Scorched-earth tactics

Native California plants may be the solution to those summer plant-killing blues

Photo Illustration by Sharon Wisecarver

Editor’s note: First of all, let me just say that my body is a temple, and so I will not pollute it by smoking the evil weed. But when we decided to do a story about plants that can survive the Sacramento summer, I made a suggestion to the writer--no, not that kind of suggestion--that she find out about marijuana. I asked this not out of any personal interest, of course, but purely out of scientific curiosity. You see, one of the things I like to do is find out everything I can about a subject, so that I can make the best possible decisions and so on. As governor, this might mean putting on a really neat uniform or flying in a helicopter. And really, to me, that is a good part of the job and, uh … what were we talking about again?

By SN&R Summer Guide Team

Sometimes the simplest truths are the hardest to accept. For instance, every summer, amateur gardeners like myself behave as if we don’t live in a place that gets as hot as the inside of a baked potato. By July, my flowerpots are full of scorched and exhausted blooms, and tiny white bugs are devouring every leaf. Guilty of subjecting my flowers to full afternoon sun, I treat them like people perpetually stranded in the desert. I water compulsively, giving my fragile gardenias and tall, lithe snapdragons “wet feet”—which makes them susceptible to mold—the floral version of athlete’s foot. The simple fact is that in Sacramento, especially if all your plants are in pots, it ain’t easy keeping them green.

To figure out the secret to Sacramento summer gardening, I fell on the mercy of the Sacramento Valley chapter of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS). And it sent me straight to the Old City Cemetery.

There, among elaborately carved gravestones, the CNPS tends an impressive demonstration garden. Every color is represented, from the florets of pale yellow yarrows to fuzzy purple trichostema blooms as soft and petable as cats. And the CNPS doesn’t have to water any of it—except when plants are just getting established.

In fact, that’s the secret to California native plants. Most bloom like mad in spring and then go dormant as the summer days heat up, leaving behind beautiful foliage. Some of them, like California’s state flower, the neon orange California poppy, can be fooled into blooming all summer if you give them a little water. But a little water can make some natives, like California asters, with their daisy faces, spread throughout your garden. To keep them compact and tame, and to discourage them from “ranging” like overgrown adolescents, it’s best to withhold water.

A third category of native plants, including the exotic-looking flannel bush with its spiky yellow flowers, are so sensitive that a little over-watering can kill them. CNPS member Sabrina Okamura-Johnson has to make sure none of the cemetery’s sensitive plants are downhill from its green lawns. In the demonstration garden, many of the native plants actually are resting on raised beds, otherwise known as “plots.” Their toes never get soaked in the summer.

On the eastern edge of the cemetery, across the street from Target, Okamura-Johnson and Davis landscape designer Bernadette Balics walked me through the demonstration garden, pointing out oddities like the old carriage road that has been torn out and replaced with rows of soldiers’ graves.

The first thing I noticed is that both women lapsed regularly into Latin. The formal names for plants are difficult to learn without flashcards, but both women were familiar with dozens of plants and multiple types of each plant. Some California natives, Balics said, have a variety for almost every climate and community in California. One Web site resource lists 29 varieties of salvia. As every other sentence out of my mouth was “Can you please spell that for me?” we quickly resorted to common names whenever possible.

Most of the local natives aren’t really native to Sacramento itself, Balics admitted. The pretty ones, she said, are often varieties from the foothills. Balics and Okamura-Johnson identified four main habitats that feature California natives: riparian environments, or riverbanks populated by blooming trees like the buckeye and the elderberry; vernal pools, which are small lakes that form in spring and disappear in the summer after hosting a number of wildflowers; woodland or oak habitats where the wild irises grow; and grasslands, where you’ll find valleys of familiar poppies and lupine.

Okamura-Johnson and Balics strolled from plot to plot, pointing out various natives that love Sacramento, including healthy bushes of pale pink California wild rose, with its five petals per flower and surprisingly beautiful tall grasses that lay over in the wind like a landscape of small hills in shades of purple and green. There were manzanita bushes with their red limbs that would put out tiny bell-shaped flowers in June, and there was an unusual lupine with cone-shaped bunches of flowers in yellow.

Strolling between the plots, some of which were completely covered in leathery green leaves or protected by shade trees, we picked the leaves of a half-dozen sages. Each of them looked and smelled delicious, some honeyed and others musty and earthy. For five-gallon pots, my guides recommended an Alpine Cleveland sage, with puffs of purple flowers like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. They also recommended scarlet buglers, striking stalks of sparse but vibrant red tubular flowers that can grow in rock gardens and attract hummingbirds.

For guidance on how to grow my favorites, Okamura-Johnson pointed me to the Las Pilitas Web site: Designed for beginners, the site guides visitors through the process of choosing appropriate natives for their gardens: identifying soil types, proper watering habits and the plants least likely to die. Once the site spits out a list of appropriate natives, users can follow links to pictures, descriptions, advice and a lot of interesting chatter on each variety.

The site also includes some good old-fashioned myth-busting. For instance, “California native plants look scrawny, scraggly and ratty. … SOME plants undergo a semi-deciduous period in the summer through fall, to help them survive this dry, warm/hot season of the year. If you can’t deal with that, you can minimize it by sprinkling the leaves occasionally, or you can plant EVERGREEN California native plants, such as Toyon, Coffeeberry, Mountain mahogany, Ceanothus, and manzanita.”

Fans insist that native plants naturally acclimated to the local soil as well as to the hot, baked conditions of Sacramento summers save resources. The plants don’t need to be watered aggressively, fertilized or treated with insecticides.

When I described the little clouds of white flies that suck the life out of my prettiest flowers, I was warned that they were signs of a weak plant. The cemetery, even though it was full of blooming bushes and layers of wildflowers, didn’t have this problem. The only thing eating up these leaves was the new crop of butterfly larvae—California natives are also well-known for attracting butterflies and hummingbirds.

When I pointed out a little spider crawling up the hearty leaf of a big bush, Balics was glad to see him. He’s a sign of a healthy ecosystem, she said. Native plants also attract earthworms and other little live things that help balance and improve soil quality.

The demonstration garden was a great site for sampling sages and meeting a bunch of natives face to face, but Balics and Okamura-Johnson also recommended visiting Web sites like that of the Sacramento Valley chapter of the CNPS ( for more specific information.

Later that day, as I yet again sighed over my porch full of semi-healthy plants, few of which are native to California, I compared them with the lush gardens all around me. It looks like much of Sacramento is already on the bandwagon. We have five different colors of yarrow flowers on our block as well as a variety of sweet-smelling sages, and my neighbor is cultivating a long flowerbed of baby blue eyes—one of those pretty wildflowers that naturally spread wildly across California’s golden foothills.

I think I might be able to introduce these locals to a few old friends.