Creating a Fragrant Retreat

When entering the modest building where the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants is headquartered in Sun Valley, your first impression is aromatic. You cannot quite place the scent, but it somehow recalls a hike you took not too long ago through the local chaparral. It must be delightful to work here, you think, with that sweet musky fragrance always in the air. No wonder the staff and volunteers are so friendly.
On my visit, I learn that the foundation, which includes a sizable display garden, nursery and gift shop, runs a busy program of classes and other events for native plant lovers, whether they are new or more seasoned in their exposure to California flora. The 22-acre site, nestled in a canyon and extending up its slopes, has become an increasingly popular destination for landscapers, gardeners and the general public. Just a few weeks ago, KCBS and KCAL anchor Ann Martin did a special report from the grounds of the foundation, where she interviewed Holly Wagner, the nursery manager. You can view this video report at www.theodorepayne.org. (Click on E-Newsletter Archives, June 2006, and scroll down.)
I was given a tour of the nursery by Carmen Wolf, program director of the foundation. Still thinking about that musky aroma, I inquire about plant selections that would be appropriate for an herb garden of fragrant native plants.
“My favorite,” Wolf confides, “is coyote mint.” We walk over to the coyote mint (Monardella spp.) section and I marvel at the five different species.
“There is also the California bush sunflower (Encelia californica), which blooms practically nonstop,” she adds. We notice a large lemonade berry (Rhus integrifolia), another fragrant leafed plant, as well as its cousin, the sugar bush (Rhus ovata).
The foundation has a list of a dozen native shrubs and perennials with fragrant leaves and six types of native trees with aromatic foliage. The volatile oils that impart musky scents contribute to the combustibility of natives. Fire is an important element in their ecology and life cycle; the quicker and hotter a native plant burns, the more easily will their seeds be opened by the surrounding flames. For this reason, it is not recommended to plant highly aromatic, woody natives close to structures in brush fire areas.
As we walk through the nursery, I am stopped in my tracks by a delicate-leafed, pink-flowering native I have never seen before. It is the Western bleeding heart (Dicentra Formosa) and has irresistible charms. You can start with the flowers, if you wish, which are pendant-like, rosy hearts that show themselves virtually throughout the year. The lacy foliage resembles that of a fern or certain finely cut geranium leaves. In moist shade, this plant spreads quickly enough by rhizomes and seed. It would be nice to select it in place of those overly popular, consistently short-lived azaleas.
At the end of our tour, Wolf produces a flier that is a guide to summer planting of natives although she, personally, does not recommend it. “Some people, especially those nearer the coast, say you can plant both desert and riparian (water-loving) natives in the summer,” she says. “However, caution should be taken when summer planting in the Valley.”
Natives for summer planting include California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera), jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis) and the magnificent white alder tree (Alnus rhombifolia).
Native plants recommended for containers include manzanita ground covers, coyote mint (Monardella), Ceanothus `Yankee Point,’ sages (Salvia spp.), currants (Ribes spp.), incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens), California fuchsia (Zauschneria), grasses and annual wildflowers of all kinds.

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