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Cheryl Branch: How about native flower power?

I was saddened by a recent column suggesting plants to add color to spring gardens. All the plants recommended were common horticultural varieties found in every suburban subdivision.

Why not add color with something unexpected: California natives? Because they evolved together, these shrubs are more attractive to native pollinators, and all but one I suggest also provide berries for local birds through the fall and winter. Best of all, once established, they require no maintenance and little or no water.

California redbud. Covered with deep pink blossoms in spring, the first bronzy, heart-shaped leaves appear as the flowers begin to fade, later turning green. In autumn the leaves turn pale pink and fall, leaving behind a plenitude of deep maroon seed pods that last through the winter. A few pods may even last into spring flowering, offering a lovely contrast. Despite the number of seed pods, they are not invasive and you won’t find yourself digging up a million volunteers come spring.



Ceanothus species. Horiticultural hybrids have deep blue flowers through spring and summer and are evergreen. Local natives, known as mountain lilac, have small, lilac-like plumes of flowers in white to pale pink. Their leaves fall in the winter but leave behind berries for the birds.

Toyon. Another evergreen that produces clusters of white flowers in the spring. Also known as Christmas berry, their bright red berries draw wintering birds and can be used for winter decorating.



Carpenteria. Commonly known as bush anemone, it is native to the coastal regions but does well here in full sun to part shade. Leaves last through the winter. Flowers are large, white and fragrant.

Coffeeberry sp. Another large evergreen bush with blue flowers through the spring. Berries are a nondescript dark brownish purple.

Manzanita. White to pale pink bell shaped flowers in the early spring as pollinators are first appearing. The wood is smooth, sinuous, and deep red. Unlike many natives, it can be pruned and shaped to take advantage of those qualities. Manzanita has a bad reputation as a fire hazard, but single or widely spaced plants are generally not a problem because they have a very high ignition temperature, so it takes a pretty hot fire to get them to burn. That said, not for placing next to your house. There are also other manzanita species that are low growing ground covers.

All of the above shrubs grow from anywhere from four to about eight or so feet. For something smaller, try monarda or monardella species. They grow to about three feet tall and four to six feet wide. Flowers are pale purple whorles. The best part is the fragrance they release when you brush against them.

I haven’t done a lot of plant shopping in the area, but the Mother’s Day plant sale in Nevada City and the California Native Plant Society plant sale in the fall are both good sources and a great way to connect with native plant nurseries.

The best time to plant natives is in the fall, so the roots have a chance to become established before hot weather. They will require some water in the first year to two years in the ground but after that, they will need very little and can, in fact, be over watered. Enjoy!

Cheryl Branch lives in Grass Valley.


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