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Reflections

A Catch-22 Delayed Use of Native Plants

January 16, 1988

Reflections showcases county residents with an interesting life story and gives them a format to tell it in their own words.

The local flora that Mike Evans encountered as a boy living near a Newport Beach back bay left a mark that brought the 33-year-old grower back to his native roots.

Opening his own landscaping business in the late '70s, he noticed an industry-entrenched cycle that prevented commercial cultivation of California plants. He decided to break it. Collecting wild seeds on backcountry hikes, he took on the task of adapting the seedlings to containers. His painstaking experimentation paid off. Now an expert consulted by university professors, the San Juan Capistrano resident has phased out his landscape business--he co-owns the Tree of Life Wholesale Nursery and offers landscape contractors 250 native California plants.

His remarks were taken from an interview with Times staff writer Nancy Reed.

The trend in nursery production and plant use has been exotic. Some people have called it a "pasted-on" look.

Native plants can be used in designed environments as well as in the natural environment.

Theodore Payne, who was really one of the first people to come into the limelight for promoting regional California plants within the region, had the idea to grow native plants commercially in the 1940s and '50s. Not very many people listened to his message back then, because there was so much development and things were happening so fast.

He was like a prophet in the wilderness.

The cycle has been that the landscape architects and the planners would consistently say, "We would specifically draw California native plants into our plans if only they were available," and that was their excuse.

And the nurserymen, the suppliers, on the other hand, would say, "Well, we would grow them if someone would specify them."

Everyone blamed everyone else. And we just jumped in and said we are going to grow 'em and call everybody's bluff, and see if you really do specify them.

By 1982, our business started on the upswing. Water conservation became a major issue and you have a whole set of people out there who came out of the 1960s and '70s and saw the whole environmental movement--took part in it in some way--and quite a few of them kept those ideals.

So the people who are calling the shots now have experienced that movement, and native plants all of a sudden make sense.

It is the same message that Payne was giving--and there were heroes of the native plant before him who have plants named for them--so the idea of planting regional plants in this region is old. But it is coming of age.

We do try to use the water conservation issue as an attention-getter, but it is not the main reason we grow native plants.

We grow them because they belong. You have a state like California, which has in excess of 5,000 species of native vascular plants--we are not counting mosses--and it is unbelievable.

And add to that, one out of every two species occurs only in California.

That means a lot of potential. Out of 5,000 species, a few of them are bound to be attractive, ornamental. Like the California lilac, and wild flowers like the coastal sunflower and California fuchsia.

We are not dealing with a place that is void of beauty so that we have to bring in all sorts of exotic beauty.

We have it right here.

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