A New Year’s Gift

deer fern (Blechnum spicant)

deer fern (Blechnum spicant)

Considering the time of year, you may have recently received a gift or two but, if you didn’t get what you wanted, you might yet fulfill your horticultural heart’s desire with a visit to the Grow Native Nursery in West Los Angeles.  I promise you will learn something new and you might even walk away with an addition or two to your native garden.

The first time you visit Grow Native Nursery, you will wonder why you have not been there before.  Words like “well kept secret” and “hidden treasure” may come to mind, but those locutions fail to do justice to the vastness of the enterprise. Several acres of containerized native plants stretch out before you.  The nursery is located on the grounds of the Veterans’ Administration complex, just north of Wilshire Boulevard, and just West of |Sepulveda Boulevard.  The entrance is accessed through Constitution Avenue and the address is 100 Davis Avenue.  The nursery is open to the public Wednesday-Sunday from 10 a.m.- 4:30 p.m.
A signficant plot of prime Los Angeles real estate devoted to native plants . . . who knew?  I am one who likes to explore and, roaming deep into the nursery grounds, found a large shade house of native treasures I had never seen before as well as a propagation area where two gentleman were busy potting up baby plants.  As a bonus, at the back of the property, I discovered a parrot sanctuary whose most vocal resident, upon my approach, called out:  “Hello.  Hello?  Hello!”
It is said that you should save the best for last but, ever since my visit to the Grow Native nursery, I have not been able to stop thinking about a certain extraordinary fern and, therefore, must tell you about it at once.  It’s simply called deer fern (Blechnum spicant), a name which acknowledges its tastiness to Bambi and friends.  So, no, you cannot plant this in an area frequented by deer — unless you want to attract deer! — but in an average garden, as long as soil drains well, it should do fine.  Deer fern is a selection recommended for dry shade, so plant it under your oak tree.  In the manner of ferns generally, it is blessed with rhizomes, those underground or semi-underground stems which, like bulbs, are food storage organs which make it possible for many fern species to survive freezes and droughts.  Above ground fronds may die but thanks to rhizomes, vegetative rebirth will occur when favorable growing conditions return.  Deer fern, which is native to northern California, would make it through the coldest southern California winters just fine.  Its clumping, spreading growth habit means that it lends itself to propagation by division through its root mass.
In speaking of its qualities, I have yet to even mention the external beauty of deer fern. When it comes to people, to paraphrase King Solomon, “beauty is deceitful and fleeting” (Proverbs 31:30), of little value as compared to a person’s inner qualities.  In the horticultural world as well, this recognition is beginning to take hold.  There was a time when flowering potential was the main selling point of plants.  But that has changed.  The capacity of a plant to attract wildlife — especially birds, butterflies, and beneficial insects — is a major consideration these days when making garden selections, as is drought tolerance.  Let’s be honest:  certain native plants, especially grasses, may look weedy at times. But those same grasses help control erosion, attract colonies of praying mantises, sip a minimum of water, and produce kinetic flower tassels that, once seeds are produced, will be visited by a variety of birds.  Just for the record, deer fern is aesthetically pleasing, too.  At the beginning of the growing season, lush but sterile fronds grow out horizontally while, later on, spore-bearing vertical fronds emerge.
I had never seen a white beardtongue (Penstemon sp.), a white monkey flower (Mimulus sp.), or a white desert mallow (Sphaeralcea ‘La Luna’), and was unexpectedly introduced to all three at Grow Native Nursery.  A billowy specimen of white desert mallow greeted me at the entrance to the shade house mentioned above.  I was familiar with the red, pink and, especially, apricot desert mallows but did not know about the white.  For the uninitiated, desert mallows flower abundantly against a background of soft gray foliage.  The sort of rainfall we have received this year is all that a mature desert mallow, properly mulched, will require to flower and flourish in the coming year.  Lippia formosa, a four-foot tall shrub with clusters of pinkish-white flowers with yellow throats, was another pleasant surprise, as was a fan-shaped pink Lewisia flower, and wooly blue curls (Trichostema ‘Magic Blue’), although familiar, never looked as good as it did here in full bloom.  Make sure soil drains perfectly for your woolly blue curls, however, or their roots will quickly rot.
Tip of the Week:  Sandhill sagebrush (Artemisia pycnocephala ‘David’s Choice’) has long been a favorite of native plant enthusiasts.  Its flowers are non-descript but its thin, silky gray foliar fingers and compact growth habit make it a suitable companion for all manner of  vividly flowering, drought tolerant selections.  Its globular form, reaching no more than six inches tall, recommends it as a subject for edging a planter bed, a driveway, or a garden path.

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