Difficult to Grow Native Plants That You Love Anyway

Manzanita blossoms
Manzanitas are not easy to grow, but they are incredible once established. Credit: Neal Kramer

Gardeners’ Corner | Questions and Answers with Local Experts

This month, we’re asking our experts what native plants they love despite difficulty. Here they weigh in:

Greg Rubin: We have a very small internal nursery where we experiment with growing things that are difficult or impossible to find at most suppliers. The two plants we have struggled with are Dendromecon harfordii (everybody is experiencing problems with this one) and Berberis pinnata. The second is a plant that is local to Southern California, is very colorful, and fairly compact in size. It has done very well once planted out, and it’s much better suited to suburban landscapes in this region than say “Golden Abundance” (which I do like but needs a fair amount of water and is huge). As far as plants that have been difficult to sustain in landscapes, the problems appear to be more environmental than species related.

Hotter summers with longer heat waves with insufficient cooling at night are leading to higher mortality rates, especially in the more northern evergreen species typically used as foundational plants in native landscapes.

These same conditions are promoting the spread and longevity of Argentine ant colonies, which often nest in the rootballs of our plants, plastering the roots with sucking insects and apparently spreading diseases like root rot and wilts. Plants in the Malvaceae (including Fremontodenron), Rhamnaceae (including Ceanothus), and to a lesser extent Ericaceae (including manzanita) seem especially vulnerable. Timely aggressive treatment has often been able to reverse these potential losses. So. Cal., desert, and Baja species seem to have better mortality rates down here.

John Gossett: I love mazanitas, but I keep trying to grow varieties that need some water in my back garden that never gets watered. This falls somewhere between wishful planting and not thinking clearly.

Sarah Jayne: Sometimes it’s for the best that the plant one craves just will not grow. I really wanted Matilija Poppy and tried three or four times to get it started in my 30×30 garden. Well thank goodness it didn’t!

Dan Songster: “Well, woolly blue curls are short lived for me but too wonderful (fragrant, great cut flower, and lovely!) not to keep trying. Mariposa lily bulbs keep getting nibbled by the rabbits or dug up by the squirrels (need to put some wire mesh down over them I guess) but what a reward when they do survive and bloom. Of course, there are certain large manzanitas that I would love to grow, but various fungi interfere with the health of those plants in the heavier soils of the garden. Who does not love the sculptural bark of the manzanitas when on full display! I keep trying new things with decomposed granite, etc., to encourage longer life with California’s iconic shrub.”

With planting season approaching, our question for the next newsletter is: “What native shrub or tree do you grow (or want to grow) that will provide food for the bugs that feed the majority of our nesting birds?” Email your responses to Dan Songster at songster@cox.net.

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