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Special Garden Issue

Going Native

With Water Supply Restrictions, Conservation Campaigns and the Threat of Drought, the Time Is Right for Growing Indigenous Plants

May 18, 2003|Susan Heeger | Susan Heeger is a frequent contributor to the magazine.

One moody morning in a Brentwood canyon, as a listless sun struggles with clouds in a lowering sky, actress Rene Russo pulls on boots and hits the path in her California native garden. "Here's something the land loves," she says, pinching a berry from a wild currant. "Look--gorgeous red translucent fruit, gorgeous red flowers, all in the dry shade of an oak. And smell this--one of our own pitcher sages. Smells like heaven, needs very little water. These are what excite me. You get so much from plants that ask for almost nothing."

Dripping and shiny after a rain, these rambling, oak-sheltered greens--snowberry, mahonia, toyon, mountain mahogany and coral bells--resemble the wild carpet of a forest. And this was exactly Russo's goal when she and garden designer Stephanie Wilson-Blanc began planting four years ago in the oak woods below her house.

Since then, Russo, who says she initially was unable to tell an oak from a sycamore, has become an activist for California's indigenous flora. "We don't even know what we had in L.A. because so much has been lost," she says, and then she notes the region's mixed blessing: "You can grow almost anything in this climate, which, nevertheless, has consequences."

Russo has seen these firsthand. When she and screenwriter husband Dan Gilroy bought their 2 1/2 hilltop acres in 1998, many of the oaks, swamped by thirsty lawns, Southern willow trees and rampant vinca, were dying from too much water. To save them, and to re-create what might have once grown on her hill, Russo broke ranks with L.A.'s aficionados of English or tropical gardens and looked for plants that arose naturally in these parts. She isn't alone. Not since the drought years of the late 1970s, and again in the late '80s, has there been so much attention paid to this rugged yet unassuming plant group--chaparral shrubs such as ceanothus and buckwheat, woodland ground covers and ferns, desert succulents such as our native dudleyas and agaves.

Once again, the region's ebb and flow of drought conditions has contributed to the return of natives as a garden trend. "The visibility of these plants historically has been closely tied to water issues," says Bart O'Brien, director of horticulture at Claremont's native-plant mecca, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. He and others cite July 2001 through June 2002 as the driest year in the state's recorded history. The previous year was little better.

This year the threat of prolonged drought has been eased by late-arriving El Nino rains, but Southern California's water future is hardly robust. The federal government has ordered that the Metropolitan Water District, which serves Los Angeles and five surrounding counties, give up 35% of its allotment of the Colorado River, beginning this year.

"It's not a short-term issue, it's chronic," says Adan Ortega, the MWD's vice president for external affairs. Which is why, under Ortega's leadership, the MWD has launched a program to reduce landscape water use. One approach is to promote native-oriented gardens, which are naturally suited to our dry conditions. "We needed a drought-resistant theme that would resonate long-term, not just in drought cycles," Ortega says. He calls the 1980s desert-inspired landscaping concept "a failure," because it lost its luster once rains returned in the early '90s.

Last May, Ortega and Russo attended the same fund-raiser at Rancho Santa Ana, where the actress was speaking about her garden. They got to talking, and Russo agreed to serve as spokeswoman for the MWD's campaign. "The reasons to use these plants go way beyond the water issue," Russo says, echoing the thoughts of many like-minded gardeners. One of them is Dave Fross, president of the Arroyo Grande-based wholesale nursery Native Sons, where native plant sales make up one-third of its business. "This is so much about regional identity, and the sense of loss you feel if you grew up in California and watched the wild land disappear," Fross says. "Maybe you don't have a hillside where you can put back the Artemisia californica, but you can plant three Artemisia californica 'Montara,' a smaller, mounding cultivar of the shrub, along your driveway, and bring back the smell of childhood."

You can also help save native plants from extinction, which is an ever-increasing threat, says Melanie Baer-Keeley, a restoration horticulturist for Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. Citing figures from the California Native Plants Society, which has conferred endangered status on one-third of the state's 6,300 native species, Baer-Keeley blames population pressure: land development, residential building and the spread of exotic weeds that race through open spaces, choking out natives. When wild land is thus colonized, animals, birds and insects lose their life-supporting habitat.

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