Frank falls for a Californian native and wonders why it is not planted more on home soil
NWORDS FRANK RONAN ative planting, in a garden context, was always a concept that made me shudder a little. Much as I love my weeds, the appeal was always in their ebullience and lust for life rather than their ethnic purity. In the British Isles the roll call of plants that are native for a certainty is so short that a garden made exclusively from them would not be very different from the hedgerow outside of it. Not that that would be likely to deter the usual sort of hair-shirt nettle eater who goes on about native plants but it is not gardening: rather some sort of painfully virtuous opposite.
I do understand that there are places such as Australia where introduced plants were a bit of an ecological disaster but, really, was that the fault of the plants? Surely the original and greater problem was the self-introduction of the European members of a certain particularly arrogant species of fauna. The very same ones that are now hectoring each other about native planting. You don’t hear many Australians arguing for handing the whole continent back to the Aboriginals as a solution to their eco-problems. Much easier to stick a few kangaroo paws at the bottom of your suburban garden and castigate those whom you consider to be less enlightened.
Here, in California, where the climate is against us, I expected to be constantly buttonholed on the subject but have only come across one or two people who claimed to plant native. And with them you only had to look around you for an instant before being able to ask where exactly in California that species of jacaranda or wisteria, or whatever you happened to be frowning at, came from. The flustered backtracking that followed would involve a dissembling gesticulation towards some scruffy underplanting and the admission that they had only begun last summer. Here, it is far more important to declare your intentions than to
ILLUSTRATION CELIA HART actually do anything, and a declaration made strongly enough can dispense with effort for as long as you can be bothered to make it.
Then, not long after the realities of the drought first began to kick in, I took a guest for a walk in the Matilija wilderness, which forms part of our view on the other side of the valley. The lushness was astonishing. Lush might not seem the right word to a temperate reader but, comparatively, after driving there along roads lined with dying gum trees, it seemed so to us. It was early summer and the time when all the romneyas were in full flower and every open space punctuated with the giant white exclamation marks of Yucca whipplei. So much you might expect but the amazement, and my new love, was Arctostaphylos glauca. In the same family as heathers and recognisably related to Arbutus, this immense manzanita could give a slight impression of an olive at a distance. Closer, it is infinitely more beautiful, with bark the colour of polished oxblood and stiff grey leaves held upright over clusters of white or pink bells, and, later, berries of another bloody hue. Why, my companion and I ricocheted at each other with every new sighting, is this not planted in every garden in California? I had not even seen it stocked in a nursery. Subsequent searching has not yielded much. A kind friend found three tiny plants in a nursery that was closing down. The internet hasn’t come up with anything over five gallons or under a 100 miles away, and they are usually, on closer inspection, varieties intended for ground cover. You can get full grown olive trees with a snap of your fingers but why would you want them when there are greater glories closer at hand? There are parts of the garden where I thought of putting olives but all I can think of is Arctostaphylos. Now I’ve finally gone native, the frustration is unbearable. There is a nursery nearby selling only Australian plants. The irony is killing me.
is a novelist who gardens in both the UK and USA.