Category Archives: California Native Plants

Ceanothus: The Most Valuable Plant in your Garden

Those of you who read my column regularly might have noticed I often write about plants that are valuable to the birds and the bees as well as butterflies and wildlife in the general. I have 10 bird feeders around my house. Four for the hummingbirds and the other six have black oil sunflower seed and hulled chips. At this time of year when there are so many young the extra food is much appreciated. I provide water and nectar plants for the bees and butterflies as well. If I had to choose one plant to grow that would provide the most benefit for all the critters it would be ceanothus. Hands down, it’s the best and here are some of my favorite varieties.

Ceanothus ‘Carmel Creeper’
Ceanothus ‘Heart’s Desire’

The groundcover varieties I have in my landscape are Anchor Bay, Carmel Creeper, Heart’s Desire, Centennial and Diamond Heights. If deer frequent your landscape you should stick with Anchor Bay, Heart’s Desire and Centennial but the others are great in protected areas.

One of the upright types I grow is ceanothus thysiflorus. It’s one of the earliest native shrubs to bloom in our area. Ceanothus thyrsiflorus grow along a narrow band close to the coast from Monterey to southern Oregon. I also grow Julia Phelps with those electric blue flowers and Ray Hartman.

A new variety I’ve recently learned about from my friend and fellow Press Banner columnist, Colly Gruczelak, is called Celestial Blue. She planted several 2 years ago from 4″ mail order sleeves and they are now 3 ft tall and 4 ft wide. In her sandy garden, home to her personal deer population, the flowers look like blueberry sherbet. With a light fragrance, described as grape tart, it makes a good screen or accent. This cultivar is probably a hybrid of Julia Phelps and Concha. A horticultural cultivar is simply a plant variety that’s been selected specifically for gardens. Celestial Blue flowers 9 months a year especially in the summer when it explodes with rich purplish blue flowers.

A great variety I often use when designing a garden is Ceanothus ‘Concha’ because it will accept summer water more forgivingly than most and tolerates clay soil more than other species.

Joyce Coulter ceanothus also tolerates clay, summer irrigation and shearing better than other cultivars. It”s a good bloomer, drought tolerant and is covered in spring with wildly fragrant blue three-inch flower spikes.

Ceanothus is often said to be short lived. Most varieties need good drainage, little summer water and don’t need soil amendments. In their wild conditions ceanothus plants have a natural life cycle of 10-15 years although some live longer.

Diamond Heights ceanothus

Several members of the ceanothus family can form a symbiotic relationship with soil micro-organisms and fungi, forming root nodules which fix nitrogen. This is a reason why fertilizing is not normally recommended. Adding fertilizer mights kill off the good micro-organisms. Ceanothus are better left fending for themselves.

Ceanothus provide excellent habitat for birds and insects. They are good for attracting bee and fly pollinators and are the larval host plants for the beautiful ceanothus silkmoth. Ceanothus seed is readily eaten by many local birds. Planting a ceanothus is an important step to attracting more birds and wildlife to your garden.

Early California Indians used the fresh or dried flowers of some varieties for washing, lathered into a soap. it has been said to relieve poison oak, eczema and rash.

Celebrate Earth Day

Earth Day celebrates the natural beauty of our planet and reminds us of what we can do to keep it healthy.  Always on April 22nd, Earth Day is a day of education about environmental issues and is now a global celebration. In anticipation of this day I recently spent the morning in nature at the UCSC Arboretum where the birds and the bees were enjoying the nectar flowers. Whether you plant a tree, clean up litter, garden, hike in the woods or marvel at emerging wildflower, be in contact with the soil and breathe fresh air outside on this day.

Fremontodendron aka Flannel Bush

My day at the Arboretum started in the California native plant garden. Plants thrive when they’re natural to your area and the flannel bush, one of the most spectacular of our native shrubs, is a good example. Huge abundant deep yellow blooms cover the plant for a long time starting in the spring.

Iris douglasiana aka Pacific Coast Iris

Impressive swaths of rich blue Pacific Coast iris bordered the path. Nearby a bush poppy, covered with 2 inch yellow flowers put on it’s spring display. It will bloom sporadically for most of the year.

The South African and Australian gardens at the Arboretum is where all the action takes place for hummingbird watchers. The courtship display of the dozens of Anna’s hummingbirds, taking place inches over your head, sure puts one in contact with nature. You can bring nature into your garden with plants that attract these jewels of the avian world as well as butterflies, bees and other pollinators. Planting wildflowers on Earth Day is a good place to start.

