Going Native

Susan Heeger is a frequent contributor to the magazine.

One moody morning in a Brentwood canyon, as a listless sun struggles with clouds in a lowering sky, actress Rene Russo pulls on boots and hits the path in her California native garden. “Here’s something the land loves,” she says, pinching a berry from a wild currant. “Look--gorgeous red translucent fruit, gorgeous red flowers, all in the dry shade of an oak. And smell this--one of our own pitcher sages. Smells like heaven, needs very little water. These are what excite me. You get so much from plants that ask for almost nothing.”

Dripping and shiny after a rain, these rambling, oak-sheltered greens--snowberry, mahonia, toyon, mountain mahogany and coral bells--resemble the wild carpet of a forest. And this was exactly Russo’s goal when she and garden designer Stephanie Wilson-Blanc began planting four years ago in the oak woods below her house.

Since then, Russo, who says she initially was unable to tell an oak from a sycamore, has become an activist for California’s indigenous flora. “We don’t even know what we had in L.A. because so much has been lost,” she says, and then she notes the region’s mixed blessing: “You can grow almost anything in this climate, which, nevertheless, has consequences.”

Russo has seen these firsthand. When she and screenwriter husband Dan Gilroy bought their 2 1/2 hilltop acres in 1998, many of the oaks, swamped by thirsty lawns, Southern willow trees and rampant vinca, were dying from too much water. To save them, and to re-create what might have once grown on her hill, Russo broke ranks with L.A.'s aficionados of English or tropical gardens and looked for plants that arose naturally in these parts. She isn’t alone. Not since the drought years of the late 1970s, and again in the late ‘80s, has there been so much attention paid to this rugged yet unassuming plant group--chaparral shrubs such as ceanothus and buckwheat, woodland ground covers and ferns, desert succulents such as our native dudleyas and agaves.


Once again, the region’s ebb and flow of drought conditions has contributed to the return of natives as a garden trend. “The visibility of these plants historically has been closely tied to water issues,” says Bart O’Brien, director of horticulture at Claremont’s native-plant mecca, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. He and others cite July 2001 through June 2002 as the driest year in the state’s recorded history. The previous year was little better.

This year the threat of prolonged drought has been eased by late-arriving El Nino rains, but Southern California’s water future is hardly robust. The federal government has ordered that the Metropolitan Water District, which serves Los Angeles and five surrounding counties, give up 35% of its allotment of the Colorado River, beginning this year.

“It’s not a short-term issue, it’s chronic,” says Adan Ortega, the MWD’s vice president for external affairs. Which is why, under Ortega’s leadership, the MWD has launched a program to reduce landscape water use. One approach is to promote native-oriented gardens, which are naturally suited to our dry conditions. “We needed a drought-resistant theme that would resonate long-term, not just in drought cycles,” Ortega says. He calls the 1980s desert-inspired landscaping concept “a failure,” because it lost its luster once rains returned in the early ‘90s.

Last May, Ortega and Russo attended the same fund-raiser at Rancho Santa Ana, where the actress was speaking about her garden. They got to talking, and Russo agreed to serve as spokeswoman for the MWD’s campaign. “The reasons to use these plants go way beyond the water issue,” Russo says, echoing the thoughts of many like-minded gardeners. One of them is Dave Fross, president of the Arroyo Grande-based wholesale nursery Native Sons, where native plant sales make up one-third of its business. “This is so much about regional identity, and the sense of loss you feel if you grew up in California and watched the wild land disappear,” Fross says. “Maybe you don’t have a hillside where you can put back the Artemisia californica, but you can plant three Artemisia californica ‘Montara,’ a smaller, mounding cultivar of the shrub, along your driveway, and bring back the smell of childhood.”


You can also help save native plants from extinction, which is an ever-increasing threat, says Melanie Baer-Keeley, a restoration horticulturist for Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. Citing figures from the California Native Plants Society, which has conferred endangered status on one-third of the state’s 6,300 native species, Baer-Keeley blames population pressure: land development, residential building and the spread of exotic weeds that race through open spaces, choking out natives. When wild land is thus colonized, animals, birds and insects lose their life-supporting habitat.

