Beyond Natives

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

We’ve all heard the mantra “Grow California native plants,” and with good reason. They require less irrigation, can withstand tough conditions and generally don’t require much maintenance -- all good traits for gardeners facing diminishing water supplies, global warming and hectic schedules that don’t permit hour upon hour of pruning and pampering.

But what about gardeners who can’t get themselves to adopt the California-native approach? Who just don’t like the look of these plants?

There is another way. Four, actually.

According to the Mediterranean Garden Society, a nonprofit international organization based in Greece with a large Southern California chapter, four other parts of the globe share the climate of coastal California: southern and southwestern Australia, central Chile, the western cape of South Africa and the Mediterranean basin, including France, Italy, Greece, Morocco, Portugal, Spain and Turkey. Together, these regions account for only 2% of the world’s land mass, but they host a disproportionate share of Earth’s plant life.


Perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees indigenous to these other Mediterranean-climate regions have adapted to short, mild, rainy winters and long, hot, dry summers -- just like Southern California’s. Convert to a South African garden, for instance, and you may have a completely different collection of flora -- pretty and exotic -- while still enjoying many of the same benefits of the Golden State’s natives. Knowing that an Australian tea tree or a South African red-hot poker thrives without summer water but also endures winter rainfall might change the way you design and plant your backyard.

Recent drought-like conditions, not to mention a growing sense that importing English-inspired or Midwest-style landscapes clashes with Southern California’s geography, are turning many homeowners and their designers to a different plant palette.

“This is truly a Mediterranean climate,” says George Brumder, a retired Pasadena attorney who is chairman of the Southern California branch of the Mediterranean Garden Society. “Our water availability is declining, we have more periods of drought, our population is increasing and we need to garden in a water-wise way.”

The society’s message is simple: Rather than be at odds with nature, you can grow a beautiful, satisfying garden with plants better suited to our climate and time-crunched lifestyles.

Santa Barbara-based landscape architect Isabelle Greene, an advisory board member of the society, has designed with Mediterranean plants for decades. She recalls in the 1960s falling for sunrose, a flowering shrub native to Turkey and its environs, pictured in Sunset magazine. She spent two years trying to find the plant at a local nursery.

“There is far more available than I can keep up with,” Greene says, citing some popular, jazzy Mediterranean plants with fragrance and even some splashy flowers and foliage.


Mediterranean-climate flora is available from Internet and mail-order sources, local specialty nurseries and at Southern California botanical garden plant sales. Seaside Gardens, a Carpinteria nursery, has more than 2,000 species in display gardens organized by regions, including California, the Mediterranean, South Africa, Australia and central South America.

“Many of these plants are blooming in the winter, like the leucadendron and protea,” Seaside nursery manager Catherine Herrera says of two South African beauties. “Garden owners can have these sustainable plants that look tropical and don’t require much water.”

Many plants you may already grow are classified as Mediterranean, such as aloes from South Africa, coast rosemary from Australia and euphorbia from the Mediterranean basin.

“These five areas of the world have such a wealth of plants to offer the Southern California gardener,” says Jan Smithen, a horticultural educator and author of “Sun-Drenched Gardens: The Mediterranean Style.”

“I have Australian plants growing next to California natives because they come from similar climates. It allows me to be more expressive in my design.”

Alison Terry, a Fullerton-based landscape architect, encourages people to mix California native plants with California-friendly Mediterranean plants.


“I’m teaching my clients to broaden their plant choices,” she says. “It’s frustrating when someone tells me they only like azaleas, camellias and hydrangeas. Why would you design a garden with plants that need extra coddling when you can use ones adapted to our climactic conditions?”

She recommends using plants with strong, sculptural forms (agave, New Zealand flax, aloe and cordyline); saturated flower colors that stand up to California’s bright sunlight (salvia, cistus, flannel bush and Jerusalem sage); a full spectrum of foliage (silver-gray and dark green santolina, plum-hued aeonium, blue-gray artemisia and wine-colored barberry); and appealing fragrances (rosemary, lavender and sage).

“If you want a full, lush look, you can totally get it with Mediterranean plants,” Terry says.

San Diego gardener Susi Torre-Bueno isn’t surprised that more gardeners -- novice and professional alike -- are thirsty for water-wise landscaping ideas. Last fall she produced a two-day design symposium called “Gardening Under Mediterranean Skies” for the nonprofit journal Pacific Horticulture. Held at Quail Botanical Gardens in Encinitas, the event drew 200 participants, half of whom came from outside San Diego County, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland, Ore.

“We filled those spots very quickly and had 40 more people on the waiting list,” Torre-Bueno says. “It was successful because people want to see examples of real plants in real gardens, not just in books. They want to touch and smell plants and see how they are used in designs that reflect the architecture of a house.”

Is Mediterranean-style gardening just another trend?

“No, because people here in California want to know how to grow an ecologically responsible garden in their own backyard,” she says. “That’s especially true for people like me. I moved to California 20 years ago, and I have had enough of high-maintenance English cottage gardens. I want to lower my water bill and stop fighting the climate all the time.”


Makings of Mediterranean

What constitutes a Mediterranean climate? According to the Mediterranean Garden Society, parts of California, Australia, Chile, South Africa and the Mediterranean region share these traits:

* They are about 30 to 45 degrees latitude north or south of the equator.

* They receive cool marine air and have moderate winter temperatures. Subfreezing temperatures are rare.

* They experience low annual precipitation with at least 65% of rainfall in winter. Summer sun is intense. Humidity is low, especially inland.

* Native vegetation has adapted to withstand summer dormancy induced by heat and lack of soil moisture, except in some coastal zones.


* Soils are low in nutrients.

The Southern California branch of the international Mediterranean Garden Society works to promote sustainable, water-conserving gardening. The organization’s 2008 international meeting will take place Oct. 9 to 12 in Monterey, hosted by the Northern California branch. Information: Southern California branch: Contact chairman George Brumder at (626) 795-0315 or

-- Debra Prinzing