By: Kelly Sanderson
Growing up in Orange County, I never paid much attention to the plants growing on the hillsides around me. I grew up in a development that was built right in the middle of a eucalyptus grove. It wasn’t until I moved states away, then returned as an adult, that I started paying attention to the local habitat. From afar, in my mind, the hills looked green in the winter and spring and brown in the summer and fall. I began taking long walks in the canyons and foothills near my house and started to notice all the different plants and how they changed over the seasons. I read about Tree of Life nursery, decided to visit and was greeted by helpful, knowledgeable staff. It was surprising to see all the different colors, shapes and sizes of plants. I read, took photos, sketched and asked many, many questions before beginning the process of transforming a small section of my front yard. When I removed the lawn and started planting natives, our daughters were 6 and 4 years old. Watching my baby plants grow up alongside my babies brought me a sense of joy, accomplishment and appreciation for the natural world’s ability to persist and provide beauty despite the circumstances. We had an Abutilon Palmieri (Palmer’s Indian Mallow) in the front yard. It has fuzzy gray green foliage and cup shaped yellow flowers. When our daughters were little, they called the soft leaves “fairy blankets” and used them to cover their little dolls and stuffed animals.
Our daughters spent many mornings being pushed in the stroller through the nearby regional park and along canyon trails. They noticed the flower buds, the caterpillars on the wildflowers, the acorns scattered on the sidewalk and were fascinated with the brown spiky seed balls of the sycamore tree. They built makeshift shelters with downed branches and loved pretending they were pioneers. They kept a laminated bird guide and binoculars in the stroller and together we learned about our local feathered friends. I slowed down along with them and noticed how calm they became when we were outdoors and exploring.
Time passed and we moved into another home nearby. The yard was a blank slate and so the process started again. With every hike, I brought home a new idea of something that needed to make a home in our yard. Upon seeing a swath of Matilija poppies on a hillside, I fell in love. I’m now on my third attempt after learning the hard way that they are quite finicky. I’m pretending I don’t really want it and interestingly, it has its first bud. Getting outside, getting dirty, putting hands into the earth provided a place of restoration for my yard, and my soul. I had to learn the art of patience while waiting to see if the delicate balance of rainfall, hand watering and sunshine would provide a space for the seedlings to thrive. During the summer months, I began to notice the waving of the deer grass spikes in the breeze and how the flowers of the buckwheat turned bronze. I appreciated the smallest changes and how my yard mirrored the surrounding hills. And they weren’t brown at all. In fact, they were full of color. We have the yellows of Columbine, California sunflower and sticky monkeyflower. We have the reds of island bush snapdragon, hummingbird sage and Roger’s Red grapevine leaves in the fall. We have the purple of verbena, wooly blue curls and many types of sage. We have the white of the bush anemone, irises and a long-awaited matilija poppy. Little did I know, all those years ago, that all of these magnificent plants were California natives. Just like me.
As the garden has flourished, more visitors have arrived. We delight in the birds, lizards and insects that have made a home here. I downloaded the Merlin app on my phone and add new birds to my list every day. Over quarantine, I decided to get the yard certified as a wildlife habitat. Neighbors have seen the sign, inquired about it and have taken the steps to certify their yards. More people are replacing their grass with natives, using less water and helping the environment all at once. I enjoy the look of surprise on visitor’s faces when they hear that our yard is full of plants that are native to this area. Like I used to think, they expect tumbleweeds and cactus. I enjoy changing peoples’ minds about the California landscape that is often thought of as dry and brown. There are always hidden treasures. Besides, when it is dry and brown, it is being wise and preserving its energy while there is no rainfall.
I’ve had the opportunity to educate myself on interesting tidbits about different plants. Some think the large stands of toyon (which is sometimes called Christmas holly) in the hills behind Hollywood gave that town its name. The roots of the deerweed contain symbiotic nitrogen-fixing bacteria that aids soil recovery by replacing nitrogen lost during a fire, thereby helping other plants grow and allowing itself to be displaced once other vegetation recovers. And I think to myself “We should all be more like the deerweed”. To increase their chances of pollination, the California poppy flower has a large central spot that absorbs UV radiation while reflecting the longer wavelengths. Humans cannot see UV light, but insects do. This adaptation helps guide the insects to the pollen.
When I visit Tree of Life nursery, their ID tags provide information about how the Native Americans in this area used each of these plants. Yarrow was used to make a tea for the treatment of consumption, stomach ache and headache. The Cahuillas used the berry seeds of manzanitas and ground them into meal to make mush or cakes. Leaves steeped in water were a tea to cure diarrhea or poison oak rash. The wood burns hot and makes long-lasting coals.
As each season arrives, our garden provides new gifts. In the fall, the leaves of the Roger’s Red are initially veined with crimson, then turn a dusky pink, burnt russet and finally a wine-y red. When winter arrives and we receive our much-awaited rainfall, the smell of sage greets us when we awaken in the morning. The flowers on the toyon have developed into bright red berries and the birds arrive to feast on them daily. Spring is what every gardener waits for each year. Every day, a new bud is spotted and I watch anxiously for each green leaf to unfurl. The wildflowers appear in droves and it feels like opening a gift with every blossom. And summer arrives as it always does. The seed pods of the lupines and poppies burst open and release their seeds into the soil, the spent leaves create a new top dressing and the plants become dormant and preserve their energy through our hot and dry summers. Some may say we don’t have seasons in California. My native landscape begs to differ.