Tag Archives: California native plants

Salvia ‘Desperado’

There’s an irresistible momentum that sweeps me up every time I see a great-looking but unfamiliar plant. If at all possible, it must be tracked down and brought home. And then the game begins: Where to plant it?

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Garden designer Sue Dadd recently brought this sage to my attention, a hybrid of two California native sages, Salvia apiana and Salvia leucophylla, introduced in 1999 by the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, which is where I bought my gallon plant over the weekend at their Grow Native Nursery. I had just seen it planted en masse in a garden of Sue’s design and couldn’t get it out of my mind. It was one of those horticultural epiphanies, an absolutely thrilling sight, all shimmer and soft reflective shine with wands of pale lilac bloom spikes swaying around a large variegated agave.

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You can image search all day long, but there’s very few photos available and not much information either on this gorgeous plant. And that lack of anecdotal documentation is undoubtedly due to its size. It’s huge. Easily to 6 feet with some reports of 9 feet tall and maybe half that in width. How many gardens can accommodate such a bruiser? And it’s not like I’m afraid of big plants. I love how they anchor the garden and draw the eye away from the busy, busy planting underfoot.

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I didn’t even know at the time that this was a Rancho Santa Ana introduction. I was visiting to catch their wildflower show and stopped in briefly at the nursery. There were some nice Agave utahensis for sale, one of which I grabbed. As serendipity would have it, an elegant white sage sat amongst other native salvias on their benches, and the tag said ‘Desperado.’ Delicious ripples of recognition ran down my spine. Knowing its fated size from Sue (“It gets big“), I picked it up, put it back, picked it up again, carried it to the checkout kiosk, abandoned it midway, then finally resolved to buy it, if only to honor the plant scientists who dreamed up such a beautiful vision and made it real and available in a one-gallon pot. Or maybe the hybrid occurred naturally, but still a human had to recognize the potential and propagate it. Science!

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Back home in my garden I played a pretend game of “dress up” with ‘Desperado,’ trying out various sites and associations, knowing full well that, ultimately, there just isn’t room to accommodate it here. With Beschorneria albiflora, the light and water requirements would be a match. I was told at Rancho Santa Ana that this sage, unlike some natives, tolerates garden conditions and doesn’t need to be kept absolutely dry during summer.

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Nice with lime green nicotianas.

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It could easily handle some of the driest spots, too, with Yucca rostrata and euphorbias. And the hummingbird show would be epic.

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Or stir up some drama and high contrast with burgundy phormiums.

The Grow Native Nursery has demonstration gardens that are abloom with all sorts of interesting natives right now. In a border alongside the growing greenhouse was a compact version of another beautiful giant, the native buckwheat St. Catherine’s Lace, appropriately named Eriogonum giganteum. Identical in all respects except size, it was the designer plant of my dreams: Eriogonum giganteum var. compactum. I immediately inquired as to how I could get my hands on one and was told, for now, there are none to be had. That display bed was for propagation only. I’m certain I could fit that buckwheat somewhere in my garden.

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I do have someone in mind for a gift of ‘Desperado.’ This big, bodacious sage will have to be strictly catch and release for me. For zones 8-10 but can be grown as an annual too.

edited for veracity 4/25/17:

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P.S. Changed my mind again. It’s in the ground, very close to the back south wall. An Echium simplex I was letting develop seeds kindly gave up its seat on the bus.

Toyon, California Holly

This sturdy evergreen shrub native to California, Heteromeles arbutifolia, is also known as the Christmas Berry or California Holly. Here’s why:

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There’s an old urban legend that early European settlers in Los Angeles, where this holly lookalike grew especially abundant, named their new home in its honor.
Hollywoodland. Ultimately shortened to Hollywood.

