Once upon a time, California wholesaled its fabulous flora. The searing brilliance of poppies and lupines and the pale greens of grasses spread themselves like titanic picnic cloths over a seemingly endless landscape. Now, of course, much of this vast plant menagerie has been plowed or paved or plucked away to the margins, even toward extinction. Horticulturist Theodore Payne saw this unhappy prospect when he came here more than a century ago from England as a teenager; in his 70 years in Southern California, he crafted native plant legacies in gardens from Santa Ana, Exposition Park and Caltech to Descanso Gardens.
Today, on a rustic little road in Sun Valley, the foundation that bears his name is devoted to proselytizing for California plants -- with a nursery, seed sales, demonstration gardens, nature trails and more. The woman who heads its board of directors is landscape designer Cassy Aoyagi -- a local, like the California bush daisy she’s holding.
In 1891, an English teenager named Theodore Payne saw California plants in a London botanical garden. He moved to Los Angeles and spent nearly 70 years playing matchmaker for us with our native flora.
Imagine how the landscape looked in Los Angeles. He had the vision then, when we don’t even have the vision now. His goal was to preserve natives and bring back natural habitat. When I think of his world in England?. You’d think he would have been like everybody else and brought in roses and hedges, but he obviously fell in love with natives.
Are you a native, like the plants here?
I am. I was raised in Santa Monica. I lived in a condominium complex and it was Indian Hawthorn hedges and grass. I didn’t know what horticulture was until I was at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Knowing that you can walk and know every single plant, even in our concrete jungle -- I’ve ended up in the position that everywhere I go, I actually pay attention to what’s around me.
Most of us, we look around and don’t have a clue about good plants and bad, native and nonnative.
That’s a shame. My passion and the foundation’s passion is spreading the word that lawns are a thing of the past. They don’t signify status; they don’t represent California’s heritage. Eventually we will be able to help people understand that natives are beautiful and diverse -- to make an association with the word “native” that’s no longer a vision of dead brush, cactus or chaparral. We help give people that landscape, that panorama of what really native can be.
So are the foundation’s 22 acres a California native plant zoo? Or maybe an ark?
California has maybe 6,000 species of natives. We [have] 500 or so species of natives here. A lot are appropriate for a garden setting -- not only plants in the nursery, but you can actually look up and see [natives growing] right here on the mountainside.
Do your acquaintances think, “Oh, here comes Cassy. She’s going to tell me to tear out my rosebushes”?
[Laughs] People are definitely a little self-conscious when I’m around [but mostly] because of water use -- like if they’ve got it running while they’re doing the dishes. I try to be respectful and keep it friendly; I’m not a pusher one on one.
It’s shocking to think that we use more than 60% of our drinking water outdoors, on alien gardens and lawns. How much would native landscaping save?
If everyone were to take out their lawns and put in a sensible California native landscape, and if all went well, savings could be in the range of 70% to 80% -- and the monotony and lack of diversity would be gone.
Are people who wouldn’t put in native plants for esthetic reasons doing it now to save water?
Some people come solely to save water, and I’d say it’s not about water prices; it’s their conscience. Water is less than a cent a gallon.
Is that too cheap?
Yes. Water should be priced like oil, like fuel, because that’s how important it is. There are incentives that the Metropolitan Water District has, and Santa Monica and L.A., cash [to remove water-intensive] grass. The money will definitely get more people looking at natives and replacing their lawns.
After people buy native plants, do they ever come back and admit, “I killed it”?
Yes. There are two possibilities: one, that they’ve killed it with love -- too much water. The other is that they had the impression that natives are “plant it and forget it.” They’re worried about their baby plants, they overwater; or they’re so excited about going native that they don’t realize it’s a baby and a living thing, and you do need to give it some attention.
What’s the most common argument you hear from people when it comes to going native?
People can’t imagine what it would look like -- their minds just don’t go beyond a lawn. Even if they’re thinking to themselves, “Gosh, I should really take that lawn out,” they cannot imagine what would go in its place.
The second argument is, “Oh, we have the dog, we have the kids.” Native sedge grasses are great alternative lawns that can be mowed and look like a traditional lawn [but] take 50% less water, and even show less flaws with the dogs and the kids. They are just actually more pristine looking than traditional sod.
