A recent visit to the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden brought me much delight and revived my old love for a landscape type that we rarely see here in Southern California: An urban haven entirely dedicated to the cultivation and exhibition of a California native-scape.
This is a jewel of a garden situated south of the San Gabriel foothills which offers a great example of xeriscape landscaping. The 86 acres are beautifully designed and entirely planted with cultivars and wild species of native plants, whose exploration leads you through various habitats and a mosaic of vegetation patterns, such as desert, chaparral, grasslands, forest, and riparian (areas on the banks of fresh water).
I had come to the Garden with several designer friends who, like me, were interested in refreshing our knowledge of California natives and finding inspiration for new landscape design ideas. And those we found! Conifers and oaks, Manzanita and Buck eye… Sage and Monkey flower, Anemone and Woolly Blue Curls, and on and on…
After wandering through the gardens the entire day, I was convinced that here are the drought resistant plants that can thrive in all of our gardens, no matter how tricky the situation. With these I can create any type of home landscape design, whether formal Mediterranean or California “eclectic”, whether modern restrained or flowery-cottage-y or romantic country, and create a feeling in them of satisfaction and being ‘at home’.
Here’s a selection of the Natives that I noted for their beauty, versatility and design interest:
California Buckeye Aesculus Californica
Type: Deciduous tree. Mature trees can reach 15 to 45 ft with greater spread. Sun. Soil: Adaptable.
Water: Drought tolerant to regular.
Natural habitat: Woodland mostly away from the coast and below 4,000 ft.
This tree responds to heat or drought stress by dropping its leaves which reveals the pretty trunk structure and silvery smooth bark. In spring, branches clad with bright apple green foliage carry bottle-brush flower white (rarely pink) clusters, 4-12 inch long. The heavy round fruit ripens in late fall and splits to reveal shiny, 1-3 inch chestnut-brown seeds that gave the tree its name.
Design interest and uses: One of the showiest flowering trees: Grown as single or multi-trunked tree or large shrub with rounded crown which makes a complement or counterpoint to coast live oak, foothill pine and California Bay. It is an excellent choice to shade south or west side of a house.
Hummingbird Sage Salvia Spathacea
This herbaceous allergenic perennial is a pretty work-horse. It is chiefly noticed for its whorls of showy bracts and flowers with hairy, softly sticky pointed leaves that all exude a spicey and fruity fragrance.
Water: drought tolerant to occasional.
Goundcover: Only 10 to 30 inches tall, it spreads in a dense colony and is easily controlled by pulling up the new plants at the end of the rhizomes. In the warm season it flowers almost continuously with pagoda-like stalks bearing several dense whorls of dark maroon or ruby red bracts that offset the 1 to 1 ½ inch long magenta to salmon flowers. Deadheading the dried flower stalks keeps this plant tidy if desired (and the bloom coming).
Design interest/uses: Successful in the sun or shade, as groundcover or erosion control on banks or under the canopy of oaks and other trees where it contends with root competition and lack of direct sunlight. It draws bees, other insects and hummingbirds and works also as container plant. It mixes well with plants that won’t be smothered by its large leaves, such as bunch grasses, irises, manzanitas and coffeeberries.
Salvia Clevelandii ‘Bee’s Bliss’
Water: Drought tolerant to occasional.
When in bloom with lovely periwinkle blue flowers on 1-foot-long stalks, Salvia ‘Bee’s Bliss’ (hybrid of Cleveland Sage and purple Sage) draws insects and birds. This cultivar (hybrid between Cleveland and purple sage) reaches 1 to 2 ft tall and spreads quickly to 8 feet wide. It is subject to powdery mildew during cool weather, but the mildew disappears as temps heat up.
There are a couple of hybrids available in nurseries. Other cultivars are ‘Allen Chickering’ ; ‘Pozo Blue’, ‘Aromas’, ‘Mrs. Beard’ has masses of plae blue flowers and a similar form, and more reliable than ‘Dara’s Choice’ which grows in partial shade.
Design interest: Low, sturdy and attractive groundcover for sunny slopes where it is used as erosion control; rarely browsed by deer.
To plant or not to plant (now) – that’s the question
Working with California native plants, I’ve learned that in some ways they are not that different from non-native species. Find the right plants for the garden’s soil, sun, and water, and they are easy to grow and maintain. The further you stretch out of a plant’s comfort zone, the higher maintenance it will require.
Here’s what the experts at Las Pilitas Nursery say:
“In years like 2013, if you have the water, plant from about December to February in the hot interior, plant all year in the rest of the state, particularly if you’re replacing a lawn or something else that needs a lot of water. If you’re replacing the lawn you’re going to save a lot of water in just a few months so do not feel guilty about using that water for change. New plantings need to be watered once a week for the first season in a dry year like 2013. So as long as you can do that, you can replace that dead looking non-native landscape.”
We are lucky that several local nurseries not only grow California Natives, but that they offer help with diy landscape design offering expert instructions and workshops. At Tree of Life Nursery, you can find many clear and useful planting and maintenance guidelines. Moosa Creek Nursery also makes guidelines available. Recon Native Plants grow California native plants for the landscape and the habitat restoration industry.
Back in the Garden, as I was soaking in the sunshine that was bathing a large stand of Matilija Poppy, my eyes were drawn to the brilliant color splashes of yellow Palo Verde bloom, deep pink of Desert Willow trumpets and vibrant-orange blossoms of Desert Cholla. It struck me how harmonious the composition was, in color, texture and form, and I marveled at how appealing this scene was to me.
What is then the essence of this landscape that so draws me? Is it the idea that this landscape has thrived without our pruning, watering and fussing, for millions of years? Is it because of this California flora providing such a rich source of beautiful, diverse and durable garden plants? Or is it that it is the only sustainable landscape design that feels “right” in our bright light, growing out of our rustling leaf litter under oaks or Sycamore, or in the fragrant shade of pine trees, or the between the crunchy leaf litter of our chaparral? For me, it is the only landscape type that I feel nurtured with, and that gives me the strongest ‘sense of place’.
Photos courtesy Koby’s Garden Alchemy and Christiane Holmquist