California Native Plants on the Op-Ed Pages

By Steven L. Hartman

A photo of the Hartman front yard. "Palo verde trees attract birds such as nesting bushtits, hooded orioles, flycatchers, and mockingbirds...not to mention thousands of insects during blooming season." - Photo by Steve Hartman

Palo verde trees attract birds such as nesting bushtits, hooded orioles, flycatchers, and mockingbirds…not to mention thousands of insects during blooming season. – Photo by Steve Hartman

There has been a flurry of editorials and commentaries in the local Los Angeles newspapers about issues that CNPS has been focusing on for years. A Los Angeles Times main op-ed warned, “Don’t gravelscape L.A.”, with a bold color graphic. The same day, the Daily News trumpeted in their main editorial, “Turf removal programs could do much more,” arguing, “This transformative step to redefine the California landscape with at least half a billion dollars in incentives needs to do more than just eliminate thirsty lawns that gulf up about 50 percent to 70 percent of residential water use. It should help build a natural, native habitat in every yard that will adapt to the soil and feed the butterflies and birds that migrate and live in the region.”

Wow. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

The Los Angeles Times said, “Los Angeles would no doubt be better off with less turf. But not if we replace it with gravel or plastic.” This is an important point. A few years ago a friend mentioned that he was going to replace his lawn with plastic grass. Incredulously, I asked why. He said, “Low maintenance, no watering.” I explained that covering his yard with plastic was by no means a benign environmental action. I mentioned the lack of groundwater infiltration, elimination of habitat for native animals, and the reality that the plastic lawn will begin to look tawdry in no time and will have to be replaced- with all that plastic ending up in a landfill.

Marketers have developed the term “California Friendly” to describe xeriscape with drought-tolerant plants. Unfortunately, most of the “California Friendly” plants on sale at the large commercial outlets include Mediterranean or desert plants, and not too many California natives. It is important to remember that our native fauna (in particular, birds and insects) evolved with native plants of California, and that while “Friendly” plants may satisfy the need to reduce water consumption, they don’t necessarily provide food or shelter for our native fauna. There is a big difference between “California Native” and “California Friendly.”

Speaking of the birds and the bees, in an editorial titled, “Don’t give native bees short shrift,” the Los Angeles Times states that, “If the goal [of a proposed beekeeping ordinance] is to strengthen the bee population…the best strategy is to give residents incentives to grow more flowers and avoid treating them with pesticides.” The editorial goes on to state that, “Research has shown that farms would need to make only modest changes to attract healthy numbers and varieties of the local pollinators.” They suggest hedgerows of native plants.

Of course, this strategy works in the residential setting too.

"Gravel-covered yards with a few plants poking out epitomizes the recent spate of lawn conversions. Where is the habitat?"

Gravel-covered yards with a few plants poking out epitomizes the recent spate of lawn conversions. Where is the habitat? – Photo by Steve Hartman

As a Los Angeles resident who has been driving around and seeing the results of various interpretations of “turf replacement”, I am concerned with the cactus gardens and gravel front yards that have only a few plants poking out. Importantly, as Thomas D. Elias in an editorial in the Daily News pointed out: plants help combat climate change by pulling carbon out of the air and facilitate the recharge of ground water.

Further, as pointed out in a Los Angeles Times op-ed, plants act “as air conditioning for LA., which is only getting hotter with climate change. Plants and trees provide shade and transpire moisture to cool the air; gravel and artificial turf don’t. In fact, they create the opposite…fewer plants means more heat, and more heat means faster evaporation from watering.”

With all the newspapers jumping on the band wagon supporting the use of native California plants, it seems that CNPS has won an important battle – native plant landscaping is no longer a fringe activity; indeed it may be one of the important tools that will help Los Angeles cope with drought and climate change. However, the war has not been won until heavily watered lawns and landscapes have been replaced, not with gravel and plastic grass, but with native gardens filled with birds and pollinators.

Steven L. Hartman is a native plant enthusiast, avid gardener, desert fanatic, and President of the California Native Plant Society. He has been a CNPS member since 1974 and a CNPS Fellow since 2005.

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