California Native Plants Exemplify Diversity

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Redwoods are the grandest native trees.

California native plants are logical options for the gardens and landscapes of California. It is only natural. They are already happy with the climates and soils here. They do not need to adapt quite as much as plants from other regions and climates do. After all, they lived here long before anyone else was here to water and maintain them.

Unfortunately, it is not that easy. California is a very diverse place. There are more climates here than there are within many other states combined, over a much larger area. Plants that are native to the Mojave Desert would not be happy in a rainforest of the Siskiyou Mountains. Coastal plants would be no happier high in the Sierra Nevada.

Within reason, California native plants for landscapes and home gardens should be either locally native, or native to similar climates. Plants from very different climates within California are about as exotic as plants from other continents. Just like foreign exotic plants, they may require special accommodation, such as irrigation, to survive here.

All plants need irrigation when first installed. Irrigation can be slightly complicated for plants that are native to climates with long and dry summers. They certainly need irrigation until they disperse their roots. However, a bit too much can rot their roots. California native plants can be sensitive like that. After all, they do not expect to be moist through summer.

Then, once established, many California native plants do not want frequent irrigation. Many want none at all. Chaparral plants like oak, manzanita, toyon, ceanothus and coyote brush tend to rot with too much watering. Plants that are native to riparian or coastal regions, like redwood, bigleaf maple, willow, cottonwood, elderberry and ferns, tolerate more irrigation.

Most California native plants that are from chaparral or desert climates do not perform well within the confinement of pots or planters. They prefer to disperse roots very extensively and directly into the soil, just like they do in the wild. Once established, they do not transplant easily.

Buckeye

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Buckeye starts to bloom like lilac, or upside down wisteria.

Ohio is the Buckeye State. The Ohio buckeye that is native there must be very special. Perhaps all other trees that are native to Ohio are just not very uninteresting. Whatever the situation, I sort of believe that the Ohio buckeye is more appealing in some regards than the California buckeye that is native here. However, the California buckeye might be more weirdly interesting.

The main reason that California buckeye is not popularly used in landscapes is that it is ‘twice deciduous’. That means exactly what it sounds like. Just like other deciduous trees, it defoliates in response to cooling autumn weather, and refoliates in response to warming spring weather. Unlike other deciduous trees, it repeats the process through the warmest weather of summer.

When summer weather gets too warm and arid, the foliage of California buckeye shrivels and sort of defoliates. Without rain to dislodge the shedding foliage, it can linger and look shabby for quite a while and maybe until it is replaced by secondary foliage that develops as the weather mellows. The secondary foliage does not last long before it is time to defoliate again for autumn!

California buckeye is not often planted into landscapes because it really does look like the living dead through summer. It provides no shade when shade is most desirable. Those that I work with are only here in the landscapes because they grew from self sown seed that sneaked in on its own. Some will be subordinated to more desirable adjacent trees, although there is no rush.

I happen to like California buckeye. Except for the rarely seen red horsechestnut, it is the only species of buckeye that I am familiar with. Bloom is neither colorful nor reliably profuse, but is delightfully fragrant in close proximity. Not many natives are fragrant.

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The fragrance is sort of buttery and faintly sugary.

Santa Cruz Island Ironwood

60504A few years ago, it was known as Santa Catalina Island ironwood. However, the rare subspecies native to Santa Catalina Island lacks the distinctively angular foliar lobes of the Santa Cruz Island ironwood, Lyonothamnus floribundus ‘aspleniifolius’. The evergreen compound leaves are about five inches long and four inches wide with three or five narrow leaflets, and look like chicken feet.

Young trees can grow at an impressive rate, but rarely get to thirty feet tall, which is only half as tall as they get in the wild. Most stay rather narrow, and shorter than a two story house. They work nicely in groves, but not as symmetrical groupings. Each tree has a unique personality and form, and some stay smaller than others. The finely shredding bark fades from cinnamon brown to gray.

Six inch wide trusses of tiny white flowers bloom late in spring or early in summer. These circular trusses are flattened, similar to those of toyon but larger. They fade to brown and can hang among the foliage for years. Older trees bloom more than vigorous young trees do. Deteriorating older trees can be cut to the ground and allowed to regenerate with fresh new growth from their stumps.

