Tag Archives: native plants

gbbd: pretty purple

For this Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day I’ve picked some predominantly purple spring-flowering plants that are starting to do their thing in my garden. All but one of these are California (or Baja California) natives, and all would be seriously water-wise choices for the garden. Some would even make it through an entire summer without water, though they’d look just a little better with a sip once or twice a month.



Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum): What a great name for a great plant. This iris relative is happy coexisting in a moderately-watered garden with other plants, though they can stand drought. Here they are living alongside some chard and heliotrope.



Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) are common here near the coast and are one of our reliable signs that it’s spring. They self-sow and spread around the garden, but not obnoxiously.


Black sage (Salvia mellifera) is one of the local canyon plants that’s earned a place in the garden. In life the flowers are a slightly stronger pale mauve color than here in the photo. It’s just beginning to come into flower and should be a little more intense in a couple weeks. Though not one of the “look at me” sages, it’s still quietly beautiful.



Verbena lilacina originates in Baja. The plant shown here is just getting started. It should flower much of the year and require very little summer water.


This one’s maybe closer to blue than purple, the South African bulb Morea tripetala. I stuck it in a really dry spot, and it’s now probably just blooming on the reserves in the bulb. We’ll see how well it does after a season of tough love in the garden.


And with the last photo we come back to California with the justifiably ever-popular Penstemon Margarita BOP (sometimes sold as Penstemon heterophyllus ‘Margarita BOP’). The flowers are a wild mix of blue and magenta pink, giving the overall impression of purple. The open tubular flowers have something of the look of a foxglove which would require a certain amount of water, but this penstemon actually does just fine with almost no added water.

Thanks to May Dreams Gardens for hosting Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day. Check out the page with glimpses into what’s blooming all around the world.

some garden-worthy local plants

There’s usually a big disconnect between going to a nursery to look at plants and going out botanizing to an open space preserve like the one I live near. The plants in a nursery will likely be the usual garden store suspects, mixed in with new introductions from all over the globe. But what plants you see in the wilds, except for escapees from residential gardens, usually have nothing to do with what you see in the nurseries.

Gardens are of course artificial places. Although people may feel connected to nature while tending their personal landscapes, it’s too often a nature that exists only at their local plant nursery and nowhere in the wild lands around them. My own garden has these same tendencies, but I’ve been trying to counteract them with more native plantings.

Things have also been changing in at least some of the nurseries around town, and there’s a gradual flow of plants from our wild areas into people’s gardens. Most of the larger nurseries offer at least a small selection of natives, and the specialty native plant nurseries can always be counted on for a selection of plants that they feel garden-worthy.

Sunday was cool but sunny, a perfect day for a short walk through my neighborhood canyon preserve to see some of these plants in their wild state. And along the way I saw a couple that I think people wouldn’t mind living with.


Tecolote Canyon–literally “Owl Canyon”–includes a city park of about 900 acres, most of it the slopes and bottoms of a coastal canyon that were too economically challenging to build on. Some of the park has been handed over to a golf course and some athletic fields, but a lot of it remains in something approaching its natural state.


The trail cuts through several stands of our coastal live oaks, shown here with lots of neon green (non-native) grasses. These oaks would be gorgeous in private gardens. Imagining opening the back door and stepping out into this. But a fungus that was imported from Europe in a shipment of rhododendrons is now making these difficult to grow in all but the most driest garden spaces.


During the winter rains a little stream runs through the park. It takes months for the water to dry up completely, so every now and then you’ll find little watering holes like this one.


Lemonade berry appears frequently in native garden plantings and is easy to find at native nurseries. The plants have been blooming in the canyon for a couple months, and they’re still blooming. This species forms a large, tidy shrub that stays an attractive dark green color year round. Later in the year it’ll develop orange-to-salmon berries in the place of the flowers. Definitely garden-worthy.

Lemonade berry performs best near the coast where heavy frosts aren’t a concern, but it can come back if frozen.


