A Q&A with Dr. Suzanne Worcester 

Interview by George Machun

Native plants are becoming more popular across the country as gardeners look for reduced maintenance and low water options for their landscapes. We asked CSUMB Professor of Science and Environmental Policy Suzanne Worcester about the benefits of gardening with native plants.

How and when did you first get involved in growing native plants?

We have been landscaping our house with natives for more than 15 years. I have known about the benefits of native plants since my graduate work in the early 1990s when I learned that the classic “golden hills of California” are only golden in early summer because of exotic grasses brought here. That revelation opened my eyes to start seeing California in a whole new light.

Exotic species are those that have been brought to an area by people (either intentionally or unintentionally) but did not grow naturally like native species. Invasive species are exotic species which spread rapidly and outcompete native species. This can occur for different reasons -- perhaps they aren’t eaten by local animals, or they make the soil around them toxic to other plants (i.e., eucalyptus trees), or they have no natural pathogens.

Ice plant and french broom are good examples of invasive species on the Monterey Peninsula. Ice plant is the one that carpets the dunes in a monoculture while French broom is the beautiful yellow-flowered shrub that completely covers hillsides and is extremely difficult to remove (or contain it where you want it in your yard).

How popular are native plants today vs. 10 years ago?

Native plants have become more and more popular. I see increasing numbers of houses landscaped with natives as well as new businesses. For instance, many of the plants around the new CHOMP Health and Wellness Center just north of campus are native. CalTrans has been taking out invasive species along our highways and replacing them with natives such as fremontodendron (also called flannel bush or California glory), California lilacs and oaks.

Are consumers seeing the benefits to going native or are there misconceptions out there?

Many people see the benefits of natives. They take much less water than lawns and other traditional landscaping. The lower costs in terms of effort, water and fertilizer really add up for people keen to save both money and time.

I think knowledge of California’s unique ecology is becoming more widespread as well. When people learn that the invasive plants in their yard are responsible for the decline of our native flora and fauna in the region, they realize they have a part in keeping the greater Monterey area beautiful and vibrant. Many want to do their part by taking out invasive species and planting natives once they have that knowledge.

Butterflies, birds, bunnies and even lizards all enjoy native plants. At our house we really like watching the baby bunnies nibbling on the grasses in our yard (and weeding the yard for us!). We also have a wide variety of birds. For instance, we have a covey of quail in the yard that has become the focus of a local sharp-shinned hawk. The hawk and quail have these amazing high-speed, mid-air chases through the yard as one tries to outmaneuver the other. It can be quite exciting!

Another advantage is that natives reseed themselves and are self-sustaining. It takes a lot of work to replant marigolds every spring, but native beach evening primroses and beach strawberries just spring up and bloom each year.

One of the challenges in growing natives is that some people feel that the drier, native California look is not as attractive. However I think that Sunset magazine and local garden tours have illustrated how some of the most attractive and prize-winning gardens in our region are those that grow drought-tolerant plants dominated by natives. 

How is growing native plants different from traditional gardening?

Native plants follow the natural seasons in California. This means that they often lose their leaves during the late summer dry season and look their best in the winter, spring and early summer. Gardeners can get around these trends by planting species that bloom at different time periods to add color to their yards. For instance, California fuchsia is a beautiful red hummingbird-pollinated plant that blooms late into the summer. Also many native species in the sunflower family bloom in September and October. Careful planning can allow a gardener to have beautiful blooms in late summer and fall, and also allow some plants in the garden to go dormant (following the natural climate in central and southern California). If we think like the seasons then it is much easier to “go with the flow” with our landscaping. 

Some natives are more finicky than typical garden store plants--for instance, once they are established some will die if you give them water in the summer. The advantage, of course, is you can ignore them completely when you are on vacation. This is true for one of my favorites, the fremontodendron or flannel bush. It requires water during its first, and possible second, summers to get established. After that time it grows best with no irrigation--ever!

One of the wonders of ice plant is that you don’t have to do anything to get it to grow (the reason some people choose this plant). Of course, on the flipside it is very difficult to contain and requires continual work to trim back and remove young sprouts that come up in other places in your yard. Most natives aren’t quite so tenacious and difficult to keep in the places you want them to grow. Thus natives have many of the advantages of exotic invasives (many are easy to grow), but not the negatives (they can be contained in certain areas in your yard).

What other guidance can you give to people considering native plants?

There are lots of places to get advice. The Watershed Institute on campus grows many local native plants and have years of wisdom in how to grow them. The California Native Plant Society (CNPS) has published many books on growing natives as well. You can browse the books in person and meet other native plant enthusiasts at the monthly meeting of the local CNPS chapter. They meet at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History on the 2nd Thursday of each month at 7 p.m. 

Are commercial retailers seeing the benefits of offering natives?

I don’t know. I’ve never shopped for plants at local retailers like Target or OSH. I buy my native plants from the Elkhorn Native Plant Nursery in Moss Landing or the native plant sales at MEarth (the Hilton Bialeck Habitat at Carmel Middle School). Also, the Watershed Institute on campus sometimes has extra plants available.

Finally, what are some of your favorite natives that can be seen on campus?

I’ve already mentioned fremontodendron. It is a large shrub that is covered in large yellow flowers--it is very showy. It stays at least in bloom for months. It is easy to grow and grows quickly to almost tree size. Our native brush rabbits (the cute little bunnies that you see scurrying to hide under bushes) love to live under fremontodendron and they eat the dying flowers after they’ve fallen. You can see it for yourself at several places on campus including across from the library on the corner between the dorms and the traffic circle. I also like California fuschia because it is pretty and attracts hummingbirds.