At 2000 feet on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains many plant communities merge to create one of the most diverse ecosystems in the state. If you study this region year in and year out in all seasons, you will soon learn the secrets of the native perennials that bedevil so many gardeners.
A south facing Yuba River canyon wall in full spring bloom.
This region is dissected by three forks of the Yuba River that have carved chasms through the rock flowing from the high country west to the valley floor. In the spring, when the Yuba storms through these canyons, the rocky cliffs burst into bloom. Springing out of rock on the south facing walls as if by magic are beautiful apricot monkey flower, blue lupine and purple penstemon. And in some places grow the tiny succulent Dudleya. All are perennials fed by tap roots stretching deep into fissures between the rocks to reach moisture accumulated there. Even as temperatures climb and rainfall ceases these plants remain lush, green and blooming until this trapped moisture is exhausted and all goes dormant again for the long dry season. This teaches us that these species are naturally dormant at this time, and forcing them into year around growth with unseasonable watering will quickly spell their demise.
Apricot monkeyflower (Mimulus) and lupine on the canyon wall.
Mimulus has also taken up residence on banks where roadway gravel and the fines of blasting a road out of the cliff create an infertile rocky scree. Here there is little organic matter and marginal fertility. Drainage is extreme. These roots thrive in an oxygen rich dry soil medium that protects them during the late summer and fall as drought stretches for six months or more. What this example illustrates is that drainage is more important to these natives than fertility. My experience with using gravelly road base mixed with native clay in raised beds verified this, and natives thrive in this nearly sterile soil mix with rare problems of rotted roots that plague them in more fertile, organically rich ground.
Native monkeyflowers chose to grow from seed in this rocky, infertile scree at the side of a road bank.
My eighteen years in the northern Sierra has shown me the silent language of natives there. They speak loudest through the places where they choose to reproduce in the wild, for there they find optimal conditions. For all who wish to learn more about these beautiful natives and cultivate them better, spend time in the wild, because it’s the only way to truly observe and understand their loudly spoken cultivation instructions.