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California Native Plant PR

Monday, February 20, 2006

March 2006 Los Feliz Ledger Column, "Demystifying Native Plants"

It occurred to me recently that I have not yet taken the opportunity to define the term “California native plants.”

Boiled down to their essence, they are plants that have grown here naturally - without human intervention - since before the Europeans stepped foot on this soil.

This astounding array of indigenous flora survive symbiotically with the environment but, strangely, are not used to their potential. The majority of plants populating the sides of our freeways, parks, botanic gardens and home gardens are from everywhere else but here (“exotic”).

Natives grow under many different conditions, as California is climatically and geographically diverse. There are plants that naturally grow near or in streams and other waterways, in high altitudes, deep within dense forests, along sandy bluffs, in dry deserts and on rocky cliffs. Not all are “drought tolerant,” a blanket term often mistakenly ascribed to all California native plants.

The concept that all natives are able to withstand prolonged dryness and intense sun is one of the biggest misnomers about them. “Native” doesn’t equal water-free.

Another puzzling perception is that all natives look like weeds or completely dry up in the summer. This is false. During the hottest months, only a small percentage of the thousands that have grown here over the ages go dormant to conserve energy for survival.

A large portion are evergreen. Many native groundcovers, vines, perennials, shrubs and majestic trees - like the coast live oak - always have leaves on their branches. But this is not to dismiss the outstanding plants that happen to be deciduous. Even without foliage, several plants have unique shapes and look divine during dormancy.

Natives provide gorgeous flowers – something not always acknowledged about them. If the right species are chosen, it is possible to have a completely California garden that will bloom throughout the year.

A giant myth I’ve encountered is that a native plant can be put in the ground and survive without any water or is somehow indestructible just because it is native. Wrong!

Natives require a lot of water when first planted and on-going T.L.C. for at least the first year (sometimes longer) to become “established,” i.e. getting to the point where roots have grown into the soil and are strong and long enough to acquire moisture and nutrients on their own. Some will still need regular waterings throughout their lives while others will be OK with limited supplemental irrigation. All thrive with minimal maintenance – occasional pruning and dead-heading (removing spent flowers and their stalks) and yearly mulching. Fertilizing and amending soil is generally not advised (but research each plant to be sure).

Lastly, it’s crucial to put a plant in the right place at the right time. A sun-loving native simply will not survive in an all shade location and vice versa. Also, each plant must be given the appropriate soil type and drainage ability. And most should be installed in the cooler months (with a few exceptions).

Understanding native plants may seem complex but it really just boils down to a few guidelines: they come in many different shapes and sizes; they’re in short supply in public places and home gardens; and they require a lot of the same things given to non-native plants. Once they’ve had the initial care they need, natives that have adapted to drought can be practically forgotten about and the rest need occasional attention. However, we cannot expect miracles; they’re not superheroes of the botanical world. They’re special and integral to the ecosystem and must be understood in order to be successful. Given the right conditions and correct amount of water, they’ll outshine any exotic interloper, hands-down.

To shop a wide assortment of native plants, visit the spring sale at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden on Sat., April 1st.


  • Texas Reader here. We Texans also value our native plants. Like you, we have an amazing palette of plants and trees to choose from, and they establish the regional identity of our respective places.

    I can only agree that native plants are under-utilized in public spaces and home gardens. The good news is we are experiencing a paradigm shift here...one that we are only in its adolescence, but gaining steam. The tremendous value proposition native plantings provide consumers (water-conserving, lower-maintanence, wide, hardy selection) is pulling more and more natives onto nursery shelves. Indepenedents nurseries were obviously the first to react, then the regional chains, and now even the big-box hardware/nurseries are taking notice.

    Cities and consumers here have become somewhat tired of losing their civic/regional identity to the flora that national builders and the hardware chains were offering, so it may have started as a bit of a cultish backlash, but the value proposition is winning the day. Consumers are educating themselves. Cities and even some of our builders, are demanding demanding native landscaping. Native-focused landscape designers, many of whom have lived for this moment, have booming businesses to serve the growing residential and commercial demand.

    Being in the adolescence of a paradigm shift makes many native-loving Texans feel pretty good, but the job is only a quarter-done.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:18 PM  

  • Thanks so much for your comment. It's great to hear about native plant enthusiasts across the country.

    By Blogger monkeyflower, at 8:41 PM  

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