A hostile presence is upon the land. Everywhere you look once familiar surroundings are shrouded in an alien gauze of emerald and jade. At first, perhaps, it’s alluring. But a splinter lingers in the mind—a sense that something is missing. And indeed it is. Where are the native sedges and sages? What happened to the buckwheat and coyote brush? Where have all the California wild sunflowers and Pacific Coast iris varieties gone? And what of the native fauna that once flourished among these plants?
Lost in a sea of crabgrass, arundo, ice plant, and castor bean, among other invasive species, the once familiar visual spectacle of California’s native flora has largely succumbed to a tangle of creatures straight out of B-grade sci-fi. But if people like Ventura-based landscape architect Jack Kiesel have their way, there won’t be a sequel to this horror film.
Kiesel’s inspiration to focus on California natives came in the form of a traveling Mexican Indian named Zebo. He took the teachings of his shaman-esque mentor to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, where he completed a degree in landscape architecture, turning a passion into a profession. “I draw very strongly from the local environment,” he says about the plants he uses. “They are an excellent habitat for birds and butterflies, and are exceptional for conserving water.”
In addition to providing his services to local homeowners and businesses, Kiesel works with the City of Ventura as acting co-chair for the tree advisory committee. His purpose, he explains, is to “advocate for more native trees in our community parkways.” This native-by-design approach fits well with Kiesel’s commitment to both restorative and conservationist ethics, as well as his penchant for crafting impressive patterns that evoke the symmetry of Japanese gardening templates and feng shui visual rhythms. “Natives absolutely play into Asian design principles,” he says. “Manzanita, sedges, and woodland strawberry can [be used] to create something appropriate to place that is both unique and exciting, allowing me to combine two of my favorite disciplines: art and science.”
Supplying professionals like Kiesel are equally committed farmers and nurseries such as Ventura’s Nopalito Nursery and Bob Sussman’s Matilija Nursery, set in the bucolic backcountry farmlands of Moorpark.
Seeking a life away from the hustle-bustle of the financial world, Sussman, a former banker, moved his family from L.A. to Ventura County 15 years ago. What began as a casual interest in native plants has grown over time: “Seeing how different people use the plants to create their own art [has] given me a deeper appreciation for what can be done with what we’ve grown,” he says.
Focusing primarily on native sages, Salvias, and their own hybridized Pacific Coast irises (“one of the few plants that generate intense color in shaded areas,” he says), Sussman and his team maintain a stock of roughly 80 percent native species. The farm is open to the public, and holds educational events like the “Carnival De Iris” and the popular “Garden Contest.”
Ojai musician, geologist, and permaculture farmer Scott Smith of Euterpe Farms is another stalwart in the effort to restore native plants and combat invasive species. Implementing educational outreach programs in the community to complement his business as grower/supplier, Smith enjoys nothing more than sharing his encyclopedic knowledge of the Ojai Valley’s geography and local flora. He’s been cultivating varieties like the California poppy, miner’s lettuce, native sages, and the curiously named monkeyflower—which, as he explains, “helps to establish the microbial relationships in the soil that are so important to getting a garden back in balance with nature.”
In his demonstration garden, native plants flourish with little water and only the most basic care, growing easily, naturally. It is, Smith asserts, “a good representation of what natives will look like in a year when they have the room to get comfortable.”
Comfortable. That’s precisely how these practitioners want California’s natives to feel in their own backyard. With their efforts, and the public’s help, the Golden State may achieve this end.
8 GREAT NATIVES
Plant now! Local tips from Jack Kiesel.
Western Columbine (Aquilegia formosa) 2’ x 2’
This classic woodland perennial is a perfect addition to that shady wet spot in the hummingbird lover’s garden. The dainty, nodding flowers are a deep red-orange, tipped with yellow, and grow on three-foot stalks. The delicate bluish green foliage creates a mound about a foot by a foot.
Coast Rock Cress (Arabis blepharophylla ‘Spring Charm’) 10"h x 8"w
For that instantaneous wow! factor, this diminutive coastal perennial native can’t be beat. Beginning in early spring, it explodes with radiant magenta flowers. It likes good drainage and a little water, with full sun on the coast and morning sun and afternoon shade inland. Pair with other coastal bluff natives such as Seaside Daisy, Sea Thrift, and the grey-blue forms of California Fescue and Dudleya.
Wheeler Canyon Wild Lilac (Ceanothus ‘Wheelers Canyon’) 6’h x 8’w
A popular local native from Wheeler’s Gorge, near Ojai, this dark green, medium-sized, compact evergreen shrub is covered with clusters of burgundy-colored buds that erupt with dark blue flowers in spring. Plant in full sun. Good tolerance for heavier soils.
Flannelbush (Fremontodendron ‘El Dorado Gold’) 6’h x 8’w
Flannelbush is typically 12’ or larger. This particular selection is one of the most garden tolerant and smaller varieties available. It has beautiful orange-yellow flowers in spring, and a more mounding habit. A showstopper in bloom, combine with Wild Lilac for a complimentary blue and gold combination. Provide full sun and good drainage, and cut off the water in summer.
Douglas Iris (Iris douglasiana) 18”h x 3’w
One of the most popular native perennials, elegant springtime flowers in shades of cream, violet, and purple accent its glossy evergreen foliage. It is ideal as a border for a coastal garden in sun, combined with native grasses and annuals, or in light shade away from the coast.
Hybrid Monkeyflower (Mimulus species) 3’ x 3’
Monkeyflower is one of the best perennial sub-shrubs you can have in your garden for wildlife. It attracts both hummingbirds and butterflies. The straight species has apricot colored flowers, but the nursery trade continues to introduce hybrids that come in colors ranging from white to yellow, orange, and red. This plant can survive complete drought and can handle partial shade, but it looks lusher and blooms longer with extra water.
Blue Bedder Penstemon (Penstemon heterophyllus 'Margarita BOP') 2’h x 3’w
This vigorous, beautiful selection (introduced by Burt Wilson from Las Pilitas Nursery, San Luis Obispo) produces one-foot spikes of blue to purple flowers that appear as early as April and continue into the fall, if the plant is pruned occasionally. Combine with native grasses as well as perennials such as Wooly Daisy and Monkeyflower. Also makes a nice container specimen.
Bush Anenome (Carpenteria californica ‘Elizabeth’) 6’h x 5’w
Use this beautiful, upright 5- to 10-foot-tall evergreen shrub to light up a shady corner. Fragrant clusters of broad, white anemone-like flowers appear in late spring and early summer.