The Native Gardener’s Paintbox: Pink Moments

By: Carol Bornstein

Carol Bornstein is one of Southern California’s most highly respected native plant specialists and co-author with David Fross and Bart O’Brien…

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Pink-flowered currant (Ribes sanguineum var. glutinosum ‘Claremont’. Author’s photographs

Pink-flowered currant (Ribes sanguineum var. glutinosum ‘Claremont’. Author’s photographs

“I am strongly of opinion that the possession of a quantity of plants, however good the plants may be themselves and however ample their number, does not make a garden; it only makes a collection. Having got the plants, the great thing is to use them with careful selection and definite intention. Merely having them, or having them planted unassorted in garden spaces, is only like having a box of paints . . . This does not constitute a picture.”

Gertrude Jekyll, Color Schemes for the Flower Garden

In the pink, tickled pink, pretty in pink, pink perfection . . . . Unlike the negative connotations associated with many other colors (down with the blues, green with envy, in a black mood, red with rage), pink typically conjures up cheerful, happy occasions. As a word, “pink” can, however, convey objectionable or undesirable elements, as in pink slip, pink elephant, or even the politically charged epithet “commie pinko.” Gardeners can eschew these implications and simply enjoy the subtle—or bold—beauty of this versatile color.

Pink abounds in nature: reddish pink sandstone; rose quartz; conch shell pink; that luscious pink moment at sunset; fleeting pink foliage in autumn; and, of course, pink flowers. Pink is compatible with almost every other color. The many shades of pink are particularly effective when paired with sage green, gray green, and silvery foliage—colors that are plentiful in the California flora. Our native flora has pink blossoms galore with which to paint our garden compositions.

In both Spanish and Italian, rosa means pink and so, what better flower to begin with than that of California wild rose (Rosa californica). The lightly fragrant, pale to bright pink, one-inch blossoms are a dose of wild abandon in late spring and summer. The orange red hips add a decorative touch to bouquets or can be left to feed wildlife that seek cover in the thicket of thorny stems. This widespread species is too rambunctious for modest-sized gardens because of its aggressive rhizomes, but a deep root barrier will contain it.

Heuchera ‘Lillian’s Pink’ against a silvery Artemisia

Heuchera ‘Lillian’s Pink’ against a silvery Artemisia

Manzanita (Arctostaphylos) is one of California’s most admired woody genera. With dozens of species and scores of cultivars ranging in size from prostrate mats to twenty-foot living sculptures, these drought tolerant natives can fulfill a multitude of functions, from focal point to hedge to ground cover. Every garden ought to have at least one! Manzanitas have it all: evergreen foliage in greens and grays, sinuous or fibrous maroon to cinnamon-colored bark, tiny apple-like fruits, and clusters of pendulous white to pink flowers that grace the garden in winter and early spring. Hummingbirds and bees visit their sweetly scented, urn-shaped blossoms in search of nectar and pollen. Some of the best pink selections (from tallest to shortest) are ‘Louis Edmunds’, ‘Lester Rowntree’, ‘John Dourley’, ‘Arroyo Cascade’, and ‘Lillian’s Pink’. The last two cultivars will be hard to find but well worth the effort.

Several native currants (Ribes) make up another winter-flowering group. These semi-deciduous shrubs bear pendant racemes that also attract hummingbirds; later in the year, the juicy berries can be quite tasty. Pink-flowered currant (Ribes sanguineum var. glutinosum) has been cultivated here and abroad for well over a century. This variable species occurs in both sunny and shaded sites in chaparral and woodland plant communities. Horticulturists have made several selections, mostly variations on the pink theme but differing in tint and length of inflorescence. Look for ‘Claremont’, ‘Spring Showers’, ‘Strybing Pink’, ‘Tranquillon Ridge’, and ‘Joyce Rose’ at nurseries and botanic garden plant sales.

Achillea millefolium ‘Island Pink’

Achillea millefolium ‘Island Pink’

For drier gardens, chaparral currant (Ribes malvaceum) is a better choice. Superficially similar to pink-flowered currant, the leaves are thicker and more resinous, and the exfoliating bark adds textural interest. ‘Dancing Tassels’ and ‘Montara Rose’ are just two of the many cultivars in the trade.

