Grow local flora with plants from other Mediterranean climates for a fragrant garden that blooms throughout the year.
By Ilsa Setziol 04/30/2009
When Elisa and Eric Callow purchased Gainsburgh House in La Cañada Flintridge eight years ago, the garden wasn’t part of the allure. The house — designed by Lloyd Wright, the son of Frank Lloyd Wright — wowed them, but the yard was an unappealing mix of ivy and diseased shrubs. So Eric Callow, a financial advisor and outdoorsman, decided to try his hand at redesigning the grounds. He wanted to use plants indigenous to California “because they represent, literally, a landscape that is beautiful, under attack and which I know from my childhood.”
The new garden is dominated by clusters of leafy shrubs, pockets of perennial herbaceous flowers and a meadow of wildflowers. Native gardens are commonly assumed to be brown and full of succulents, but desert-friendly plants are actually uncommon in local ecosystems. After all, most of California is not a desert; it has a Mediterranean climate — hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters. Most native plants are less thirsty than common garden plants, but they still create verdant, colorful gardens — even more so when they mingle with others from a similar climate.
For the past five years, the Callows’ yard has been a popular stop on the Theodore Payne Native Plant Garden Tour. The Sun Valley–based Theodore Payne Foundation has been dedicated to the understanding and preservation of California flora since 1960, but its nursery has only recently begun attracting significant numbers of homeowners and landscapers who snatch up its plants as fast as the foundation can grow them.
“People are starting to appreciate gardens for more than beauty,” says horticulturist Lili Singer, who organizes the annual Native Garden Tour. “Gardens are also about the environment and ecology. And the misconceptions about native gardens are falling away. You can do any style of garden, even formal if you don’t want a wild look.”
In the Callows’ garden, Elisa points out a few of her favorites: native irises (Iris douglasiana) and coral bells (Heuchera), a delicate plant with bell-shaped flowers that dangle from long, thin stalks. “For something that’s so constructed and organized, it still has a feeling of naturalness, which I like,” she says. She’s also pleased with the many birds and bees the plants attract.
Most of the Callows’ plants are indigenous to Southern California’s two dominant hillside habitats: chaparral and coastal sage scrub. Chaparral plants are usually large evergreens and include such crowd-pleasers as Ceonothus — which sports clusters of blue or white blossoms reminiscent of lilacs — and manzanita, prized for its red bark, tiny, urn-shaped flowers and berries that resemble little apples. Aromatic sages, dominant in a sage-scrub habitat, unfurl tiered whorls of petite flowers that hummingbirds adore. In the wild, most of this plant community has been lost to bulldozers.
At first, some of the Callows’ friends were unimpressed with their garden. “They’d say, ‘Why do you have all these weeds in your backyard?’” recalls Elisa, founding director of the Armory Center for the Arts. Now, many of the plants have matured, and they’re gaining more fans. “People love sitting outside when we entertain,” she says. “Our garden has a lot of variety. A more traditional garden is flat lawn and a bed around the perimeter; there’s nowhere for your eye to go. This has a feeling of depth.” And the garden itself is now much healthier.
Only five regions on earth have a Mediterranean climate — most of California, the Mediterranean itself, South Africa’s Cape area, parts of southern Australia and a slice of central Chile — and all produce plants with similar characteristics, including small, thick, leathery leaves with a waxy or hairy coat, which help them retain moisture. Because these plants need similar conditions, they make good companions in the garden.
Some well-known Mediterranean examples are lavender, rosemary, creeping thyme and rockrose. Glendale landscape architect Guillaume Lemoine of Picture This Land also recommends these plants: olive tree, tree mallow (Lavatera arborea), bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) and Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa). “One of my favorites is Santolina,” he says. “It has little red balls at the end of long stems. I like to cut and dry them.”
Dappling your native garden with Mediterranean-climate plants from various regions can extend bloom time and boost the number of larger flowers. Plants from the Southern Hemisphere retain their blooming cycle when moved north, according to horticulturist Singer. “They think it’s summer when it’s really winter,” she says, “so it broadens our palette; we can get 12 months of color.” One example is Grevillea rosmarinifolia, a rosemary-like Australian shrub that, in Southern California, blooms in late autumn.
South African and Mediterranean bulbs such as daffodils, freesias, gladiolus and Amaryllis belladonna are also good choices. They naturalize well in Southern California gardens, because they can tolerate our dry spells. Singer also recommends South African harlequin flower (Sparaxis), crocus and species tulips (the wild ones from the Mediterranean, not the more common Dutch varieties that struggle here).
Bart O’Brien, co-author of “California Native Plants for the Garden” (Cachuma Press; Dec. 2005), combines flora from several Mediterranean climates in his Upland garden. But he cautions that plants from elsewhere don’t tolerate drought as well as natives. “California’s climate is the most extreme,” he says. “We have the longest dry periods.” For late summer/early fall blooms, O’Brien, of Claremont’s Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, recommends California fuchsias.
But don’t expect most of these plants to be at their best at the end of summer. They’re accustomed to slowing growth or becoming dormant when it’s so hot and dry. Still, native/Mediterranean gardens aren’t just about flowers. Varied shades — especially grey-greens — and textures of foliage are part of their appeal. “On the East Coast, when it stops raining, they let their lawns go brown,” says Elisa. “They don’t water. We have to get used to that — that things do have a splendid season. You can’t control what happens in nature, and you live with it.”
Besides, many people retreat indoors in August. “In the heat of the summer, it’s not nice to be in my front yard,” O’Brien says. “Right now is more when I want to be in the yard doing things. And now is when there’s a lot of color.”