Have you ever discovered a native plant growing naturally in your neighborhood? There are many that have managed to maintain a foothold during wave after wave of human-driven land transformation. In Santa Clara County, one immediately thinks of toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia, coast live oak, Quercus agrifolia, and Telegraph weed, Heterotheca grandiflora, as conspicuous survivors. These plants and other natives manage to find a foothold and thrive next to roadways, buildings – anywhere their seeds find a patch of soil.
There are also plants that have survived in little patches of undeveloped (or at least minimally disturbed) land. These little native islands are out there if you look for them. A few good places to search are along creeks, railroad tracks, under power lines, or on the periphery of public parks. These little seams have often provided mini-habitats between developed properties. As you walk your neighborhoods, look for these. You might be surprised by how long a list of very local native plants you can compile.
Here are a few plants on my list, which reflect plants growing within a twenty minute walk from my West San Jose home. These are such tough survivors, there’s a good chance they are local to you as well.
Rhamnus crocea, redberry, is a tough, attractive shrub from foothills throughout much of the state. Its dark glossy holly-like leaves contrast well with grey bark displayed in an open, mounded form. In the wild, the form and dimensions of the plant seem to vary with the growing conditions; in sunny chaparral redberry may be quite low, almost a groundcover, while in shadier sites it may grow in columnar form as it reaches for more sun. Redberry is dioecious, meaning that a given plant will predominantly display male or female flowers. Consequently, only the plants with female flowers will display the attractive translucent red berries. The minute flowers are a greenish yellow.
Quercus lobata, valley oak, grows in a variety of plant communities from Redding to Orange County. Its range includes several of the Channel Islands. It thrives with plenty of sun and subterranean water, which explains its preference for valley bottoms. In the right setting, the valley oak grows rapidly. For many years the form will be vase shaped with a straight columnar trunk. Over time the crown expands and the enormous tortuous branches arch in every direction. The bark is silver gray and deeply furrowed. The winter leaf drop reveals the inner structure of the twisting branches which is obscured by foliage for the rest of the year. Quite a sight on a winter day! The valley oak is said to be the best oak for wildlife.
Oemleria cerasiformis, oso berry, is found in many habitats around California and beyond. The leaves are apple-green and lance shaped. In the winter, oso berry will begin to leaf out and produce a small panicle of bright white flowers. This is the easiest time to find an oso berry in the wild, since their flowers stand out among the other plants with which oso berry is often entwined. Its form is upright and spreading. The fruit is deep blue and oblong. It is said to taste something like a combination of olive and blueberry. Plant oso berry in partial shade with occasional water, preferably where its subtle qualities can be appreciated. Oso berry is dioecious, meaning that the male and female flowers are found on different plants. Both types will be needed for a female plant to bear fruit.
Symphoricarpos albus, snowberry, occurs in mountainous regions throughout the state, most often in at least partial shade and a source of seasonal moisture (a spring creek, etc.). It spreads via rhizome to form a patch of straight, vertical shoots of apple-green deciduous leaves with an open growth form. The flowers are an attractive pink leading to the pure white berries for which the plant is named. The berries are not suitable for eating. The spreading thicket is ideal for attracting and supporting wildlife. I have found that the ground within a snowberry patch is usually clear of weeds. Even Vinca major will not grow into it. I suspect that this is an example of allelopathy – the inhibition of plant growth by another plant. Perhaps the hardy snowberry can be used as a barrier to inhibit the spread of troublesome invasives. In any case, snowberry is a durable addition to a shady corner of the garden.
Sisyrinchium bellum, blue eyed grass, grows everywhere in California save for the southern deserts. It is notable for the wide range of conditions it accepts. It is one of the plants which almost certainly was a component of the oak savannas of the Santa Clara Valley before the introduction of Western agricultural practices. Like other members of the Iris family, it grows as a little tuft of grass-like leaves. In early spring the purple (sadly, not blue) flowers appear. When massed, the flower display is quite striking. Abundant seed will result in volunteers in most gardens. Blue eyed grass will go dormant in the summer without supplemental water, but it seems to accept water without complaint.
Heteromeles arbutifolia, toyon, is the emblematic shrub in many plant communities around the state. It is especially common at mid-elevations in the coastal mountains of central and northern California. In more southerly settings it seems often displaced by sugar bush, Rhus ovata, and lemonade berry, Rhus integrifolia. Toyon grows in a round, open form but can develop into a small tree with age. The leaves are dark with serrated edges. Toyon is also called Christmas berry for the red berries that are abundantly displayed in the late fall and early winter. These seem to mature in mid-winter, at which time they are relished by robins and other birds. Toyon seems to appreciate an open setting with good air flow, so it is best planted as a specimen rather than as a member of a thicket or hedge. In both wild and domestic settings, Toyon is relatively vulnerable to disease, so care should be taken to protect against infection (e.g. only prune with sterile equipment).