What must you think when you see a golf course.
Chemical waste dump. That’s what I think.
Can golf courses be fixed?
I actually used to be on the junior tour. I played golf tournaments from the time I was 8 until I was 16, so I know a lot about golf courses.
For the rough, you could do so many fabulous native grasses. For the fairway, you could probably use sedges or some other mowable native grass. [Then] if you just had the [traditional] putting green, the impact on the environment would be a lot less. Reducing chemicals and fertilizers and maintenance, and [keeping] the greens fees the same -- they’d be making a fortune!
Forty-niners pressed California poppies into their letters home 150-plus years ago. Do people now know you’re not supposed to pick the flowers.
I don’t think so. You have to have a permit to pick plants [on public lands]. It is considered poaching.
I am not the type of person who tells a stranger not to do something, but after the Station fire, I was walking Haines Canyon regularly and [saw] the beautiful vine with pink flowers, calystegia, a native. It was completely taking over the bare earth that was burned. And I saw a woman 10 feet up on the hill yanking out the foliage. She said, “It’s a cancer! It doesn’t belong here!” And I actually said, “That’s the only native plant that’s rejuvenating from the fire. You are doing a major disservice!” She said, “Really?”
I couldn’t believe my eyes -- the vision of this woman ripping out the only thing that was green and native.
Do you carry brochures with you wherever you go to proselytize?
I take my mouth with me!
What’s the law have to say about public agency planting policies?
Many civic practices are in conflict with state law that just took effect in January. California AB 1881, the water efficiency landscape ordinance, doesn’t allow more than 20% grass, or high-water [plants]. And [still] Los Angeles and other communities were mandating a green lawn!
AB 1881 is almost a reiteration of a state law that has been in place for about 13 years. It was being completely ignored. If it wasn’t enforced for the last 10 years, what’s so different now? Certainly there’s a mood about water now that there wasn’t before. But it is frustrating because most people are just not aware that there’s an actual state law in place that protects our water [use].
In the spring, the wildflower fields of blooming poppies and lupine still get people to fall for natives, at least for an afternoon.
The eye candy helps a lot. We have a wildflower hot-line to tell people where to go, and with the recent fires, the wildflowers have been amazing. I’ve seen wildflowers that I have never seen in my lifetime. It takes a certain event like fire to get seeds to germinate. I have a little a different perspective about fire; it’s a natural occurrence, part of the cycle, and I understand there’s lots of damage done to us. But if we weren’t so close to it ?
So many Californians are immigrants -- unfortunately, so are a lot of plants. How dangerous are invasive species like eucalyptus?
Eucalyptus is easier to control. It’s the stuff that leaks out of the garden and gets into wild-land places. [Some] take hardly any water; they can naturalize easily and crowd out the native plants. It’s the stuff that gets away by seed that’s the biggest problem for L.A. and California. Morning glory -- that’s something that should be banned. You drive along the coast or any rustic road, people think the grasses they’re seeing are native when they’re not. How do you communicate to an entire community that the predominant plants out there are invasive?
Maybe if you put up signs saying, “This plant is an illegal alien,” it wouldn’t be there for long.
Pennisetum and pampas grass -- both of those are miserable invasive grasses, and they completely outcompete native plants. They thrive on hillsides, but they’re not healthy erosion-control plants. They have shallow roots and they can compromise a slope. Pampas grass -- it’s so heavy it falls over and it pulls the soil out with it. You hike out to what you think is this really remote area, and you see vinca and lantana -- it’s frustrating.
How does it all get here?
A lot by accident, and a lot because people won’t leave home without their plants. Even me; I lived in Morro Bay. I moved back to L.A. and I couldn’t leave some of my babies behind. Yes, they were [California] natives, but [many] people’s babies are not native. They don’t realize that they’re going to spread that plant where it doesn’t belong. They think, “Oh, this is a green thing,” but not everything green is “green.”
What about those people who drive around throwing seed bombs onto bare lots and freeway slopes to encourage things to grow?
I met a group called Guerrilla Gardeners. Unfortunately, they’re not doing native seed bombs, but they [still] think they’re doing a service. I wish they were. They actually don’t know that natives would be better. They’ve got a good cause, but I think we can help them do it with the right plants.
This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An interview archive is online at latimes.com/pattasks.