Don’t Forget to Stop and Smell the Sagebrush

California white sage (Salvia apiana)Chris Van Schaack has carved a bare-bones life out of the Santa Susana chaparral. He lives in a 50-year-old refurbished Quonset hut, an army surplus item from World War II, surrounded only by native plants.
His meticulous planting of natives extends to his entire property, around an art studio and nursery in the hills above the Chatsworth Reservoir. And not just natives – Van Schaack, 39, uses only natives specific to the area stretching from the Santa Monica Mountains to the reservoir.
“People should stop and smell the sagebrush,” Van Schaack said.
In the chaparral that surrounds the San Fernando Valley, wild vegetation survives on little moisture and a minimum of soil organic matter. It is the same vegetation that holds the slopes around Los Angeles; when it is burned or otherwise disturbed, mudslides result.
So, too, you get the feeling that Van Schaack and people like him, for whom material things are pretty immaterial, hold the world in place. Without them, the planet Earth might slide down a slippery slope.
These are not plants that knock your socks off with nonstop neon color. But they do bloom, throughout the year, in every color that the rainbow has to offer.
“Native plants are practical,” said Rocky Moss, who is in charge of native seed sales for the Theodore Payne Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Sun Valley devoted exclusively to natives. “They are already adapted to our climate. They are water-efficient. Since they have been living here for thousands of years, they are resistant to local pests and diseases and, unlike conventional landscape ornamentals, they can fight off pests introduced from other places.
“Although most of us, or our parents, came to California from somewhere else, native plants connect us to the land and give us a heritage, a natural history, in which we can all share.”
Enhance the environment
And natives have other advantages. “In addition to their drought-tolerant properties, native plants enhance the environment by attracting wildlife,” said Joni Clayton, manager of Mockingbird Nursery in Riverside.
Van Schaack has a variety of the maroon monkey flower (Mimulus aurantiacus var. rutilus), a currently blooming perennial, that is found nowhere else in the Los Angeles area.
Woolly blue curls, also flowering now, has flowers that appear more violet than blue. It is also a perennial but somewhat difficult to culture – a challenge worth taking because of its unmatched blooms.
For the shade, Van Schaack recommends hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea), with its crimson flowers, and the canyon sunflower (Venegasia carpesoides).
The gooseberry/currant genus (Ribes) is represented by some of the most spell-binding natives. Golden currant (Ribes aureum gracillimum) has ornamental scalloped leaves, yellow flowers and tasty fruit. The chapparal currant (Ribes malvaceum) has pink flowers and mallow-type foliage. Most memorable, though, is the fuchsia-flowered gooseberry (Ribes speciosum), with tear-drop flowers and verdant, dark green leaves.
An excellent filler of empty garden spots is the California fuchsia (Epilobium californica). Possessing red flowers and usually in bloom, it works its way through the landscape nonchalantly yet noninvasively. Although it self-sows reliably, its roots are shallow and it will never interfere with the growth of other plants.
Silver lotus (Lotus argophyllus) is a plant deserving wider use that Van Schaack grows from seed. He has it planted on the gentle slopes that encircle his house. The luminescent foliage and clear yellow flowers of the silver lotus make it a “must have” low-growing selection for any perennial garden.
Plants that defy gravity
Pricky phlox (Leptodactylon californica) is a captivating annual with pink flowers and mildly prickly shoots. Van Schaack has found it as rewarding as it has been difficult grow. Of dozens of seeds planted, he feels fortunate to have seen two or three germinate and grow to maturity. Prickly phlox is unmistakable to those traveling through Bouquet Canyon in Santa Clarita; it grows on the most precipitous slopes, clinging to rock faces in defiance of gravity itself.
Lovers of succulents will be attracted to the chalky leafed live-forevers (Dudleya lanceolata and Dudleya pulverulenta). Van Schaack has a batch of them for sale at his nursery, which is located on the other side of a stream that runs through his property.
“As far as culture, you never want to water natives during periods where you have warm night temperatures, because that is a sure way of killing the plants,” Van Schaack said. “Soil fungus thrives under those conditions.”
Van Schaack’s Tarweed Nursery, open by appointment, can be reached by calling (818) 888-2318.The Santa Susana tarplant (Heizonia minthornii) has fragrant leaves and yellow flowers; it has been adopted by Van Schaack as a kind of botanical mascot.
Tip of the Week: Van Schaack grows most of his perennials from seed. He has gone through a lot of frustration trying to propagate from cuttings. If you insist on growing California natives from cuttings, he recommends rooting them in straight perlite – that spongy white, pelletized volcanic rock found in potting mixes but available, by itself, in small bags at any garden center, Keep cuttings in the shade until they are well rooted.

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