Ceanothus & Other Natives

California lilac (Ceanothus sp.)

California lilac (Ceanothus sp.)

In the wake of a recent column, where I discussed the challenges of growing California lilac (Ceanothus), I received the following e-mail from Pam Boyd, who gardens in Porter Ranch.
“Two years ago, I decided to plant natives on a southwestern facing hill in our backyard. I took classes, went to lectures, bought books. Last November, I planted a variety of natives that were supposed to do well in clay soil. I also planted five Ceanothus. The only survivors were natives that grow right around Porter Ranch where I live: coyote brush, roses, buckwheat, some native grasses. My suggestion to anyone in the northwest valley who is interested in going native is to study the immediate surrounding area before investing in native plants. By the way, there is one Ceanothus ‘Carmel Creeper’ that I planted five years ago at the top of the hill in the shade of a tree. This Ceanothus is doing great.”
There is much to be learned from Boyd’s experience chronicled above. The most important lesson, I think, is that growing conditions vary tremendously, and you cannot rely on someone else’s experiences when it comes to your own backyard – or slope, in Boyd’s case. Just because a plant is a California native does not mean it will grow anywhere in California. As Boyd indicates, the plants that thrive in your own neighborhood or immediate enivrons are the ones that have the best chance of growing well on your property.
I spoke to Bart O’Brien, who is the author of a volume titled “Care & Maintenance of Southern California Native Plant Gardens.” O’Brien stressed the importance of planting species and cultivars that are compatible with the local climate.
“Certain plants may look great when you are shopping at the nursery, so you assume they will grow well in your garden,” he said. “Sometimes, however, plants are propagated for nursery sales precisely because they look good in containers. This does not necessarily mean they will perform well when planted in the garden.”
For the hot valleys surrounding Los Angeles, O’Brien recommended the following Ceanothus cultivars: ‘Sierra Blue,’ ‘Concha,’ ‘YBN Blue,’ ‘Cal Poly’ and ‘Ray Hartman.’ Do not plant ‘Julia Phelps’ or ‘Dark Star,’ even though they are often featured at the nursery. ‘Ray Hartman’ is perhaps the most popular Ceanothus for our area, but you will need to give it more water than the other cultivars.
O’Brien is also director of horticulture at the Santa Ana Botanic Garden, located at 1500 N. College Ave. in Claremont. Here you will find the premiere native plant display gardens in our area. You can visit any day of the week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, go to www.rsabg.org.
Incidentally, the microclimate that allowed Boyd’s ‘Carmel Creeper’ to flourish, under a tree at the top of her slope, is instructive. Coming from the cooler coastal climate of Northern California, ‘Carmel Creeper’ would be more comfortable in our area growing in the shade. Also, the sun does not strike the flat top of a slope with the same intensity as it does the south facing side of the same slope.
The other plants Boyd has grown are worthy of consideration for drought-tolerant gardens and landscapes. One of the most frequently encountered native plants, found in undeveloped chaparral from Tujunga to Ventura, and from Lancaster to Valencia, is the common buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum). It is a bushy plant with very long blooming white flowers that are highly attractive to butterflies. Yes, this is a relative of the very same annual buckwheat whose seeds are made into flour used in pancake mixes, although none of the buckwheats could be mistaken for wheat, oats or any other cereal crop. The buckwheat family (Polygonaceae) consists almost entirely of ornamental perennials, many of which are drought tolerant, including the popular pink buttons ground cover (Polygonum capitatum) that is grown in partial shade. Other drought ornamental buckwheats include St. Catherine’s lace (Eriogonum giganteum), a shrub with large, oval gray leaves and flat, yarrowlike clusters of lacy white flowers, which fade to brown but remain on the plant for several months. As dried flowers, they are commonly used in vase arrangements. ‘Conejo Valley’ saffron buckwheat (Eriogonum crocatum) is a compact mini-shrub that grows just 18 inches tall and 2 feet wide. It is native to Ventura County and may be found both along the coast and inland. Its wooly gray leaves highlight clusters of sulfur yellow flowers.
The native roses to which Boyd refers are Rosa Californica. These roses grow in thickets and are found throughout the Valley. Flowers are every shade of pink.
Tip of the Week
I recently saw a front yard of several thousand square feet that consisted entirely of Mexican sage (Salvia leucantha). According to author Bart O’Brien, many sages of Mexican and South American origin would serve admirably as lawn substitutes. In addition to their drought tolerance, sages attract hummingbirds. Many of them, including Mexican sage, are highly aromatic, as they belong to the mint family. When it gets leggy in the course of time, Mexican sage can be sheared down to around 8 inches high. One of the advantages of Mexican sage, as opposed to other sage species, is its semi-succulent character, which encourages rapid regrowth. November is an excellent time to propagate Mexican sage. Take 6-inch shoot tip cuttings and, after removing the bottom leaves, insert them directly into the soil. Within the next few weeks, as long as the weather is not too cold, they should begin to take root.

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