California Natives: Their Time Has Come

NOTE:  the following was written in 1993, but has lost none of its relevance in the 20 years that have transpired since then.

manzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.)

manzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.)


Sooner or later, Los Angeles gardens and landscapes will be composed primarily of California native plants.
Eventually, people will discover that California natives make the most sense – ecologically and economically. Natives require a minuscule amount of water, as compared with other plants, and grow at a slower rate, producing less green waste.
They do not require fertilization. Pruning is done infrequently, if at all. Native plants attract wildlife – especially birds and butterflies – instead of insect pests. Best of all, you do not need a sprinkler system in a native plant garden.
There are nearly 7,000 California native plants – more than the 47 other continental states combined. Among our natives, you can find your favorite kinds of plants – be they roses or ferns, irises or succulents, wallflowers or Dusty Millers, primroses or herbs.
For a proper introduction to California natives, you must visit the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley. Nowhere else is information on native plants so accessible. The people who work there are among the friendliest, most helpful and most knowledgeable horticulturists you could hope to meet. The 21-acre site includes a display garden, nursery, bookstore and picnic area.
The Payne Foundation is holding its major plant sale of the year from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. today at 10459 Tuxford St., Sun Valley. On subsequent Saturdays, classes will be held on a variety of native plant topics.
Dennis Bryson is the sales manager and chief plant expert on staff. A former university instructor of ancient history and Egyptian hieroglyphics, Bryson is as much a botanical scholar as he is a green thumb.
“If you want to start a garden of natives,” Bryson advised, “you should start with ceanothus and manzanita, the two California classics. Species of these plants are available for every type of landscape design and microclimate. There are ground cover, shrub and tree species of both ceanothus and manzanita. Many grow best in the sun, but quite a few are suitable for the shade.
In addition, you should plant sages for their texture and fragrance, as well as penstemons for vivid color. Penstemons live for three to five years and, as a bonus, reseed themselves all over your garden.”
Natives are not yet prominent in landscape design because of old habits, Bryson said.
“We know that interest in wildflowers, at least, has never been greater. Last year, between February and May, we received over 16,000 calls on our wildflower hot line. Because of this interest, a new map locating wildflower sites in southern California will soon be available.”
The secret to success with natives is in how and when they are planted, he said.
Dig a hole that is a deep as the root ball, but has a diameter at least twice as wide. It is not necessary, in most cases, to use soil amendments. Before planting, fill the hole with water and let it drain through. Fill the hole a second time and let it drain again. After planting, water thoroughly and place a three-inch layer of mulch around the plant, making sure there is no contact between mulch and crown (where the main stem or trunk meets the soil).
Plant during the fall season. Roots will immediately start to grow into the native soil. This allows all the energy of the plant to be used for leaf and flower production the following spring. By summer, the plant should be sufficiently developed to withstand heat waves and Santa Ana winds.
“When it comes to California natives, do not equate low maintenance with no maintenance,’ Bryson warned. “During their first year in the ground, natives should be carefully observed for water stress just like other plants. By the second or third year, as long as you maintain your mulch, you should not have to water more than once a month.”
Do not use overhead sprinklers on California natives because spotted leaves and stem lesions will result. Worse, water never really gets down deep into the soil; plants become lazy, developing only surface roots. To encourage deep rooting, soaker hoses should be used for irrigation of native plants.
“Most large native shrubs and trees do not require hard pruning,” he said. “Abundantly flowering perennials, such as penstemons, monkey flowers, California fuchsia and apricot mallow, should be lightly pruned when bloom time is over.”

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