Wildflowers like poppies, tidy tips, yarrow and baby blue eyes provide nectar and pollen for the pollinators, including honey bees, bumble bees and carpenter bees. Attract other beneficial insects such as ladybugs, parasitoid wasps and army worms to be the unpaid pest control agents in your garden. Beside wildflowers, plants such as aster, goldenrod and California fuchsia attract beneficial insects and are grown to attract, feed and shelter the insect parasites and predators to enhance your biological pest control. Everything is connected on the planet.

Protea or Pinchushion plant

The pincushion protea from South Africa is one the the brilliantly colored shrubs in this garden in the Arboretum. The flowers are striking, not only for their appearance, but also for their unusual structure and pollination sequence. They make a good long lasting cut flower.

Pink Rice Flower or pimelea ferrugine

In the New Zealand garden a beautiful small shrub with small dark green glossy leaves and masses of showy, fragrant magenta pink tubular flowers was attracting butterflies. The Pink Rice Flower was in full bloom and would sure look great in my garden in my well drained soil.

Remember that plants drink their food. If your soil dries out completely, your plants will starve. Take steps on Earth Day and the rest of the year to water wisely and retain the valuable moisture. Steps include improving your soil with organic matter, planning a smaller garden, choosing bush varieties of vegetables, placing plants closer together to shade the soil which helps conserve moisture and reduces weed growth. Mulch, mulch, mulch. Keep those moisture grabbing weeds at bay. Use a drip irrigation system to conserve water.

Celebrate Earth Day this April 22nd and throughout the whole year.

The Beauty of Fall

Looks like Indian Summer is over and fall is really here. The trees, especially our own Big Leaf Maples, are showing off their new fall clothes and the rains will soon green up the hills. Will the foliage be as vivid this year?

Cercis ‘Forest Pansy’

Although we don’t get as much fall color as other areas we enjoy what we have just as much. Besides we don’t get snow on Halloween. Enjoy these cool nights and warm days. That’s the combination that brings on the best fall colors.

The vivid colors in a leaf are always there. They are just masked by the green chlorophyll which is busy making food by photosynthesis while the sun shines. Come autumn, shorter days and cooler temperatures cause the trees to switch into energy-storage mode and their leaves stop producing chlorophyll. For the few weeks before the leaf falls to the ground it is colored only by natural pigments. It’s these colors -red and purple anthocyanins, yellow and orange carotenoids – that make fall foliage so glorious, sometimes anyway.

Quaking aspen- Wyoming

Weather conditions play a major part in fall color. Some years the show is more dramatic than others. The best conditions for intense leaf color to develop are dry sunny days followed by cool, but not freezing, nights.

A warm, wet autumn will almost surely result in less-than-spectacular foliage because the process of chlorophyll loss will be less consistent. Freezing temperature meanwhile can cause leaves to drop suddenly denying the opportunity to enter a slow, colorful dormancy.

Which plants put on the best show in our area? Here are some of my favorites.

California native Western redbud turns yellow or red in the fall if conditions allow. This plant is truly a four-season plant starting in spring with magenta flowers, then leafing out with apple green heart shaped leaves. Colorful seed pods give way to fall color. This small native tree or large shrub does well as a patio tree in gardens with good drainage.

Other native plants like spicebush and Western azalea turn yellow or gold in the fall. A native vine that lights up with the onset of autumn is Rogers Red California grape. If you have an arbor, wall or fence that needs covering quickly this is your plant. The green and gray leaves are transformed in autumn into great draperies of rich, scarlet leaves with clusters of summer fruit turning all shades of purple.

Edibles that turn color in the fall include blueberries, pomegranate and persimmons.

more Forest Pansy in fall color

Other trees and shrubs that do well in our area and provide fall color include Chinese flame tree, ginkgo, Idaho locust, Chinese pistache, crape myrtle, witch hazel, all maples, liquidambar, katsura, dogwood, locust, cherry, crabapple, oakleaf hydrangea, barberry and smoke tree.

Now through late fall is a good time to shop for trees that change colors because you can see in person just what shade of crimson, orange, scarlet or gold they will be. I’m off to the the Sierra to see for myself the dogwood, cottonwood, willow, black oak and quaking aspen in fall color. What’s not to love about fall?