Several pink-flowered herbaceous perennials make excellent companions for manzanitas and currants, including three genera that plant breeders have dabbled in extensively: Iris, Heuchera, and Mimulus. New hybrids of Pacific Coast iris continue to appear, some with decidedly pink tones. Although their water needs are somewhat higher, the many charming coral bells (Heuchera species and cultivars) are outstanding for their exuberant displays of white, pink, or red flowers held above the basal leaves. The woody monkeyflowers (Mimulus, syn. Diplacus) present a splendid array of cheerful colors, with ‘Trish’ being a reliable mauve pink selection. Equally beautiful, but harder to find, is ‘Verity Pink’. Although not the focus of California breeders, checkerbloom (Sidalcea malviflora) has been fussed over by European growers, yielding several cultivars. Wild forms of this floriferous native hardly need improvement, though, with their soft to bright pink flowers and scalloped leaves.

Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis)

Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis)

Notwithstanding its common name, western redbud (Cercis occidentalis) definitely belongs on the pink list. Blooming just at leaf break in early spring, this deciduous, multi-stemmed shrub can be shaped into a small tree. The magenta to rosy pink, peashaped flowers and heart-shaped leaves are perfectly matched, and the flattened pea pod fruits add a wind chime dimension later in the season. The bright pink flowers of ‘Island Pink’ yarrow (Achillea millefolium ‘Island Pink’) just might overlap with redbud’s blossoms; if not, they will likely coincide with, and complement, the immature, maroon-tinged pods. If this green-leaved groundcover seems too rampant for a small garden, consider ‘Silver Carpet’ branching beach aster (Lessingia filaginifolia ‘Silver Carpet’). This sprawling native cloaks the ground with its silvery branches and boasts hundreds of lavender-pink, daisy-like blossoms in late summer. Both yarrow and aster attract butterflies, adding another colorful dimension to the garden.

Only a handful of buckwheats in the enormous genus Eriogonum are cultivated, yet each one has its merits. Some forms of both ashyleaf buckwheat (E. cinereum) and California buckwheat (E. fasciculatum) have pale pink flowers, but by far the showiest pink performer is red-flowered buckwheat (E. grande var. rubescens). Despite its slightly misleading common name, this subshrub from California’s Channel Islands has rich pink to cherry red, pompom-like flowers in late spring and summer and is marvelous when planted in drifts in a mixed border. It partners beautifully with the silvery-white foliage of sandhill sagebrush (Artemisia pycnocephala) and island snow-flake (Constantia nevinii, syn. Eriophyllum nevinii), or with the vivid blue flowers of Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii).

Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) is often hailed as California’s most glorious summer-blooming tree or large shrub. Like its mostly tropical relatives, this sole native representative of the trumpet vine family (Bignoniaceae) has large, open-throated flowers that offer a colorful splash of maroon, pink, purple, or white for hot, dry sites. The graceful form and fine texture of its willowy foliage, combined with its easy care, are hard to beat. The list of suitable companions is long, but in keeping with our pink color scheme, a trio of other drought-tolerant species comes to mind. Use all three! Royal penstemon (Penstemon spectabilis) sends up dozens of pinkish purple or blue spires in late spring and summer. Deadheading will promote even more of these iridescent flowers. Speaking of shimmering, the shocking magenta blossoms of beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaris) are a visual knockout. One wonders why this stunning cactus is not more widely available. More subtle is alkali sacaton (Sporobolus airoides), one of California’s most beautiful bunchgrasses, whose gauzy, soft pink inflorescences add another grace note in mid- to late summer.

A great many other pink-flowered natives can enhance your garden with their saturated warm or cooling pastel tones, the latter even becoming luminous at day’s end. Using your artist’s eye, slip some pink into your garden by employing some of the fine plants on this incomplete list to create whatever mood you desire in your native garden.

Red-flowered buckwheat (Eriogonum grande var. rubescens)

Red-flowered buckwheat (Eriogonum grande var. rubescens)

A Few More Pink Notes

Allium unifolium
single leaf onion

Calandrinia ciliata
red maids

Calliandra eriophylla
fairy duster

Calochortus species
mariposa lilies, fairy lanterns

Calystegia ‘Anacapa Pink’
‘Anacapa Pink’ morning glory

Clarkia species
farewell-to-spring

Dudleya viscida
viscid live-forever

Lavatera assurgentiflora and cultivars
island bush mallow

Lepechinia species
pitcher sage

Lewisia species and hybrids
cliff maids

Linanthus species
linanthus

Malacothamnus species
bush mallow

Oenothera species
evening primrose

Oxalis oregana
redwood sorrel (pink forms)

Rhododendron macrophyllum and R. occidentale
California rose-bay and Western azalea

Rhus ovata, R. integrifolia, and R. lentii
sugar bush, lemonade berry, and pinkflowering sumac

Zauschneria (syn. Epilobium) ‘Solidarity Pink’
‘Solidarity Pink’ California fuchsia