Certain California natives make worthy winter garden choices

30-rogersredAlthough most California natives do not start blooming for another month or so, there are some species whose foliage alone makes them worthy garden choices, especially during fall and winter when leaves and bark take up most of a plant watcher’s attention.

While visiting the Theodore Payne Foundation Native Plant Nursery in Sun Valley the other day, the first plant I noticed was a hybrid known as ‘Roger’s Red.’

‘Roger’s Red’ is a hybrid between the native California grape (Vitis californica) and the European wine grape (Vitis vinifera). When ‘Roger’s Red’ was first found growing by the side of a road in Sonoma County — it was noticed for its red fall color, and had shoots snipped off for clonal propagation — it was assumed this was a mutation of the native California grape. The nearest vineyard was more than 4 miles away.

Yet an enterprising scientist at UC Davis, using a database with DNA fingerprints of more than 800 wine grape varieties, decided to investigate the ‘Roger’s’ DNA to see if its parentage might be mixed. Sure enough, it was revealed that it was the result of a wild cross between native California grape and a premium red varietal known as ‘Alicante Bouschet.’

What was significant about this discovery was that ‘Alicante Bouschet’ happens to be the only red wine grape with naturally red juice; in all other red wines, the wine’s color is achieved by soaking its grapes’ dark skins in its naturally clear juice. In truth, the skins of red wine grapes are black, but they dye their juice/wine red. It appears that the same rare genes that give ‘Alicante Bouschet’ juice its naturally red color are involved in the brilliant red found in ‘Roger’s Red’ foliage during the fall.

‘Roger’s Red’ is a vigorous grower so you will have to keep it cut away from nearby plants and structures. Grow it on a trellis, on an arbor or as a mounding ground cover. In the Valley, it probably grows best in partial sun and it is cold- and drought-tolerant.

Be aware that, although ‘Roger’s Red’ grapes are edible and sweet (even if quite seedy), they should be kept away from dogs, for whom consumption of grapes of any kind is dangerous.

Going from red to gray, you may also be inclined to plant a giant chalk dudleya (Dudleya brittonii) upon gazing at the specimen planted at Theodore Payne. These giant succulent rosettes, which are native to Baja California, can grow up to a foot and a half in diameter. They should not be watered overhead, since sprinkler irrigation prevents their distinctive chalky coat from developing and may impair their health. If you are careful to water the soil around them with a hose, you will see them grow just fine. Like most full- to half-sun natives, after their first two years in the ground they should not require watering except on an occasional basis.

Silver lining desert lavender (Hyptis emoryi ‘Silver Lining’) is another drought-tolerant plant for arid zone gardens such as ours. White or silver foliage, which is lavender scented, reflects the sun’s rays, keeping plants cool and unstressed. To complete the picture, its flowers are lavender violet. ‘Silver Lining’ is a member of the mint family and it has edible leaves that may be used for flavoring tea.

Giant chain fern (Woodwardia fimbriata) deserves wider use where ferns are sought. The more popular Australian and New Zealand tree ferns, with their hairy trunks, get tired looking after a while, even while giant chain fern expands radially into a huge clump with leaves up to 5 feet tall or taller. In time, it really does impart a “Jurassic Park” look. Grow giant chain fern in some shade and, once established, its water needs will be minimal.

Indian mallow (Abutilon palmeri) has blue-gray foliage and apricot-orange flowers. It can take as much heat as any other California native. Plant it against a brick wall and soak it with a hose every now and then. It definitely appreciates being kept on the dry side, as indicated by its soft and fuzzy, hazy blue foliage.


Roundleaf leather root (Hoita orbicularis) has clover-like foliage for a reason. It’s a member of the legume family, which includes common white and red clover. Roundleaf leather root, although a California native, is partial to moist soil but requires good sun. Its flowers will remind you of the flower cones, known as racemes, that you see on white clover, only with this species they are violet and somewhat elongated.

All of the plants listed here are available at the Theodore Payne Foundation nursery, at 10459 Tuxford St. The Foundation and nursery are open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, call 818-768-1802 or visit theodorepayne.org.

Tip of the week

If you don’t have an island bush poppy, native to the Channel Islands, you might want to consider planting one. Ever since being introduced to the island bush poppy (Dendromecon harfordii) many years ago, I have yet to find a plant to which it could be remotely compared. Its foliage is green to blue green to blue grey, depending on light exposure, but its flowers are always an unmistakably bright and buttery yellow.

Island bush poppy is a robust shrub that will grow 8 feet tall and more than twice as wide. In the Valley, in the manner of California lilac (Ceanothus spp.) and manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.), it will perform most reliably in half-day sun. It flowers primarily in spring but will produce occasional blooms at any time.

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