2008-02-03

Native plants class by Connie Vadheim; California poppies;

My son and I attended a 90 minute class taught by Connie Vadheim at the Madrona Marsh. My son brought a book to read but ended up being interested in the class enough to watch the slide show. The class focussed on blue and purple native plants in the garden, particularly some California native annual wildflowers. The focus of the class was on flower color (sometimes in counterpoint to foliage color, but this wasn't the main emphasis). While I don't agree that flower color is of primary importance in the garden - I think foliage and structure have greater importance - it was a good class for me because it started with basic concepts that I don't use routinely (color wheel) and set forth many examples of differing uses of color. After class we toured the adjacent demonstration gardens and Connie pointed out some of the plants she had spoken about during class and answered questions about native plants in general. There were only a few plants in bloom at this time of year. In a month, watch out!

She hadn't planned to speak on California poppies, but since there were quite a few in bloom she seized the opportunity to strongly emphasize that the proper selection for this region is not the completely orange variety, but the maritime / coastal form with an orange center, fading to yellow-orange at the edges. Last year I had both varieties in my yard. This year I have many more plants (but with indeterminate genetic provenance as they are all from last year's self-pollinated seed).

I noted that I had observed that the maritime form (orange to yellow-orange) seemed to hold its petals better in our daily coastal breeze. The orange variety seems to lose them almost as soon as it blooms in my yard. This appeared to be a new observation to her. If so, maybe it's worth doing an experiment - they are probably well suited to do this in her greenhouse at CSUDH.

Different poppy forms might hybridize with each other, so planting the orange form on the coast could do damage to the gene pool of any wild ones that still remain. This issue remains a secondary or tertiary concern for the community of native plant lovers it seems, since the primary issue of public acceptance of a native plant ethos is still a running battle in many communities. Certainly, it's not my primary concern, though I now feel obligated to take a close look at my poppies and root out any that aren't the maritime form before they spread their seeds. Maybe the way to do this is to clip the flowers for indoor display, then at the end of the season rip all the plants out and start over next year.

Judith Larner Lowery of Larner Seeds has written a blog about poppies which has a nice picture of the maritime form. She points out that despite widespread knowledge that all poppies are not the same, that no distinction currently exists between the 70!! different identified subspecies of poppy. The implication is that a distinction previously existed. Interesting.

It has been so interesting to grow our own form on the coast. As a perennial, it behaves quite differently from the annual inland orange form (I am referring to them as "forms" since the subspecies have been eliminated taxonomically, at least for the moment). The tap root can get immense, as long as two feet, and thick as a baseball bat (which we have experimentally used it as).

In dry years, it flourishes, and I used to worry that it was too aggressive, eliminating other wildflowers. Then I observed that in wet years, it was substantially knocked back, because it doesn't like wet feet. Now I just relax, counting on an ebb and flow of the coastal form of the California poppy, so that it is only one element among many in the garden.


A plant that caught my eye in the demonstration garden was a Narrowleaf Willow (likely Salix exigua??). What I liked about it was that the shrubs grew with a bamboo-like structure by underground runners to about 10' maximum height, forming a nice partial screen. The tree is deciduous so leaves were sparse this time of year, but those remaining on its open structure gave it a very spare and Asian feel.

After class there was a very small native plant sale. I spent $10 and bought some tiny seedlings of Nemophila menziesii (Baby Blue Eyes) and Phaecelia tanacetifolia (Tansey-leaf Phacealia) and a 1 gal Epilobium californica, canum(?) (California Fuschia. Formerly / presently? named Zauschneria which is one example among many of how the dog latin names really aren't so exact and invariant after all.).

My son and I put the Nemophila into the ground at the shade margin under the bottle brush tree in the back yard and the Phaecelia (spelled Phacelia elsewhere in this blog) went into the front yard meadow where it joined a few left over ones that sprouted from last year's seed. The Epilobium went next to the fence / composter in the newly-redefined back yard border region. It joins several companions on the far side of the yard in a design effort focussed on repetition. Adding to the repetition theme was four Blue Eyed Grass seedlings that I'd rescued from certain smothering death in the front yard that also got planted out in the new backyard border area. The planting was timely, since it rained last night and there's nothing like a good soaking rain to get your California natives off to a good start.

We also worked on the back yard border. I've run into some of my construction debris at one end, so we started from the other, making good progress. This was a good choice since you can now stand on my patio and see brick border out of the corner of either eye. The border vanishes behind the debris pile (where it remains to be completed), but the visual impact of the perceived continuity of the border (more design awareness - heh, I'm getting better and better at this stuff) makes a huge difference in how one sees the whole of the back yard.

When I'm done with the border I'll have plenty of brick left over for paths or whatever. I've never liked the brick half-facade on the front of my house, but maybe part of the reason that it isn't convincing is because there aren't enough bricks to make the case that it was more than just cheap and minimal window dressing. Of course the brick facade is cheap and minimal, with an annoying height change, but with a critical mass of brick in both the landscape and house I would bet that there will be a sense of continuity between the two. Furthermore, with more brick in play visually, one might begin to believe that whomever put them there had at least a sincere commitment. Or needed to be committed.

I hope this isn't rationalizing a bad design choice, since I have collected and salvaged many bricks which are stacked in my side yard. I really don't have a more economical choice.