Return of the native
Publication Date: Friday Apr 18, 1997

Return of the native

Gardening with plants from California soils will bring the wilderness to your doorstep

by Elisabeth Traugott

Like gemstones on the hillsides of the Bay Area's many natural preserves, native wildflowers are colorful reminders of what the landscape was like before other plant species were introduced. Sage, penstemon, wooly blue curls and iris are just a few of the native flowers--many now in bloom--found in local wilderness parks and preserves.

But imagine being surrounded by such natural beauty in your own back yard. They are not only aesthetically pleasing but also easy to grow your own little garden.

"For me, it reminds me of the places that I've visited. It's like being back in the woods," said Don Mayall, vice president of the Santa Clara Valley Chapter of the California Native Plant Society. He likens native gardens to English gardens, which tend to be informal with species intermixed. "You put the plants in and let them do what they want to do, and you don't shape them," he said.

But this doesn't mean your garden will suddenly become a jungle.

When non-native species without a developed niche in the ecosystem are introduced into unfamiliar climes they may run amok if they go unchecked. As an example, Mayall described how the yellow flowers of German ivy, introduced from South Africa, now carpet moist areas around the coast.

But natives just don't take off this way, Mayall said, because "there are other things that keep them in check."

Those other things are climate conditions, insects and the plants' natural neighbors, those that have traditionally coexisted with them in the wild. To get a sense of which species complement each other, native plant enthusiasts say, take a hike through the local wilderness preserve and observe how plants cluster together naturally.

You also may want to observe the conditions under which a certain variety grows best. For example, if you notice iris growing in the shade, be sure to plant them under similar conditions in your garden. Eventually you can develop a habitat in your own back yard.

Native growers say it's hard to beat native species for their low-maintenance appeal. The plants were here long before the advent of irrigation systems and the big green pesticide trucks, and their needs are perfectly complemented by the natural conditions of our Mediterranean climate: dry in the summer, cold and rainy in the winter.

It is for this reason that Jean Struthers, president of the Santa Clara Valley Chapter of the California Native Plant Society, became interested in the plants.

"I really got interested when we bought a lot that was nothing more than a horse pasture, and I knew I didn't have enough hoses to water it," she said from the society's greenhouse behind Hidden Villa's visitor center.

Struthers said natives also attract beneficial insects that help rid the garden of aphids and other detrimental pests. The insects in turn attract birds, all of which create a natural ecosystem suitable for any suburban garden. In addition, the hard, clay soil of the Peninsula usually won't need to be amended, since natives have evolved to thrive in it. Natives will, however, need lots of water when they are first planted in order to develop an established root system. And undesirable weeds (many of which are exotics) will need to be controlled so they don't crowd out natives that are just starting out.

There will be an entire table at the plant sale at Foothill College devoted to species that attract hummingbirds. The society's home page,, has a comprehensive list of natives that hummingbirds love, including manzanita, tree mallow, and red larkspur.

The plant sale will feature such local favorites as blue-eyed grass, lupine, California poppies, sage, buckwheat and ribes, a flowering currant. Coral bells, rock cress--a dainty purple-flowering endangered species--and soap plant will also be for sale. Mayall said the roots of the latter were used by Native Americans for cleaning because they are naturally stringy and tough.

The California Native Plant Society Santa Clara Valley Chapter's semiannual native plant sale and wild flower show will be held the weekend of April 26 and 27 at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. both days. Co-sponsored by the Ornamental Horticulture Department of Foothill College, the show also will feature guided walks to the college's native hill plant collection at 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. Admission is free although parking meters require quarters.

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