Mukta Mohan

An intro to Southern California native plants with Kitty Connolly

Mukta Mohan
An intro to Southern California native plants with Kitty Connolly

The Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley has 22 acres of land centered on promoting California native plants. They have hiking trails, a demonstration garden, a nursery and classes. It’s a great place to learn about native plants and how to maintain them in your own garden. Executive Director Kitty Connolly joins to share the joys of planting with natives and gives tips on how to start your own garden!

On why we should garden with native plants

Well for one thing, native plants are beautiful. They're really gorgeous. As a gardener, you want to have access to the widest variety, to the most beautiful plants and California native plants are really beautiful. Another thing is they're well adapted to where we live. I like gardening quite a bit, but I don't really like to work all the time on my garden. One of the things about native plants is they want to grow here. They are adapted to our soils, to our climate, to the rain that we get when we get it. They like the amount of sunshine we get. They don't require any amendments or fertilizers so that's a wonderful thing.

And two of the most compelling reasons are they use very little water, because they're adapted to our climate. A California native plant garden uses about 20 percent of the water of a conventional garden, so you get it for 80 percent off which is a deal that's hard to resist. And the other is they support California native animals in a way that plants from other parts of the world can't. They have this very long history with the animals of our region, many of whom have obligatory relationships with the plants. They can't eat any other plant. They have to eat the plants that they evolved with, so if you want to encourage local butterflies, for example, you need to have local plants for the butterflies to eat like milkweed for monarchs.

Stories about the California poppy

The poppy used to grow very thickly along the foothills of the San Gabriel, around Altadena. There were a lot of poppies and a blue flower called Phacelia would grow there and the story is that people who were in ships at the Los Angeles Harbor recognized [where they were] because they could see the poppies from the harbor. That's how many flowers there were!

There was a Southern California Indian story about the poppies that they described it as "if the sun had come down to earth" and to me that's always really evocative because can you imagine an entire field of poppies and how spectacular that must have been - the intensity of the orange, just really lovely.

Kitty’s favorite native plants

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Artemisia

I'm a sucker for the smell of native plants! I love Artemisias which are sagebrush. To me, this is one of the odors of California. I love being able to go out and touch them and smell them and it makes me feel like I'm in California. I'm not from here. I'm from a place that was not botanically rich, so one of the things I love about California is this ability to just embrace the nature of the place and surround myself with California native plants and get every inch of California I can out of my experience living here. So Artemisia is a really good one. Sages have really good smells and they're very strongly identified as an iconic plant of California.

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Manzanita

Manzanita's one of my favorites too. You can recognize Manzanita because they have red bark. They're usually shrubs from a ground cover to a small tree - dark green, usually small leaves, covered with bell shaped white flowers usually in December or January - just completely covered, you can’t even see the plant, it's completely covered with flowers. That's a really good one. Those are fun to grow.

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Ceanothus

They are also also known as California lilac. They don't smell like lilacs and they don't look like lilacs to me, but nonetheless they do have these wonderful groups of blue to purple flowers and sometimes white flowers. It’s a beautiful plant.

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Matilija Poppy

It's also called the fried egg plant. These are plants that are incredibly vigorous and they get about six to eight feet tall. They have big leaves, maybe six inches long, and they're blue gray. The flowers can be eight inches across with these big white crepe-y petals and puffs of yellow stamen in the center. It looks just like a fried egg! Gorgeous, gorgeous plant, and highly vigorous.

We got better lighting in my basement at my house and I didn't realize that they had grown underneath the footing of the garage. I had them planted next to the garage and they grew down under the garage, underneath the footing of the house, under the foundation and came up in my basement. And when we got the lights in there, I'm like ahhh! [laughter] They were eight feet tall! They'd been there for a long time. They were pushing up against the floorboards. I have this idea that they're going to come up through the living room…at least that would be beautiful. They're very elegant looking, striking and once they're established, they get covered with flowers for months. So if you have the space for one and it's not near your neighbors, and it's not near the foundation of your house, you can put one in, but be aware that they'll send runners out 30 feet.