These aren’t flowers, but I think they’re pretty attractive. The toyon, also called Chrsitmas berry (Heteromeles arbutifolia) still had its berries out. This is another plant that makes an attractive large evergreen shrub in the home landscape. The leaves on this are just a little lighter green than those of the lemonade berry, and the plant more densely branched.


Toyon is a fine native substitute for holly, bearing these berries during the time of year when holly would. (And speaking of “holly would,” did you know that Hollywood got its name from big stands of this that grew on the hillsides overlooking what’s now tinseltown?) This is also one of the easier plants to find commercially.


I’ve written recently about a new groundcover milkvetch that I was trying out. A different species with somewhat similar-looking flowers was approaching peak bloom in several spots in the canyon. There are over 1500 vetch species on earth and a half-dozen in the county, but I believe this one is Astragalus trichopodus.

The flowers are small and intricate and appear on a plant that can approach three feet tall. This milkvetch dies back to nothing during the summer drought, but I think it would look great when combined with selections that have more summer interest.


The canyon hillsides are overrun with invasive mustard that is just now starting to put on its spring growth spurt. But this milkvetch gets going quicker, and actually seems to stand a chance against the black mustard menace, unlike other natives that mature later. Here you see it growing up through the trellis of dead mustard stems left over from last year.


Not having spent much time in Texas, it took me a while to figure out that Texas bluebonnets were Texas species of what I’d been calling lupines all my life. Here’s a “California bluebonnet.” In this canyon they’re more of an occasional treat than a plant that colonizes big spreads of hillside. They’re ephemeral, but would be gorgeous in a garden.


Fuchsia-flowered gooseberry is a shoulder-high shrub with a long blooming period from winter through much of spring. You can probably see from the picture that it is a little on the thorny side, something like you’d see on Victorian moss roses. But the flowers make this a striking plant in the right spot. The shiny green leaves will persist throughout the year if the plant is given an occasional summer sip of water. And did I mention “hummingbird-magnet?”

There were other native plants in bloom, including the perky scarlet monkey flower. But my trip was just a little early to catch the the peak flowering. I’ll post more as I take more trips.

And of course, in a park surrounded by human habitation, you’ll find a healthy sampling exotic species. I’ll post next on a few of my interesting but less garden-worthy encounters.

a new groundcover


Here’s a look at a new groundcover I’m trying out. The plant, Nuttall’s milkvetch (Astragalus nuttallii) is native to coastal Central California, and seems to be adapting easily to my coastal San Diego location–maybe a little too well!

Las Pilitas Nursery, who seems to be the only firm propagating the species, estimates its height to be 3-18 inches and 18 to 36 inches wide. The plant went into the ground October 12, and has topped out at a foot or so high–so far so good. But its spread, now at over six feet, has easily hit more than double the estimated maximum plant size. And that’s with no supplemental watering after the first couple of months in the ground. We’ll see if it slows down as the weather warms and the ground dries out.


The milkvetch bore some of these small, ivory-white flowers on it in October, and it’s never been without them in the intervening six months. Now that the weather is warming, the plant is getting even more interested in flowering.


As much as I enjoy its flowers, my favorite thing about this milkvetch is its delicate foliage. It’s fern-like, and so far has maintained its clean, green-to-grayish green coloration. I have the plant at front edge of the retaining wall next to the front sidewalk, so it’s easy to get face to face with the flowers and leaves. A front of the bed location would also let people enjoy this delicately textured plant.

So, if you’d like a distinctive, delicate, low, mounding groundcover for a dry spot in a zone 9 or 10 landscape, this might be just the ticket, even if the plant might get a little wide and need to be cut back.

