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IN THE GARDEN

City Blooms, Country Blooms

Many flowers popular in California gardens have rugged cousins rebelling along Southland hiking trails and amid chaparral.

March 29, 2001|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

A number of favorite garden flowers have relatives living in our hills--country cousins that can be every bit as charming and pretty as their garden kin. Growing in the Santa Monica Mountains, from Griffith Park to Point Mugu, are wild roses, delphiniums, lilies, penstemon, snapdragons, sunflowers, even a native peony and clematis.

Although it did not look like it was going to be much of a year for wildflowers, all of the recent rain has changed that. Elizabeth Schwartz of the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley--which tracks blooms for its Wildflower Hotline ([818] 768-3533)--says it's going to be a good year, if perhaps a little late. Some shrubs and perennials are already in bloom, but others will flower from now though June.

In May, one of the most spectacular perennial wildflowers and perhaps the hiker's favorite, the Humboldt lily (Lilium humboldtii), opens its spotted orange flowers atop 6- or 8-foot stems. "There are already hundreds" of stems shooting up from bulbs that grow along one of James Kenney's favorite trails in Santa Ynez Canyon. A recently retired dentist, the 65-year-old Kenney is an amateur botanist and an avid fan of wildflowers who spends his springs hiking local trails with a camera. His photographs illustrate Milt McAuley's comprehensive "Wildflowers of the Santa Monica Mountains" (Canyon Publishing; 1996).

Kenney has already spotted the intriguing brown blooms of the native peony (Paeonia californica), "which are all over the place" and have been blooming since January. Being a perennial, it tends to flower whether there is a little or a lot of rain. Many gardeners find it surprising that we cannot grow garden peonies (at least not very well) because they require so much cold, yet we have a native peony growing in our own mountains! Although its flowers are not very peony-like, you can't miss the finely dissected, grayish peony foliage.

There is also a native clematis (Clematis ligusticifolia), commonly called virgin's bower, that doesn't look much like a clematis until you really study the flowers and recognize that explosion of stamens--found on some other clematis--that make the flowers look like powder puffs. The vines are big and aggressive and will grow in gardens, though very few of these wild relatives of garden flowers will.

The native rose (Rosa californica) grows along canyon creeks and in other wet places, which shouldn't surprise gardeners, since they know how much water garden roses want. The small pink flowers are not spectacular, but there is no doubt they are roses.

There are two kinds of delphiniums that grow mostly in the open coastal sage--the towering blue Delphinium parryi and the red and even taller (to 10 feet) D. cardinale. You will not find red-flowered delphiniums at California nurseries, though there are new red varieties in Europe and our native was one of the parents.

Penstemons are not nearly as common in California gardens. Some people grow the big-flowered garden kind, Penstemon gloxiniodes, and a few have tried the two natives, Penstemon heterophyllus and P. spectablilis. Both tend to be short-lived and fussy in gardens, which is surprising, since they grow in really hostile spots in the wild, blooming amid heat-shriveled grasses in summer.

Most of these country kin of garden flowers are pretty easy to see along trails in the various state parks in the Santa Monica Mountains, such as Will Rogers, Topanga, Malibu Creek, Leo Carrillo, Sycamore Canyon or Point Mugu. Others, such as a native snapdragon or the native fire poppies, which look just like little Iceland poppies, are less seen. According to Kenney, "You only find them by happenstance."

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