In recognition of Earth Day, I'm inviting you to take a short self-guided wildflower walk around my University Heights neighborhood.
This is a lightly-edited version of my "Nature in the Neighborhood" column for the May issue of the University Heights newsletter. Wildflowers are ephemeral wonders, and the flowers have already changed a bit since I wrote the article, so this is a good reason to share this a bit early.
With so much to lament about the state of the Earth, here's a little bit of joy.
Wildflowers – native plants that grow from seeds or bulbs and flower, seed, and die (or die back) in one year are getting harder to find. A century ago, wildflower fields could still be found near Pasadena; by the 1940s, the Inland Empire was the place, and since the 1970s it takes a trip to the desert. So, seeing wildflowers in our own neighborhood is a treat. Let’s take a tour to see these remnants of California’s past.
Please look don’t’ pick, so others can enjoy and they can reproduce.
Start your tour with a native garden at 4510 Campus Blvd, just north of Monroe.
There's a lot going on here, but look for a native bulb, Wild Hyacinth (Dichelostemma capitatum), with clusters of light purple flowers at the tip of long, narrow stems looming above the other plants.
Next head over to another great native garden, at 4480 Cleveland Ave. Two more native bulbs are growing in the yard. Wild Onion (Allium haemochiton) has balls of tiny white flowers and erect linear leaves (they do taste like onion). Blue-Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) has purple flowers with a yellow center. It’s not actually a grass, but a member of the Iris family.
Two native bulbs are growing in the yard. Wild Onion (Allium haemochiton) has balls of tiny white flowers and erect linear leaves (they do taste like onion). Blue-Eyed Grass has purple flowers with a yellow center. It’s not actually a grass, but a member of the Iris family. Finally, look for the deep blue flowers of Grand Phacelia (Phacelia grandiflora), the showiest of this diverse genus of small shrubs and wildflowers.
Heading over to the corner of Meade and Cleveland (passing lots of native monkey flowers on the way), you’ll find a semi-wild patch of natives on the northwest corner. Look for the Wild Hyacinths springing up here.
Continuing on the way to The Point you’ll pass a bed with California Poppies (Eschscholtzia californica), the ubiquitous (but delightful) exception to the rule about wildflowers being scarce. As you walk in the Open Space Park, you’ll see lots of yellow and orange flowers – these are all invasive weeds, and why wildflowers are in decline. Rancher’s Fireweed (Amsinckia menziesii) is the exception – it is indeed weedy, but it’s a native. It’s related to the Phacelias: both have flowers that emerge as a “fiddlehead” unrolls. Look for it around the Olive in the center.
End your tour by stepping into the wild just beyond the fence on the trail. Take the path left and continue about 20 feet. To your left, look for the delicate purple flowers of Nuttall’s Snapdragon (Antirhinnum nuttallianum). The crust of mosses and lichens indicate ground that hasn’t been disturbed for a while – let’s keep it that way. To your right, you may see more Wild Hyacinth (Dichelostemma capitatum).
Native wildflowers are a wonderful addition to any drought-tolerant garden. Inevitably, most commercial wildflower mixes are going to contain a mix of quick-germinating common species from different habitat types. You'll probably get something to come up, but these are generally lowest-common denominator species. Tree of Life Nursery in Orange County (https://californianativeplants.com/blog/wildflowers-seed-mixes/) offers wildflower mixes for species habitats or uses, and this is a big improvement.
I include wildflowers in some of my landscape designs, particularly for areas without a bark mulch. In addition to being able to specify a particular wildflower seed, I've created my own custom seed mixes featuring plants with similar flower colors that geminate at different times in the spring and summer. This lets me create specific effects in a garden that can complement the pattern of the native shrubs.
It may not match the thrill of finding a delicate wildflower peeking out from an open spot during a hike in the local hills, but bringing wildflowers into your personal landscape may be the next best thing.