Natural beauty in the Sierra foothills: A native for every season |

Natural beauty in the Sierra foothills: A native for every season

Carolyn Singer
Special to The Union

Look around you. It's spring in the Sierras!

Light green leaves of the native black oak follow the rust-brown tassels of the bloom cycle, both contrasting with the dark green of the surrounding Ponderosa pine across the hills. Redbud bursts into bloom, its magenta flowers glowing even after a winter of low rainfall.

Spring brings the third annual celebration of natives with Native Plant Week April 14-21.

Native plants are perfect choices for our landscapes, especially when we understand their cultural requirements and place them accordingly.

Dry rocky slopes are where we often see the Western redbud.

Rich garden soil is not required, nor is fertilization. Sunny sites will stimulate flower production, but very light shade works too.

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Also in bloom in early April is the Oregon grape holly, Berberis (Mahonia) aquifolium. You don't need to get very close to catch the sweet fragrance of the bright yellow flowers.

This evergreen will tolerate more shade than the redbud, but it also thrives in sun. The tallest form reaches well over six feet, spreading by underground stems into dense stands.

The low-growing Mahonia repens spreads similarly, a tough and undemanding groundcover about a foot in height. Both will grow in rocky foothill clay soil.

In cool Sierra canyons near creeks, and sometimes even on ridges where soils are deep, the native Western dogwood steals the show in late April.

The form of this native tree is open, informal. Establishing in the lighter shade of an evergreen canopy, where soils are high in humus, young seedlings will be numerous. The white flowers last for weeks if spring weather doesn't get too warm.

Where bare soil and forest duff rested quietly through the winter, delicate foliage now pushes through, and will soon be followed by the soft pink flowers of our native bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa).

The much-appreciated California poppy begins bloom in April, especially in warm microclimates.

If you are challenged in seeding this plant, try spreading gravel for the seedbed. The seed will nestle into the tiny crevices and catch these wonderful late rains.

Where you have young plants of basket or deer grass, seed California poppies in between the native grass clumps, again on gravel mulch.

This perennial native grass will eventually choke out the poppies and all weeds, but for a couple of years enjoy the eye-catching combination of the poppies mingling with the delicate grass.

Next month catch the glorious golden blossoms of the flannel bush (Fremontedendron) on the large shrubs near the Litton trail (Sierra College Drive) in Grass Valley. Their late-May show may inspire you to add one to your own landscape.

In moister areas, the handsome native elderberry blooms dynamically with clusters of fragrant white flowers in late spring. Berries follow, ripening from blue to almost black.

Harvest some before the birds do to make syrup rich in antioxidants.

In midsummer it's the huge white Matilija poppies (Romneya coulteri) near Sierra College that catch our admiration. A terrific insectary plant, it is native from the Coast Ranges to Baja California, but does well in our hot and dry foothill summers.

Successful planting depends on finding young plants, planting them in soil that is not too rich (although colloidal phosphate is a good amendment), and minimizing irrigation. Once a plant establishes, it will spread freely.

The fall show includes the red berries of the toyon, the white berries on the snowberry, and the autumn leaf color of the redbud.

In celebration of natives, plan to attend one of the spring plant sales organized by California Native Plant Society (CNPS). The foothill Redbud chapter holds its spring event May 4 in Rocklin, and the fall event in Grass Valley.

Native plants that are water-efficient, valuable insectary plants, and easy-care teach us to honor the natural landscape of the Sierra foothills.

Carolyn Singer has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. She is the author of "The Seasoned Gardener, 5 decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom," now available locally. For more information, visit

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