California Natives for Erosion Control

Who knows what the weather will be like this winter but what we do know is that some of our rain events will come with a vengeance. It’s not that unusual for our area to get 8 inches of rainfall during a storm and that can create havoc on an unprotected hillside. Fortunately, October is a good time to do something about it.

Pink Flowering Currant

Fall is the perfect time to plant in our area. The soil is still warm encouraging root growth and the weather is mild. Using the right plants on hillsides can help slow and spread runoff and prevent soil erosion. Mulch also protects soil from direct rain impact and slows runoff across bare soils. Covering the steepest slopes with jute netting through which plants may be installed is an added precaution.

There are many attractive plants that work well for erosion control. Often they need to adapt to shallow, poor soil and cope with less than ideal conditions all while putting down dense, strong roots. California natives are well suited to this job.

Common native shrubs include ceanothus and manzanita of all

Calycanthus occidentalis

types. Calycanthus or Spicebush has fragrant flowers in late spring blooming well into summer with a spicy fragrance. The foliage is aromatic when crushed and changes from a spring green color to pale golden in autumn. Decorative woody fruits last into winter making this shrub attractive year round. It thrives with infrequent to moderate watering. Combine with coffeeberry and deer grass in sunnier spots or with Douglas iris and giant chain fern in shaded spots below trees. All these plants have deep roots and control erosion.

Ribes s. King Edward VII

Ribes sanguinem or Flowering Currant is another show stopper capable of controlling erosion. In the spring the long, flower clusters of this deciduous shrub will dominate your garden. Choose from white flowering ‘White Icicle’ or ”Barrie Coate” and ‘King Edward VII’ with spectacular deep red flower clusters. ‘Spring Showers’ has 8 inch long pink clusters. Grow in full sun to partial shade. This California native requires little water once established and is a valuable nectar source for hummingbirds.

Some other good California native shrubs for erosion control are western redbud, mountain mahogany, western mock orange, lemonade berry, toyon, matilija poppy and western elderberry. ribes viburnifolium, creeping mahonia and baccharis. Ceanothus maritimus, ‘Heart’s Desire’ and ‘Anchor Bay’ are all good groundcover selections and are not attractive to deer.

Symphoricarpos – Common Snowberry or Creeping Snowberry – can hold the soil on steep banks. This native tolerates poor soil, lower light and general neglect.

Smaller natives that put down deep roots are yarrow, coast aster, California fuchsia, wild grape, mimulus, buckwheat, wild rose, sage and salvia.

Bush poppy -dendromecon rigid- is another native found right here in our area and needs no irrigation at all once established. Beautiful bright yellow, poppy-like flowers cover the plant in spring. They can be propagated from cuttings taken in summer and are pest and disease free.

Remember when setting plants on a steep slope to arrange them in staggered rows. Make an individual terrace for each plant and create a basin or low spot behind each one – not around the stem – to catch water. Set the crowns of the plants high so they won’t become saturated and rot after watering and make sure mulch does not build up around the stem.

 

Shady Garden Success Stories

If you read my column regularly or even once in a while you’ve probably heard me lament about the difficult growing conditions here in my garden. Between the sandy soil, 5 hours of intense sun but for only 6 months of the year, gophers, squirrels, moles, deer and chipmunks I’m happy if any plant thrives. So it is with pleasure that I report to you the small successes I’ve had lately and maybe give you hope that you might also grow plants that provide some color and fragrance in your garden along with attracting hummingbirds, songbirds, bees and butterflies.

As the sun shifts lower in the sky, my garden becomes shadier each day. The soil is still warm, however, and that encourages root growth so even though I won’t see much happening above ground until late next spring hope springs eternal and I am driven to plant more natives as well as other appropriate plants that will fill in those blank spots.

Gaura l. ‘Siskiyou Pink’

This week a clump of deep pink gaura lindheimeri is blooming like crazy. If I had my druthers I wouldn’t have planted it among a stand of orange flowering California fuchsia but it still looks great against the gray foliage of the epilobium or zauschneria or whatever it’s called now days.

Gaura ’Siskiyou Pink attracts butterflies and hummingbirds and needs only occasional water. The books will tell you gaura requires full sun but mine is thriving without a lot of sun. Don’t be afraid to try a plant you like despite what the books tell you.

