Arts & Events

Books: Garden Inspiration From California Native Plants By RON SULLIVAN Special to the Planet

Tuesday January 31, 2006

At long last, there’s a worthy companionc—or successor—to Marjorie Schmidt’s indispensable Growing California Native Plants.  

That faithful little yellow handbook is 25 years old, and was written during one of our generation’s first waves of mass appreciation for drought-tolerant natives. As their other virtues became apparent, their fandom spread in ripples, more or less cycling along with our recurrent droughts. Habitat gardens that attract our gorgeous and fascinating wild neighbors began to attract us, too, and the harmonious beauty of local plants lured more and more of us to plant them.  

Now a trio of native experts, Carol Bornstein, David Fross, and Bart O’Brien, have collaborated to elaborate on the theme. California Native Plants for the Garden takes a leaf from Schmidt’s book and then adds striking photographs and generally great garden porn, giving those of us who are already native-plant enthusiasts a new store of information and incentive, and the rest of the world some artistic inspiration and sensual temptation to plant more of our beauties. 

Like Schmidt’s book, this one includes suggestions for planting in various situations, and elaborates on her straightforward categories. You’ll find plants that are good under live oaks, as groundcovers, for hedging or espalier. More than that, you’ll find what gardeners need most: photographs, a look at how the plants meld with each other in real situations.  

It’s these photographs that will make the book a tool for conversion experiences. Anyone who’s spent time in California wildlands will recognize their inherent aesthetic, and innovations in garden use of it. That wild garden you saw while hiking on Point Reyes? Here’s how to have it in your yard. Usefully, each photo is attributed to its place as well as its photographer.  

Most of the book is occupied by an encyclopedia of native plants, with lots of information about each species or genus. It’s well-written enough to be a good read on its own, and its illustrations arouse garden dreaming. Dang, this is a handsome book.  

It’s evident that the authors are Southern Californians. The inclusion of plants from Baja California is unusual up here, and there are lots of southerners in the plant lists. This is certainly welcome for its water-saving and just plain surprise potential for readers here up north.  

Local gardener Bracey Tiede says, “In a talk that Bart O’Brien gave to the CNPS in Palo Alto in December about the making of this book, he relayed the struggle the three authors had with determining which plants to include. They had serious space problems and spent three days on a retreat hashing over the list. Some of the criteria for inclusion were the natural range of the plant (the wider the range, the more likely to get into the book) and the availability of plant materials (why put in plants that are very hard to find). There were probably other factors such as personal favorites as well.” 

Lori Hubbart, another natives maven, agrees: “Regarding the choice of plants to cover in the book, California Native Plants for the Garden, the authors decided to stick with plants that are readily available in nurseries in most of California.”  

So you should be able to find the plants in the book without too much trouble, especially if you noodge your favorite nursery now and then. You can look for native plant sales, too, and make a field trip to a natives nursery like Native Here in Tilden Park, or Mostly Natives in Tomales. Write down your target’s Latinized species epithet, and someone will point you to it.  

If you’re an absolute newcomer to this native-plant stuff and have a garden to plant right now, I’d recommend buying both the old and the new books; Schmidt’s simple categories—“shade/dry; sun/water” and such, are easier to understand at first. But the new book’s more elaborate sortings into plants for narrow beds, meadows, hummingbirds, spiny barriers—in short, what you’d need in a garden—make sense as you get to know plants, spaces, and requirements.  

Reading the elaborations on the genus Arctostaphylos and the genus Ceanothus is fun all by itself. Of course you want one or more. Who wouldn’t? Tips for keeping them happy in your care are here too.  

Mrs. Dalloway’s has it, and I’m sure other good garden book sources have it too. It’s almost Spring, and we’re all thinking about gardens. Go get some inspiration. 



By Carol Bornstein, David Fross and Bart O’Brien 

Cachuma Press, 2005. 

271 pages, $27.95