Some Plants Should Stay Wild

P80804+Native plants should be the most sensible options for local landscapes and home gardens. It seems natural that they would be the most sustainable, since they survive in the wild without watering, soil amendment or fertilizer. Once established in landscapes, they should be satisfied with the moisture they get from annual rainfall. Plants that are not native are considerably more demanding.

However, even native plants are not perfect. Some of the same qualities that help them survive in the wild are not so desirable around the home. To make matters worse, adapting to unnatural landscapes and home gardens can be as difficult for native plants as it would be for many of the common exotic (non-native) plants to adapt to the natural climate and endemic soils without help.

Natives obviously do not need much water. They certainly do not get much in the wild. They are resistant to drought because they disperse their roots so efficiently. The problem with this technique is that it does not work while plants are confined to cans (nursery pots). Once planted, new plants might take a bit of time to disperse their roots enough to survive without supplemental watering.

This might not seem like much of a problem for those who do not mind watering new native plants while they get established. New native plants still use less water than established exotic plants. The difficulty is that too much water can rot roots before they disperse! So, new native plants need to be watered regularly, but also need to not be overwatered! Monitoring them can be a hassle.

It might seem that larger new plants would be more resilient than smaller plants would be, but it is quite the opposite. Smaller plants (such as #1 or 1 gallon) disperse roots more efficiently, so get established sooner than larger plants (such as 5 gallon). Roots contained within small volumes of media (potting soil) are damaged less when planted than roots in larger volumes are. Roots of native plants, although efficient at dispersion, are innately sensitive.P90309+++++

Horridculture – Bad Seed

P80317+California poppies are like no other wildflower. They are so perfectly bright orange, and look almost synthetically uniform in profusion, as if painted onto coastal plains and hillsides. They may be a bit more yellowish in some regions, or a bit deeper orange in others, but they are always bright and strikingly uniform.
Genetic variation is naturally very rare. I can remember hiking with my Pa up to the (lesser known) Portola Monument in the hills behind Montara, and finding a few pale white poppies, and even fewer pale purple poppies. It was like finding four leaf clovers! Genetic variants among California poppies are not quite as rare as four leaf clovers are, but finding a few of both white and purple was really strange. I never found a pink one though.
Nowadays, poppies can bloom in all sorts of shades and hues or orange, yellow, red, pink and soft purple, as well as creamy white. Some bloom with fluffy double flowers. Of course, all this variety is not natural. California poppies were bred to do this.
The potential problem with such breeding is that California poppy is naturally very prolific with seed. Any of these weirdly bred varieties could escape into the wild and interbreed with wild poppies, causing them to be more variable, and interfere with the ecosystem.
The problem is not just with California poppies. Many plants get bred extensively enough to interfere with how they behave in the wild if they happen to escape cultivation.
Fortunately for California poppies, the weird new varieties do not really get very far in the wild. The are not true-to-type, so revert back to their original bright orange in just a few generations, even without outside influence. If pollinators do not recognize their unfamiliar color and form, they are less likely to get pollinated to continue to tamper with the ecology. In fact, wild California poppies still have the advantage in that regard.
This yellow California poppy with an orange center is a second generation seedling, and is already halfway between the original yellow variety, and the wild orange.

The Overlooked Trillium

P90407Other species must be more interesting than what is native here. There are supposedly as many species of Trillium as there are of Yucca; forty-nine. All but ten are native to North America. The others are in eastern Asia. They are desirable and respected perennials to those who are familiar with them. White trillium is the official wildflower of Ohio, as well as the official floral emblem of Ontario. Ours would not likely qualify for such status.

The few around here appear only briefly about this time of year, and bloom with these small purplish burgundy flowers. They are only a few inches high, so are easy to miss. By the time they get noticed they are finished with their bloom. Their foliage lasts only until the weather starts to get warm in late spring or early summer. During their brief season, they somehow manage to store enough resources to repeat the process for many years.

