Category Archives: California Native Plants

Fragrance in the Garden

A sweet fragrance permeates the air as I step out my front door. Could it be the white flowering wild ceanothus cuneatus blooming now on the hillside and smells of plum blossoms and roses? Maybe the scent is coming from the fragrant sarcococca with those tiny white flowers you can barely see but can smell a mile away. Or could it be the sweetly scented lily-of-the-valley flowers blooming on the back patio? Make fragrance a daily delight with plants that release their perfume at different times of the day and the year.

Daphne odora ‘Maejima’

The word fragrance comes from the 17th century French word fragrantia meaning sweet smell. A garden’s fragrance can be as unforgettable as its appearance. The scent of a particular flower can make you remember past times and places. Plant them along a garden path to enjoy as you stroll, in containers to scent a deck or patio or locate them beneath a window and let their aroma drift indoors.

Several easy-to-grow shrubs have fragrant flowers as an added bonus. Mexican Orange or choisya ternata blooms most of the year. Pittosporum eugenoides, tenuifolium and tobira all have tiny blossoms that also smell like oranges. The tiny flower cluster of Fragrant Olive or osmanthus have a delicate apricot fragrance.

Iris pallida ‘Variegata’ – Zebra iris

Then there are the perennials. My garden comes on a little later than most and the buds of the fragrant variegated Zebra iris are just opening. They will smell like grape Kool-aid when the sun allows the scent to develop.

Last year Chris and Rick Moran over at Brook Lomond Iris Farm gave me a couple Zebra rhizomes and they are growing quite nicely. Every year the Moran’s have a tall bearded iris show and sale over two weekends in the spring. This May 13th and 14th is the second weekend and the show takes place at their garden located at 10310 California Drive in Ben Lomond. The Iris Farm is educational, too, as the Moran’s are well-versed in organic gardening practices.

Chris told me a scented flower story about an iris called Scented Nutmeg. Seems that when the long awaited flower finally opened she bent down and smelled nothing. The blue flower was pretty anyway. Later when working out in the garden she smelled cookies baking. As none of the neighbors were home at the time she was puzzled. Sitting down the smell hit her again and she realized she was right next to the Scented Nutmeg. They just needed the sun to warm up the flower to give off the scent.

Philadelphus lewisii at Felton Covered Bridge

Other fragrant plants include California natives Philadelphus lewisii or Wild Mock Orange. Calycanthus occidentals or Spice Bush is native to our Central and Northern California mountains. Their fragrant burgundy flowers smell like red wine. Ribes viburnifolium, carpenteria californica and rosa californica are mildly scented, too.

In spring there may be nothing quite as spectacular as a wisteria vine, loaded with fragrant purple, pink, blue or white flower clusters, covering an arbor or pergola. Pink jasmine is another vigorous vine with intensely fragrant flowers as is Evergreen Clematis.

Nemesia and Dianthus

I can’t leave out the old fashion border carnation or dianthus. Their clove-scented flowers are born in profusion making them a nice addition to the mixed flower border and containers.

The list goes on and includes scented plants such as nemesia, wallflower, Japanese snowbell, hosta, coneflower, daphne, vitex, viburnum, Oriental lily, gardenia, nicotiana, phlox, rose, sweet pea, hyacinth, lilac, flowering crabapple, heliotrope, lavender, sweet alyssum, peony, moon flower, southern magnolia.

Watering Tips when Planting for the Birds & Bees

Western Tiger Swallowtail butterfly

I may not be so fond of gophers but I never tire of the birds, butterflies and bees that visit my garden. I’m always on the look out for plants that will attract even more of these exquisite creatures and it’s one of the top requests for nearly every garden that I design. Fortunately there are many plants that fit the bill and have low water requirements for our summer dry climate.

Trees that provide fruit, seeds, nectar and protein from insects attract many kinds of songbirds. Our native Big Leaf Maple is a favorite of the Evening Grosbeak who relish the seeds and early spring buds. Another bird magnet is the dogwood. Our Pacific dogwood as well as the Eastern dogwood and even the hybrid of the two, Eddie’s White Wonder, all are very valuable sources of food for many birds. Their summer berries are high in fat and important for migratory and wintering birds.

Lesser goldfinch

There are many great low water-use shrubs and perennials that attract birds. My favorite Lesser Goldfinch is partial to the seeds of yarrow, buckwheat and aster. Kevin’s mahonia is favored by Western bluebirds. Blooming now in our own neck of the woods is Mexican elderberry. Their butter yellow flowers will form purple berries rich in carbohydrates and protein and attract an incredible number of birds. And I always can find space for another variety of manzanita or ceanothus.

Mimulus ‘Jelly Bean Gold’

Both hummingbirds and butterflies are attracted to flowers that provide nectar. Among their favorites that won’t break your water budget are natives such as penstemon and salvia. galvezia, mimulus, monardella. California fuchsia and ribes are also important nectar sources for birds in your garden. Add a couple non-native, drought tolerant perennials like lavender, gaura, coreopsis, verbena, scabiosa, lantana and wallflower and you’ll provide a feast for all your winged visitors.

