Garden field trip: Native plants of California
November 28th, 2007
I joined Lili Singer on a tour through Theodore Payne Foundation’s native plant nursery
Thank goodness for friends who will host me when I have an urge to take a plant excursion. On Tuesday, I visited Lili Singer, gardening personality extraordinaire who is a beloved radio and newspaper personality and longtime advisor to Southern California plant-lovers.
Lili has taken on special projects at The Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants in Sun Valley, Calif., a short drive off of Hwy I-5 , near Burbank Airport. Her pieces appear frequently in the Los Angeles Times Home section, she has a loyal following of students most Thursdays at the LA County Arboretum, and she is a board member of Southern California Horticultural Society. We met in August 05 when I came to LA to give a lecture for SCHS … then, a month later at the Garden Writers annual meeting, I really got to see what type of plant maven she was during the day we cavorted around the private landscapes of Vancouver, BC with a few other intrepid souls.
When I knew I was going to trade my Seattle zip code for a SoCal one, I also realized I would soon live in a state where I had several GWA friends and acquaintances, including Lili.
At the Theodore Payne Foundation, I tried to set aside any thought of my beloved NW garden and all the plants I can no longer grow because I now live in SoCal. Instead, I am looking closely at the amazing native plants available to me. Not really a botanical garden; Theodore Payne is a nonprofit nursery, seed store and bookstore for California native plants. Open to the public, Theodore Payne provides extensive plant information and advice in its nursery sales yard and through classes and public programs. Founded in 1960, the organization sponsors the free “Wildflower Hotline,” which alerts callers to the locations of seasonal wildflowers such as golden poppies and lesser-known but equally dazzling displays that embroider the hills and canyons of California (818-768-3533, March-May).
Outreach and volunteer coordinator Lisa Novick, Lili’s colleague, asserted that California has 6,000 native species to offer me. Wow. That’s something like three times what most states have!
While I lamented all the plants I couldn’t grow anymore, Lisa gently redirected the conversation, telling me that Seattle (and its plants) was like my “first love” to which all subsequent garden Zones will be compared. She observed that I’m still pining for that romance as I evaluate every subsequent suitor (plant, garden) to my original passionate relationship. “They’re never going to be the same; they’re different, and you need to enjoy the beauty of the difference,” she pointed out.
Nursery areas are enclosed in deerproof fencing and netting
I’m trying, okay? It’s hard to get my former lush, green, exuberant environs out of my system. Lili walked me through the Theodore Payne Nursery, a meandering series of paths that are nestled right up into the edges of LaTuna Canyon (this is a 22-acre parcel, complete with Flowerhill, a trail winding through chaparral and seasonal wild flowers). Plant sales areas are divided by category, just like any good nursery (groundcovers, perennials – oh, and “chaparral shrubs,” now that’s a category that Swanson’s Nursery doesn’t carry!).
This is a busy, busy nursery for wild and native plants of California. If you log onto Theodore Payne’s website, you’ll see its extensive plant, bulb and seed list, updated weekly. Many of the plants are propagated on site; others are supplied by reputable growers of California natives.
I zeroed in on a stunning evergreen specimen called Woolly Blue Curls (Trichostema lanatum), which looks like a long-needled rosemary but with the velvety purple-blue flower spikes of a Mexican sage. It’s a hummingbird and bumblebee favorite, according to California Native Plants for the Garden, the lovely reference that my Seattle book group gave me as a going-away gift when I moved. Ah, a new crush! Can’t wait to see how this relationship evolves once I get my very own ‘blue curls’ planted at home.
Bulbs have been very hard to give up with my move south; I’m kind of lost without my fall ritual of scrambling to plant as many tulip, allium, narcissus and grape hyacinth bulbs as time allows – usually in the pouring rain on Thanksgiving, while the turkey is roasting.
A new version of that November bulb ritual might look like this: Deb in t-shirt, capri pants and flip-flops, a small envelope of native bulbs in hand, planting clusters of three pearl-onion-sized bulbs in pots. With names like Firecracker Flower (Dichelostemma ida-maia), Ithuriel’s Spear ‘Queen Fabiola’ selection (Triteleia laxa), and Yellow Mariposa Lily ‘Golden Orb’ (Calochortus), I’m eager to see what delicate beauties arrive next spring.
One caveat with these native bulbs: They do NOT like any water in Summer or Fall. That’s of course when California’s wild areas are dry anyway; but move into the typical suburban backyard where occasional summer water is needed, hmmm. Guess there won’t be room for these bulbs at the front of my perennial beds.
Lili suggests I grow these in pots, at least this first year….that way I can enjoy them next spring when they bloom (photos are promised, here) and when the flowers fade, I can move the pots to the side of the house and let the bulbs stay warm, dry and content.
Warm, dry and content. That’s a noble thought for my own life, too!
A selection of native California plants, happily growing in a potted garden display