Fuchsia Flowering Gooseberry

fuchsia flowering gooseberryIn all of Los Angeles, there could not be a more stunning plant than the one currently blooming outside the east-facing wall of the Mid-Valley Regional Library in North Hills. It has pendulous cherry-red flowers and lush green, softly lobed leaves. It is a California native known as fuchsia flowering gooseberry (Ribes speciosum).
I will forever be indebted to Virginia Davis, a great-grandmother with ebullient horticultural enthusiasm, for bringing this plant to my attention. I had seen a fuschia flowering gooseberry once before, many years ago, but never in full bloom, and had been woefully unaware of its true beauty. Bob Perry, in his classic book “Landscape Plants for Western Regions,” considers this woody perennial “one of the most colorful western native shrubs.” It grows to a height of 8 feet and attracts hummingbirds despite its spiny demeanor.
The fuchsia flowering gooseberry can grow in half-day sun or light shade, but, in our hot valleys at least, should not be given full-day sun. It can withstand considerable dryness but will also grow where the soil is moderately moist.
Those who decided to include native plants in the mid-Valley library landscape should be congratulated for their courage. It is true that some of the plantings have not done well, and not all the plants have been perfectly maintained. But landscaping with native plants is in its infancy, and there are still many lessons to be learned. We may as well learn those lessons now and apply them to our future efforts. It would be a shame to retreat from native landscapes because of a few miscues.
One lesson taught by the library landscape is to go slow with natives or, for that matter, any other plants with which you are not completely familiar. Instead of covering 1,000 square feet with an untried species, plant it in a smaller area and see how it grows. If the small planting does well, expand it. For example, lyme grass (Elymus sp.), also known as blue wild rye, was extensively planted in the library parking lot. The plant has a lot of straw-colored foliage amongst its distinctive blue-gray leaves and should probably be cut to the ground in order to be rejuvenated and produce fresh growth. Then again, maybe the plant is suffering due to its location; a full-sun exposure together with reflected sun from the parking lot asphalt may create more heat than this, or any other ornamental grass, can tolerate.
Fountain grass (Pennisetum sp.), an Ethiopian species which is found around the perimeter of the library parking lot, is also showing dead foliage. It is the most widely planted ornamental grass in this city and should also be cut to the ground once a year. Early February, just before the first leaf growth of the year begins, is the ideal time for shearing back ornamental grasses in Los Angeles, although this task can be performed now as well.
A trailing manzanita was planted as a ground cover near the library entrance with limited success. In one spot, the manzanita is lush and flowering, while, in another, it is chlorotic (leaves are yellow). Nearby, a patch of prostrate rosemary is also chlorotic. Chlorosis is often a sign of too much water around the roots, which seems to be the case here. When dry-climate plants such as rosemary and manzanita struggle, the cause is often a soil that has too much clay, is being too heavily watered, or both.
The fuchsia flowering gooseberry described earlier has probably been viewed by only a handful of people. The reason for this is its location, which is far from the sidewalk that leads to the library entrance, it is also blocked from view by surrounding plants. Perhaps a pathway leading from the sidewalk to the gooseberry, and then other pathways crossing this one, should be considered. Not only would the gooseberry be given the attention it deserves, but other deficiencies in this landscape might also be corrected in the process. The landscaped area east of the library is large, amorphous and seemingly out of control. Dividing it into sections – by means of crossing pathways – would allow for the creation of discrete, more manageable individual landscaped areas. The pathways, which should be at least 3 feet wide, would diminish the landscaped area. More time and care could then be devoted to the remaining plants, resulting in a better-quality landscape. A map could even be provided that would indicate the names of the plants in the landscape. This would make the library landscape more accessible, and more educational as well.
In the meantime, volunteers are needed to help care for and improve the library landscape. Get involved with this project by attending a meeting of the gardening committee of the Friends of the Mid-Valley Regional Library at 6 p.m. May 10. The meeting will be held at the library, at 16244 Nordhoff St., between Balboa and Woodley, in North Hills. All plant lovers are invited to attend.

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