- Author: Michael Bains
The Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (RSABG) is an 86-acre (34.8 hectare) garden in Claremont, California surrounded by the Claremont Colleges. It is roughly 35 miles east of Los Angeles and is my favorite botanic garden in Southern California. The focus of the garden is on California natives and contains natives starting from southern Oregon to western Nevada and extends well south into Baja California.
The garden was originally founded in 1927 by Susanna Bixby Bryant, who established the garden on 200 acres set aside on her family's Orange County ranch and has always been focused on emphasizing California flora.
In 1951 the garden moved to its present location in Claremont which is in Los Angeles County. This was also the time the garden became affiliated with The Claremont Colleges, a relationship that continues today and offers graduate degrees in botany. The garden contains about 2,000 taxa of the approximately 6,000 native plant taxa in California.
Upon arriving at the garden, you are immediately met in the parking lot by several California native trees giving much needed shade during the summer months. Near to my heart are two California Black Walnuts (Juglans californica) shading a short walkway leading to the nursery. They are near to me as I have recently planted one in my own garden in a section I'm devoting to California natives. They are, also, endangered, as their natural habitats become more and more encroached upon by development and grazing.
The garden is broken into 3 main areas. The Indian Hill Mesa is a flat-topped clay hill that sits a short uphill walk above the rest of the garden. Below the Mesa, is an area that runs to the east and leads to the third section that I lovingly refer to as the “North 40”, even though it's 55 acres (22.2 hectares). This area is the largest area and sits the furthest from the entrance.
The garden entrance is just below the Indian Hill Mesa. Here you are met with the beginnings of the desert garden which opens to the west to Fay's Wildflower Meadow. The meadow contains numerous types of wildflowers and is normally in full bloom starting in midwinter into the spring. Unfortunately, due to our recent drought, the meadow has not been able to reach its full glory in the recent past, even leading the garden to give this area supplemental watering. Many California wildflowers, such as California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), Lupine (Lupinus albifrons) and Mariposa lily (Calochortus clavitus) require a normal or even excessively heavy rainy season to bloom. California finally received a very wet winter to bring us officially out of our drought and created the first “super bloom” in a great while.
Continuing past Fay's Meadow Garden is the desert garden. Here numerous California desert natives can be found from the Mojave Desert down south into Baja California. There is a network of footpaths running through this area to explore different flora. The area contains Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa with its heavily spiked “clubs” and prickly pear cactus (Opuntia x vaseyi) among other delights. A little further back is the palm oasis consisting of a forest of California fan palms (Washingtonia filifera) surrounding a very small pond.
Past the Majestic Oak lies the northern 55 acres of the garden. This is a less cultivated area which allows for a much better sense of how the plants would look in the wild. Since there is minimal supplemental watering done, the best time to see this area is in the winter, especially after we have received some rain that begins, normally, in November.
The various plant communities are well marked; although, it is surprising how noticeable it can be at times moving from one community to the next. The area moves between Southern Chaparral, Foothill Woodlands, Northern Juniper Woodlands, Northern California Chaparral, amongst others. There are also more specific plant communities, such as Torrey Pines (Pinus torreyana),Joshua Trees (Yucca brevifolia), Junipers (Juniperus occidentalis) and my personal favorite of the Boojum Tree (Fouquieria columnaris). I'm quite certain the Boojum tree has appeared in at least one Dr. Seuss story. Most likely with Sam I am sitting on top of it. It's a single thick trunk that resembles a candle with short pencil-like branches sprouting from it. It's quite a sight.
Climbing back up from the Plant Communities is the Indian Hill Mesa. This area prior to colonization was inhabited by the Serrano. The Serrano people lived in the San Bernardino Mountains, which the garden is at the base of, and in the southern Mojave Desert. The Mesa contains the main structures of the garden and is where most of the garden's organized activities take place.
Throughout the summer, the Butterfly Pavilion is in this area, where native California butterflies are maintained for educational purposes as well as for sheer enjoyment. There is a party where the pavilion is opened and the butterflies released later in the summer. It is a lot of fun, just be sure to watch your step as butterfly squishing is frowned upon.
The Cultivar Garden is, as the name implies, an area that is a bit more “gardened” than other areas. It is meant to show some of the possibilities available with native California plants in a home garden. One of the areas of resistance that I have come across when speaking of natives is the perception that they do not look good in the garden. I think many people see them as weeds, since in their native habitat they go dormant in the summertime and are assumed, by many, to be dead. Combine this with our large nurseries that push non-natives onto the public, even invasive species, and our native flora is becoming scarce indeed. Showing what can be accomplished with minimal summer watering is part of the garden's public education.
The Mesa also contains Benjamin Pond, which is a small pond home to turtles, some koi, and whatever wildlife might need a drink of water. It's not uncommon to run across squirrels, rabbits and the occasional coyote wandering through the garden and the pond offers a water source, as well as, a nice cool place to sit after wandering around the garden on a hot summer day.
The Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden is also a research garden housing the largest store of California native seeds in the world. They conduct research, both in the laboratory and in the field, and are not immune to creating new cultivars of California natives. The research library contains nearly 40,000 volumes covering a wide range of topics. The garden is not supported by tax payer dollars and relies on grants, donations, admission charges and the Grow Native Nursery, which is open from October to May, when the weather is tolerable for planting.
This garden is quite a gem with a noble mission to save, cultivate and educate with regards to California native plants. I for one support the garden as much as I can and look forward to many years of watching it continue to grow.