So how much water do different types of plants need during the heat of summer?

As a rule of thumb, trees and large shrubs need deep but infrequent waterings. They should be on a separate valve than your smaller shrubs and perennials. Water ornamental trees 1-3 times per month depending on the type and soil. Tree roots grow 12-36” deep and require 10 gallons of water per inch of trunk diameter.

Sambucus nigra berries

Apply with a soaker hose, drip system emitters or hand held hose with shut off and soft spray attachment according to your water districts restrictions. Don’t dig holes in the ground in an effort to water deeply. This dries out roots even more. Be sure to water the root zone to the indicated root depth every time you water. Watering deeper than the root zone only means you are wasting water. You can test how deep you watered by pushing a smooth rod -1/4” – 3/8” in diameter- into the ground soon after you irrigate. The soil probe should easily slide through the wet soil but become difficult to push when reaching dry soil.

The roots of smaller shrubs are 12-24” deep in the soil. Established native shrubs may need only monthly irrigation to keep them looking their best while other shrubs may need watering every 7-10 days during the heat of the summer. Perennial roots only go down 12” or so and may need watering once or twice a week depending on type.

With lots of mulch and the above watering tips you can keep all your plants happy and healthy for the birds, butterflies and bees to enjoy.

Favorite Plants of Landscape Designers

Big surprise. Many of my friends are also landscape designers. We get together to talk plants, garden design challenges and plant problems while enjoying good food along with a little wine thrown in for good measure. Recently we met in Corralitos to exchange favorite go-to plant ideas and tour the truly fabulous garden of our host. Filled with interesting foliage and texture as well as plants that flower over a long season we all came away excited to use them in our next design. Maybe some of these ideas will work in your own garden.

Fremontodendron californicum

Every interesting garden has good bones. A successful one has a focal point, garden rooms with “walls” and a “ceiling”, plants with different textures and foliage color, repetition and unity. My friend’s garden is no exception.

Rivaling for our attention from the breathtaking view of Monterey bay, a fremontodendron, in full bloom, was a real show stopper. This California native shrub requires little irrigation and provided the perfect backdrop to the entry garden.

Loropetalum / Agave ‘Blue Glow’

Other plants that brought this garden to life included a stunning Blue Glow agave paired with the burgundy foliage of loropetalum rubrum. Both have low water needs and aren’t attractive to deer.

Eggs and bacon plant

A small recirculating fountain tucked within a pocket garden provided an inviting lure for songbirds. Surrounded by the unique lotus corniculatus or eggs and bacon plant along with a tropical-looking melianthus major aka honey bush this garden room invited one to stick around for awhile.

We garden designers were impressed with the size and vigor of acacia ‘Cousin Itt’. This lovely small plant with emerald green, feathery foliage 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.

Euphorbia wulfennii

In deer country you can’t go wrong with euphorbia characias wulfenii ‘Bruce’s Dwarf’. It does an excellent job of seeding itself so beware. Grow it where it can self sow and not become a problem child. Very hardy in winter and water sparingly. In spring and summer the flower heads form at the branch tips covering the plant with a chartreuse color.

A French hybrid lilac called Pocahontas scented the air as we exchanged our favorite plants that pull a garden together. The winners included hardy geraniums like Biokovo and Karmina and California native heuchera maxima. Canyon Snow Pacific coast iris also got a lot of votes. Groundcover sedum ‘Angelina’ and lime thyme garnered support also.

Abelia ’Kaleidescope’ and ‘Confetti’ got the nod from several of us. Also high on the list of favorite plants, the variegated gold and green cistus was used by many because of its low, mounding habit that hugs the ground and provides a bright evergreen accent to a sunny garden.

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.

Sneeze-less Landscaping

It was brought to my attention by a reader who suffers from pollen allergies that blooming acacias are not the cause of allergic reactions at this time of year. Acacias are largely pollinated by insects and their heavy pollen doesn’t tend to become airborne. It’s the non-showy, quiet ones you have to watch out for.

Evergreen clematis blooming below flowering pear tree.

About 25-30 popular landscape plants are responsible for the majority of plant-related allergies in California. During the height of the pollen season- from late February to June- there are often thousands of pollen grains in every cubic meter of air. One can breathe hundreds of them with every breath. Though pollen can travel many miles, the majority tend to stay in the general area of their origin.

Redwoods, oaks, alders, ashes and other wind pollinated trees like olives, birch, box elder, cypress, elm, juniper, maple, fruitless mulberry, pine, walnut, willow and privet are the major source of spring pollen. Most native plants are good in the sneeze-less landscape but if you have bad allergies or asthma it best to avoid wind-pollinated ceanothus, elderberry and coffeeberry.

You may not be able to avoid those culprits growing on other’s property but you can get the most out of your own backyard by creating a sneeze-less landscape. Replacing existing plants may be impractical but planning future plantings with these things in mind will save you a lot of headaches down the road and let you enjoy the sunshine outside in your garden.

