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Jan 11th, 2021 (Article in newsletter, January 2021)

Evolution of a Native Plant Person

William Hallstrom
California poppies, brittlebush, and buckwheat growing on a steep hillside garden. Photo by William Halstrom

My relationship with the native plants of California, and especially those of Los Angeles County goes way back, but we haven’t always been so close. I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley and I have been hiking in the local mountains for as long as I can remember. While the aromas of various species of Salvia and Artemisia and other plants of the scrub and the chaparral spark vital memories for me, I could not have necessarily identified them until much more recently. In fact, despite being both an avid hiker and gardener, for the longest time I was only vaguely aware of many of the key plants of our local ecosystems.

I had started to volunteer at the Theodore Payne Foundation a few years ago to learn more about natives. There was something that appealed to me, when I first went there—I got the impression that there was a reflection of a more integral part of California than at typical nurseries. It was great to see the variety of Angelenos who were coming there in appreciation of native plants, from botanists and plant nerds, to gardeners, to outdoor enthusiasts and advocates for indigenous communities—a really interesting gathering of Angelenos. I guess it’s because native plant gardening is one of the most accessible ways for most of us to be able to interact directly with our local ecology.

In being a volunteer and with a good deal of experience as an amateur gardener, I rekindled an affinity for working with my hands in the outdoors. This led to a job as a maintenance technician, working for Andreas Hessing and Scrub Jay Studios, where I got the chance to see a number of different urban native plant gardens and had the chance to get my hands dirty in many aspects of garden care and landscaping, and it has led me to think more deeply about the ideas of gardening, habitat, and sustainability. Working in native plant gardens, I have arrived at various questions as well, inspiring me to become more educated.

Little by little, in the meantime, I discovered the California Native Plant Society. I had seen some of the CNPS content, and TPF Sales Yard Manager, Flora Ito, had mentioned the organization as a great information source. Thanks to Covid-19, in 2020 Theodore Payne’s annual garden tour became a Zoom event, and so I got to see CNPS Lead Conservation Scientist, Nick Jenson, in conversation with TPF Director, Evan Meyer. The discussion revolved around the idea of urban horticulture with natives in relation to habitats in wild areas and thinking about where these two spaces intersect—things I had been thinking about. Later this year, I took a horticulture class taught in part by Orchid Black, who of course also extolled the virtues of CNPS. So after probably too much procrastination, I finally became a member.

Cleveland sage specimen growing in a Hollywood native plant garden. Photo by William Halstrom

Our local native plants can help to tell us the story of this place. Los Angeles has grown up quickly and it’s easy to get lost in the superficial aspects of its recent history. Native plants can provide us with a tangible connection to the longer thread of life here. It’s quite the rabbit hole, of course.

I just received the latest issue of Fremontia, which I was excited to see was focused around the topic of restoration. Editor Andrea Williams writes that we are entering the “Decade of Ecosystem Restoration,” as the United Nations is advocating. I was excited to read about the issues that we as Californians, and that organizations like CNPS, are facing in regards to restoration in this state. Naomi Fraga of CNPS-SGM, for instance, writes about establishing ethical standards in the practice of conservation in regards to her efforts to advocate on behalf of Eriogonum tiehmii, a rare buckwheat threatened by a mining development in Nevada.

I grew up learning what you might call conventional gardening practices, the kind of gardening that sees Southern California as an oasis where anything will grow. We don’t always consider how much effort this takes, though. If we pick the right plants they will thrive and give something back to their surroundings. Native plants can help us to find answers to what the truly long-lasting and self-sustaining entities of this place are.

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