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Nurturing native splendor

September 04, 2003|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

Southern California divides into two places: the irrigated and the dry. For those of us who inhabit the irrigated place, which is most of us, our worlds are green. Our parks, lawns, hedges and flower beds are made up almost entirely of imported plants, thirsty specimens kept lush year-round by imported water.

By contrast, the dry place is a study in silver, gray, blue, blue-green, olive, cinnamon, gold and charcoal. In the foothills and coastal bluffs, bright greens occur only fleetingly, in winter, just after the rains, then become muted with as little as the passing of a cloud.

This dry, wild palette is as varied and rich as Scotch heather, so understated it's more Ralph Lauren than Ralph himself. But for most gardeners and all but the best nurseries, working with this palette is a challenge.

The plants have largely eluded commercializing. They don't enjoy life in nursery pots. As a result, there is an upside-down quality to what we are sold. We won't see California live oaks, black walnuts, manzanitas or California lilacs sold in most home improvement stores. Rather, plants such as azaleas, suited to the damp, acid soils of the deep South, are universally stocked here.

The impulse to turn California into Connecticut west spills over into fine art. From the turn of the last century, most landscape painters shrouded their subjects in mist or moonlight, depicted irrigated gardens and even recolored scenes to fit fashionable Eastern and European ideals, says Nancy Moure, author of the 1998 book "California Art: 450 Years of Painting & Other Media."

"One painter, Franz Bischoff, a former china painter, brought china-painting colors in," she says. "If you see his paintings, it may look like the Arroyo Seco, but it's all pinks and purples."

But even for those of us who appreciate the dusky native palette, gardening with it takes more than discernment. The relative wildness of natives makes them harder, not easier, to cultivate in our irrigated inner cities. The plants seem to die in captivity. Our fretful attentions and ever-effusive sprinklers simply rot their roots.

This is not to say that we can't do it. Killing plants, alas, is part of the learning curve. Bart O'Brien, director of horticulture at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont, ruefully calls these failures "expensive annuals." Natives can submit to cultivation. It just takes practice. A growing band of nurseries, botanical gardens, plant societies and landscape architects is showing us how to entice some of the smoky native palette back into town.

The native gardening movement signals a coming of age. Los Angeles the boomtown was sold to the world as the place where you could grow anything. As it matures into one of the great metropolises of the Pacific, more and more gardeners are in search of an authentic plant palette, and through it, discovery of the true nature of the West.

When Upland teacher Janice Elliott decided to explore growing natives in the front yard of her suburban house, a friend recommended that she tour the grounds of Rancho Santa Ana in August. It is the largest native garden in Southern California, and its 86 acres set along the baking foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains are largely unirrigated. "If a plant looks good in August," said the friend, "buy one."

Her friend had a point. A California native that flowers in late summer is some plant. Most will be dormant -- these months are not typically part of the growing season.

As O'Brien leads a tour of the grounds, one of the first lessons he gives is in California's seasons. We have all four, he says, they just don't occur at the same time as back East. For the flora that evolved here over millenniums, August is the California equivalent of January in New York. Through one hot day after the next, most native plants will either be slowed to a standstill or fast asleep as they conserve every last milliliter of water absorbed from winter rains.

Most of them are evergreen or semideciduous. Because of this, it is easy to imagine that they are suffering and need water. But only recently planted specimens should be watered (in nature, these would grab hold only in rainy season, and we can fudge that). For established natives, we should no more water them during dormancy than a New Englander should start a drip line on a barren maple tree in February.

Spring here doesn't start at Easter, he explains, but more like Thanksgiving, with the first rains. Our summer begins in the Eastern spring, when plants that flowered in June are going to seed. By July, most of the plants in the Southern California hillsides are in deep dormancy.

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