UNITED STATES—California native plants seem like they should be very appropriate for home gardens. In the wild, they require neither irrigation nor maintenance. They are quite satisfied with local climate and soil. Of course, gardening with natives is not so simple. Home gardens are very different from wild ecosystems.
Furthermore, wild ecosystems here are very different from wild ecosystems elsewhere. California is a very big place, with many different ecosystems. Some alpine species from the Sierra Nevada would be unhappy on the coast. Some coastal species from Del Norte County would be unhappy in the Mojave Desert. California native plants should be regionally appropriate.
Therefore, chaparral species are generally most appropriate for local chaparral climates. Many riparian species perform satisfactorily here as well but expect more irrigation. However, appropriateness to a climate is not the same as appropriateness to a garden. Actually, many chaparral species are unappealing within home gardens. Some are difficult to domesticate.
California native plants prefer to live wild and free.
A few species of California lilac are native here. Any of them are pleased to inhabit local home gardens. However, some grow quite large, and then die after only 10 years or so. They may not last even that long with typical irrigation. Few respond favorably to pruning. They prefer to grow wild. Such big, awkward and temporary plants are undesirable within many compact and refined home gardens.
Combustibility might also be a concern for chaparral plants. Some chaparral ecosystems rely on fire for periodic renovation. In the wild, some such ecosystems may burn as frequently as every few decades. After burning, fuel begins to accumulate for the next fire. Even if not copious enough to be hazardous, such accumulation can be unkempt.
Only a few specialty nurseries provide wild California native plants. Most nurseries provide cultivars of such plants that are more adaptable to home gardens. ‘Carmel Creeper’ is a densely sprawling California lilac that gets only a few feet tall. It is commonly available. The original species can get more than fifteen feet tall, with open branch structure.
Highlight: California Lilac
Almost all California lilac that inhabit refined landscapes are cultivars of native species. Ceanothus thyrsiflorus is one of such native species that grows wild near here. It is a bit less adaptable to home gardens than cultivars are. However, it can be splendid within unrefined and wildland landscapes. New plants need irrigation only until they establish their root systems. Wild plants need none.
Wild California lilac can get taller and wider than 15 feet. That is larger than cultivars, but with more open branch structure. Their evergreen foliage is somewhat glossy. Individual leaves are only about an inch and a half long, with prominent veins. Fluffy floral trusses that bloom in spring are about two or three inches long. Tiny individual flowers are sky blue or pale blue.
Like many chaparral species, California lilac does not respond favorably to pruning. It performs best where it can grow without disruption. Wild specimens perform well for only about ten years. They might then die suddenly. Some may survive for nearly fifteen years. They grow faster with occasional irrigation, but do not survive as long.
Tony Tomeo can be contacted at tonytomeo.com.