For years, although the people working there meant well, it really was kind of depressing to walk around. Plants were shabby and unlabeled and, often enough, no one was available to answer your questions.
Today, the people who run the Theodore Payne Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes the use of California native plants and wildflowers, have radically transformed the place, making it tidier and friendlier.
They have created what is sometimes referred to as a “destination nursery” in the process. You visit a destination nursery not necessarily to buy plants but simply for the pleasure of being there, for the atmosphere and for the learning experience.
After wandering around for an hour or so, I felt that my knowledge of native plants had been significantly enhanced. Each plant is neatly labeled by name, preferred exposure and size at maturity.
Theodore Payne’s new look is as refreshing as the sight of a Ceanothus in bloom. The more I see and learn about Ceanothus (see-a-NO-thus), also called California lilac, the more I recognize the value of this plant, both aesthetically and ecologically.
Some Ceanothus bloom in white, but you want to focus on the blues — covering the spectrum from powder to midnight — of which there are 20 cultivars at Theodore Payne, including ground cover, shrub and arboreal specimens.
Ceanothus flowering time varies, depending on species and cultivar, and by selecting six or eight types you should have flowers from the end of December until the beginning of May.
Ceanothus thrysiflorus `Skylark’ has the longest bloom period. Growth can be rapid and some species send out 10-foot shoots in a single season.
Although recommended for full sun, I have seen a number of different Ceanothus species flower in half-day or partial sun locations. I am particularly passionate about those with dark, shiny, sea green leaves, which also happen to be more deer tolerant than the paler, leafed types.
Horticulturally speaking, you do not need to do anything to Ceanothus but watch it grow. In fact, doing nothing is the key to its longevity.
Left undisturbed in its habitat, Ceanothus can live for more than a century. Minimally tended in the garden, it will not live that long but should survive for at least two decades. This is the testimony of Bert Wilson, erudite plantsman and creator of the most authoritative Web site on California natives, www.laspilitas.com.
If you fertilize Ceanothus as you would other garden plants, you significantly reduce its life span, which averages less than five years under typical garden conditions.
The reason for this is that, in nature, Ceanothus grows in symbiosis with nitrogen-fixing bacteria known as actinomycetes — those white strands you see when you dig under a compost pile.
Actinomycetes also impart to compost and forest-leaf litter that well-recognized and sweetly earthy fragrance. Because of their relationship with these bacteria, Ceanothus should not be fertilized and should be watered sparingly, otherwise it becomes susceptible to a variety of pathogenic fungi.
As Wilson describes it, Ceanothus roots live in a delicate balance with sustaining soil microorganisms. Once you fertilize and overwater, you inhibit these microorganisms that normally provide mineral sustenance, hormonal regulation and disease resistance for Ceanothus. As a result, unhealthy growth develops and pathogens kill the plants.
The same bacteria that sustain Ceanothus perform a similar function for other important California natives such as white alder (Alnus rhombifolia), a towering tree with neatly scarred gray bark and lush foliage; mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus betuloides), a medium to tall shrub with high, arching branches; Pacific wax myrtle (Myrica californica), an enormous shrub with shimmering, fragrant foliage; and silver buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea), a 10-foot shrub that makes a fine natural fence and resembles firethorn (Pyracantha) with its oval leaves, red berries and thorns.
All of these natives add nitrogen to the surrounding soil to the benefit of any other plants that happen to be in the vicinity.
At the Theodore Payne nursery, I picked up several natives I have read about for years but never planted.
Red stem dogwood (Cornus stolonifera) is deciduous, showing an attractive scarlet silhouette when leaves are gone during the winter. It is a riparian or river bank plant that can grow in heavy soil and requires afternoon sun protection.
Snowdrop bush (Styrax officinalis) is a shrub that prefers somewhat acidic soil and should be given planting conditions similar to those of the camellia. It displays aromatic, hanging white flowers this time of year.
Twinberry honeysuckle (Lonicera involucrata) has pairs of tiny red-orange trumpet flowers tipped in yellow during spring and summer that are followed by black berries.