The San Francisco Peninsula from Long Ago

Deer grass, coyote bush, hummingbird sage, sandhill sage, sea thrift, even the names of our native plants sound like a poem. They conjure up a time not so long ago when the San Franciscan peninsula was a mix of dunes, low hills and valleys, where seasonal creeks threaded between shrubby, windswept slopes until they fed into the few year-round creeks running to the bay. The plants which thrived in this coastal landscape still can be seen today by hikers on Mt. Tamalpais, San Bruno Mt., and Pt. Reyes. The best time to see them blooming is right now, when a generous rainy season, followed by the first really warm days of the year, has brought everything into bloom.

 Sea thrift.

Sea thrift.

For those who want a taste of our native plants in their spring bloom, the native backyard at Garden for the Environment may be a more accessible spot. Out native backyard is located right next to the Victory garden backyard demonstration, near the compost area at the heart of our garden. We’re very proud of the native garden this spring. It is full of flowers and the hard work we’ve put into this garden in the last year or so has paid off with a neat and charming display of our native plants.

There are many different reasons why gardeners might choose to plant native plants. One of the most important reasons is that natives have evolved over thousands of years to be able to adapt and thrive in our local soils and weather patterns. The annual summer drought is built into our native plants timetable, and they grow and bloom in the rhythms of our climate. They don’t just tolerate a summer drought, they actually prefer it. While they may be able to grow in a watered garden setting, most of them are short-lived when they receive much summer water.

 The native hillside of sagebrush, hummingbird sage, salt bush, and coyote bush.

The native hillside of sagebrush, hummingbird sage, salt bush, and coyote bush.

Another reason to plant natives is that native plants are the historic, evolutionary partners of native wildlife. California native bees and butterflies rely on certain native plants for forage and for egg-laying, while our native birds are adapted to their historic habitat as well. Years ago California quail were a common sight in Golden Gate park, and current attempts to restore the population focus on replanting California native shrubs which offer the quail nesting opportunities and cover from their predators.

Some of my favorite plants in bloom now in the native backyard include hummingbird sage, Fringe cups, California hedgenettle (not a stinging nettle), and checkerbloom. Hummingbird sage, or Salvia spathacea, combines flowers of a vivid, burgundy red with dark stems and calyxes to produce a dramatic, erect flower which is blooming in profusion above the retaining wall in the native backyard. True to its name, its red, tubular flowers attract hummingbirds which can often be seen nectaring busily among its spikes. Spreading among the sage and hanging gracefully over the wall, the beach strawberry, or Fragraria chiloensis, looks sweet and tender, although it is one of the toughest plants for challenging spots in Bay Area gardens.

Fringe cups, or Tellima grandiflora, is a charming plant for that very difficult spot in the garden, dry shade. These graceful natives form a rosette of scalloped basal leaves rather like the familiar garden favorite, coral bells. Then in springtime, tall arching flowering stems rise above the leaves, and each flower stalk is covered with tiny pale cups. If you look closely, you can even see the elaborate fringe on each cup, like a tiny veil.

Stachys bullata, or California hedgenettle, is covered now with pink, long throated flowers, which look rather like mint in bloom. Winding among the tall, graceful fringe cups, backed by a western sword fern, this planting is one worth copying in that dry shade location at home where you’ve never been able to get anything to grow.

And finally, our checkerbloom (Sidalcea malviflora) is heavy with wonderful flowers this spring. This plant lives over our dry season as a small rosette of heavily divided leaves, but in spring it expands its long flowering stems covered with large pink hollyhock shaped flowers. It’s amazing that something so fragile and lovely can grow from our sandy, summer-dry soils.

Come on over to the Garden for the Environment (at the corner of 7th and Lawton) and see for yourself that saving irrigation water and supporting wildlife by growing California natives can also give you a garden that is sweet and beautiful. See you in the garden!