Unusual California native plants for your garden
Native Plants in the Garden
If you’re just getting started with discovering how wonderful, rewarding and easy-to-care-for (most of the time) our own state’s native plants are, you’re probably just falling in love with Cleveland Sage (Salvia clevelandii), deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens), toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), Howard McMinn manzanita (Arctostaphyllos densiflora “Howard McMinn”) and concha ceanonus (Ceanothus “concha”). In fact, these five (and maybe California fescue or margarita BOP penstemon) can easily make any boring yard suddenly look more like a living, vibrant, interesting garden, and even those of us who have been planting natives for decades are still in love with most, if not all, of the above.
But what’s next? Eventually, you want to delve into the mysteries of coaxing flannelbush, Matilija poppy, sulfur flower and any of the monkeyflowers to find your yard to their liking. California has so many diverse ecosystems, it’s inevitable we will try to make grow species that are not naturally found in the Southern Sierra or Central Valley. Sometimes, though, the making seems more like letting for some plants, despite their faraway (relative, still within the state) origins, just thrive here. Others, like those mentioned above, take some know-how, some experience, or a “joie d’experimentation.”
I’m always trying new plant species, both to keep things interesting for me and for my clients. Every year, I discover new native species that work well here but aren’t usually found in nurseries (except mine, of course). Not everything I try works. My method is simple: (1) discover or learn about a new plant; (2) find a good nursery-grown specimen or responsibly propagate from the wild; (3) plant in my garden (or in my dad’s next door) and observe for a year; (4) plant in a selection of long-time client gardens as a trial (different soils, different elevations, different care methods, make sure it’s not invasive); (5) offer for sale. This usually takes 3-4 years. It’s not as scientific as the big growers, but it’s more local-testing than the average garden plant offered for sale goes through. Some examples of these locally tested plants are lilac bush verbena, California hibiscus, cobwebby hedge nettle (actually a quite local native, just not well-known in garden use), wayside manzanita, John Dourley manzanita, Point Reyes manzanita, purple three-awn Grass, Baja fairy duster (low elevation only), island pink morning glory, scarlet bugler, hummingbird sage and pitcher sage. Other local propagators, like Cathy Capone in Porterville and Melanie Kelley with the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are generous teachers, each with their own specialities, their own favorites and small and big successes.
For the past five years, I’ve also been working on growing and making available native wildflower bulbs from local stock. This spring I was able to offer soap root to a few gardens.
Next spring, look for pretty face and Ithuriel’s spear. I’m still working on our local iris. They have been challenging. After several years of trial and failure, I now have a few local tree/shrub manzanitas growing in the nursery. They are onto step 3 (see above). Look for the first of my successful efforts, grown to five-gallon-sized and looking fit and vigorous, to be planted Nov. 17 or 18 at the Native Plant Days event at River Ridge Ranch in Springville, in Peyton’s Garden, not too far to where its parent manzanita grows. Thanks to Nancy Bruce, I was able to collect seeds from a nice stand of local three-awn grass and I’ll be starting those to add to the California native grass display (also at River Ridge).
Next up: Propagation of more mid and high-elevation local species. Some of these are common in the wild but not in our gardens; some of these I’ll be seeing if they can survive the soils and climate of the Valley floor. And I’m sure to find some other unusual — to us — California native plants as I wander — well, more like drive purposefully — to nurseries across the state. What unusual California native plants have you found in your travels?
Peyton Ellas lives in Springville and is the owner of Quercus Landscape Design, specializing in California native plant-based and eco-habitat gardens. Read her blog and contact her at: www.QuercusLandscapeDesign.com.