections for any type of garden.  If your passion is succulents, chose giant chalk dudleya (Dudleya brittonii) and narrow leaf stonecrop (Sedum stenopetalum).  If you demand that your plants produce edible fruit, select golden currant (Ribes aureum).  If you seek flowering plants for partial sun that attract hummingbidrs, then hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea) is for you.  

beach strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis)

If you desire a shade-loving ground cover, consider wood strawberry (Fragaria vesca), California’s coastal beach strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis), and western sword fern (Polystichum munitum).  In the early 1600’s, wood strawberry was the first strawberry in the world that was grown under cultivated conditions for its fruit.  The common strawberry that we are familiar with today is a hybrid between beach strawberry and Virginia strawberry (Fragaria virginiana).  These two strawberries, from opposite coasts, were hybridized in France in 1750.  It was not until the 1900’s that this hybrid was brought to California.  Many cultivars have since been developed from it so that strawberries, from one variety or another, can now be harvested in our area throughout the year.

If you visit the Theodore Payne nursery, you will be impressed with the knowledge of the staff, who seem to know just about everything there is to know about California natives.  I found Flora and Orchid — I know, their names are appropriate to their chosen profession — to be especially helpful.
We have lived here for over 30 yrs and the fruit on our avocado tree has never gotten any larger than a golf ball.  Our area has abundant avocado trees, but our tree seems to be the only one with the problem of small fruit, which is not edible.  Do you have an explanation for this?
Bennie Hinojos, Temple City
I think your tree is a seedling, meaning that it grew from a seed, as opposed to a clonal variety. All seedling trees – just like people — are different and unpredictable as to the fruit they produce.  In other words, if you took ten pits (seeds) from ten avocadoes and grew them into trees, the fruit harvested from these seedling trees would be highly variable.  Some trees’ fruit would be big, some little, some fruit would be oily (like a black Hass), and some watery (like a green Fuerte), and some of these seedling trees would  barely produce any fruit at all. The avocadoes we buy at the market come from cloned trees, propagated from vegetative buds, whose fruit is identical to that coming from a single mother tree. 
Every Hass avocado tree, for example, can trace its lineage back to the original Hass tree, a seedling planted by Rudolph Hass, a mail carrier, in 1926, in his La Habra Heights backyard.  In 1931, he was about to chop down the tree when his children protested, claiming that they preferred the unusual nutty flavor of the pebbly black fruit over that of the ubiquitous green Fuerte.  So Hass began to propagate his tree vegetatively from buds and the rest, as they say, is history.  Hass died in 1952, before his eponymous tree became the most popular avocado variety in the world.  Rudolph Hass’ total earnings from his patented fruit were $4,800.
Tip of the Week:  If you want to grow a plant that is distinguished by its exotic shape and rainbow colors and requires very little water, too, consider the flapjack plant.  You can find several specimens growing in a strip mall planter on the corner of La Brea Avenue and Beverly Boulevard.  Flapjack or paddle plant (Kalanchoe luciae) has foliage that changes color depending on the amount of sunlight and it receives.  It may be propagated from both stem cuttings and individual leaves.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.