When you drive north on the 5 Freeway to where it merges into the 14 (Antelope Valley Freeway), look to the right and to the left.
Actually, just look up and you will see hordes of yellow-orange flowers clambering monkeylike up the side of a nearly vertical embankment. Remarkably, masses of perennial monkey flowers (Mimulus aurantiacus) are growing straight out of what must be extremely narrow and shallow rock crevices because they are indiscernible to the naked eye. I have driven this route for many springs and have never seen a monkey flower display of this magnitude. I can only guess that last year’s record-setting rains led to enormous growth of the plants, which on the strength of this year’s late rain, are currently at the peak of their bloom.
The monkey flowers’ success on the side of this cliff is an indication of what they, and many other California native plants, crave beyond all else: perfect drainage for their roots.
Stroll around the native plant gardens at the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley, and you will be impressed with the grittiness of the earth. If you have poorly drained or clay soil, it simply may not be possible to grow California natives, although you could try digging out large holes that you backfill entirely with fast-draining topsoil prior to planting. If you plant from containers, each hole should be capacious — at least three times larger than the root ball (root plus soil volume) that will be placed into it.
Further south, on the 405 Freeway in the Van Nuys area, trees are in bloom with comb-shape flowers that are the same yellow-orange of the monkey flower. These are silk oak (Grevillea robusta) specimens, which, for homeowners, are most useful as small potted ornamentals, best appreciated for their lacy, sea-green foliage. They are a disaster, however, as backyard trees, since they produce an enormous amount of litter, grow to a tremendous height, and cast so much shade that nothing can grow under them. However, as potted foliage plants, for both indoor and outdoor use, they are excellent choices since they grow quickly and reliably with a minimum of attention.
If you are looking for easy care plants, take note of CalTrans selections. Lately, they seem to have fallen in love with two lantana varieties, the orange and the yellow, presently in full flower. If you have a large area to be planted that gets plenty of sun, but you cannot afford to water except on an occasional basis, consider lantana. In the course of their development, these plants grow into large mounds that completely shade their roots.
When the roots of any plant are completely shaded or mulched, watering becomes no more than an afterthought or occasional event.
If you’re looking for a simple yet effective planting scheme for installing above a block wall for its spillover effect, consider alternating trailing purple and trailing white lantana. Once they start blooming, these plants will continue to do so for months at a time.
These lantanas are extremely durable and should be cut back hard every other year or so in order to clean them up and generate new growth. Hanging baskets and balcony or patio containers also present fine opportunities for showing off purple and white lantana.
TIP OF THE WEEK: If you are going to plant monkey flowers, you should consider planting Penstemons (PEN-ste-mons), their close relatives, as well. Penstemons are the royalty of California native flowers, appearing in rich purples, blues, and reds. Most types are perennial, blooming in late spring and early summer, yet seldom persisting for more than a few years. If your soil is well drained, however, they will self sow in place and give you reliable crops of spring flowers. Like their snapdragon relations, Penstemons may be used in cut flower arrangements. Singeing the bottom of their stems with a candle flame before placement in water will extend their longevity in the vase.