Native Plant People

Spending a day among native plants and the people who grow them is to be immersed in beauty mixed with sadness, love obscured by obsession and desire thwarted by reality.
The plain truth is that you cannot live right up close to the chaparral because a brush fire there – which occurs periodically in that environment – will destroy your home. But you do not want to live too far away from the chaparral if you’re a true native plant lover who cannot accept alienation from your natural surroundings, because you will be too painfully distant from your heart’s desire.
It’s incredible, really. We bemoan the assimilation and modernization of Stone Age peoples around the globe. We decry the destruction of tropical rain forests. We wail for the desert tortoise and for the redwoods. Yet we cannot get together to stop the assault on what grows naturally in our own back yards.
Someone who had just purchased a plot of land was shown an endangered species of lily that was growing on it and advised in a friendly way that discretion should be used in clearing the property. Within a few days, all the lilies and, for good measure, most of the other native vegetation, had been ripped out.
Such stories come from a day spent in the wilderness that sill exists on the fringes of our city.
Close by La Tuna Canyon, at the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley, Steve Dreher, an expatriate New Yorker, is in charge of a flourishing native plant nursery. Dreher received a degree in filmmaking from New York University before heading for Los Angeles. Here he became a free-lance producer for television, working for the “Today” show and “60 Minutes.”
“I got tired of producing useless videos,” said Dreher, who eventually found himself volunteering at Theodore Payne. “There’s a lot more reality working with native plants than there is in television production,” he said.
When the head nurseryman position in Sun Valley suddenly became available, he jumped at the opportunity, even though his knowledge of native plants was minimal.
In just 2-1/2 years, he has amassed an enormous amount of knowledge and expertise, although he readily confesses that there is still plenty for him to learn. As part of his midlife career change, he has begun taking biology classes at Pasadena City College. His ultimate goal is to become a conservation biologist.
I’m glad that plants don’t have attorneys, or I might have been sued for once reporting here that certain California pine trees (Pinus aristata), at 6,000 years old, are the oldest living things on Earth. Dreher instructed me that there is a specimen of the turpentine bush (Larrea tridentata) growing in the Colorado Desert that is some 12,000 years old.
Each time I visit the Theodore Payne Foundation, I am astonished anew by the enormous diversity and raw beauty of California natives. There always seem to be new plantings on the ground and new plants available for sale at the nursery.
Last week, I was absolutely amazed at the sight of what is called the prickly poppy (Argemone munita). From a distance, it looks very much like the Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri), only the prickly poppy has more-silvery leaves with, as you might have guessed, spines along their edges. I also saw two natives representing genera that I had always assumed were restricted to more eastern climates: a fragrant Philadelphus (mock orange) and a Spirea. I “discovered” a native Abutilon called Indian mallow that has furry gray leaves and apricot flowers and was introduced to two fascinating ground-cover sages. Before leaving, I purchased a yerba buena plant (Satureja douglasii), a creeping, moisture-loving, highly fragrant herb with triangular leaves and petite white flowers.
For information about Theodore Payne plant sales and other events, call (818) 768-1802.
Traversing the Valley, I stopped at Soka University, located just east of Las Virgenes Road on Mulholland Highway. I was guided through a very well-maintained native plant garden by Earlyn Mosher, who pointed out the five divisions of the garden, each representing a separate ecosystem. There were coastal sage scrub, oak woodland, riparian, grassland and chaparral plants.
My attention is always stolen by clear, bright yellow flowers, such as those I saw nodding from Camisonia cheiranthifolius. The fragrant pitcher sage (Lepechnia fragrans) has musky leaves and pale pink, inverted vaselike flowers. Flase indigo (Amorpha california) has purple and orange flower wands and the kind of pinnate leaves that indicate a plant’s membership in the pea or legume family. Yerba mansa (Anemopsis californica) is a bog plant with large leaves and pure white flowers.
Tours of the Soka garden are given to the public from 10 to 11 a.m. on the first Tuesday of every month (except December and January). For more information, call (818) 880-6400.
Tip of the week: Some advice from Steve Dreher: When planting California natives, use soaker hoses to get your plants established. Certain California natives, such as perennial monkey flowers, will stay green almost year round if regularly watered. However, these same consistently irrigated plants will not live as long as those which, allowed to lose their luster during the summer, are watered solely by winter rains.

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