Go Native!

All Abuzz for Native Plants

Photo of a Western swallowtail butterfly on her buckeye tree (courtesy of Chris Lewis)

By Debbie Arrington
Guest Writer

Going native does more than save water; it can help save the bees – and many other species, too. Native plants and wildlife need each other to thrive. Creating wildlife-friendly native habitat in urban and suburban spaces gives these essential creatures the support they need to cope with disappearing open space and changing climate.

Chris Lewis, a longtime native plant expert, turned her plain old lawn in Carmichael into a front-yard suburban oasis for native wildlife. Scrub jays zip in and out of flowering toyon and California buckeye trees, abuzz with several species of native bees as well as familiar honeybees and bumblebees. Western tiger swallowtails flit among colorful native flowers including clarkia, phaecelia, columbine, asters and poppies. With its distinct red bark, manzanita offers berries (as well as insects) for the hungry birds. Valley, blue and live oaks provide homes and more food for all those feathered friends as well as shady spots for people to relax.

“It’s important for people to be part of nature, to have a place to connect,” Lewis said as she sat in an Adirondack chair under the trees, listening to the buzz.  “This is a magical place.”

Now, Lewis is part of an effort to inspire more Sacramento-area residents to create their own native oasis.

It’s called “Homegrown Habitat,” a concept that can help bees, butterflies, birds and other wildlife – one front yard at a time.

The reasoning is simple: Traditional lawn tends to just lay there and not do much – but soak up water. Beneficial insects including butterflies and native bees need more food sources and places to live. Why not replace some (or all) of that turf with plants that support native wildlife?

These gardens can be as beautiful and easy care as they are sustainable. For example, Lewis’ lush front-yard habitat grows with almost no additional irrigation. With no lawn, there’s no mowing – and more time to enjoy her garden.

This effort has been embraced by the Sacramento Valley chapter of the California Native Plant Society, which is sponsoring the local Homegrown Habitat program. Lewis is manager of the chapter’s native plant nursery, Elderberry Farms, at Soil Born Farms’ American River Ranch in Rancho Cordova.

“Homegrown Habitat was developed as a way to inspire homeowners, developers, and managers of community parks, facilities and other public spaces to take out half their lawn or more and replace it with local California natives,” Lewis explained. “Based on the work of Doug Tallamy and his concept of a ‘Homegrown National Park,’ our effort is focused on supporting the local wildlife – birds, bees, butterflies and beneficial insects.

“As these species attempt to navigate through habitat destruction, pesticide use, warming temperatures, wildfires and other climate change impacts, these insects often have no ability to travel out of their affected habitat,” she added.

Those same factors are part of an “insect apocalypse” – the massive die-off of many species, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

A best-selling author and entomologist, Tallamy is co-founder of Homegrown National Park, a grass-roots effort to coax people across the country to convert lawn to wildlife-friendly landscape.  These patches of native plants would act like a cross-country sanctuary – or national park – for many endangered species. His goal is to inspire habitat conversion of 20 million acres, about half of all privately-owned lawns in the United States (Read more here: homegrownnationalpark.org.)

As part of Homegrown Habitat, Sacramento Valley CNPS is forming its own network of native gardens. People who already have a viewable native garden – a front yard with at least 50 percent California native plants – can apply to be a Homegrown Habitat Host.

After review, participating gardeners get a yard sign with a QR code that directs visitors to a website with information about plant identification, points of interest and how that individual garden was created. Find out more here: www.sacvalleycnps.org/homegrown-habitat.

Eventually, the chapter will have enough participants so anyone interested in native plants can drive by Homegrown Habitat gardens in their own neighborhoods.

“The idea started with people walking by my front yard,” said Lewis, who happily chats about native plants with visitors. “Every neighborhood needs one of these, something inspirational people can go see. One of my neighbors said she had too much lawn. I said, ‘There’s a cure for that. Just look around.’”

Easy-care natives

Chris Lewis, manager of Elderberry Farms native plant nursery, grows hundreds of different species of native plants, both in her own Carmichael garden and at the nursery. Here are a few of her favorites (with comments):

  • Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis): This small tree is known for its vibrant purple flowers in early spring. “Nothing is as reliable as redbud and it can grow anywhere, in sun or shade.”
  • Elegant clarkia (Clarkia unguiculata): Also called mountain garland, this pink-purple annual resembles a delphinium. “Absolutely fabulous with a long bloom season.”
  • California poppy (Eschscholzia californica): “You have to have poppies! Nothing has the same wow factor.”
  • California fuchsia (Epilobium canum): This low-growing perennial produces masses of scarlet blooms in summer and fall. “Something special for hummingbirds; they love it!”
  • Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis): This biennial sprouts spikes of yellow blooms that open at twilight. “You can literally watch them open. Moths love them.”
  • Oak: “I love all oaks, but not everyone has room for a valley oak. There are two oaks that are slow growers – shrub oak (Quercus berberidifolia) and leather oak (Quercus durata) – that stay small.”
  • Phaecelia: Also called scorpionweed, this annual is a relative of borage and comes in several colors, from white to yellow to purple; about 90 species are California natives. “Super easy to grow; just a little extra water in summer extends their bloom three to four weeks.”
  • Elderberry (Sambucus): This native shrub produces clusters of creamy flowers, followed by abundant purple berries – a major food source for birds. “If you have room, it’s a fabulous plant.”
  • For more suggestions go to: www.sacvalleycnps.org
  • Sac Valley CNPS’s annual Gardens Gone Native tour is on hiatus, but you can still tour local native gardens online. For virtual native garden tours, click on: www.sacvalleycnps.org/gardens-gone-native-tour/.

Additional resources

 Debbie Arrington is a longtime home and garden reporter and author of the blog Sacramento Digs Gardening.