- Author: Michele Martinez
Whether we live in the city, the suburbs or wild areas, people who tend plants are not just gardeners, but builders of ecosystems. In 2014, the Audubon Society initiated the Habitat Heroes project to assist gardeners and community groups in the work of caring for songbirds. Devised as a response to diminishing habitats across the U.S., the project addresses the effects of rapid development of our wildlands. Great swaths of the country once occupied by woodland, wetlands, and desert habitat are being overtaken by urban sprawl. Today, an estimated twenty million acres of North America is carpeted with turf lawns. If we were to picture this through the eyes of migrating birds, we'd see patchworks of rooftops and lawns where we once found natural rest stops. For the myriad species that cross the continent each year, seasonal habitats are essential to life. San Bernardino County is host to dozens of species of migrating birds, from swallows and bluebirds, to warblers and hummingbirds. Some travel hundreds of miles to reach our back yards. Through years of drought, we've learned much about the benefits of cutting back lawns for water conservation. Now the Audubon Society asks that we also think of yard care in the service of wild birds. Through Habitat Heroes, Audubon offers simple, yet effective tips on how even small gardens can become living habitats. The project begins with basic facts about food and shelter, and includes steps we can take to protect wildlife across our communities.
Critter Conscious Plant-scapes
Our trees are the foundation of the backyard food chain. They are home to insect life, the most essential food source for songbirds. In Bringing Nature Home, Etymologist Doug Tallamy of the University of Delaware describes the nesting
“How to Create a Bird Friendly Yard,” by Rene Ebersole, Audubon Magazine (online):
“Bringing Nature Home (web resource),” by Doug Tallamy
Landscape Guide for Mountain Homes, LASCD. – An excellent handbook on drought-friendly landscaping for all of San Bernardino County, with native plant selections for both high-altitudes and lower elevations.
Cornel Laboratory of Ornithology (Web Resource) – With information on birdhouses, migrating birds, and more.
- Author: Michael Bains
Using California Natives
By Michael Bains
True California native plants are not something you normally find at your local big box store or large chain type garden center. While the plants sold in those places will most likely do just fine in your yard, there are many reasons to use California native plants, even if you need to put in a little extra work to locate them.
Easy Soil Preparation
Most of the plants in the picture to the left have been in the ground for just over a year. They are in full bloom and have increased in size tenfold from the 4 inch pots they were planted from. They are planted just in front of a retaining wall on a gentle slope to the side walk. This area used to be lawn. The lawn was removed and nothing else was done to the soil other than digging holes and dropping in the plants.
In fact, for many California natives adding amendments to the soil can inhibit their growth as they don't grow well in very rich soils.
Wildlife Adapted to Them
Local wildlife is well adapted to our native plant species and many use them as a food source and breeding ground. Examples of this can be seen with our local butterfly species.
Monarch butterflies will only lay eggs on milkweed (Asclepias L.), which is native to California. If a Monarch is unable to locate milkweed, they simply will not lay any eggs. Monarch caterpillars will feed on the milkweed as they grow. The milkweed contains toxic chemicals that make the caterpillars taste bad to birds.
Pipevine swallowtails use California Dutchman's Pipe (Aristolochia californica) as the host plant for their eggs. Caterpillars feed off the flowers that offer them the same chemical protection as monarchs receive from milkweed.
Lower Water Requirements
Native plants will grow well and continue to bloom well into the summer with limited water. A deep watering once or twice per month depending on how hot the weather is will keep native plants happy and performing throughout the year.
California natives are already adapted to our California climate and terrain. For this reason, there are some things they don't require that will make maintenance much less time consuming.
First, when it comes to planting, they do not require any amendments, as stated previously. The best way to plant natives is to dig a hole twice the width of the container they are in and only as deep as the level of the soil in their pot. Break up the soil for a few inches further down in the hole after you've reached the desired depth. This will help the roots expand out. Place the plant in the hole so the level of the root ball is at or slightly above the level of the surrounding soil. Before backfilling with the soil you removed from the hole take a moment to break that soil apart, especially if there are large clumps of soil in it. I use a 5-gallon bucket and break the soil down well. After that, place that soil back into the hole, lightly pressing down on it to work out as much air as you can. Then, water the new planting deeply. You want to get the water down below the root ball. It takes a bit of time to do that.
Second, natives require no extra fertilizer. They get everything they need from the native soil, if you have selected a plant that's right for your area. We'll go over that in a future post.
Lastly, natives have developed their own defenses against pests. There should not be a reason to use pesticides on natives. In my garden, I have not used a single pesticide on my ornamental plants in over ten years of gardening there. (Now, powdery mildew on my pumpkins is a whole other story.)
After letting you know what natives don't need let me add one that they do much better with. Mulch. Lots of mulch, at least a good three inches. Four is better. This will help keep moisture in the soil and keep the soil temperature down. It will also suppress weeds lowering your maintenance requirements even further. This will make your garden much happier during our hot dry summer months.
Near the end of the summer, or after blooming, prune your natives back to your desired size, keeping in mind they will burst forth again during the winter and spring.
I certainly hope I've been able to whet your appetite for California natives. Unfortunately, they don't seem to get as much love as they should. So, please hunt these natives down, if you can. You won't be disappointed.
As an aside, there are several California native plant nurseries in Southern California including the Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden in Claremont, the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley and the Las Pilitas Nursery in Santa Margarita.