Favorite Deciduous Plants
Gardeners’ Corner | Questions and Answers with Local Experts
By Dan Songster, 2010 November
This column is a regular newsletter feature offering chapter members and local experts a chance to briefly share information on many things related to gardening with natives. This Issue’s question is: What is your favorite deciduous native plant?
Laura Camp — Skipping over the obvious gorgeous fall color of Western Sycamore and Fremont Cottonwood, I’m choosing easy to grow Snowberry, Symphoricarpos mollis. It’s sometimes described as semi-deciduous because some leaves may hang on in winter when the white berries take center stage, but my favorite part is the fresh, green, round leaves in spring on a neat shrub for restricted spaces in limited light. Try it in a narrow strip next to a building in a shady spot.
Barbara Eisenstein — Wow that is easy! I love Fuchsia flowering gooseberry (Ribes speciosum). It has beautiful, shiny green leaves in winter, spring and early summer, exceptional crimson red hanging flowers in spring, beautiful gooseberries that get eaten as soon as they are ripe. And then when it loses its leaves its tangly, spiny branches form a most interesting sculpture.
Sarah Sarkissian — So hard to decide: Acer macrophyllum (I have lots of space and a streamside garden) because of the patterns of shadow and light when the sun is on the leaves and one is below the canopy. Also because of the fall color and the way the large leaves unfold in the early spring. For more normal garden space, Ribes sanguineum glutinosum: I like the reddish cast of its branches and in my setting the leaves stay green even through hot summers; it’s especially nice if it can be on a slope where one sees it from below so one looks up into the blossoms; also good fall color some years.
Ron Vanderhoff — I would nominate Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens). Ocotillo is a drought–‐deciduous stem–‐succulent and can flush leaves in as many as four or five cycles a year, depending upon rainfall. It’s extreme drought tolerance, striking and unique architecture, and hummingbird value make it one of my favorites.
Rick Fisher — Most spectacular fall color on a single deciduous tree I’ve ever seen, believe it or not: Fraxinus velutina on Mojave river near Hesperia; incredible gold/orange/copper/vermillion show, for some reason ‘wild’ trees always color up better than cultivated ones. Nicest fall color on a single plant in a garden: Vitis ‘Roger’s Red’. Nicest looking single deciduous tree (while leafless) Aesculus californica at RSABG. BUT, (and this is really hard to commit) my favorite overall ‘deciduous native plant’ for the garden: Ribes sanguineum because of the fall color, flowers, and fruit offer the most different and seasonally varied ‘treats’.
Bob Allen —False Indigo Bushes (Amorpha californica and A. fruticosa). Both are interesting shrubs with unusual odors and cool little flowers that have only a single petal (the banner). After pollination by native bumblebees, the banner folds down atop the stamens. Perhaps the best reason to like them is that they are host plants for caterpillars of our state butterfly, the California Dogface Butterfly (Zerene eurydice), which is quite lovely in all of its life stages!”
Thea Gavin — My favorite deciduous native plant is also my favorite tree in my small back–‐yard garden: desert willow (chilopsis linearis). When the graceful & slender leaves finally fall in early winter, they reveal an intricate network of smooth branches—so many patterns to contemplate until May when the leaves return.
Gene Ratcliffe — My favorite deciduous native is Spiraea douglasii, Western Bridalwreath. It has spectacular raspberry pink flowers, a very unusual color among natives. In the fall the foliage will turn yellow in good years, or even orange. Spiraea is useful for its late spring bloom and shade tolerance, but it needs a bit of supplemental water, as it is a northern species.
Chuck Wright — It has to be Western Sycamore, Platanus racemosa. Those angular branches, and the bark especially if wet from rain, and oh wow if it includes mistletoe, it can’t be beat. And oh yes the rustle of fallen leaves and crunch underfoot. A delight for the senses, and for some like my wife an “achoo” for the dust of the leaves.
Bart O’Brien — You want just one?! Well here goes—short and to the point: Vitis ‘Roger’s Red’ –‐ What’s not to like?! Vibrant red fall color, vigorous growth, ample green foliage from spring to fall, easy to prune, edible fruits (if you like them), and readily trainable to many garden situations. Very easy to grow (for most). Philadelphus lewisii (California Mock Orange) –‐ Arching fountain–‐like growth habit, deliciously scented showy white blossoms at the end of spring/beginning of summer. Very easy to grow (for most).
Sarah Jayne — I love all my deciduous native plants for the variety throughout the year, the chance to appreciate skeletal structure, to follow the progress of leaves from baby to grown up, and to enjoy changes in color. My favorite, though, is the False Indigo bush. Its tiny leaves disappear into the earth and require no gathering. Branches remain bare long after leaves have appeared on everything else. Then, just as the pruning saw is poised to chop up the poor dead thing, it bursts into a new set of mint green leaves and then the flowers.
Lili Singer — My favorite deciduous native is Platanus racemosa, Western Sycamore. In my Van Nuys garden, the tree’s awe-somely large leaves drop with the Santa Ana winds in late November or early December. For a short spell, bird nests are exposed and twisted twigs are silhouetted against the winter sky. By early February, new growth emerges – and what new growth it is! Each leaf unfurls one segment at a time, like a small felt–‐covered paw, and enlarges in time. Hummingbirds gather the fuzz from new leaves and use it to build their nests, along with spider webs and bits of other leaves. By April, a full canopy of foliage provides shade for understory plantings of Salvia spathacea (hummingbird sage) and Heuchera maxima (Island alum root). Simply beautiful!
Gabi McClean — If you are talking about big HUGE plants, it’s the ELDERBERRY because of the habitat it provides. We have so many flying visitors, residents and migrants, that find shelter and food in it, they are too numerous to list here. The leafless period is pretty short in low elevations, longer in high elevations. So it provides plenty of shade too.
Christiane Shannon — In my garden there are four winter deciduous plants: the California Sycamore, Desert Willow, Blue Elderberry, and my favorite, the Redbuds. Redbuds bloom profusely in late winter and early spring, before the leaves appear. The shrub is particularly showy when covered with so many small reddish pink blossoms; it is eye catching. The light green leaves have a distinct heart shape. Being a member of the pea family, the flowers are pea like and are followed by hanging brown bean pods in the fall. In addition, the pods are an important food source for wildlife and nitrogen fixing bacteria inhabit its roots. In the wild this shrub is mostly found growing in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains
Dan Songster — Two Ribes are my current favorites. Ribes speciosum (fuchsia flowering gooseberry) and Ribes sanguineun var glutinosum (pink flowering currant), very different plants with so much going for them, including being easy to grow!