This particular species is supposedly known as ‘giant wakerobin’, or Trillium chloropetalum. It is so diminutive, that I can not help but wonder about those that are not ‘giant’. Others that I see around here have more rusty red or ruddy brown flowers that stay closed most of the time. Western trillium, Trillium ovatum, lives here too; and I may have seen its foliage without distinguishing it from giant wakerobin, but I have never seen it bloom.

The trilliums that are native here live in partial shade out in forests, but away from more aggressive plants. They do not transplant easily, and do not like refined gardens.

Other trilliums in other regions bloom with bigger flowers in white, pink, red, purple, pale yellow or green. They must be more impressive than ours, and should at least be more adaptable to home gardens and landscapes.

Nature For Sale

P90323KGardening is unnatural. Yes; quite unnatural. So is landscaping. It all involves planting exotic plants from all over the World that would not otherwise be here, including many that are too extensively and unnaturally bred and hybridized to survive for long even in the natural ecosystems from which their ancestors were derived.
Unless they grow on their own, even native plants are not natural. Those that are native to the region may not be native to the specific site. Many that are grown in nurseries are unnaturally selected varieties or cultivars. To complicate matters, much of what seems to be natural out in forests and wild lands are invasive naturalized exotics.
The weather above and most of the soil below are natural, but both are commonly enhanced for our gardens. We water our gardens and landscapes as if the weather is insufficient. Soil amendments and fertilizers compensate for what we perceive to be inadequacies of the natural soil. Insects, deer, raccoons and disease are all natural too, but we put quite a bit of effort into excluding them from our gardens.
Bees and other pollinators are all the rage now, even though many are not native or natural here. We provide them with weird and confusing new cultivars of flowers that likely produce nutritionally deficient pollen, and that distract them from naturally native plants that rely on them for pollination. It all gets so confusing!
These potted annuals and flowering perennials at the supermarket are pretty and might provide the illusion of bringing a little bit of nature closer to the home. Yet, there is nothing natural about them. They are all unnaturally bred and hybridized from unnaturally exotic plants, and were provided with synthetic fertilizers and artificial irrigation, while they were grown in synthetic medium, contained withing synthetic pots.

Nature Is Messy

4This sort of weather pattern does not happen very often. Late spring is normally pleasantly warm, and the weather gets progressively warmer through summer, which typically includes a few unpleasantly warm days. It rarely gets too hot here, and when it does, it does not last for more than a few days, and tends to cool off at least somewhat at night. The air is normally arid. Humidity is uncommon in a chaparral climate.
While so many in the Northern Hemisphere were experiencing unseasonable warmth, the weather here was unusually mild. When the weather became warm, it did so suddenly. There was nothing unusual about the warmth. It was well withing the normal range for this time of year. The suddenness of the change was what made it unusual.
Humidity complicated matters. Again there is nothing too strange about humidity. Although rare, it does sometimes happen. The problem was that it happened at the same time that the weather suddenly changed from pleasantly mild to somewhat warm.
This combination of the weather changing so suddenly from mild and arid to warm and humid caused an outbreak of spontaneous limb failure. It was very evident in Felton Covered Bridge Park, where several trees that experienced it could be observed in the same place.5
The most recent victim was the biggest old California sycamore in the area. Half of the top of the canopy broke away and got hung up on an adjacent trunk, but started a cascade of other limbs that broke off more major limbs all the way to the ground. A large cavity that contained a very established beehive was exposed. A car parked below was clobbered (but somehow sustained only minimal damage!). The remaining trunks and limbs of the old sycamore are now even more scarred and disfigured than they were before this happened. The biggest gash is about fifteen feet long! What a mess!
Spontaneous limb failure is technically very damaging to the trees who experience it, but not all of them see it that way. Many of the riparian trees that are so inordinately susceptible to it might use it to their advantage. Fractured limbs that remain attached to the original tree while they sag onto the ground can develop roots where they touch the soil, and develop into new trees. These new trees are more stable at first, but eventually develop structural inadequacies like their parents did, and repeat the process. Willows excel at this technique. Cottonwoods and box elders do it too. Sycamore do it only rarely, but sometimes destabilize and fall over so that some of their limbs can grow into new trees as the original trunks decay. It may not be the sort of behavior that we want in our home gardens or parks, but as far as the trees are concerned, it works.6

Palm Treevia

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This is a quick trivia question.

