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Growing native plants in California? This is the resource you need.

November 5, 2016

A plant or tree labeled a California native isn’t always suited to grow in the Golden State. California enjoys such environmental diversity when it comes to gardening that native species often end up in places where they won’t thrive. And that’s a problem.

But the California Native Plant Society and the Jepson Herbarium at UC Berkeley have teamed to make it easier to grow plants, trees and produce. They have launched the online resource Calscape.org to help people conserve water, make gardening more successful and cut down on money lost when trying to make plants grow where they’re not inclined to.

Want to know if a plant has a chance to succeed in your yard? The website will help.

“Native plants have very little consideration for political boundaries,” said Dennis Mudd with a chuckle. He’s a Poway gardener who was frustrated with the trial-and-error method of determining what worked. He helped develop the site.

“The website is really necessary. It is the only one where you can type in your address, or city, and you receive a list of several hundred plants that are native to your area,” said J. Giles Waines, director of the UC Riverside Botanic Gardens, in an email. “I typed in Riverside and the screen listed 749 native plants that will grow in the city. It is a great gardening resource.”

Waines said it’s got something that even one of gardening’s most treasured resources doesn’t.

“This is more informative than ‘Sunset Western Garden Book,’ which is also very helpful, and which I use often. But California is a 1,000-mile-long state with different growing conditions in the south and the north, near the coast, or in the Inland Empire, or in the low desert or high desert. The many different microclimates support many different native plants, each adapted to a particular location,” said Waines.

Even specific growing zones have variations, according to Mudd.

“As you get away from the coast and go up in elevation, the plant life changes dramatically. There really is a lot of variation. Not only will using the website help gardeners, but it also will help restore nature by planting a plant where it actually belongs,” said Mudd.

The website registers about 1,000 users a day. It maps natural geographic ranges of all California native plants by using more than 2 million GPS field observations from the Consortium of California Herbaria. The site then offers plant recommendations by landscaping popularity and cross-references using Calscape’s nursery plant list database. Viewers can see photos, plant descriptions, sun and soil requirements and other useful tips.

Although Southern California got more rain last winter than in the previous few, it hasn’t been enough to loosen the relentless drought. Homeowners have taken many steps to conserve water, and turning to drought-friendly plantings remains a smart option.

Mary Montes of West Hills agreed that the new website is a fabulous gardening tool. “All natives will not grow in all areas of the state. So if I fall in love with the beautiful vine called Dutchman’s pipe when I visit my son in Northern California and I buy it and then plant it where I live in the San Fernando Valley, I am wasting time and money. That Dutchman’s pipe is going to die in my yard. Plants expect a specific environment to survive. For example, some plants that will grow fine in Culver City can’t withstand a move of 30 miles northeast to the summer heat of the San Fernando Valley.”

Savvy homeowners and gardeners know the benefits of native plants, especially these days when water conservation is critical, Waines said. “Although in Northern California, the reservoirs are full, the groundwater may not have been replenished. There is still a severe drought in the Central Valley. Although we received near-average rainfall in Riverside and the Inland Empire, neither the groundwater nor reservoirs were replenished. If the human population keeps increasing, we will need to use less water for gardens and agriculture.”

Don Rideout helped gather some of the information for the website. He’s been an avid home gardener in Encinitas for 20 years, and volunteered to enter data about plants based on his own research, numbering several hundred plants.

“My advice is to not rush out to a nursery and start buying plants that look pretty to you. Instead, spend some time over the summer to learn about the plants and ecosystems that are native to wherever you live. Figure out which plants will be best suited to your garden’s conditions. This is what Calscape is meant to help with. Then, in the fall you can go to the nurseries that have the plants you want, and get them in the ground before the winter rains arrive. Finally, have patience. All plants need time to get established.”

Contact the writer: ssproul@scng.com

 

 

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