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At a neighbor’s holiday party over the weekend, I discovered it in full-on berriment growing on the west side of their bungalow.
Of course, today I just had to beg for a few sprigs of berries to bring home.
(As far as I can tell, I’ve now coined that word “berriment,” and it just might stand as my lasting contribution to humankind.)
The foamy mass in the background is a native buckwheat, but not, because I asked, the giant St. Catherine’s Lace (Eriogonum giganteum).

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Irresistible impulses, like mine, to bring indoors the toyon’s bright red berries began to threaten its very existence until a law was passed in the 1920s prohibiting picking the berries in the wild.
A ban local birds wildly celebrated. There’s a complicated bit of science and tanins and whatnot involved in the question of toxicity to humans, but the short, safe version is don’t.
Just don’t eat the fresh berries. Notwithstanding the fact that local Indians did all manner of clever things with the flowers, berries and bark, for food and medicine.
Usual size is 8 to 15 feet, but it can and does grow bigger. My neighbor’s toyon is trained as a small tree, but it can also be grown as a hedge.
Easy and forgiving, sun or even part shade, tolerant of regular irrigation or, once established, summer drought.

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Other plants in the vase are sprigs of lemon cypress and olive from our garden, very familiar to Evie, but the toyon from just a dozen houses away might as well have been from another country.
Evie immediately leapt onto the table to investigate. Bears and coyotes are known to eat the berries, but I have no idea what the digestive tract of Felis catus would make of them.

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Evie never sampled, but did make a thorough, full-vase investigation.

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I filled a couple urns for the mantle too, mostly with lemon cypress and olive branches, with just a few sprigs of toyon berries, which manage to communicate holiday merriment even in very small quantities.

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Toyon became the official native plant of Los Angeles on April 17, 2012.

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For berries of your own to bring indoors during the winter holidays as much as you please, toyon is carried in local nurseries, usually at fall planting time.
Los Pilitas Nursery is also a source, as well as the Theodore Payne Nursery and Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden’s Grow Native Nurseries.
Any of the above resources will patiently and knowledgeably explain how toyon can be an essential evergreen in your summer-dry garden.

Bernard Trainor’s Landprints

Ages and ages ago (last July in fact) a bunch of us garden bloggers visited gardens in Northern California at last summer’s meetup known as the Fling. For the temperate Bay Area, it was an incredibly hot day, and we were all slightly wilted as we trooped into the Testa-Vought garden, designed by Bernard Trainor, where the gracious hosts offered refreshments and bade us to cool our feet in their pool. At that point, we were probably all dangerously close to begging for bathing suits. Not surprisingly, this was a garden I had to be pried from and forcibly scooted back onto the bus by our patient tour organizer, landscape designer Kelly Kilpatrck of Floradora. Amazing how quickly we revert to kindergartenish behavior when there’s a bus involved. Eventually, I did put down my glass of wine and made some lame attempts at photos. What I really wanted was to forget the camera entirely, have another glass of wine, and learn how to play the game of bocce.

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The Testa Vought garden had quite a few Australian plants, like acacia and grevillea, many selected by the owner, who according to Trainor is a hands-on plant devotee.

Never mind any of my other sunstruck photos because there’s a new book out on this designer’s work, “Landprints; The Landscape Designs of Bernard Trainor,” text by Susan Heeger, photography by Jason Liske and Marion Brenner. There’s so many interesting homes on design blogs now, but more often than not my reaction is predictably: How could such exquisite taste be so indifferent to what’s outside the house? For those who consider the landscape a low priority, this book is a primer on how, in the right hands, the landscape design just might change your life.

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Photo on the book’s cover

Mr. Trainor was the speaker at the November meeting of the Southern California Horticultural Society. The Aussie accent is barely perceptible now, but his boyhood spent surfing and sailing the Morningside Peninsula south of Melbourne, where silver banksia (Banksia marginata) presses in on coastal trails, is ultimately what attracted him to the western coast of North America, and specifically another peninsula, the Monterey Peninsula. Many of the following photos accompanied Mr. Trainor’s talk.

