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Getting to Know True California Native Plants

We 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 bringing their own grains, produce, and weeds.

True California natives, on the other hand, evolved here over the centuries, even millennia, developing interrelationships with fungi, microbes, insects, and animals, adapting to local conditions and supporting each other. Some natives thrive at high, others low elevations; on dry hillsides; along streams or bogs; others yet in oak woodlands or mixed forests. Some are even today´s weeds. We´ve traced our knowledge of true natives through diaries, drawings, and specimens taken to Europe by early explorers. Fossil records also add to our data.

Many grasses and annual weeds growing over our hillsides and pastures were introduced from distant lands, often within feed the Spanish brought for their animals. Asian immigrants brought plants as well; our notoriously invasive tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) was introduced as an herbal treatment for dysentery and other complaints. Some alien plants spread vigorously, even rampantly due to our moderate climate and lack of diseases and insects that helped control them at home. For the same reasons, some California natives have become pests in Europe and Australia.

WHY PRESERVE AND GROW NATIVE PLANTS TODAY? Human agriculture and urbanization continue to generate a drastic decline in our native plants.

• By protecting natives, we help retain the natural biodiversity of our area. Having evolved here, natives are best adapted for manufacturing oxygen and filtering impurities from our air and water. Native are instrumental in the development of new foods, medicines, and industrial products. For instance, Taxol, an anti-cancer drug was developed from the pacific yew, Taxus brevifolia. Many of today´s ornamentals are descendents or hybrids of native plants. Our coastal strawberry, Fragaria chiloensis, is the basis for commercial strawberries.

• Natives are generally easier and more economical to care for. Those that evolved in our dry summer climate require far less water, conserving both a scarce natural resource and money. Many natives are naturally resistant to the insect pests and diseases that afflict exotic ornamentals. They require little or no pesticides and thus reduce toxic substances and labor, and enhance both biodiversity and our pocketbooks.

• Native plantings better support native mammals, birds, and insects. A study of a Bay Area predominately native garden found 72 (yes, 72) species of native bee (non-honeybee) pollinators. These pollinators preferred native California flowers four to one over the non-natives. Over 170 bird species depend on our oak woodlands for food, cover, and nesting. California butterflies rely on oaks, lupine, milkweed, California pipevine, and other native plants for food for their larvae.

NURTURING NATIVES Never dig up natives or gather seeds on public or private lands without the permission of landowners. Even then, be sure to take only a small sampling, leaving an ample supply for Mother Nature.

Legislation and public policy now encourage, even mandate, the preservation and replacement of native plants. Caltrans, for example, planted replacements for plants removed during construction of the Sonora bypass. And, more nurseries now feature native plants.

Watch for the spring and fall sales of the Sierra Foothills Chapter of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS). Locally grown plants native to our immediate area are most likely to be successful. Cold tolerant natives are best planted in the fall so winter rains afford an opportunity for them to grow and establish before summer heat strikes.

To help select and grow natives, refer to Sunset´s Western Garden Book, which lists the homeland of most ornamentals. Many other resources also explain the culture of California natives. Check the newspaper or www/cnps.org for announcements of local CNPS Sierra Foothills Chapter meetings.

Our dry hills abound with beautiful natives–from spring blooming poppies and lupine to brushy manzanita, buckeye, California lilac, and Christmas berry (toyon)–to regal oaks. Exotic plants from other lands further enhance many foothill gardens, but it is the true California natives that connect our yards to their heritage.

Vera Strader gardens near Sonora. She and her husband plant native oak seedlings, shrubbery, and grasses to unify their property with the surrounding hills. Deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) and purple needle grass (Nasella pulchra, California´s state grass) will eventually help replace foxtails and other alien weeds.