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Native Roots : Dry Charm of Indigenous Plants Gaining Ground

May 19, 1988|SUSAN HEEGER

When Maureen Gerwig stands at the windows of her Woodland Hills home, she sees Southern California as it was meant to be. Hummingbirds sip the red blooms of her creeping sage. Bunch grass rustles, as it once did in profusion on the nearby chaparral. There are purple shoots of Douglas iris, Catalina Island buckwheat and cloudy blue ceanothus--all California natives, all thriving with minimal care and, Gerwig said proudly, very little water.

Once a rare sight in domestic settings, native plants of the desert and chaparral have begun quietly appearing in San Fernando Valley gardens, thanks to two Southern California landscape trends: one philosophical, one a drought-based necessity.

According to Jo Kitts, vice president of the Santa Monica Mountains chapter of the California Native Plant Society, "There has always been a group that loved and wanted to preserve the native landscape. Now, with the need to save water, this group has moved from preservation for philosophical reasons into the marketplace."

Sun Valley's Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants, the nonprofit center where Gerwig buys many of her plants, exemplifies the trend.

Though the foundation has existed since 1960 as the Southland's primary resource of native plants, sales and information, Payne manager Melanie Baer reports that membership has doubled, from 400 to 800, since 1985. Furthermore, Baer said, "we can't supply all the requests for plants, sales have increased so substantially."

Memberships range in price from $20 annually to $500 for a life membership; the cost of plants at the Payne Foundation runs from $4 for a one-gallon California sage to $65 for a 15-gallon 7-year-old California bay tree.

Although Baer waxes philosophical about the change ("Southern California is finally appreciating its landscape"), Charles Swigart a Sun Valley landscape contractor, attributes the growing interest in native plants to "water-issue publicity from newspapers and the DWP."

Last month, after the second drier-than-normal winter, state Water Resources Director David N. Kennedy declared a drought in California. Despite rains shortly afterward that brought some relief to local reservoirs, the DWP warned that the Sierra snowpack, the source of most Los Angeles and San Fernando Valley water, would be much lower than average.

The Los Angeles City Council in response invoked Phase 1 of a 1977 water conservation ordinance, calling for restrictions on wasteful practices such as driveway hosing and automatic water service in restaurants.

Ultimately, at Phase 5, the law could require a 25% reduction in water use for the DWP's service area. Wayne Kruse, a DWP senior planning engineer, says, "It's not out of the question that Phase 2 could be activated this summer." Phase 2 mandates a 10% reduction.

Such news sets off alarms in the landscape industry. Recently, Joe Brosius, production manager of Magic Growers, a Pasadena wholesale nursery that supplies retailers throughout Southern California, attended a meeting of the Southern California Horticultural Institute.

"The most important landscape trend agreed on was adaptation to different water use," he said. "More professionals are putting down" drought-tolerant and native plants on their plans, "so nurseries have to provide them."

Landscaping Decisions

Five years ago, when Gerwig, now a 42-year-old court reporter, was considering landscaping her new home, water problems were not foremost. She was simply tired of a look that pervaded Valley suburbs: "the Eastern-style garden with its neat lawn, obligatory three birches and begonias."

Her love of the plants in the Santa Monica Mountains, where she had hiked for years, led her to hire landscape contractor Bob Cornell, who calls his specialty "the California-English perennial garden."

To achieve this look and to keep water use low, Cornell mixed native shrubs such as California lilac with flowering herbaceous perennials from the Mediterranean and Mexico--a combination, Cornell says, that allows "a fuller palette," or more colors, than do native plants alone. Instead of a lawn, he created a mini-riverbed in a naturally wet area of the property, adding rocks and water-loving native plants.

For Gerwig, seeing a natural habitat take shape fired her enthusiasm. "I had so many ideas," she said. "I wanted a Valley oak because I'd heard they were endangered. I wanted the bunch grass the Spaniards had snuffed out." When the Spaniards colonized Southern California, Gerwig said, they planted sod grasses for their grazing animals, which choked out the natural bunch grass.

Through Cornell, she learned of the Payne Foundation and began visiting regularly for plants and advice. Eventually, she replaced most of her garden's imported plants with native, a choice, Cornell said, that not everyone would make.

"Most people aren't that comfortable with chaparral," he said, citing a bias toward lush gardens among California's population, most of whom are not native born.

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