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Testa-Vought garden

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The “meadow” pool. After this project, many of his clients are now clamoring for a meadow pool of their own.
What looks like native scrub/chapparal planting is all the work of Trainor, which after settling in is sustained on rainfall alone.

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In this garden, Trainor had to persuade the stone masons that leaving pockets for plants would not destabilize the stairs.

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Though the book predominantly documents properties of extensive acreage, with insistent views of land, forest, ocean and sky, here’s an example of Trainor at work in a small space.

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On the bigger properties, low walls frame views, slow winds, and guide the eye, but are rarely used to completely enclose or isolate one from the surrounding landscape.

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(The next Fling for 2014 heads to Portland!)

Fall Planting Festival at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden 11/2/13

California is defined by its Mediterranean climate. It is the smallest floristic province in North America, but has the greatest diversity of plants north of Mexico. It includes such characteristic vegetation as chaparral, coastal sage scrub, oak woodland and grassland. These plants exhibit classic adaptations to California‚Äôs hot dry summers and cool wet winters: leaves that are small and leathery, light-colored or drought-deciduous.” – Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden

Tomorrow, November 2, 2013, is a special day indeed. Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden will host the Fall Planting Festival, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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Think you have other plans? Check out the extensive ceanothus and arctostaphylos offerings on their plant list here. I stopped counting the salvias at 25.

An event at which gardeners can purchase from a dazzling range of California native plants, at the perfect time of year for planting. There will be experts on hand to help people make selections, and to offer planting and care advice. There are a number of cultivars that are unique to RSABG, and some of these will be available at the event.”

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Argyroxiphium sandwicense (Silversword), photo from RSABG

Maybe you can squeeze in another oak; RSABG has 10 from which to choose. The California fuchsia, aka the hummingbird’s BFF, will be represented by 15 selections from their list of epilobium/zauschneria.
Here is where you’ll find that priceless gift for your garden from California’s exquisite botanical legacy.

freeway wildflowers

Two Sundays ago, on Earth Day, in fact, I bounded out of bed early to head for a strip of wildflowers I’d been watching gain momentum for weeks and which looked to be approaching peak bloom. Instead of driving miles out of town to see the wildflowers in bloom, like I resolve to do every year and then never do, this year the wildflowers had come to me, blooming in a narrow strip alongside the 7th Street onramp to the 710 Freeway as it leaves Long Beach.

For some visual context, the wildflowers are blooming in a narrow band parallel to the freeway onramp in the midst of all this industrial mishegoss. If you’ve seen movies like To Live And Die In LA and Gone In 60 Seconds, you may already be familiar with this view.

Port of Long Beach with the concrete-bottomed Los Angeles River flowing at the bottom of the photo:


I would have hopped on my bike since it wasn’t far, but this can be a lonely part of town before 7 a.m. on a Sunday.
A sign at the garden proclaimed the patrons of this garden to be a local bank, some civic associations, as well as a corporate sponsor (Walmart).

Up close the garden held some surprises. For starters, it wasn’t strictly an exercise in native plant restoration. On closer examination, the planting was a mix of natives and drought-tolerant exotics.

I’m guessing a form of Pennisetum alopecuroides (edited to add confirmation by Dustin Gimbel as Pennisetum messiacum)

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Kalanchoe beharensis

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As well as cistus, there were other tough, classic mediterranean climate plants such as rosemary, lavender, species pelargoniums, helianthemum…


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But the California natives were there too. Tidy Tips, Layia platyglossa

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Mimulus aurantiacus

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Scorpionweed, Phacelia crennulata, native to the American Southwest and Mexico.

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Along with the usual suspects that come in wildflower seed mixes.
Bachelor buttons, Centaurea cyanus, mostly in blue, with a few outliers in purple and pink.

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California poppies, Escholtzia californica, were well represented, perversely enough my least favorite poppy.