PS: I should also mention that one of this milkvetch’s common names is “locoweed,” and the plant is supposedly poisonous. I have no idea whether it’s in the category of nightshade or no more dangerous than tomato plants. Since I have no small children around or pets that get into anything other than catnip, I’ve never let an interesting plant’s supposed toxicity stop me from growing it. But you might consider that before planting a couple acres of it.

the long brown season

When you spend your time in San Diego’s well-watered burbs it’s easy to forget that you’re living in the middle of a desert. The last significant rainfall in town occurred in February, and the unirrigated natural lands around town have long ago begun their transformation into the long brown season.

My recent little excursion to Los Peñasquitos Canyon, a local open-space preserve between San Diego and Del Mar, gave me a chance to see what the natural world is doing in these parts.

Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve trail

Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve

Dried thistle

Not everything is brown, of course. Some plants are tapped into locations with residual moisture. Others have adapted to the climate and have the stamina to stay green year-round.

Here are a few of the plants still showing colors other than brown:

BuckwheatFlat-topped buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) a native plant.

Rosa californiaWild rose (Rosa californica) a native.

Invasive fennelFennel (Foeniculum vulgare) an exotic, invasive species. This is the culinary plant from the Mediterranean that has escaped into the wilds.

Poison oakPoison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) a native–one of the few plants that turns blazing red in the fall. Even now, it’s showing some of that red color.

Flowering thistleThistle in bloom. I’m not sure if this is native or not, but it’s not the hyper-nasty Russian thistle (the dried flowers of which are shown in the large photo above). [Correction/edit August 1: This is actually a teasel, not a thistle. Like the escaped fennel above, this too is a renegade exotic species. Pretty, though…]

It’s a condition of our consumer culture and times to want what we don’t have. Living in San Diego, most of the plant materials that people expect to find in their home gardens fall outside of the category of what occurs naturally or is well-suited to the area.

It’s always instructive to visit the natural preserves to see plants–even the nasty invasives–that are supremely well-designed to live in this climate. Some of the plants in these parks would do extremely well in gardens. But it’s hard letting go of plants that many of us associate with places we’ve lived in and even people we’ve known.

My own yard has several areas that I consider my guilty pleasure zones. I have pieces of a bromeliad and a kahili ginger that I was given in the 1970s, as well as the green rose from that I dug up from the house where I grew up in the Los Angeles area. And I’m a natural born collector who has a hard time saying no to interesting plants. These plants all require some water and tending beyond what nature brings.

But they’re counterbalanced by garden areas planted with drought-tolerant species, local and introduced, that receive almost no water and attention over the summer. As time goes on, I’ll be expanding those areas. Don’t expect me any time soon, however, to plant poison oak, as pretty and hardy as the plant is. I have my limits as to how much true nature I want in my garden…


In the local canyons, this time of year brings about the spectacular flowers of the sacred datura, Datura wrightii. The low, mounding bushes grow two to three feet tall and easily twice as wide, and are covered from dusk to mid-morning with immense white trumpets, easily eight inches across, often flushed with pale lavender.

Photo by Dlarsen, via Wikimedia Commons [ source ]

This is one of several species of the genus that has been called toloache in Mexico. It’s in the nightshade family, and like other members of the genus Datura, the plant is as toxic as it is spectacular.

Even though it’s highly poisonous, some Native Americans used the plant as part of a ceremony marking the passage of a child to an adult. From the Wikipedia: “Among the Chumash, when a boy was 8 years old, his mother gave him a preparation of momoy to drink. This was supposed to be a spiritual challenge to the boy to help him develop the spiritual wellbeing that is required to become a man. Not all of the boys survived [my emphasis].”

Datura budOn my recent pre-dusk hike through our local Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve all the buds on the numerous toloache plants were tightly furled when I arrived.

Datura unfurlingBut by the time I left, less a half hour before sunset, the flowers buds were loosening. Had I stayed an hour longer I would have been able to view the fresh flowers in the last glow of daylight like an intoxicating evil welcoming the night.

Datura with hand for scaleHere you can get a sense for how large these flowers will be.

