Are “California Friendly” plants native?
Sometimes. California Friendly is a name that has been coined to represent the plants that are adapted to grow in California’s Mediterranean-type climate. All California native plants are California Friendly, but not all California Friendly plants are native! French lavender is a good example of a non-native California Friendly plant. California Friendly plants reduce water use in the garden but, unless they are native, they will not support our ecosystems and biodiversity.
Is a native plant any plant found in the wild?
No! Many plants now found in the wild are non-native plants that escaped from cultivated areas or were introduced by people. The introduction of non-native plants into wildlands was often done with the best of intentions but has yielded ecologically and economically disastrous results. For example, California taxpayers annually spend nearly $100 million dollars to remove invasive non-native plants from our wildlands because the plants increase wildfire and flooding danger and displace the native plants that provide habitat for our native insects and animals, among other negative effects.
Will any California native plant do well in any California garden?
No, because the geography of California is extremely varied. Different parts of the state are at different distances from the equator and Pacific Ocean, which affect the growing conditions for plants. For example, California redwoods are native to the coastal fog belt in the northern portion of the state; redwoods would die in the Mojave Desert. Because of geography, garden conditions vary, so it is important to choose species adapted to the conditions of your location (soil, sunlight, elevation…). For the most success, plant your local native plant species. Local species – the ones that evolved in your area – will be most suited to thrive in your garden. Visit the Calscape website: http://calscape.org/
The geography of the Santa Ana Watershed also varies, from cool coastal areas with clay soil, such as Huntington Beach, to high elevation mountain areas with fast-draining soil, such as Big Bear. The location of where you live should determine the kinds of plants you choose for your landscape. For example, a coastal sand dune plant that evolved in the relatively mild temperatures of Huntington Beach will not do well in the hot dry conditions of Riverside. Similarly, a plant that evolved below the snow line will not be able to withstand the freezing temperatures and snow of Big Bear. Landscaping becomes so much easier if the natural character of the land and local native plant species are used as a guide. Work with the nature of your site. Embrace the nature of where you live.
What type of climate does California have?
California has a Mediterranean-type climate of cool wet winters and hot dry summers.
Our native plants have adapted to our climate and rainfall patterns. Like native plants worldwide, California natives have evolved to be able to survive just on rainfall. This makes landscaping with native plants particularly water-efficient. In the garden, once established, native plants can survive without supplemental irrigation, but look their best with infrequent, deep soaks during the dry season. There are, however, a few genera of California native plants that do NOT tolerate summer water, such as flannel bush (Fremontodendron) and bulbs.
Are all Mediterranean-climate plants native to California?
No. California is one of five Mediterranean-type climate areas in the world: the Mediterranean Basin, southwestern Australia, California, the Cape Region of South Africa, and central Chile. The native plants of all of these regions have similar adaptive characteristics. For example, some shed their leaves during the summer to cope with drought stress; others have aromatic oils in their leaves to retain moisture. However, the native plant communities and species of each Mediterranean-type climate area are different.
People often assume that French lavender, despite its name, is native to California because it is a Mediterranean-climate plant. French lavender shares adaptive characteristics with many California native plants, such as Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii); both species are aromatic with light-colored leaves. However, French lavender supports biodiversity in France but does not support biodiversity in California. Both plants will give water savings, since they are both Mediterranean-type climate plants, but only the native plant will support biodiversity. The native plant will also deliver more water savings because the native plant co-evolved with the soil’s mycorrhizae – thread-like fungal strands that attach to roots and deliver supplementary water to the plant.
What about microclimates?
Buildings, walls and other objects at your site create microclimates. For instance, the south side of a wall will be much warmer and will receive more sunlight than the north side of a wall; plant accordingly. In the afternoon, the east side of a house will shade that portion of the garden; plant accordingly. Before you purchase any plants, do a site analysis and map the soil, sun and shade characteristics of the garden. Resist impulse buys; do your site analysis so that you purchase plants that will work with the conditions of your site. And remember, you are not a failure if a plant dies. It happens, even to the best of gardeners. Just try again, and have fun! Gardens are meant to be life-enhancing in more ways than one!