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Purple background haze is from Verbena lilacina

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Last exit out of Long Beach is holding quite the springtime show.

the wispy side of spring

Insubstantial Sisyrinchium bellum, Blue-Eyed Grass, is an elusive subject for the camera due to its habit of shutting its petals around “magic” hour, that pre-sunrise/post-sunset window when a photographer can rarely go astray. Still, it’s an utterly charming denizen of path-side plantings. Modest, self-effacing, unobtrusive, all those old-fashioned virtues are embodied in this California native.


Its neat and tidy evergreen grassiness would hardly be worth a mention all year, but for the morning in late winter when the slim leaves are topped with starry blue eyes winking up from the pathway’s edge, where there was nothing but green the day before.


This little relative of irises will never command a room, but it also will never be an obnoxious trouble-maker like Ipheion uniflora, a blue-flowered menace of a bulb which blooms here about the same time. Like the quiet person at the party that unexpectedly scintillates on closer acquaintance, that is the delicate appeal of Blue-Eyed Grass.

Garden Party in Westwood, CA Oct 22 & 23

With speakers the likes of such SoCal horticultural heroes as Bart O’Brien from the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, which is hosting this inaugural event, Lili Singer, Emily Green, John Greenlee, all whose talks will be spread across both days, making it almost impossible to choose which day to attend…

Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden invites you to celebrate gardens, gardening and gardeners at Grow Native Nursery Westwood’s Autumn Garden Party. Four California native plant experts will present lectures at the two-day event at RSABG’s Los Angeles retail nursery location.”

I’m fairly sure the seslerias are European, not native, so this photo of Sesleria ‘Greenlee’ in my garden is not precisely on topic. But it is an amazingly good grass.


I have so many questions about gardening with natives, whether exclusively or partially, so now must get to the hard work of deciding which day to attend. In case you missed it embedded above, the link to the event is here.

Walk the Walk

Long Beach Water Department is leading by example to gently ease citizens out of the mindset that wants to seed or unroll mowable turf grass as the default landscape. Who else is better positioned to educate the public on alternative landscapes for those expansive lawns that just won’t cut it anymore on Southern California’s average rainfall of 15 inches a year? At their own offices, this is exactly what they’ve done. Nothing fancy, no prohibitively expensive hardscape to dash low-budget hopes, just old-fashioned, solid plantsmanship.

During some errands yesterday, I stopped by their offices on 1800 E. Wardlow in Long Beach, which are tucked quite a ways back from the road.
If it wasn’t for this Agave vilmoriniana waving at me, I might have driven right on by.


Thyme interplanted among pavers and possibly a yellow gazania. Unlike thyme, Dymondia magaretae tolerates foot traffic. Here bordered by grasses and gaura.


Dendromecon rigida with the beach aster, Erigeron glaucus, in the background, a line of newly planted dudleyas barely visible to the left.
Decomposed granite paths weave among the plantings.


C’mon, men. Don’t mow your landscape, play with it. Drop the mower, put on a loincloth and build a cairn. You know you’ve always wanted to, but cairns just look silly on lawns and need to be surrounded by something windswept. Now grab a Guinness and admire your handiwork.


In the first photo above, grasses are a blue fescue and Stipa tenuissima, the latter getting the haircut treatment my husband gives ours in the parkway. Many Southern California designers are no longer utilizing this potentially invasive stipa, but you have to give it credit for its role as a gateway grass, building further interest in bunch grasses. As far as I can tell, it is universally beloved by all who see and touch it.

Second photo above: Ocotillo, Fonquieria splendens underplanted with Sedum rubrotinctum (‘Pork and Beans’) and Graptopetalum paraguayense (‘Ghost Plant’).


The plantings were a mix of natives and exotics, including the Chilean Calandrinia grandiflora, magenta flowers in the above photo, as well as the New Zealand sedge, Carex testacea not pictured. Some native plants that were not photographed included toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia (fronted by a big planting of Lobelia laxiflora), Salvia clevelandii, Salvia spathacea, Agaves shawii and deserti.