By Cindy Weiner, Butte County Master Gardener, January 24, 2014
Most of California has a Mediterranean-type climate with cool, rainy winters followed by hot, dry summers. Many of the plants for sale in nurseries need help to survive in this climate, and often require a lot of water during the summer. However, plants native to California (meaning that they were present prior to the arrival of European explorers and colonists) have adapted to this climate with a variety of strategies that allow them to live with no water for long periods of time. One of these strategies is to bloom and grow during the rainy season and go dormant during the hottest part of the summer.
Manzanitas (scientific name Arctostaphylos) are one group of California natives utilizing this strategy. Their small, urn-shaped flowers, appearing during winter, range from white to pink and are followed by reddish fruits resembling tiny apples. In fact, the word manzanita is Spanish for “little apple.” Manzanita flowers are a good source of food for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, and many other birds eat the fruit. Manzanitas come in a wide variety of sizes and growth habits, from groundcover to tree-like, but all are evergreen, with leathery leaves and smooth, mahogany-colored bark providing year-round interest. They generally require good drainage, enough space around them to allow for good air circulation, and little to no summer water.
Another reliable manzanita for this area is the cultivar ‘Dr. Hurd.' It grows from ten to fifteen feet tall and as wide and can be pruned as a small tree. The contrast between the dark reddish bark on the spreading branches and the gray-green leaves is quite striking, becoming even more beautiful with age. White flowers bloom in the winter. ‘Dr. Hurd' prefers full sun and little summer water although it can tolerate some irrigation and heavier soil.
Pipevine (scientific name Aristolochia californica) is native to foothills and valleys of northern California. It grows in both lower and upper Bidwell Park, usually near water. Its ten to fifteen-foot-long vines climb into shrubs or trees or along fences without harming them. Blooming in winter or early spring before its heart-shaped leaves appear, the pale green flowers with dark maroon veins are unusual in appearance, resembling curved pipes with flared bowls. It is the only local larval host plant for the pipevine swallowtail butterfly. Pipevine tolerates just about any soil but needs part to full shade and a little water in summer. While it can be grown as a groundcover, pipevine is most effective where the flowers can dangle at eye level to be appreciated.
Planting winter-blooming natives in your garden provides both food for wildlife and lovely flowers to enjoy when most of your garden is dormant.