Category Archives: plant profiles

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.

in bloom: this big aloe

Sorry. I don’t know the species, but it’s for sure an aloe, possibly Aloe arborescens. It’s pretty common in Southern California but spectacular nevertheless, especially in bloom:

Aloe in bloom

This is the plant in the front yard. It’s now mounding something like 6 feet tall and maybe 8 wide, and covered with these tall spires of coral-orange-red flowers. You can easily forget that there are other things blooming.

Aloe plant

Like other aloes, it originates in Southern Africa, if not South Africa proper. It left a Mediterranean climate similar to California’s, and thrives on the warm, dry summers and cool, moister winters. Some summers it endures more than a month with no supplemental water, and it’d survive just fine if it didn’t get half of how much it gets. But like many things it responds to a little coaxing, and with a little water looks a little less feral.

There’s a definite hierarchy among some ecologically-concerned though a little purist gardeners. Fake English country gardens that in the desert that is California require lots of water and are filled with overfed disposable plants blooming themselves to death are near the dregs of the dregs at the bottom of the list. Drought-tolerant landscaping rises lots higher. And in the highest regard are the drought-tolerant gardens that rely solely on native plants. So this aloe is a middle-of-the-road choice in social consciousness. If it were human it’d probably drive a Subaru and vote for fairly progressive causes, though it might be caught throwing recyclables out with the landfill trash or listening to Howard Stern.

It’s interesting that a plant can have been in cultivation here for a century or more and still be considered an exotic species. Human ancestors that might have brought the plant with them would now be long-gone, though their progeny could be considered native to wherever they were born. Biology, though, has a much longer memory, and with good reason.

Some of these species brought over from other places could take over the biota, just like the human exotics have pretty much displaced the native populations that were here before them. Those of us who aren’t Native Americans are the human kudzus, the human tamarisks, the human tumbleweeds–opportunistic colonizers of a benign new prospect. Some of these other garden plants could well go on to be the scourge of the continent. But in the end the plants and the immigrants all share the basic will to survive–survive first and ask moral questions later if at all.

Fortunately, this aloes seems content in its place as it gets bigger, and bigger, and bigger, shading its competitors and smothering smaller plants around it.

Uh oh.

Sure is pretty though, eh?

the kindness of strangers

I love big, splashy plants as much as the next person, but there’s a plant that I’ve got a special attachment to that’s neither big nor splashy.

Green rose

The green rose, Rosa chinensis viridiflora, lives up to its name. When the “flowers” open, what’s inside the protective sepals is certainly green. But there are no rose petals in sight. The blossom just keeps on opening, revealing more and more sepals, all of them green in color, sometimes tinged with a reddish cinnamon color. Inside a typical rose, once the sepals unfurl and the petals open, you finally get to the pistils and stamens, the reproductive parts that enable sexual reproduction and perpetuation of the species. But this plant lacks them too, just like it lacks petals. If this plant were to turn up in nature, it’d go extinct once the single plant passed on.

Its history is a little fuzzy, though it was for sure introduced to the rose-growing world in 1856 by Bembridge and Harrison in England. In The history of the rose by Roy E. Shepperd, the author notes that the plant has been in cultivation since 1743, which for a plant with no hopes of reproduction by seeds is quite a feat. Through the years, people have found something about this plant interesting enough to start cuttings or make grafts onto rootstock or wholesale dig up the plant and take it along with them when they move.

I was a rose geek in my early teen years, growing and exhibiting roses around the Los Angeles area. At one point I had something over a hundred roses, including this one. I moved down to San Diego, and by the later 1980s finally had a house with room for plants. My parents were moving out of the homestead, and for some reason I felt the need to rescue this one rose from an uncertain future. Of all the roses, I dug up this one and moved only this one. Reading through some of the posts on this rose at–including someone who moved her great grandmother’s plant–I’m not the only with an attachment to it.

And somehow, through the kindness of strangers smitten with this wonderfully weird plant, the green rose has stayed in cultivation for something like 264 years.