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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Thoughts on California Native Plants

Ms Bee visits a California Poppy
Before we begin to think about how to grow California native plants, let's think about why we might want to grow California native plants. The native vegetation, through evolution, is adapted to this climate, these soil types and interacts with other natives (insects, mammals, birds, reptiles) in an ecological dance that was going on long before humans arrived, and certainly before the present civilization of humans arrived on scene. Their niche in the ecology of California gain some advantages to the gardener:

They Save Water
Once established, many native plants need little or no irrigation. Not only does one save the limited amount of water we have available, that saves one money.

Lower Maintenance
Less pruning and no fertilizers means less work for a gardener, saving time to learn more propagation and take more courses at UCLA Extension

Pesticide Freedom
Native plants interact with the insects of their environment in a way that eliminates pesticide use. The pests and diseases evolved with the plants and native plants have their own defense against them. Beneficial insects often become collateral victims when we spray pesticides (even more true if we use organic methods). Stop poisoning ourselves and our world.

Invite Wildlife
Native plants, birds, butterflies, beneficial insects, and interesting critters are, as noted above, co-evolved to be here. Current research shows confirms what many have intuited for many years: native wildlife clearly prefers native plants. California’s wealth of insect pollinators can improve fruit set in your garden, while a variety of native insects and birds will keep your landscape free of mosquitoes and plant-eating insects. Open your garden to these wild living things that live among us, despite what we have done to their habitat.

Support Local Ecology
While creating native landscapes can never replace natural habitats lost to development, planting residential and commercial gardens, parks, and roadsides with California natives can provide a “bridge” to nearby remaining wildlands.

California native plants are a world unto their own, mostly because we have so little familiarity with them. By that I mean, our culture's experience with growing these plants is something like 250 years – many a good deal less, like 60 years. And that is also the time we've been selecting them for our gardens. On the other hand, beans, lettuce, cabbage, onions have been in cultivation for thousands of years. Over that time, civilizations have selected year after year those plants that adapt to our culture, or in the case of stubborn plants, we have figured out how to make that plant grow to suit us. This selection process has yet to occur for California natives. Add to that the fact that these are plants from the driest of the world's Mediteranean climate that have adapted to survive with cool, wet winters and long, hot, droughty summers, in a land ravaged by frequent wildfires and you have plants that are, by nature, not ready to accept the regimen we intend to use to make them grow.

The cycle that California native plants live by is almost perfectly backwards to the cycle by which we want to make them grow. We want to plant in Spring (along with our tomatoes and marigolds) and have flowers blessing our landscape by July, if we insist on this, we will spend much more money on therapy than plants! Plant California natives in fall, when we hope for rain to establish them, and enjoy the fecundity of flowers in March/April. Right now, in the California native garden, some salvias are blooming, I've seen Blue Eyed Grass and some poppies blooming. By mid-March, the scene is breathtaking!

Being essentially wild plants, these plants of our home employ many different mechanisms to ensure that at least some of the seeds will find conditions acceptable to carry on the family name. These mechanisms cause for wacky germination of their seeds that drive gardeners batty and can be imitated by gardeners, if one knows the mechanisms a given plant uses to germinate at the most propitious moment for plant survival include:
germination after a fire
germination after cooler temperatures indicate winter
germination as daylight gets longer, indicating more longer days
germinating over a long period of time to have at least some of them hit ideal growing conditions

Meeting some of these conditions, for a gardener can be difficult. In order to imitate conditions that would break these inhibitors, one must understand the process the seed goes through in order to mimic it. In the case of fire causing germination, is it the heat, the chemical residue left by the fire or both that causes the seed to germinate when there is less competition for natural resources? If it is chemical, the commercially available 'Liquid Smoke' could be added to the container in and initial watering and that might be the key to unlock germination. If it is heat, one will need to start a fire over the seeds to get the heat. For example, in germinating Matilija Poppy (Romneya coulteri) the fire that would burn around these seeds in nature, would be composed of Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) leaves. When I want to start Matilija Poppy from seed, I cover them with Live Oak leaves and set them on fire. My thought is that the temperature, the chemistry needed for the poppy to sprout will best be approximated by those leaves of the oak with which it can often be found. I might be just a little too fixed on this, but my results of poppy germination have been excellent.

Cold and heat is usually coupled with the word 'stratification,' cold stratification being the most common.


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