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IN THE GARDEN

Key to Spring Wildflowers Is to Start Them Now

November 20, 1994|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

Don't be misled: Growing wildflowers is work, although many would call it the most rewarding kind.

"It's hard work if you're thinking of throwing seed on a vacant lot," according to Kevin Connelly, who has fought weeds for several years so wildflowers could grow on Wildflower Hill at the Theodore Payne Foundation in the San Fernando Valley.

"On the other hand, they're no harder than any other flower you might start from seed, if you're gardening in clean soil (weed free) and planting during the cool season."

Too many people wait until spring to plant. The time to plant is now, from late fall through early winter, according to Carol Bornstein, who oversees the annually planted wildflower meadow at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

Wildflowers germinate with winter's rains, bloom in spring's cool sun, shrivel and set seed in summer, then die.

Be aware that there are many wildflower wanna-bes, those annual flowers sold as wildflowers but native someplace else. They make up the bulk of the "wildflowers" in the mixes seen in many catalogues and even sold by the can at some nurseries.

Red flax, red European field poppies, blue bachelors buttons, bright yellow coreopsis and similar annual flowers are pretty garden plants and they're on the same winter-spring cycle, but they're not California wildflowers.

The real wildflowers are dainty little things. What they lack in size, they make up for in numbers of flowers when they blanket our hills and high desert in spring.

With a lot of work, you can grow a meadow of your own, or tuck them here and there in the garden--much less work.

Even in my crowded city garden, I found room last fall for wildflowers, sowing some clarkias and nemophilas among the pansies and tall bearded iris. The small nemophilas foamed between the fuller Antique Shades pansies and the clarkias filled that inevitable empty space between iris clumps.

I tried two clarkias (from Thompson & Morgan, P.O. Box 1308, Jackson, N.J. 08527-0308), the truly wild Clarkia amoena and a ruffly "improved" strain called Royal Bouquet, the pink and coral blooms softly complementing the blue iris.

The nemophilas weren't the more common baby-blue-eyes, but a subspecies they call Pennie Black with small, soot-colored petals surrounded by a crisp white edge, and the even tinier Snowstorm that has white flowers speckled like a bird's egg.

If you have bigger plans and want to try growing a miniature meadow, here are some nearly sure-fire choices suggested by Bornstein, Connelly and Bart O'Brien from Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont, beginning with the first to bloom in late winter and ending with the clarkia called "farewell-to-spring:"

Baby-blue-eyes-- Nemophila menziesii is short and truly blue.

Lupinus nanus --also short and blue and bountiful at the bottom of the Grapevine.

Meadow foam-- Limnanthes douglasii is short and spreading with yellow flowers. A vernal pool plant, it needs a little extra irrigation.

California poppy--18 inches tall and nearly the definition of orange.

Clarkia unguiculata --two feet tall with spidery orchid flowers. Particularly long-lasting and tough.

Phacelia tanacetifolia --two to three feet tall with lavender blue flowers.

California bluebell-- Phacelia campanularia is superb inland, about a foot tall, with gentian blue flowers.

Globe gilia-- Gilia capitata grows a foot tall with round blue flower heads.

Tidytips-- Layia platyglossa is a foot tall with yellow flowers inside a white edging.

Chia-- Salvia columbariae is also a foot tall with deep, deep purple flowers.

Arroyo lupin-- L. succulentus is two feet tall, purplish-blue and commonly seen on road cuts.

Spider lupin-- L. benthamii is also two feet tall but more delicate and bluer.

Linanthus grandiflora --grows eight inches tall, white or pale pink.

Clarkia amoena --a foot-and-a-half tall, soft lilac or pink.

There are many more genuine wildflowers that can be grown and most are described in Connelly's "Gardener's Guide to California Wildflowers" ($12.95) published by, and available at, the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley. For information, call (818) 768-1802.

The Payne Foundation is also a source of seeds and they sell several ready-made mixes for special situations (including shade). They have a descriptive seed list, available for $1.50.

Another source of true wildflowers, used by the Santa Barbara Botanic garden, is Larner Seeds, P.O. Box 407, Bolinas, Calif. 94924, (415) 868-9407. A catalogue is available.

In his book, Connelly also suggests mixes that work best in certain locals (such as the beach), beginning with the most basic California meadow mix, good anywhere, of yellow, orange and blue--tidytips, poppies and lupin--that will make your garden look like a California plein-air painting.

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