Northern California

BY JEFF COX / Kenwood, California, USDA Zone 9

Bright Hindsight

With a twinge of remorse, I tipped my hat to the beautiful gardens I’d developed over a dozen years on my Pennsylvania hilltop and drove off one August day to a new life in California. I found a hot, parched landscape on the West Coast, with evergreen oaks covered in dust and rough fields full of dead, dried annual weeds and grasses.

That first winter brought torrential rains that flooded roads—and washed the trees and sprouted the annual grasses, turning the hills green.

Then came March and April, and one of the most unexpected and delightful experiences of my life. The winter had battered down the detritus of last year’s growth, and among the new green grass grew exquisite wildflowers of all kinds, in saturated and pastel colors, with fancy petal and bract designs and otherworldly shapes. They ranged in size from a quarter inch to six or seven inches across. I’d never seen any of them before. I knew then where Walt Disney got his palette of colors.

Most of these California native wildflowers are annuals that survive the summer drought as seeds, sprout with the return of rain in the fall, overwinter as small plants, then flower and set seed as the rains end in May. Which means, I realized, that if seeds of these precious natives were available, I might have been able to grow them back in Pennsylvania, planting them in spring to flower in summer and fall.

Curious to know for sure, I called Mike Landis at the Wild-flower Seed Company in St. Helena, over in the Napa Valley. “Sure,” he said, “I’ve been filling orders for California native wildflowers for 16 years, from all over the country.” And Judith Lowry at Lamer Seeds in Marin County said, “We get orders from as far away as Europe. They grow very well in England.”

If I’d known about these wildflowers in Pennsylvania, I’d have sown their seeds in bright swaths throughout my gardens to give color while the perennials went through their short flowering periods. I’d have grown sweet little red maids (Calandrinia ciliata), whose petals were used for rouge by pioneer women; or the red-splashed pink cups of farewell-to-spring (Clarkia amoena); or the exquisite tiers of white-and-purple Chinese houses (Collinsia heterophylla).

I would have planted bird’s-eyes gilia (Gilia tricolor), whose blue to violet flowers carry powder-blue stamens and yellow throats with purple rings. Or the aptly named coastal tidytips (Layia platyglossa), ground-hugging compositae with yellow petals neatly tipped in white. Or the low-growing annual sky lupine (Lupinus nanus), with blue and white florets clustered on a six-inch stalk. Or five-spot (Nemophila maculata)—a white flower with a reddish purple dot on each petal—desert bluebells (Phacelia campanularia), creamcups (Platystemon californicum), and many more.

But, on the other hand, they would have taken some work Back East. Here, nature does everything—all I have to do is swoon with delight.


Citrus latifolia

If you grow Meyer lemons successfully, Bearss limes (Citrus latifolia) will do equally well for you. Also called Tahiti or Persian limes, the fruit is thin-skinned, acidic, seedless, and especially juicy if fully ripened on the small tree. They take well to container culture if grown on dwarfing rootstock. Peak harvests are midsummer and midwinter. Sources, page 74.

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