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Patt Morrison Asks

Cassy Aoyagi: Going native

How landscape designer Cassy Aoyagi is carrying on horticulturist Theodore Payne's legacy.

December 11, 2010|Patt Morrison

Once upon a time, California wholesaled its fabulous flora. The searing brilliance of poppies and lupines and the pale greens of grasses spread themselves like titanic picnic cloths over a seemingly endless landscape. Now, of course, much of this vast plant menagerie has been plowed or paved or plucked away to the margins, even toward extinction. Horticulturist Theodore Payne saw this unhappy prospect when he came here more than a century ago from England as a teenager; in his 70 years in Southern California, he crafted native plant legacies in gardens from Santa Ana, Exposition Park and Caltech to Descanso Gardens.

Today, on a rustic little road in Sun Valley, the foundation that bears his name is devoted to proselytizing for California plants -- with a nursery, seed sales, demonstration gardens, nature trails and more. The woman who heads its board of directors is landscape designer Cassy Aoyagi -- a local, like the California bush daisy she's holding.

In 1891, an English teenager named Theodore Payne saw California plants in a London botanical garden. He moved to Los Angeles and spent nearly 70 years playing matchmaker for us with our native flora.

Imagine how the landscape looked in Los Angeles. He had the vision then, when we don't even have the vision now. His goal was to preserve natives and bring back natural habitat. When I think of his world in England?. You'd think he would have been like everybody else and brought in roses and hedges, but he obviously fell in love with natives.

Are you a native, like the plants here?

I am. I was raised in Santa Monica. I lived in a condominium complex and it was Indian Hawthorn hedges and grass. I didn't know what horticulture was until I was at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Knowing that you can walk and know every single plant, even in our concrete jungle -- I've ended up in the position that everywhere I go, I actually pay attention to what's around me.

Most of us, we look around and don't have a clue about good plants and bad, native and nonnative.

That's a shame. My passion and the foundation's passion is spreading the word that lawns are a thing of the past. They don't signify status; they don't represent California's heritage. Eventually we will be able to help people understand that natives are beautiful and diverse -- to make an association with the word "native" that's no longer a vision of dead brush, cactus or chaparral. We help give people that landscape, that panorama of what really native can be.

So are the foundation's 22 acres a California native plant zoo? Or maybe an ark?

California has maybe 6,000 species of natives. We [have] 500 or so species of natives here. A lot are appropriate for a garden setting -- not only plants in the nursery, but you can actually look up and see [natives growing] right here on the mountainside.

Do your acquaintances think, "Oh, here comes Cassy. She's going to tell me to tear out my rosebushes"?

[Laughs] People are definitely a little self-conscious when I'm around [but mostly] because of water use -- like if they've got it running while they're doing the dishes. I try to be respectful and keep it friendly; I'm not a pusher one on one.

It's shocking to think that we use more than 60% of our drinking water outdoors, on alien gardens and lawns. How much would native landscaping save?

If everyone were to take out their lawns and put in a sensible California native landscape, and if all went well, savings could be in the range of 70% to 80% -- and the monotony and lack of diversity would be gone.

Are people who wouldn't put in native plants for esthetic reasons doing it now to save water?

Some people come solely to save water, and I'd say it's not about water prices; it's their conscience. Water is less than a cent a gallon.

Is that too cheap?

Yes. Water should be priced like oil, like fuel, because that's how important it is. There are incentives that the Metropolitan Water District has, and Santa Monica and L.A., cash [to remove water-intensive] grass. The money will definitely get more people looking at natives and replacing their lawns.

After people buy native plants, do they ever come back and admit, "I killed it"?

Yes. There are two possibilities: one, that they've killed it with love -- too much water. The other is that they had the impression that natives are "plant it and forget it.'' They're worried about their baby plants, they overwater; or they're so excited about going native that they don't realize it's a baby and a living thing, and you do need to give it some attention.

What's the most common argument you hear from people when it comes to going native?

People can't imagine what it would look like -- their minds just don't go beyond a lawn. Even if they're thinking to themselves, "Gosh, I should really take that lawn out," they cannot imagine what would go in its place.

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