Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Casting Seed

I've been peering anxiously at little sprouts in my garden. I usually scatter wildflower seed before, during or immediately after the first fall rain. This year, dreaming of spring, I joyously tossed seed on a drizzly day.

But my hopes started to wither with the subsequent Santa Ana winds and two heat waves. Yes, the poppies had reseeded on their own, but, aside from the nonnative corn flowers, there seemed to be few other species.

I started to pull some of the overabundant poppies. Sheltered underneath I found clarkias, lupines and other seedlings. Those I'd strewn in shadier spots had survived, too.

California poppies seem to thrive just about anywhere in Southern California. (Just don't expect them to grow if you sow them in summer. In my experience, they'll wait for fall.) As Barbara Eisenstein said in a recent class at the LA County Arboretum, these annuals with long tap roots seem to condition the soil, breaking it up and making it more hospitable for future generations of plants. The first year I ripped out lawn and replaced it with natives, poppies were the only native annual that made a go of it. But as the years have gone by, more of them have taken root in the garden.

In nature, poppies plants mingle with lupines, creating a gorgeous carpet of blue and orange. Lupines also improve garden soil by hosting bacteria that convert nitrogen gas in the air into a form other plants can use.

The lupines sprouting with poppies in my parkway are probably not native to California, but they reseed in this hard-to-grow spot. (I do grow native lupines elsewhere.) I think their origin is a lovely Botanical Interests mix called Sweet Baby Blues. This wildflower mix includes several California natives including desert bluebells (Phacelia campanularia), baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii) and five spot (Nemophila maculata).

Elegant claria (Clarkia unguiculata) also self-sows in my garden, though I've thrown more down this year to ensure it's presence. I adore its tall spikes of pink and magenta flowers. I've also scattered farewell to spring (Clarkia amoena) and plan to try some Clarkia purpurea (look them up on Theodore Payne's fabulous California Natives Wiki).

Harder to grow--at least for me--are the two Nemophila species pictured below, Nemophila maculata and Nemophila menziesii. I've tried them in several shady or part-shade spots, but so far they favor only one nook.

I enthusiastically recommend two other plants that aren't annuals but low-growing natives that reseed easily. First, blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum). I'm at a loss to explain my passion for these petite, purple members of the iris family with grass-like foliage (below). They look lovely clustered around one of my bird baths.

Blue flax (Linum lewisii) produces similarly shaped and sized blue flowers, also in clumps. Various species of Linum are native to much of the American West. I planted it to bring a little blue to my very purple native plant palette. You can find blue flax and the desert bluebell seeds on racks in many mainstream nurseries.

For more on spectacular wildflowers, click to my recent piece on the rare flowers that bloom after wildfires.


  1. The picture of your garden at the height of wildflower season is lovely. Don't you just love planning for the spring!

  2. I'm hoping to get more wildflower coverage in my yard this year, too. I ordered a bunch of seeds from Theodore Payne a few weeks ago, and my plan is to mix them and scatter, so hopefully at least one seed in the mix will be happy where it falls. I can't decide whether to scatter now, or wait until rain seems more likely.

    Your beautiful wildflowers give me something to aspire to, as your garden usually does.

  3. Audrey,
    I'm guessing once you get started, you'll get addicted to the native annuals. I've used the TP mixes over the years, but once was surprised by something that made me sneeze, and I'm still ripping out unwanted bunch grass. So I try to make sure I know everything that's in a mix. Amusing case in point: I scattered the shade mix this fall. Even though I was familiar with all the species, I somehow decided there must be some unfamilar monocot--a surprise iris?--in the blend. So I watered it. And discovered it was just my neighbor's grass.
    I try to sow when it rains, but in my experience the plants do best if sprouted in fall, so if one doesn't happen soon, scatter away when there are some cool days forecast. For more on wildflowers, check out Barbara Eisenstein's (she pictured above) excellent blog, She recommends several successive sowings.

  4. Hi there! I've been in L.A actually, but it's a long time ago...
    Anyway, now I'm trying to find out the name of a tiny blue flower here in Greece which I have put pictures of in my blog today - maybe you know?
    For sure it loks a lot like Desert Bluebell Phacelia campanularia 'Blue Wonder'which I saw somewhere...
    Best wishes from Greece!


Please share your thoughts