Clematis armandii or Evergreen clematis flowers

Flower type is a good way to judge plants. The best looking flowers usually cause allergy sufferers the fewest problems. Plants with bright, showy flowers are usually pollinated by insects, rather than by the wind. These flowers produce less pollen and their pollen is larger and heavier, sticking to the insect rather than becoming airborne and lead to sneezing, a runny nose and watery eyes.

Some trees that are good for anti-allergy gardens are apple, cherry, dogwood, magnolia, pear and plum. Shrubs like azaleas, boxwood, lilac, rose-of-Sharon, hydrangea and viburnum are also not likely to cause problems. Good flower choices include alyssum, begonia, clematis, columbine, bulbs like crocus, daffodil, hyacinth. Also dahlia, daisy, geranium, hosta, impatiens, iris, lily, pansy, petunia, phlox, roses, salvia, snapdrag

Salvia ‘Bee’s Bliss’ (good)  Ceanothus ‘Heart’s Desire’ (bad)

on, sunflower, verbena and zinnia. Lawns of perennial rye grass, blue grass and tall fescue blends are usually OK as they will not flower unless allowed to grow to 12″ or higher. Bermuda grass, on the other hand, can pollinate when the lawn is very short, sometimes as quickly as a few days after mowing.

Hopefully, our rainy weather will not cause problems for allergy sufferers. Symptoms may become worse if the body reacts to the disappearance of the pollen following its initial appearance only to have to have more of it later in the spring. According to Dr. Stanley Fineman, an allergist with the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma Clinic, “You become sensitized to it, so when you’re…re-exposed, you can get an even more violent allergic reaction.”

Here’s to a sneezeless spring for you allergy sufferers.

Finding Fall Color in the Santa Cruz Mountains

The beginning of fall really started for me with those drenching October rains. Night time comes early now as daylight savings time ended last Sunday. Our fall color foliage trees and shrubs are starting to turn color. Will they be as vivid this year? 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.

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Japanese maple showing fall color

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 leave fall to the ground, they are colored only by their natural pigments. It’s these colors – red and purple anthocyanins, yellow and orange carotenoids – that make fall foliage so glorious, sometimes anyway.

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.

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Quaking aspen in Wyoming

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 California native plants like Western dogwood, Spicebush and Western azalea turn yellow, red 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 red leaves with clusters of summer fruit turning all shades of purple.

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Japanese maples on author’s patio

Trees and shrubs that also provide fall color include Eastern dogwood, Chinese flame tree, Ginkgo, Idaho locust, Chinese Tallow, Chinese pistache, crape myrtle, smokebush, witch hazel, all maples, liquidambar, katsura, Eastern redbud, sumac, crabapple, goldenrain, locust, oak leaf hydrangea and barberries.

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

Light up your garden as the light fades and the days shorten. Now through late fall is a good time to shop for plants that change colors because you can see in person just what shade of crimson, orange, scarlet or gold they will be.

When Rainfall Causes Problems

If you were waiting for some rain before planting to control erosion wait no more. That last storm brought plenty of the wet stuff and the next round is hopefully not far off. You’ve gotten a reminder of those areas that need stabilization during the rainy season.

Fall is the perfect time to start planning and planting. The nights are cooler, the days shorter and the soil still warm. Everything that a new plant needs to get a good start.

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Steep hillside at author’s house covered with erosion control plantings

Using the right plants on hillsides can help slow, spread runoff and prevent soil erosion. Often they need to adapt to shallow, poor soil and cope with less than ideal conditions all while putting down dense, strong roots. Mulch also protects soil from direct rain impact and slows runoff across bare soils. This is important while new plants are growing in. Covering the steepest slopes with jute netting through which plants may be installed is an added precaution.

What plants are good for controlling erosion in our area? When choosing plants to cover a bank for erosion control, assess the conditions of the area you want to plant. Is it in the sun or shade? Is it a naturally moist area or dry? Do you intend to water it or go with our natural cycle of wet in the winter and dry in the summer? Matching the plant to the site conditions will ensure success. California natives are well suited to this job.

If the area you need to stabilize is large and mostly shade, consider ribes viburnifolium or Evergreen Currant. Like mahonia repens or Creeping Mahonia it needs no irrigation when established. Another native, the Common or Creeping Snowberry can also hold the soil on steep banks, spreading by underground stems that stabilize the soil.

A bank in the sun would contain a different plant palette. Common native shrubs for sun include ceanothus groundcover types such as ‘Centennial’, ‘Anchor Bay’ and maritimus that are not attractive to deer like the larger leaved varieties. Manzanita are also excellent at controlling erosion.

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Western mock orange aka philadelphus lewisii

Some other good California native shrubs for erosion control are Western redbud, mountain mahogany, Western mock orange, lemonade berry, toyon, bush poppy, matilija poppy. spicebush, pink flowering currant and Western elderberry.

Smaller natives that put down deep roots are yarrow, coast aster, California fuchsia, wild grape, mimulus, buckwheat, wild rose, sage, deer and needle grass, Pacific Coast iris, penstemon, artemisia and salvia.

Remember when setting plants on a steep slope to arrange them in staggered

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California fuchsia

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.

These suggestions are just a few of the plants that control erosion. Every area is different and every situation unique.