California Natives

leaves of mature Mahonia with Mahonia seedlings to the left

If you are passionate about growing California natives, you might want to consider moving to Canyon Country, located in the Santa Clarita Valley.

“I moved up to Canyon Country in 1987,” wrote Jim Van Sickle, “and, wishing to minimize my water use, landscaped the property with a minimal lawn and lots of California natives and Mediterranean flora with a heavy emphasis on California natives. I read your recent article that included a short blurb about native mahonias. I planted several native mahonia (Nevin’s barberry) plants based on our landscape architect’s advice (Paul Nota at LostWest). Those plants love the east end of Canyon Country and have produced a tremendous amount of berries and seeds over the years. I’ve even had Theodore Payne (native plant nursery) folks out to collect seedlings from the really big Nevin’s barberry shrub (15 feet tall and at least 15 feet in diameter). As you noted in your article, the birds love the berries, and make quite a mess. But that is part of the charm. Drunk birds (when they get the last of the berries after fermentation) can be quite entertaining.  We also have a lot of golden currants (Ribes aureum gracillimum) and some blue elderberries (Sambucus nigra caerulea), so the dance of the drunken birds can go on for some time.”
“I have noticed that the local elderberry trees seem to do better without regular watering (we have some hillsides that are not in our irrigation pattern) along with some mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus spp.) and other local natives.
“We occasionally come across lesser known/seen native plants out here – Mariposa lily (Calochortus spp.), blue dicks or brodeia (Dichelostemma capitatum), and others. I’ve gotten a lot of information over the years just trying to figure out what is growing on my native hill behind the back yard.”
How exciting for you!  Native plants have a rhythm all their own and there’s no telling what you might discover on your native hill from one year to the next.  Seeds of California native plants are capable of maintaining their viability for years since prolonged droughts are common in this part of the world and drought resistance of seeds is necessary for survival of our local species.  Often, native plant seeds contain chemicals that prevent germination.  Only after these chemicals are leached out after winter rain is germination possible.  But not every rain will necessarily soak seeds sufficiently to remove the germination inhibiting chemicals.   After 30 years of exploring your native plant hill, you may yet discover wildflower species that you have not seen up till now.
Van Sickle sent several photos of mahonia seedlings that sprouted up at the base of his mature shrubs.  When seedlings of a particular species germinate in abundance without any special human assistance, it is a sure sign that the climatic and soil conditions are perfect for that species’ growth.
Take the Mexican fan palm (Washintonia robusta) for instance.  No plant is better suited to our climate.  This palm is sometimes referred to as the California dandelion on account of its ubiquity and its seeds’ ability to sprout just about anywhere, as long as they make contact with a few drops of water.  If you notice a palm growing out of a crack in a sidewalk or at the base of block wall, its identity is nearly always Mexican fan palm, although you will occasionally see Canary Island date plams (Phoenix canariensis) germinate as opportunistic volunteer or self-sown seedlings, too.  Don’t get me wrong.  These volunteer palms are nearly always a nuisance but their resilience is to be admired.
Let’s take a closer look at the natives Van Sickle mentioned among those growing on his property in Canyon Country.  Elderberry trees are known for fruit with powerful medicinal properties.  Seeing that we are in the midst of a flu epidemic, you might be advised to pick up some elderberry syrup, available in most drug stores as Sambucol, which, according to, “seems to relieve flu symptoms and reduce the length of time the flu lasts when taken by mouth within 24-48 hours of the first symptoms.” Elderberries are not only medicinal but have culinary value as well and are used for making jam, pie, and pudding.  The fruit may also be fermented where the desired end result is elderberry wine.
Consider elderberry to be a gigantic shrub or small tree that can thrive anywhere in Southern California due to its extreme cold tolerance. It grows rapidly to a height of around 30 feet with a 20-foot spread. Although it is deciduous, its period of leaflessness is brief and it is one of the first plants to leaf out in the spring.
While capable of surviving a drought, elderberry will look better and stay leafy deep into the fall when it is soaked once every two weeks during the growing season. Flowers are creamy parasols that give way to the navy blue fruit.  When handling the fruit, take care to wear old clothes since the stains created by its inky juice are permanent.
Golden currants are the most edible of California native fruit.  You can eat them fresh right off the stem.  They grow on shrubs that can reach six feet in height.  Light green foliage is attractively lobed and serrated and yellow flowers that turn orange are an added attraction.
Blue dicks is a strange name for a wildflower.  Dicks is derived from the first syllable of the plant’s scientific name (pronounced dick-el-o-STEM-ma).  Dicks is plural because its royal blue flowers are borne in clusters of up to 15 blooms.  Blue dicks is a delightful garden companion because it spreads by small bulb-like structures known as corms so once you plant it you should have more of it around each year.
Mariposa lilies do not get the billing they deserve.  There are more than fifty species native to California. Colors include yellow, orange, pink, mauve, and white.  As members of the lily family, they grow from bulbs so that you will see your planting expand in size from one year to the next.  Mariposa lilies are shaped like flared tulips and you will therefore see them referred to as butterfly or star tulips as well.
Tip of the Week:  Van Sickle observed that his elderberry, as well as certain other natives, do better without regular irrigation.  I would imagine, though, that elderberry and certain other soft leafed natives look best if given a good soak at least once a month during warm weather.  Although it is not a good idea to water natives in warm weather with overhead sprinklers after they have been pruned, since disease organisms can enter where pruning cuts have been made, there is no proof that overhead irrigation, per se, is unhealthy for natives.  My thinking would be that perhaps overhead irrigation of natives, especially if planted on slopes where runoff is a problem, does not soak deep into the earth so that root growth is shallow and therefore plants are more likely to look piqued in hot weather.  Remember that not all natives are strictly drought tolerant and, even if they can survive without summer irrigation, look much better with a good soaking every now and then.

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