Return of the Native?

Photo by Jeanne RiceNo, iceplant is not the national plant of Iceland. That would be Bjork. But iceplant is not the state plant of California, either. That would be stupid, since iceplant needs lots more rain than falls on most of the state. Iceplant needs lots of rain like they have in South Africa, which would explain why iceplants come from South Africa.

Yet iceplant might as well be named the state plant of Caltrans, since its creeping greenery is so common along our interstates—sucking up the sprinkler water by gallonful—that you can buy it at your local nursery by asking for the Freeway Daisy. Isn't that what they used to call Jewel?

Why doesn't Caltrans landscape freeways entirely with California's native plants? When water is so precious, why does it use plants that need so much of it? If the drought continues and we're forced to stop irrigating our roadsides, won't most of this decorative landscaping crinkle into a decrepit shade of dead? Wouldn't plants that are native to California tend to survive better on natural amounts of California rainfall? Couldn't native plants attract native butterflies and birds and bugs that are losing their habitats? Shouldn't our publicly funded California landscaping look like California?

"Technically, our policy is this: we use the best plant material possible in any given situation," says Caltrans' very pleasant spokesperson, Robin Witt. "Because California is such a varied state, the plant material varies depending on where we are landscaping."

Okay, Robin, but wouldn't native plants . . .

"Having said that," Witt continues pointedly, but still pleasantly, "the Caltrans landscape-architecture division encourages the use of native plants where it is feasible—where it makes sense."

Yeah, well couldn't . . .

"There was a time, not too terribly long ago, that our landscapers actually tried to set a standard of using a minimum of 25 percent native plants on any given project. We don't have that standard anymore."

See, but I don't see why . . .

"Because we found you can't force the issue. Sometimes native plants make sense; sometimes they don't."

How could a native plant not . . .

"The point I am trying to make," Witt continues, "is that sometimes native plants survive, and sometimes they don't. We try to match the best plant with the best situation and hope it comes out right."

That formula—matching the plant with its environment—is endorsed by Mike Evans, who has been selling California native plants at his Tree of Life nursery in San Juan Capistrano for 25 years. But Evans insists this can be more practically accomplished by choosing among the 5,000 types of California natives—approximately half of which grow only here and some of which are becoming endangered species.

"Native plants can do everything that we now most often use non-natives to do," insists Evans. "There are plants that can buffer sound, absorb some of the air pollution and control erosion. And they can do it more cheaply and less wastefully—without all the water, maintenance, pesticides and fertilizers. But they've got to be selected carefully and knowledgeably."

Evans' wrote an essay in the current newsletter of the Orange County chapter of the California Native Plant Society where he also emphasizes the philosophical reasons that Caltrans ought to landscape roadsides with native plants. "Landscaped freeways link our communities," Evans wrote. "Right or wrong, these . . . landscapes become the modern models for decorating outdoor space. Land planners have an opportunity, the responsibility, to exemplify resource and water conservation, wildlife values, and regional authenticity by planting natives in these highly visible landscapes."

Rather than leading the public, however, land planners are often under pressure to follow its preferences. In the case of freeway landscaping, Caltrans is bound to consider the opinions and established landscapes of the communities through which it passes—to be "context sensitive," as Witt put it.

Most of those "contexts" bear little resemblance to California's natural landscape. This region's agreeable climate and rich soil combined with this era's advanced technology has enabled each group of new settlers—whether from the Midwest or the Middle East—to apply their diverse personal histories and visions to the land.

"Hence, you have this hodgepodge of landscape themes along the freeways," says Evans. "That's why the 5 freeway looks one way through Anaheim and another way through San Clemente and another way through open lands of undeveloped right-of-way. While that offers each community some local unity, it takes away from the opportunity of people to really know the place they live—not to mention the tremendous environmental toll it takes on plants and insects and water."

Evans says he has brought his opinions to Caltrans—which spends $65 million per year to landscape more than 25,000 acres—several times over the years. "I've connected with one or two people," he says, "but most of the others think I'm a quack."

Recently, however, as a water crisis approaches, the idea of native-plant gardening has moved toward the mainstream. Southern California's Metropolitan Water District just allocated $2.4 million for a campaign to promote native-plant gardening among the 17 million people in its service area with hopes that it will be as effective as its other water-conservation programs.

"Since the last big drought of 1987-92, we have made major strides toward getting people to conserve water inside their homes—through retrofitting toilets, low-flow showerheads and just being more water-conscious," says Lynn Lepinski of the MWD. "But it turns out that as much as 70 percent of residential water use is outdoors—and that's our next target. We hope to get people to consider the use of native California plants."

And that's where Evans believes that California's freeways could be of great value.

"If there's any place the general population of California could be exposed to the authentic use of native plants," he says, "it would be on the sides of freeways. After all, we all drive."

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