Don’t Forget to Notice the Natives

brittlebush (Encelia farinosa)

brittlebush (Encelia farinosa)

“Don’t forget to smell the roses” is a piece of advice meant for those who have lost their ability to savor the moment. In a world of rationed water, whose expense increases almost daily, another piece of horticulturally related advice, at least where gardeners and landscapers are concerned, is now being heard, namely: “Don’t forget to notice the natives,” as in native plants.
Just the other day, while heading north from the San Fernando Valley toward Newhall, on a slope immediately east of where the 14 Freeway begins, I noticed a silvery blue blanket of foliage that demanded closer inspection. Parking on the freeway shoulder with my emergency signal blinking, I sauntered down to the slope in question, eager to identify the plant that so perfectly covered it. I recognized it as a member of the daisy family, but its name escaped me. So I immediately called Las Pilitas Native Plant Nursery, in Escondido, and the lady who answered quickly understood what I was raving about. “Mounding plant? Three feet tall? Silvery foliage? Leaves come to a point? South facing slope? Encelia farinosa.”
Here was a slope of thousands of square feet devoted exclusively to mounds of silver which, from a distance, had looked bluish gray. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that some of the major branches on many of the plants were scorched, reminders of last year’s brushfires that ravaged the area.
Although it was not in bloom, I noticed many dried flower stalks extending nearly a foot above the foliage.
When in bloom, the yellow daisy flowers of Encelia farinosa, also known as brittlebush on account of its brittle stems, is a tough perennial that not only survives fire but sub-freezing temperatures as well. It will naturalize – that is, take over – sloping or other terrain when given half a chance to do so. Although individual plants are not long lived, brittlebush’s capacity for self-sowing is unrivaled among California native perennials. Seeds of brittlebush are included in mixes used for revegetation of burned areas with the caveat to go easy on the amount of brittlebush seed used in the mix.
Not only will brittlebush crowd out other species with its rapid growth, it also has allelopathic properties which means that, once established, chemicals in its leaves and roots prevent other plants from growing nearby. Still, to have a slope or a front yard of nothing but brittlebush does not strike me as a problem, especially when it comes to irrigation, since this is a plant that can subsist on little or no water. The less water it gets, the more silver its leaves become, while a more regular water regime imparts greener leaves. Another name for it is Incienso, a tribute to the Spanish settlers who burned its dry wood for incense.
Several other native plants with gray to silver to white foliage are worthy of consideration for drought tolerant gardens. These colors are highly reflective of sunlight, clearly an advantage in our long, hot summer climate. In addition, silver or blue-gray foliage is typically pillose, meaning it is covered with a thin layer of fuzz that plays a role in minimizing water loss, or glaucous, which means it is covered with a waxy coating that serves to conserve leaf moisture.
Speaking of silvery plants, once you lay eyes on Conejo saffron buckwheat, you will be powerless to resist it. Saffron buckwheat is a compact mini-shrub whose silver gray foliage almost looks white and 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.
The botanical name for saffron buckwheat is Eriogonum crocatum.
Its species name crocatum can be traced back to the Hebrew word karkom, which refers to saffron, a spice made from the stigmas (female organs) of crocus flowers. The color of crocus stigmas matches the sulfur yellow color of Conejo buckwheat flowers.
California sagebrush (Artemisia californica) is a highly pungent, lacy-leaved, gray-leafed perennial with a proclivity for mounding up on slopes. White sage (Salvia apiana) also grows on slopes and just about anywhere else as long as it does not get too much water. White sage foliage appears bluish gray to frosty white, depending on how the light strikes it at a particular moment. Flowers are lavender purple. White sage is an outstanding stand alone shrub that can grow as large as 6 feet tall and wide, but is typically half to two-thirds this size at maturity.
Learning to grow and appreciate California natives takes time.
Along the way, you may develop new standards for what makes a plant garden worthy. Ultimately, your concept of botanical beauty may undergo a change. Leaf color and texture are paramount in appreciation of California natives, as is their attractiveness to hummingbirds, butterflies and beneficial insects. And, lest I forget, most of them don’t need much, if any, water.

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