Late last year, in our fall Home + Garden issue, we ran a story about a local nursery owner who specializes in Australian and South African plants: tough, reptilian species that collect water during California’s floods and casually breeze through our droughts. It was a good read. Nice photos and an interesting topic for plant geeks and casual gardeners alike. Still, as a native Californian and part-time plant geek myself, I was uneasy about featuring these species rather than our own flora—native sages, ceanothus, manzanita—plants that grow wild in Ventura County. I purged my guilt in that issue’s Editor’s Note by promising we’d soon “flip the globe right side up and spotlight local natives.” And here we are, half a year later. Starting on page 29, new contributor Jeff Byrnes tackles the thorny subject and brings us full circle.
The problem of so-called exotic plant species lies in a complex tangle of chain reactions, a domino effect of toppling flora and fauna. Take a look at the forests of arundo on either side of Highway 101 next time you cross the Ventura River. Those giant blades of grass grow a few inches a day this time of year, choking out everything in their path, drinking three times as much water as native plants. We now see a single species where there were once hundreds, and the dominos are falling: down go the alders and cottonwoods, taking the insects that lived in them and the birds and fish and frogs that ate those insects, and so on.
Now that I’ve put myself at risk of sounding like an alarmist, I’ll backpedal. Fact is, a relatively small number of non-native species have become invasive—of course some of those are about as “exotic” as Attila the Hun was when he hacked and burned his way through Europe.
But Europe did ultimately recover and flourish. France gave us croissants, Champagne, decadent cream sauces, and a charming designer named Chantal Dussouchaud (cover and p. 38), who now lives in Ojai with her husband, Harry Dolman, and their daughter, Sophie. Chantal and Harry spent the last couple years renovating their 1933 Austen Pierpont-designed house, a piece of architectural history that’s been made over with a contemporary artistic look: clean, open spaces and geometric patterns; Dussouchaud’s trademark mix-and-match of vintage elements with sleek, modern ones. Muted colors fold neatly into a grove of 200-year-old oak trees, and here and there wordplay finds a home on fabric, wood, furniture. French and English words, mixed and matched, a poetic take on visual art and interior design.
To be sure, it’s a grand property. But everything the couple has done, all the art and architectural renovation, says Chantal, has been to “accentuate what makes it so special: the family of oak trees.” A priceless grove of California natives.
It all started off well, this Golden State of ours. A utopian ecosystem where everything had a purpose. Even milkweed, I recently learned, has a calling. Turns out it’s the only thing a certain caterpillar can eat, the same little guy that turns into a monarch butterfly.
I used to rip milkweed out of the ground by force of habit—a gardener’s quirk. I’d show the milky sap to my daughter on our nature walks. Then I’d lift her in the air to watch the pretty black and orange butterfly as it flew away.
Thanks again for reading. As always, feel free to email me any comments or suggestions.