The good news is that a native garden can make any yard a habitat, according to Bert Wilson, who, with his wife Celeste, started Las Pilitas Nursery in their San Luis Obispo yard in 1974 and now have retail outlets in Escondido and Santa Margarita. “A lot of our customers, busy professionals with almost no time to garden, or even go camping, are creating wildlife sanctuaries of their own,” says Wilson, who advocates moving away from traditional, formal garden plans and thinking more about how plants grow together in the wild. “Plant 10 native species in a block, you create your own habitat. Bees and butterflies show up. Get your neighbors involved, you start a whole wildlife corridor.”

As native advocates admit, there’s nothing new about looking to nature and indigenous plants for horticultural inspiration. A century ago, English horticulturist Theodore Payne, smitten by California’s natural landscape, established a native-oriented nursery and seed operation, which has evolved into the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants, a Sun Valley-based nonprofit center for native plant study, preservation and dissemination. Seventy-five years ago, similarly inspired, Susanna Bixby Bryant, a member of a wealthy Orange County founding family, started Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, another native plant treasure trove, dates to 1926.

What is new, though, is the wealth of available information on growing natives, which should help gardeners avoid the failures people had with these plants a decade ago. “The Internet is an encyclopedic resource--packed with pictures that show what plants look like, offering pages on where to get them and how to tend them, and giving you ways to communicate with others about them,” says horticultural consultant Lili Singer. There are also, she adds, numbers of native plant classes being offered, especially at Theodore Payne, Rancho Santa Ana and the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.


Knowledge of plant requirements is particularly crucial with natives, experts say, because they’re unlike what we’re used to growing. “If you approach these plants with old-fashioned ideas,” says Mike Evans, co-owner of San Juan Capistrano’s native Tree of Life nursery, “they’ll show their objections by dying.” By old-fashioned ideas, he means “Water! Fertilize! Water some more!”

Simply paying attention to our region’s climate is enlightening. If it rains at all here, it’s in winter; summers are bone-dry. This is what these plants expect, along with, usually, unimproved but very well-draining soil, no extra fertilizer and some kind of natural mulch--oak-leaf litter, perhaps, or pebbles--to slow evaporation from the soil and cool their roots.

Some native plants go into summer dormancy, complete with brownouts and leaf drop. Some (such as fremontodendron) will die if they get supplemental water in the dry season. Some (ceanothus) have scant tolerance for food. Others will grow faster if fed, but exhaust themselves sooner.

In addition, California has myriad microclimates, regions and terrains, each supporting its own mix of plants. So the image of sagebrush in July is just one aspect of our native flora, and no more representative of the total picture than a wild rose beside a stream.


“It does natives a disservice to lump them together as low-maintenance and drought-tolerant,” observes Carol Bornstein, director of horticulture at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. “It’s a flaw in our thinking and it really limits the way we use them.”

It can limit success, too. As in the case of any plant group, if you know where something is from and how it grows, you can mimic its conditions. The more you know, the better plant choices you can make for your own conditions, whether you live on a steep, exposed hill, beside the beach or in an oak grove. Naturally, plants that like each other’s company in the wild should do well paired, in the proper setting, in your garden. But some plants found in nature are somewhat touchy or short-lived in garden settings, especially when they get too much water or fertilizer. In such cases, says Rick Fisher, a Glendora landscape architect and board member of the California Native Plant Society’s San Gabriel Mountains chapter, it may be preferable to substitute a similar plant from a similar climate. Two examples he likes are Dasylirion wheeleri--a native of Arizona and New Mexico, which resembles California’s Yucca whipplei but lives longer in cultivation--and succulent Mexican echeverias, similar to our dudleyas but sturdier in garden borders.

The most widely recognized natives are probably chaparral plants, the fragrant sages and artemisias we hike through in local mountains. Many desert plants we associate with our area--spiny cactuses and succulents--aren’t native at all but hail from arid parts of Mexico, South Africa and Australia. Like the echeverias, some of these--if they’re not from areas with plentiful summer rain--can thrive with chaparral plants, as can many Mediterraneans such as rosemary, lavender and rockrose.

