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California natives. Part 1 Aesculus california, California Buckeye

Since I’m in Northern California for a few months, I thought I’d do a few posts on some of my favorite, most useful, and underused natives for the garden.

First, the debate about ‘What is a Native?’

I was asked to be in a garden tour a few years back centering around California natives.  The organizer asked me what natives were in my featured garden.  When I mentioned Prunus lyonii, Catalina Cherry, a shrub native to the Catalina Islands, she said “That’s not a native…to this area!”

True, it’s a native to the Catalina Islands off the coast of Southern California, but not to the bay area of northern California.  So where do we draw the line?  Is it the northern coast line, or the dry climate of the Western United States and those ‘natives’ that will grow in our climate zone?

Frankly, I feel that as long as the plant isn’t an invasive, it adapts to your Sunset zone, it doesn’t need additional water once established, and it is ‘native’ to the Western United States, it can be called a native.

The other misnomer is that all natives are drought tolerant.  California has a wide variety of climates, from Redwood forests receiving the equivalent of 100-150″ of rainfall a year in the form of fog drip, to deserts that receive less than a few inches.  When people say to me “I don’t want to water so plant natives”, they clearly don’t understand the diversity of natives we have.  Many of our natives need additional water, so choose carefully.

If I’m asked to design a drought tolerant yard, I use a mix of California natives and other Mediterraneans.  By definition, there are only five areas in the world with a Mediterranean climate, that is, mild wet winters and dry summers.  They are parts of Australia, Chile, South Africa, California and the Mediterranean.  On a world map it’s a very small area,  but there’s a wide diversity of plant material to choose from.  When sited and chosen properly, all these plants will mix happily together and require similar watering conditions.  In fact, since our deer eat natives (deer are taught what to eat by their mothers), growing plants from other Mediterranean zones many times escape being eaten.

With that introduction, my first underused plant in the series is the wonderful California Buckeye. 

Its a common sight here in the Bay Area.  It has a drought strategy of being the first tree to leaf out in the winter, and the first to loose its leaves, sometime around mid summer (August).  The long panicles of flowers are a sight, ranging in color from white to pinkish.  After its leaves fall, the large fruits hang on the tree ornamentally.

Here is the wonderful thing about the Buckeye:  with some water, the leaves can stay on till October.  At the Berkeley Botanic Native Garden, there’s a Buckeye planted in a lawn.  The tree keeps its leaves through fall and is one of the very few drought tolerant natives that responds well to watering; therefore you can mix it with your other plants with only more benefits.

This incredibly adaptable native is almost never used in garden designs.  It should be used more and will adapt to any of our changing water needs.  If you plant it in a lawn now, then change your mind about the lawn in years to come, the Buckeye will do just fine either way.

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