Posted on | April 1, 2011 | 1 Comment
The problem with selling native plants in garden centers is that the natives are reluctant seducers. For much of the autumn and winter — prime planting months in California — they’re discreet. Their foliage comes in the understated colors of a Craftsman paint palette. Give the plants too much water, and they rot in their pots. Flowers are few. Only in spring, usually far from town, safe distances from our hoses, do native lilacs lead the charge into blossom with a cobalt-blue eruption. After them come the pink and white spires of coral bells and clarkia, masses of orange poppies, along with every color of penstemon, irises and monkeyflowers. Only shoppers who know what a native looks like in spring can envision its potential in the fall, when it’s time to buy and plant.
By comparison, exotic plants are favored by retailers because their leaves often come in leprechaun greens. Impatiens and hibiscus heave with blooms so lurid that a crayon company couldn’t match their pizazz. The joke is on us, because once we get them home, many become pest magnets that demand heavy irrigation and expensive regimens of fertilizer, amendments and pesticides.
The native-plant movement in California needed decades of false starts to overcome the fact that the best-adapted and most consumer-friendly plants were the hardest sell. Then the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants in Sun Valley had an idea. If it couldn’t get native plants to strut their stuff effectively in stores, the foundation would bring customers to native gardens. Conventional garden clubs had tours. Why couldn’t Theodore Payne?