Despite its bad press this is one of our local plants that I’ve been eying to add to the garden. The only thing the cat shows any interest in are plants that look like grasses or catnip, and there are parts of the yard no small child could get to. Besides, I’ve already got a number of toxic plants in the garden–oleanders, tomatoes and other nightshade cousins.

In addition to having amazing flowers, this datura requires no added water during the long dry summer. Nothing this spectacular can make that claim.

Speaking of poisonous plants, last week’s New York Times had an article on the Duchess of Northumberland. She’s in the process of building a modern annex to grounds that were designed by Capability Brown, the landmark British landscape designer from the eighteenth century. Traditionalists are not happy. “They said I am to gardens what Imelda Marcos is to shoes,” the Duchess is quoted. In her project one of the features is the Poison Garden, which the article describes as “a spooky fenced-off area with about 100 varieties of toxic plants, as well as cannabis and opium poppies.”

I bet this duchess’s garden parties will be pretty interesting affairs…

mariposa lily

Here’s a plant I hadn’t grown before, the Mariposa Lily, Calochortus superbus.

Mariposa Lily

The first plant to bloom was creamy yellow, almost white, with very few markings. It had a remarkably lacy petal thing going on–but that was due to insects munching on the plant.

And then this clone bloomed, pale blush with some of the most outrageous petal markings I’ve ever seen on a bulb, almost like a peacock feather. Gee, I thought I’d gotten the wrong bulbs since they were so different. But doing my research I was assured they were actually the kinds of variation you can expect from this plant. In fact, there’s a web page that shows lots of variations of this species.

Interior of Mariposa lily

I haven’t seen what this plant does during the summer in a bed that gets moderate-to-light watering. This is a California native and comes from areas where it dries out in the summer, so chances are excellent that the bulbs would rot in the ground. I’ll try to dig up most of them and store them dry, but I’ll leave a few in the ground for a test, particularly those in areas that are farther away from the sprinkler. They’re so cool–I hope they’ll come back next year!

return of the native

I’ve been watching the seedlings, and now they’re just beginning to bloom: Ranunculus californicus, a.k.a. “California buttercup.”


I bought a plant at a native plant sale maybe ten years ago. The species gows 18-24 inches tall, is drought-tolerant, and stays pretty showy for a couple months in the early spring with bright heads of these simple yellow flowers carried above the delicate and shiny foliage. It self-sowed readily without becoming weedy, so that one plant became a nice handful. That nice handful, however, got run over by a little backhoe a couple years ago when we did a little addition to the back of the house. Where there used to be garden there was just trampled dirt. Now the first ranunculus are back, maybe not exactly where I’d want them, but close enough.

With too many of these native California plants, they show up at native plant nurseries, but when you go out to the wilds you hardly ever run across them. But one of the last times I was hiking around the local San Clemente Canyon preserve, maybe 3 miles away, I looked down and there it was: Ranunculus californica, as happy on the hillside as it was back home in the garden.

blue dicks

Dichelostemma capitatum, in bloom in the garden now:bluedicksclose.jpgbluedicksplant.jpg

My plants come from a native plant sale ten years ago, and they’ve multiplied in the front yard, through both division of the bulbs and self-sowing. In a wet year the flowering stems may rise up two feet, and little clusters of lavender blossoms for a couple of weeks. Though mostly stems, the plants in bloom are surprisingly striking. Out of bloom, there’s so little to the plants that they almost vanish out of sight.

I haven’t been out to the local canyons this season, but I’m sure the blue dicks (really, that’s what they call them!) are making their presence known. Even if you don’t devote your whole yard to natives, having some exemplary ones around connects you to your environment. You know that if something is blooming in your yard it’s blooming in the wild lands around you. You feel a part of something much larger than your own garden. On the other hand, with things like hybrid petunias or modern roses, well, they might look pretty, but they don’t root you in the same way. They don’t give you that same sense of place and belonging.