Topics / ENVIRONMENT : A Growing Concern : Landscaping: As a result of last year's disastrous fires, area homeowners show renewed interest in using flame-retardant plants to beautify and to protect.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With planting season here, local nurseries are offering the following words of wisdom for homeowners in wildfire-prone areas:

Pittosporum, Dietes, Lantanas, Myoporum Parvifolium--botanical names for a few of the fire-retardant plant species available at nurseries.

"It's a big, hot subject right now," said Wendy Persson of Persson's Nursery. "Every day, somebody calls or comes in asking us for a list of fire-retardant plants."

The nursery, which lies right below the hills where the Altadena fire blazed, is getting a lot of business from householders planning fire-resistant gardens.

Persson's list includes oleander, jasmine and yucca. She said she had noticed that some of the burned areas included untouched patches of ice plant.

Ice plant isn't as popular as rye grass at the Altadena Nursery, said employee Duane Higuchi. The nursery ran out of the fast-growing rye grass, he said.

He considered ice plant a good anti-flame plant: "It's like a big, wet sponge."

But Paul Rippens, the L.A. County Fire Department's chief of forestry, has reservations about the heavy succulent.

"I don't like ice plant," he said, warning that residents have to be careful of varieties whose leaves grow too large, pulling down the soil on hillsides and causing mudslides.

"You have to be careful on steep slopes," he said. Altadena gets alluvial sand from mountain runoff as well as decomposed granite and rock, imparting some instability to the soil. Therefore, vegetation with deep roots--such as oak, ivy and rye grass--are among the best choices for keeping the soil stable, he said.

Smaller-leaved ice plant varieties such as delosperma alba and red apple get better reviews, but they are by no means the only options suggested by fire officials and nursery owners.

Jim Teller of Dawson Landscaping, which he said has received about 100 calls for advice on planting for fires, recommends fescue, rye grass and California poppy for fire-retardant and soil-erosion planting. Some people rely on hydroseeding--aerial spraying of a mixture of seeds that sprout on the hillsides--or netting to stabilize steep slopes while the vegetation grows, he said.

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Burkard Nurseries gives customers the fire department's 10-page list of fire-hardy plants. It includes familiar names like aloe vera, chrysanthemums, jasmine and oleander. That may be comforting for residents resurrecting their gardens because it gives them many options for replanting.

Jill Cremer, Forest Service landscape architect, said citrus trees seem to resist fires well and honeysuckle provides good ground cover.

But nothing is fireproof. Cremer saw ice plant that burned in the Altadena fire. "Anything will burn if it's in the right place at the right time." she said.

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