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What Is A California Native Plant?

Master Gardeners sing the praises of growing California native plants, but exactly what is a true native? The flowers that flourished in your grandmother’s yard and the heritage tomatoes from your garden are almost surely not California natives. California natives grew here before the first Europeans arrived.

To help us choose appropriate California native plants for our gardens, the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) will hold their annual spring sale Saturday, April 21, 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. at Rocca Park in Jamestown. Here is a quick look at plants available for purchase at the sale:

GRAMINOIDES include grasses and/or grass-like plants. Juncus patens, a member of the rush family is upright and arching, 1-2 feet tall; foothill sedge (Carex tumulicola) prefers a wetter shady area and grows up to 2 feet tall. Calamagrostis mutagenesis is a pacific reed grass growing up to 3 feet tall with a tall, spring-flowering stalk; Leymus glaucus is a native wild rye that grows up to 3 feet tall. These plants are good for slope stabilization or for adding a background texture for low-growing plants.

PERENNIALS
are plants that come back each year. They usually grow and flower during spring and summer, dying back in fall and winter. Foliage can be evergreen or semi-evergreen. They reproduce vegetatively rather than reseeding like annuals.

Iris is a staple under oak trees because of its low water needs. Iris in Greek means “rainbow” and we have a rainbow of colors to choose, purple to yellow to white. Our California native irises are smaller and bloom earlier than non-native varieties.

Penstemons are popular for rock gardens because these pretty, flowering plants like arid, rocky soil. The foothill penstemon (Penstemon heterophyllus) and mountain pride (Penstemon newberryi), prefer dry talus areas. Colors range from red and blue to purple and pink, most with a white throat. Their foliage is largely evergreen, and the plants range in height from a few inches to a couple of feet. They flower in spring and early summer.

Salvias are hardy evergreen to semi-evergreen perennials that range in height from low ground covers, such as hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea), to a couple of feet. They attract birds and bees and give off a pleasant pungent aroma, even when they are not flowering.

SHRUBS
are woody perennial plants that have multiple stems rather than a single trunk like trees. In this category we find native manzanita (Arctostaphylos) and ceanothus. Manzanita ‘Emerald Carpet’ and ‘Howard McMinn,’ as well as ceanothus ‘Blue Jeans’ and ‘Emily Brown,’ will be present at the sale, along with other varieties.

Sierra current
(Ribes nevadense-no spines) and fuchsia flowering gooseberry (Ribes speciosum-major spines), are an early draw for birds and bees because they flower in late winter or early spring. I can attest to the hardiness of Ribes speciosum from the CNPS growing area; some of mine are on their third life! They are upright, green and flowering profusely.

Although autumn is the best time to plant natives in our Mediterranean climate, spring is the next best. With our latest rain and cool weather, water needs should be minimal until summer heat arrives. Most natives are drought tolerant once established, but keep an eye on them the first year or two, especially when the thermometer gets up over 100.

It is also better not to plant if the ground is saturated. If your boots sink in the mud, wait a few days. A thick coat of mulch will help retain moisture when it gets hot, but note where the plant is found in the wild. If it likes dry, rocky soil, adding nutrient-rich mulch will not be good for it. Check water needs of your intended plants and group those with similar needs together.

The Master Gardener Demonstration Garden at 251 South Barretta St, Sonora, is a good place to see samples of California natives. The garden is on the grounds of Cassina High School, so during school hours check with the office before viewing the garden.

For more information on local gardening, Master Gardeners’ 2nd book ‘Sharing the Knowledge, Gardening in the Mother Lode’ is available at Foothill Business Cards, Washington St, Sonora; Mountain Bookstore in The Junction Shopping Center; and at the UCCE Office in Sonora.

Patricia Gogas is a Master Gardener and CNPS member who enjoys all the native plants in her garden.