Op-Ed: City should be smarter about plants

We are substantially increasing our town’s fire risk by the installation of various invasive and/or non-native plants in public and private spaces. In gardens throughout La Cañada, invasive non-native grasses and Queen palms (among others) are being installed for ornament, but these plants invite potentially devastating consequences.

Fountain grass (pennisetum setaceum) and Mexican feather grass (nasella tenuissima) dry out and catch fire 100 times faster than native grasses because these non-natives do not store water as efficiently as the deeply-rooted and evolutionarily-adapted California native bunch grasses. Furthermore, these non-native grasses make prodigious amounts of seed, which then spread on the wind to the Station fire burn area and establish in the Angeles National Forest, increasing the risk of wildfire.

Paradise Canyon Elementary School installed fountain grass around the new auditorium. Sprouts Market installed Mexican feather grass around the parking lot. There are so-called sterile varieties of fountain grass, but these still produce non-sterile seeds. We could help our cash-strapped state, which spends millions of dollars each year removing these invasive grasses and other invasives from our wild lands, by not installing these plants at all. There are native alternatives for our gardens that are aesthetically similar and ecologically sound.

Queen palms (syagrus romanzoffiana) are a fire hazard in a different way, and these palms are also being installed in yards throughout La Cañada. In a fire, the palm’s long, arching fronds become like flaming helicopter blades, traveling on the heat updraft and landing with a nice packet of already burning fuel. There are many more regionally appropriate trees to choose other than palms. Native oaks store water and resist fire, having a much higher ignition point than the non-native palms.

This is not a minor issue. Consider what has happened to large areas that were previously forest in San Diego County. The chaparral of native oak, lilac and manzanita (much like Angeles National Forest) burned in the early 2000s, and then burned again in less than 10 years. The interval between the burns was not long enough for most of the native plants to regenerate and set seed, but it was enough for the non-native invasive grasses to regenerate and set seed, perpetuating a higher-than-normal fire frequency. What was once forest supporting a diversity of life — butterflies, birds and other animals — is now just fire-prone non-native grassland that supports relatively little life.

Given that our bird and butterfly populations are only 10% to 40% of what they were in 1960, we should all be concerned and proactive to help the insects and animals whose ecosystem services we need for our own well being.

I must say that I am disappointed with the La Cañada Flintridge City Council’s lack of attention to these important issues. I have offered to give public information sessions, free of charge, about how to landscape without using invasive, non-native plants that increase our risk for fire. The council has not given me even the courtesy of a reply. Last spring, they advertised for people with landscaping and/or horticultural experience for seats on the Design Commission. I applied and, in the interview, was asked why I had applied; I referred to the advertisement, and was told, in essence, that the city doesn’t really need landscapers on the Design Commission.

Yes, we do. The Design Commission should not be approving plant palettes that contain invasive non-natives and/or plants listed by the California Invasive Plant Council, and there should be vigorous public education and outreach sessions to increase awareness about how the plants we put in our private and public spaces hurt the national forest and increase our town’s risk of fire. Other cities are being proactive and forward-looking. Why aren’t we?

LISA NOVICK is a La Cañada Flintridge resident and director of Outreach and K-12 Education for the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers & Native Plants. She can be reached at lisa@theodorepayne.org.

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