Contrary to common belief, there are water-loving natives, too (button willow, brook saxifrage, wood strawberry), and plants for damp or dry shade and coastal bluffs, as well as hot, dry inland valleys. Natives, says Fisher, come in shapes and habits--grasslike, vining, creeping, tree-sized, architectural or free-form--to fit any garden style, from Japanese to modern. (The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is introducing an all-native Japanese tea garden this summer.) And for those short on garden space, many natives grow lustily in pots.


While nursery owners agree that down-sized plants (for example, more compact ceanothus, sages and fremontodendron) are easier for homeowners with city lots to incorporate into garden schemes, they also mention how passionate gardeners can be about novelties--ceanothus with green-and-white leaves, white-flowering penstemon, ground-hugging manzanita. Along with water and wildlife issues, landscape preservation and regional character, these new cultivars have moved many gardeners to give natives another chance. And they should, believes Bert Wilson, if only to clear up the myths about these plants. Among them is the assumption that native gardens have one shining moment in early spring and then look dead for the rest of the year. Not so, he says. “The more species you plant, the longer your seasonal interest will last--even up to all year long.”

Baer-Keeley, who has taught classes at Rancho Santa Ana on designing with natives, explains how to thread color themes through the garden year-round, not only with blooming plants such as winter wallflowers and summer sunflowers but with lavish fruit-bearers--toyon, currant, wild grape and elderberry--and those, like manzanita, with vivid bark and stems. A good first step in plotting a native garden, or in working natives into an existing landscape, is to arrive at objectives that will suggest certain plant choices. The Payne Foundation keeps helpful lists (available free to the public) that group natives according to garden uses--for example, those that are scented, draw butterflies, stabilize hills or grow in heavy soil. Like other native plant centers, Payne has demonstration gardens where you can see mature plants thriving together in different conditions before you choose from the nursery’s small-scale potted versions.

Selection, of course, will depend on your garden’s location, climate and soil, as well as your practical program. Since natives favor lighter, sandier soils that drain quickly, you may need to grow them in mounded beds if your ground is heavy clay. For best results, however, wait till the cool of fall to plant. Use the summer to research, explore and observe natives in their favorite habitats. Fall planting enables plants to benefit from winter rains as they develop root systems and become established. Until then, they need regular deep watering, especially during the first six weeks, and thereafter if rain fails to arrive. Monitor new plants carefully to be sure they don’t dry out or stay too wet. A weekly or biweekly spritz of leaves with the hose would be appreciated. As time goes on, plants will need periodic deadheading. How much is a matter of taste and your garden goals. If neat borders are important, trim your California sagebrush before it goes to seed; if you want birds to enjoy it, wait.

In general, many converts to native gardening have given up dreams of velvet lawns and foxgloves for something more relaxed and, well, natural. But even die-hard lawn lovers can have their grass and natives too. And this doesn’t mean fountain or pampas grass or other exotic ornamentals that can invade and overrun a wild landscape. “The natural lawn revolution is finally here,” says John Greenlee, an expert on grasses and owner of Greenlee Nursery in Pomona, who says there are now a number of “creeping, sod-forming native grasses and sedges that need little water or fertilizer and can be mowed and walked on and even interplanted with bulbs and perennials to create flowering lawns.” You can choose different types for different conditions, says Greenlee, and they won’t rampage through your yard. He acknowledges that “they won’t have the same character as the overwatered, fungicide-ridden emerald lawn we’re used to, but they’re much better eco-citizens.”


To Russo, who grew up in Burbank, this kind of trade-off has been easier than she imagined. In return for stripping out “Connecticut-style” lawns and Southern willow trees, banishing vinca and coaxing snowberry and sage to grow, she has brought back her sickly oaks and invited in birds and heady fragrances. “The sages alone!” she says. “The brilliance of poppies! I’m a California girl. This place, after all, is what I love.”