The Southern California Native Flower Garden

Landscape architect Susan Van Atta has established a reputation for creating beautiful, sustainable, and award-winning landscapes through her office in Santa Barbara.  She has been a featured speaker at two of Pacific Horticulture’s Gardening Under Mediterranean Skies symposia, and one of her gardens was included on the tour for the seventh edition in Santa Barbara last fall.

Her great passion has been the native plants of California, which make up a significant portion of the landscape palette of her office’s work. As a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, she was fortunate to study under Dr Robert Haller, whose reputation for opening the eyes of his students to the beauty of the state’s native flora is legendary.

This jewel of a book presents 164 of the best California native plants for use in the garden or landscape. The selection of plants was made based upon Van Atta’s experiences with them in Southern California landscapes, and upon their availability in nurseries. Nearly all, however, are useful and valued plants in Northern California gardens as well.

Van Atta opens the book with a thoughtful essay on the beauty, value, and use of California’s native plants. The descriptions follow, with plants arranged by height and scientific name. She gives each entry a concise description, with suggestions on how to use it in the landscape and what to pair it with for a successful composition. Graphic keys simplify the presentation of plant characteristics, cultural requirements, and wildlife values. Small but clear illustrations by artist Peter Gaede complete each entry.

Of particular note is the mention of habitat origins for each plant, information that is often lacking from plant books but which helps suggest appropriate uses and placement in the landscape. Sunset climate zones are provided for each entry, further simplifying the selection of suitable plants for a specific site and region.

The water consumption key designates those plants that survive on rainfall alone (only two or three are so designated). The remaining plants fall into the low or moderate category. The latter is reserved for those native plants that naturally occur along streamsides or in perennially moist areas. The majority of plants in the book require only a monthly deep soaking, but that soaking is critical. Despite the ability of most California native plants to survive in the wild on rainfall alone, Van Atta makes clear that nearly all benefit from some summer irrigation for the best presentation in the designed landscape—a point that is too often missed in the promotion of the state’s native flora.

A substantial reference list and a list of nursery sources rounds out this small but inspiring and valuable book.

Richard G Turner Jr, editor