Which of these three states has the most native genera of palm?

1. California

2. Hawaii

3. Oklahoma

4. None of the above

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This is not a trick question. Notice that it asks about genera rather than species.

1. California is home to many exotic specie and genera of palm; but only ONE is native. The California fan palm, Washingtonia filifera, which is also known as the desert fan palm, lives in isolated groves out in the Mojave Desert. https://tonytomeo.wordpress.com/2018/06/30/oasis/ Because it prefers hot and arid desert climates, and does not like to be watered too generously through summer, it is now a very unpopular palm for landscapes.

2. Hawaii, is populated by many more exotic species and genera of palm than California is, but only species of the ONE genera of Pritchardia are native. Many of the exotic genera were imported by ancient Polynesians to produce food. Others were imported later for landscaping.

3. Oklahoma is the sort of place where only a few of the toughest of exotic palms can survive outside. Yet, McCurtain County, in the very southeastern corner of Oklahoma, is home to ONE very rare but nonetheless native variety of dwarf palmetto, Sabal minor.

4. ‘None of the above’ is the correct answer to the question because none of the other choices above have any more native genera than any of the others.

So, although Hawaii really does have more native species of palm, it has no more native genera than California or even Oklahoma. Each of these three states has exactly ONE native genus of palm.

I am sorry that I have no good pictures of any of these palms. All three of these pictures were obtained online. I have experience with neither the dwarf palmetto of Oklahoma, nor any of the species of Pritchardia of Hawaii. However, the California fan palm happens to be my all time favorite palm, even though it is not very happy here. It is such a stately palm, and those grown from the same seed batches are uniform enough for formal plantings. They are the palms that flank the famous Palm Driveway of the Winchester House in San Jose, as they were popular for flanking driveways and roadways in California and Arizona during the Victorian period. I did happen to see California fan palm in the wild outside of Palm Springs while in school in the late 1980s and can tell you that they are spectacular in their native habitat.

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Note: The elderly and deteriorating California fan palms that flanked the Palm Drive of the Winchester House have been replaced with palms that are hybrids of California fan palm, Washingtonia filifera, and Mexican fan palm, Washingtonia robusta. They are more tolerant to the irrigation of the landscape around them.

San Francisco iris

P80505KThere really is a bearded iris that happens to be named ‘San Francisco’. It is related to ‘Los Angeles’, but not ‘San Jose’. (I really want to find a copy of ‘San Jose’ for my own garden!) Both ‘San Francisco’ and ‘Los Angeles’ are white with a slight blue highlight, and an even slighter reddish edge that is easy to miss. I can not remember which one of the two is whiter than the other, but the whiter one may lack the reddish edge altogether.

The San Francisco iris I remember is something completely different. It is a native west coast iris, Iris douglasiana (or douglasii or any other variation of ‘douglas‘ that any particular botanist happen to prefer) that happens to be endemic to the coastal region of San Mateo County south of San Francisco, and was probably endemic to San Francisco County as well. It would be difficult to identify the entire range, because San Francisco iris is merely a variety, rather than a species. The species has a much larger range. Some might say that the same species in Sonoma or Monterey Counties is also San Francisco iris, just because it happens to bloom with a similar color range.

Well, then there is the issue of the color range. Most varieties of other specie are a particular color. Those that have a range of color at least exhibit a distinct color range that is somehow special and different from everything else. The San Francisco iris does not. It is always blue, but might be any shade or hue between very pale blue and rather dark new denim blue. Not only is that a broad range of color, but it is not very distinctive from the same species hundreds of miles away.

So why do we know it as ‘San Francisco iris’? I really do not know. Perhaps it is just something for us to brag about.

Over the years, west coast iris has been bred to bloom with larger flowers with more of a color range. I am sorry that I did not get more pictures while they were blooming. Besides the more common shades and hues of simple blue, they can bloom in various shades and hues of purple, violet, yellow, gold and white. They are still as undemanding as their ancestors are, and once established, do not need much attention at all.P80505K+