Wild for California Native Wildflowers!

15 Mar

By Earl Nickel
Special contributor

As some parts of the California desert are enjoying once-in-a-decade “super blooms”, it reminds me of the joys of our own native wildflowers here in the Bay Area. From “Baby Blue Eyes”, Clarkias and Gilias to “Tidy Tips” and Lupines, our local hillsides and meadows are a veritable carpet of colorful wildflowers starting in early Spring.

Native wildflowers play a valuable role in the life of pollinators, too – especially native bees and butterflies attuned to the timing of their nectar-rich flowers. This is also true when we add native annuals to our gardens. These sun-loving plants not only beautify our urban and suburban landscapes, but collectively provide a widespread source of nectar and larval foods for a bounty of native fauna.

It’s easy to fold native wildflowers into your garden. Here in the Bay Area, gardeners who got a jump on the Spring season by planting in Fall may already be enjoying the earliest blooms, but there is still plenty of time to plant and fill in bare spots with colorful, spontaneous additions. I always leave some space open as Spring approaches, knowing I’ll be adding my favorite wildflowers. Most of these plants have a 3-5 month season, so you can use that space later for another colorful annual or perhaps an exciting new perennial. Many of our native wildflowers self-sow, too, so you’ll enjoy them year after year.

I also decide ahead of time that some of my annuals will reside in pots. I put nearly all of my perennials (native and otherwise) in beds, so they can get established and spread out. Planting annuals in containers not only saves valuable ground space, but it also gives you the flexibility to move your containers around for the greatest visual appeal.

Layia glandulosa and Nemophila menziesii “Baby Blue Eyes” grow beautifully in containers and can be moved around to best effect.

Maximizing Space

To maximize space you can plant early blooming Spring natives in front of deciduous shrubs like Philadelphus, Hibiscus, Oakleaf Hydrangea or Sambucus. One other space-saving tip is to plant annuals over bulbs, especially Summer bloomers like Dahlias, Lilies and Gladiolas. You’ll enjoy a burst of color in Spring, then as the flowers fade, the Summer bulbs will push through and offer their own delights.

Fast-growing natives like Lupinus succulentus ‘Rodeo Rose’ and Eschscholzia caespitosa “Tufted California Poppy” are great planted in front of larger perennials or as a Summer bulb cover.

Going for the gold 

With their wealth of yellow and blue flowers, Spring wildflowers offer two contrasting colors that look fantastic together. “Tidy Tips” (Layia platyglossa) boasts fragrant, lemon-yellow flowers tipped in white that are the epitome of cheerfulness.

If there were garden awards for “Most Cheerful CA Native” surely Layia platyglossa “Tidy Tips” would win.

Keep an eye out for the Checkerspot butterfly, which loves this flower’s nectar. There’s also “Woodland Tidy Tips” (Layia gaillardioides), valued for its solid mass of #2 pencil yellow flowers that spill over a favorite container or a low rock wall.

I like to think of Limnanthes douglasii as a kissing cousin to “Tidy Tips”. Featuring a never-ending fountain of open-faced, yellow flowers generously rimmed with white atop a dense, shiny, groundcovery mound, this aptly named “Meadow Foam” blends beautifully with all manner of blue flowers.

Lemon yellow Limnanthes douglasii is sweetly scented.

“Cream Cups” (Platystemon californicus) produce smaller, butter-yellow flowers with a central boss of flattened stamen filaments that make them look like water lilies that washed ashore. Charming and fragrant!

Fragrant Platystemon californicus sports zillions of 1″ flowers atop silver, grey-green leaves. Self-sows when happy! Looks great here with red perennial pincushion Knautia macedonica and annual Papaver rhoeas ‘Falling in Love’.

Cheerful “Cream Cups” make the cutest cut flowers ever.

Speaking of fragrant, check out Madia elegans. This hardy, drought tolerant and long-blooming sun lover is fashionably late, blooming mid-Summer to Fall. The large, daisy-like yellow flowers and the foliage have a delicious pineapple fragrance, all the more noticeable when the weather is warm.

Pineapple scented Madia elegans blooms later than most native wildflowers, bringing sunshine to the Summer garden. Shown here brightening up native perennial Eriogonums and Ribes.

Do the blues make you happy?

They will if you’re adding any of the exciting true blue wildflowers available this time of year. Start with Phacelias, a group that should be every bit as well-known as Nemophilas “Baby Blue Eyes”. Their blue tones are darker and richer, especially stately P. viscida. Showcasing 2”, electric-blue flowers with patterned centers, this 2’ tall, multi-branching native puts on quite a show.

Electric blue Phacelia viscida will have all the bumblebees going wild!

Want cascading blue? Phacelia campanularia, known as “Desert Bluebell” (but grows just fine in regular garden soil), offers an endless display of gentian-blue inch+ flowers that tumble forward like the prettiest skirt. The distinctive leaves add a dark blush to their veined green form. Their motto might well be: ‘I spill, therefore I am.’

“Blue Thimble Flower” may seem like an odd common name but one look at the wealth of inch-wide round flowers of Gilia capitata and you’ll say “Oh, yes.” This annual forms a dense, small bush comprised of lacy, ferny foliage topped by a sea of purple-blue heads. Irresistible.

Gilia capitata “Blue Thimble Flower” boasts an extra long bloom season – and couldn’t be easier to grow.

And lastly there is the justly famous “Baby Blue Eyes” (Nemophila menziesii). No need to go looking for this Nemo, the masses of robin’s egg blue blooms will be one of the first things you and passersby spot in your garden. Another terrific spiller, it combines well with just about any Spring flower (especially any of the colorful selections of Eschscholzia californica), bringing a bit of sky into the earthly delights of your garden.

4 Responses to “Wild for California Native Wildflowers!”

  1. Jude Parkinson-Morgan March 15, 2017 at 9:07 pm #

    Exquisite photos. Thanks for sharing.

  2. connie bilello March 20, 2017 at 5:21 am #


    • Carol Mc Gregor Pettis May 7, 2017 at 12:11 am #

      I lived in Berkeley, CA when I was about 5 thru 9 yrs old.We lived at the top of the hill, Grizzley Peak Bl.There was an empty lot at the corner of Grizzley and Marin.( For those of you who have been up or down Marin, you pray for your brakes to work.)On this lot, I played with friends and noticed that there were beautiful pink,white and maroon flowers. I thought they were wild since nobody had lived on the lot.I moved to Rio Linda, Ca many years later but I always remembered those flowers. I told my husband and our friend,who were traveling to the Bay area, to dig up some of each color so I could add them to my garden. They both were a little nervous about going on private property but devised an answer if they were questioned. They were doing some research work for the biology depart at Cal Berkeley. So , I got my plants and discovered they were pin cushion flowers in the white, pink, and maroon that you don’t see in those colors at nurseries.They were able to survive there with no care-a “wild flower”.Carol pettis

      • Q July 18, 2018 at 1:11 am #

        Another option might have been politely asking the landowners for permission first.

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