Zauschneria aka epilobium

Same goes for the light requirements of the California fuchsia. Mine is happily spreading and it gets only partial sun for part of the year. Las Pilitas nursery website, a great source of information, does say they will tolerate part-shade and commonly grow where there is extra moisture in the winter and spring, gradually drying through fall. Guess that 140 inches of rainfall I got up here in Bonny Doon last winter would fall into that category. As far as the renaming of plants California fuchsia apparently is now called epilobium canum but the name zauschneria may come back so call them whatever works for you.

One of these days I want to plant a few more native plants that will tolerate shade and attract wildlife. Toyon with it’s red berries is high on my list as is Pacific wax myrtle. I have a pink flowering currant which is doing well as well as sambucus mexicana which the hummingbirds, jays and chipmunks like and a Black Lace elderberry.

Sambucus ‘Black Lace’

Of course, all the different ceanothus do well in partial shade, grow fast and the birds and bees love them both in bloom and now that they are full of berries and seeds. My covey of quail find the berries irresistible. Apparently porcupine like them also but fortunately for my dog, Sherman, I don’t have any of those.

California native Pacific Coast Iris, Woodland Strawberry, Heuchera maxima, Western Columbine, Bleeding Heart, Mimulus and Wild Ginger all do well in my lean, shady, sandy soil. For some reason I don’t have any any coffeberry or any Oregon Grape but they are both on my wish list. Coffeeberry is one of the best all around native plants for wildlife and mahonia or Oregon Grape bloom in the winter and provide much needed nectar for hummingbirds.

Take advantage of the fall planting season to spruce up the problem spots in your shady garden. Email me at janis001@aol.com if you would like more suggestions.

Interesting Plants to Update your Garden

Tired of seeing the same plants in your garden and everywhere else? Feel like changing things up a bit? With this question in mind I’ve turned to my fellow landscape designers to see what plants they are using these days so that every garden they design doesn’t look the same. You can have too much of a good thing.

One thing I know for sure is that I don’t want to recommend a plant that hasn’t been shown to be a reliable grower in a variety of conditions. Sometimes the latest and greatest plant introduction turns out to be a dud. Other times a new cultivar of an old favorite hits a home run. Here are some oldies but goodies and new plants to add to your garden.

 

Loropetaum ‘Jazz Hands Dwarf PInk’

Loropetalum ‘Jazz Hands’ is getting the nod from everyone who’s grown it. If you love the deer tolerance, low maintenance. moderate watering and toughness of regular Chinese Fringe Flower this showy dwarf variety is even easier to grow. Staying low and tidy Jazz Hands Dwarf Pink has cool purple foliage with a cranberry undercurrent and hot pink blooms. It looks great combined with Jazz Hands Dwarf White. Local wholesale nurseries are growing it so it’s readily available.

Speaking of local sources for plants, we live in one of the prime growing areas for landscape plants. I recently learned that one of my favorite plants Canyon Snow Pacific coast iris is going through a difficult time. Seems it’s become less vigorous than the other colors in the Canyon series and the growers are working to improve their stock. We need to count on a plant’s performance. There’s enough other issues to deal with in our gardens without starting with a wimpy plant.

Cistus variegata ‘Mickie’

Rockrose have always been favorites in the low water use garden. There’s one with a low, mounding habit that hugs the ground and creates a super colorful accent to the sunny garden. With brilliant gold leaves splashed in the center with green this variegated cistus hybridus called ‘Mickie” is hardy in winter, grows only 14-18 inches tall and spreads to about 2 feet wide. Perfect for containers or smaller gardens.

If you like to include California native plants in your garden Woolly Blue Curls or trichostema lanatum has been shown to be reliable in the garden if given full sun, good drainage and little fertilizer or amendment. Group similar plants and forget about them. They bloom from late spring through summer and make a good cut flower. Another common name for this plant is Romero or California Rosemary which dates back to the Portola expedition in 1769.

If you want to make a big splash in your garden or container try growing Salvia ’Amistad’ or Friendship Sage. With fast growth in the warm months to 4 or 5 feet tall, the rich royal purple flowers attract hummingbirds and butterflies to the garden. It will grow in light shade with medium water requirements and remain evergreen in warmer parts of your garden.

Cousin Itt acacia

Acacia ‘Cousin Itt’ continues to be a favorite for many of us. This lovely small plant with emerald green, feathery foliage that stays small in the garden and has low water needs. Not to be confused with the bully acacia tree seen around here, it’s one of the good guys. Plant in full sun to partial shade.

So if you’re in the mood to add a couple of interesting plants to your garden, take a tip from what landscape designers use or grow in their own gardens.