Sticky Monkey Flower, Fairy Lanterns, Chinese Houses. I’ve seen a few of these California wildflowers in the cool green hills above the Steven’s Creek reservoir. But there are other plants once native to San Jose that I haven’t seen yet: Pearly Everlasting, our native strawberry Fragaria californica, or the Liveforever, a ghostly succulent that likes to hang out on cliff faces.
California is green in the winter and gold in the summer. That always felt like the natural rhythm to me, felt like home. But I’ve learned that it’s a recent, drastic change: the hills used to boast living plants year-round. Only when Spanish cattle brought the seeds of European grasses did the bronze oaks acquire their pretty blond backdrop.
Metaphor of Grass in California
by Charles Martin
The seeds of certain grasses that once grew
Over the graves of those who fell at Troy
Were brought to California in the hooves
Of Spanish cattle. Trodden into the soil,
They liked it well enough to germinate,
Awakening into another scene
Of conquest: blade fell upon flashing blade
Until the native grasses fled the field,
And the native flowers bowed to their dominion.
Small clumps of them fought on as they retreated
Toward isolated ledges of serpentine,
Repellent to their conquerors. . . .
They were like men who see their city taken,
And think of grass–how soon it will conceal
All of the scattered bodies of the slain;
As such men fall, these fell, but silently.
The only thing sadder than the defeat of the native grasses is the defeat of the native peoples, which this poem mourns without ever mentioning it directly, as if so much death is unsayable. I fear that I may be trivializing it by bringing it up in a post that is basically about gardening, but when we garden with native plants, we are attempting to restore something that has been lost. I can’t go back in time and undo tragedy, but I do have control over the barren backyard of the house I’m renting. California is kind to foreign species, as long as you can water them–the long-fallow soil of my backyard has sent up geysers of green in the form of basil and tomatoes–but we all know that water here is running short. Native plants don’t need to be watered in summer because they’ve survived here for ages without it. In fact, a lot of these plants will die if you fertilize them and overwater them. They are ascetics who are ruined by luxury. For me, the lazy gardener, what could be better?
Low-water gardens, or xeriscapes, are becoming more popular now as Californians realize that, while lawns are nice for muggy Virginia or verdant England, we can’t really afford to dump huge amounts of water on a plant we can’t even eat. That reservoir I mentioned earlier is turning into a mud puddle. I see a lot of lavender in yards these days, and New Zealand flax and other plants from Mediterranean climates around the world, but not so many Californian species. Ceanothus, yes, our western answer to lilac, a gamine in faded blue jeans to its perfumed Southern belle. And manzanita, which forms blunt, dusty hedges down road medians everywhere. What about pink-flowering currant, though? Or California fuschia? So many choices–and yet, a comforting restriction of choice. I guess my interest in gardening with these plants follows my love of meter and rhyme in poetry: freedom within rules. I don’t know where to start when faced with every plant in the nursery, or every word in the dictionary.
And yet, I am not a purist. As much as I wish I could see the wild California of old, I am also nostalgic for Silicon Valley’s orchard days. Neat, cultivated rows of apricot and plum and almond, blossoming from hill to hill–a man-made landscape, no question. And how could I wish our famous vineyards out of existence?
So I’ve planted a Meyer lemon and an apricot in my sunny front yard, and I am scheming to make the backyard a colorful oasis of native plants.. An Island Tree Mallow is already multiplying its fuzzy leaves, and hopefully it will grow as high as the fence. Island Mountain Mahogany and native currants will fill in the rest of the fence, and the shade of our one large tree will become mysterious with California bush anemone, ferns, and coral bells. I want the ink-blue flowers and bracing scent of Cleveland sage, the “wiry heathpacks” of California buckwheat, and the rusty, desert sunset pink of yarrow. I want to see bugs, birds and butterflies feasting on berries and nectar. I want a garden that couldn’t grow anywhere else.