Everyone Loves Mallows

Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus)Everyone loves mallows. Did you ever meet a person who did not smile when gazing upon a hibiscus, a hollyhock or a flowering maple (abutilon) for the first time?
Then there are marshmallows, named for a mallow family member that grows in marshes, and from whose mucilaginous sap the original marshmallow was made by French confectioners in the 1850s, but whose culinary and medicinal uses may be traced back to ancient Egypt.
Okra is another noteworthy mallow whose sticky, gooey sap is familiar to anyone who has ever cooked or eaten this unique vegetable. It is classically used as a thickener in gumbo soup. Okra, however, need not be planted in a marsh. It is among the most drought-tolerant vegetable plants and may be grown in just about any soil type. Its pale yellow flowers with burgundy-black centers are highly ornamental, too.
Cotton is another drought-tolerant mallow. Although grown as an annual crop for its white fibers, cotton is a true perennial that, left to its own devices, undergoes dormancy during the dry season.
All of this leads us to globe mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua), a California native that has been grown to perfection in the Mar Vista garden of J. Shields and Anne Tannen. For years, I had enjoyed the sight of a wild globe mallow with blooms the color of orange sorbet, but the globe mallow collection now in front of me combined the familiar orange with scarlet and pink varieties as well. This display of long, pyrotechnic flowering shoots, exploding in every direction, is a sight that no plant lover will soon forget.
I asked Shields how he prepared his soil, in which dozens of unblemished California native specimens were thriving like none I had ever seen before. He informed me that his original soil drained poorly and had the texture of clay. Prior to planting, the soil had been repeatedly tilled and amended with loads of compost. Since decomposed granite (D.G.) covered the ground, I assumed that this was an essential ingredient of his soil. Not true. The D.G. had not been used as a soil amendment but simply as a ground cover, for both water conservation and aesthetic purposes. After a good rain, D.G. forms a crust that minimizes evaporative and capillary water loss from the soil below.
At the Mar Vista garden, I was introduced to Baja pitcher sage (Lepechinia hastata). It has bold, elongated triangular leaves and billowy, foot-long magenta-rose flower panicles. This plant will remind you of hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea), to which it is botanically related, in several ways. Just like hummingbird sage, Baja pitcher sage possesses hairy, sweetly fragrant, sword-shaped foliage and will grow into an attractive clump due to its rhizomes. In addition, both hummingbird and pitcher sage are tolerant of somewhat shady conditions.
Nearby, another irresistible shade-tolerant plant, which goes by the name of canyon sunflower (Venegasia carpesioides), was growing. Its bright green foliage, uncharacteristic of most California natives, complements glowing yellow blooms. Although it has ground cover dimensions here, it may eventually reach several feet in height.
Between a north-facing block wall and driveway, Shields and Tannen have created a pleasing narrow bed of California lilac (Ceanothus ‘Frosty Blue’) underplanted with Pacific Coast iris (Iris douglasiana ‘Canyon Snow’). In Los Angeles gardens, both California lilac and Pacific Coast iris seem to grow best when protected from the brunt of summer’s heat, protection afforded here by a north-facing exposure.
Shields impresses upon me that his garden is forever changing and that there have been failures along the way. I know what he is talking about since I have planted many natives that died within the first or second year of garden living. Not every native is meant for every garden and a spirit of adventure is helpful to any gardener making the transition from imported to native plants. Shields assures me that if I come for a visit next spring I am bound to see something new.
A lovely mid-Wilshire garden
In front of the mid-Wilshire home of Murray Cohen and Mary Beth Fielder, there is a parkway planter that is blissfully overgrown with garland flowers (Clarkia unguiculata)and California poppies (Eschscholzia californica). The unfamiliar, at least for me, California poppy cultivars growing here are just as much red as they are orange. As you approach the front door, you are greeted by the two happiest monkey flower (Mimulus spp.) bushes, one in yellow and one in red-orange, that you have ever seen. There are also wonderful samples of blazing star (Mentzelia lindleyi)and beach suncups (Camissonia cheiranthifolia) on display. Both of these plants, the former an annual and the latter a perennial, have iridescent yellow blooms that contrast well with the myriad magenta-pink garland flowers and the reddish orange California poppies.
I asked Fielder about the conversion of her previous landscape, which consisted primarily of Bermuda grass, into a garden of natives. The procedure was completely noninvasive. She spread newspapers, six pages deep, with a total thickness of approximately one quarter of an inch, over her Bermuda lawn and then saturated the newspapers with water. The newspapers were then covered with composted mulch, courtesy of the Los Angeles Department of Sanitation. The mulch was free even though there was some expense associated with her gardener hauling and spreading it. Once the mulch was in place, she let everything sit for one year. She thought she would have a problem with the Bermuda grass growing back but, after several years, she has yet to see this happen.
Note: These above gardens were among the more than 40 native plant gardens, from Acton in the north to Downey in the south, available for viewing on an annual self-guided tour, sponsored by the Theodore Payne Foundation, earlier this month. You can see photos of these gardens by visiting the website at www.nativeplantgardentour.org.

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