Erik Madsen of North Tustin has a "Jack and the Beanstalk" story with a twist. The only difference between Madsen and Jack is that the hero of the fairy tale threw beans out his window. All Madsen did was clear a hillside of brush.
"For many years, I'd let one slope in our yard get kind of overgrown," Madsen admitted. "There were geraniums that had been growing there for years and a lot of branches and leaves as well. I also threw cut grass there.
"I finally decided it was looking too wild so I decided to clear it," he recalled. So a few months ago, Madsen cleared the hillside of all the unattractive brush.
Only a few weeks later, Madsen discovered a tall plant growing on the slope. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be not a beanstalk but a sunflower--one that eventually grew almost 15 feet high.
"When I first saw it, I said, 'What's this?' " Madsen recalled. "Whenever the wind blew it would really sway, so I got a 6-foot stake and secured the flower. When it grew above the stake, I secured it to some nearby bushes."
When the sunflower reached about 12 feet, it blossomed. At one time, almost a dozen flowers appeared. Finally, when it reached a height of about 15 feet, Madsen decided to cut it down. "It was starting to look kind of droopy," he admitted.
Is it common for sunflowers to grow, seemingly out of nowhere, in Orange County?
The answer is yes . . . and no.
"Sunflowers are not native to this area," explained Rico Montenegro, assistant director of the Fullerton Arboretum, and the person responsible for the day-to-day operations of the facility. "However, you can find them. It's not that uncommon. Most likely this flower was germinated by a seed passing through a bird dropping. That would be a pretty typical way for a sunflower to be established in this area--particularly if there were no other sunflowers around."
But sunflowers aren't the only plants to be assisted by birds or such animals as ground squirrels. Anything from vegetables to flowers to cattails can be carried from place to place, according to Montenegro.
Madsen can second that. While he no longer has a giant sunflower growing on his back slope, he now has tomato plants.
"We have tomatoes trying to grow in our rose garden too," Montenegro added.
Although seed are carried by birds and animals, many plants are self-germinating. In Orange County, this is particularly common among native plants and wildflowers.
"After the first year, once they've been established, flowers that are native often continue to grown and spread," said Norm Van Ginkel, owner of the Loma Vista Nursery in Fullerton.
Two of the most common wildflowers in this region are the bright California poppy and the deep blue and purple lupine that often blanket the hills of Southern California, according to Van Ginkel. Both of these wildflowers are self-germinating.
"Quite often, these flowers will continue to grow on their own with very little care required," added Van Ginkel.
Because they require less maintenance and are more drought-resistant than some of their thirstier cousins, more Orange County residents should be adding them to their gardens. But are they?
"Not really," Van Ginkel said. "We haven't seen any noticeable increase from last year. Part of the problem may be that we don't consider many of our native plants to be too attractive. We've always sold California poppies and lupine because they produce colorful flowers--but we haven't had that much interest in any other wildflowers. I guess they look too much like weeds to many folks."
Most of the plants Van Ginkel sells are not native to this region of Southern California. Flowers don't necessarily have to be native to flourish in Southern California. Many perennials and other flowering plants can thrive and spread. Marigolds, the Mexican evening primrose (oenothera berlan dieri) and verbena grow well in our warm, dry climate, and are drought-tolerant.
"Most folks have very definite ideas about what they want--lots of greenery, perennials, colors. That may change in the future with more focus on water conservation and attempts to get people to plant native plants," Van Ginkel continued. "But for now, they still seem to prefer plants from other regions."
Once gardeners have decided to "go native," they should expect wildflowers such as poppies and lupine to stay around for quite a while. Some species can even lie dormant for several years, according to Montenegro, only to emerge again when environmental conditions are more favorable.
Could this possibly explain Erik Madsen's sunflower? And now his tomato plants? Could the former landowners have planted sunflowers or a vegetable garden?
Not likely, since the Madsens have lived there for 20 years.
"This has just been the craziest thing," Madsen admitted. "I don't know what will be growing out there a few weeks from now. It seems like every few weeks, something new pops up!"
"While native flowers do grow well here, there are non-natives that can also be passed along and grow well, such as the sunflower," Van Ginkel explained. "Having a flower or plant suddenly spring up isn't that unusual--just take a look at all the weeds!"
If, like Madsen, you discover a wayward plant in your garden, bring it or a photo to the Fullerton Arboretum (Associated Road and Yorba Linda Boulevard on the Cal State Fullerton campus) or call (714) 773-3250. Van Ginkel and his staff at Loma Vista Nursery (650 East Bastanchury Road, Fullerton, (714) 992-0270), will help identify it also.