Grevillea aspleniifolia

Grevillea aspleniifolia

Photo by Danielle Langlois 

Natural Wonders

L.A. County Arboretum experts pick the Top 10 sustainable plants for your garden.

By Ilsa Setziol 03/01/2010

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There are flashier gardens around town — landscapes cloaked in splashy colors –– but for beauty that’s bone deep, explore the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden in Arcadia.
“If you look at what are the most beautiful and environmentally appropriate plants,” says Arboretum CEO Richard Schulhof, “the Arboretum has been working to answer that question for over half a century.”
The Arboretum will showcase sustainable plants at its annual L.A. Garden Show, which runs from April 30 through May 2. Organizers include the Arboretum’s new horticultural curator, Jill Morganelli. 
The garden’s aesthetic is partly sculptural — curvaceous succulents alternate with twisting branches and thick tree trunks. Largely absent are beds of rotated, brightly colored annual plants common at nurseries. Morganelli says the Arboretum’s signature bird, the peacock, is partially responsible for the look –– it’s an inadvertent “watchdog” of sustainability. “With annuals — plants that typically live for four to six months –– you’ll just waste all kinds of time and manpower,” she observes, “and they’ll be picked to the ground by peacocks.” She adds that annuals are generally water-hungry plants.
On a recent morning, as peacocks dozed under a Wedgwood-blue sky, Morganelli tromped into the 30-acre Australian garden to discuss alternatives. Amid the familiar eucalyptus and bottlebrushes, Morganelli pointed out unusual kinds of grevilleas and acacias. “Australian plants are super-important to us,” she says. “Their environment is just like ours, only on the other side of the world.” The flora from southwestern Australia, in particular, have adapted to a similar climate and comparable soils. Like California native plants, many will languish if watered liberally in summer. Usually, plants from both regions should not be fertilized; Australian plants are especially sensitive to phosphorus. 
On our tour, Morganelli also dropped by the Desert Garden (near the Peacock Café) to brag about Sophora secundiflora, also known as mescal bean. Native to Texas, New Mexico and northern Mexico, this slow-growing shrub can be pruned into a lovely tree. “There’s rarely a design I do without one of these,” says Morganelli. “In the spring, it blooms the most gorgeous purple and white flowers that smell like grape bubble gum.” The rest of the year this Sophora sports silvery seedpods. (Note: The seeds are hallucinogenic, even poisonous.)
The L.A. Garden Show will also spotlight California native plants, flora that Morganelli admires. “The plants act as a habitat for native birds, bees and butterflies,” she says. “The other thing that’s really cool is some of them die back and, like magic, in the spring they rise up from the earth all fresh and new.” Morganelli says the plants generally need regular water to get established, but after about 18 months, “you can water as little as every two weeks and these plants live.” 
In addition to the exemplary plantings, the Arboretum is inspiring a new wave of sustainable gardening with classes that are substantive and varied. 
For more than four years, K.D. Henderson of Monrovia has been a regular at horticulturist Lili Singer’s Thursday Garden Talks, which prompted her to rip out her front lawn and replace it with drought-tolerant plants, including natives. “Visitors used to walk straight up to my door,” she says. “Now they stop and look around.”
That’s the kind of comment Morganelli, another enthusiastic instructor (she teaches organic vegetable gardening and plant identification) likes to hear.  “I really feel we are undergoing a renaissance right now in Southern California landscaping,” she says, “and it’s so exciting to be a part of that.” 

Setziol is a freelance environment writer. She blogs on gardening and exploring the nature of Southern California at


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