In­dige­nous species

Frank falls for a Cal­i­for­nian na­tive and won­ders why it is not planted more on home soil

Gardens Illustrated Magazine - - The Writer’s Plot -

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.

Frank Ro­nan

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