Spring of Life

We are just a few days away from our twentieth annual Native Plant Garden Tour! When we came up with the title of this year’s tour, Spring of Life, it was the middle of a severe drought. Outdoor water restrictions were the new law of the land, and everyone was talking about getting rid of lawns and transitioning to a new landscape paradigm in Southern California. We picked the Spring of Life title to draw attention to the fact that removing lawns and replacing those spaces with native plants could not only provide huge water savings, but also restore biodiversity in the midst of a global extinction crisis.

Less than a year after that dry summer, we are now looking at one of the wettest years in California’s history. I’m glad that we emphasized not only the water saving aspect of native plants, but rather their ability to save water AND restore habitats. Imagine now, after nearly double the normal annual rainfall so far this wet season, if we’d named this year’s tour ‘Living with Drought’ or something along those lines… Speculation and irony aside, the truth is that although rain has been abundant this season, we know that the future will hold lean precipitation years. And regardless of how much water our reservoirs hold, huge swathes of lawn in Southern California are providing next to nothing in support of our local ecology. The need for large-scale shifts in the landscape industry towards native plants in our urban regions is greater than ever.

With the consistently timed and abundant rain that we’ve had, a true spring of life is unfolding across the region. Mass blooms are already underway in many wild lands across California, with more to come throughout the spring and well into summer. I can’t remember a time when there’s been more attention on California’s native plants. With the potential for a once-in-a-generation bloom, the global news cycle has picked up wildflower appreciation and the awe-inspiring natural events that occur during a wet year. In the past few months, our Wildflower Hotline has been featured in the New York Times, National Geographic, LA Times, Sunset Magazine, and many other media outlets.

Personally, I’m trying to schedule as much time as possible to appreciate plants. From the early season blooms in Anza Borrego, to the hills of wildflowers closer to home, and a weeklong botanical adventure in Baja California, I’ve had the privilege of seeing some truly incredible sights this spring. But there is a tinge of bittersweetness in all of the beauty. So much native habitat has already been lost, and what is left is facing grave threats. Some are overt, such as the ongoing loss of habitat to housing, industry, or agriculture, while others are slower and less apparent: the ever-encroaching march of invasive species, a changing climate with unpredictable outcomes, and the threat of uncoordinated crowds of people loving the remaining wildflower fields to death.

When it comes to that last threat, things get complicated. Some agencies have done a great job of managing the outpouring of enthusiasm from the public. They’ve put out clear guidelines to treat these places with respect, created well marked trails, and enforced penalties for those who don’t follow the rules. I applaud those efforts and foresight. Other jurisdictions have gone down a different road, closing down public lands to keep the crowds from showing up.

A trip to the desert in March took me past Lake Elsinore, a city known for its incredible mass blooming hillsides on wet years. This season, the city closed all public access to hiking trails near the wildflower fields. Police barricades on the highway surface streets near the blooms won’t even allow for a quick stop to see the flowers up close. Zooming by on the 15 freeway at 70 MPH, and seeing those hills lit up with flowers was still incredible and awe-inspiring, but knowing that they were patrolled to keep people out was a hard pill to swallow. What made it even more difficult was to see the many new housing developments in construction, putting long-commute, exurban homes on top of what were flourishing wildflower habitats only a few years ago.

I shared some of my thoughts on this with the LA Times, and in greater detail during a discussion of California wildflowers called Behind the Bloom (which was recorded and is available on our YouTube Channel). There’s a delicate balance at play. To protect what remains of California’s unique ecosystems, we need widespread love of those places and plants, and that feeling needs to be cultivated in the general public. At the same time, these places are delicate, and can easily be damaged by overzealous flower seekers. The native plant community can play a key role in guiding public enthusiasm towards a respectful, reciprocal relationship with the natural world. Tread Lightly, Don’t Doom the Bloom, and Stay on the Trail! We need many more advocates and nature lovers in the world, and they need to understand that the human connection with nature must be centered on respect, stewardship, and collective responsibility.

When it comes to the decisions of elected officials and government agents, I hope that this mass outpouring of wildflower interest can be effectively organized, cultivated, and harnessed for the greater good of our ecology and society. In a culture that already has a tenuous relationship with the natural world, shutting down the wildflower fields just seems wrong to me. I would much rather see this moment of intense botanical interest leveraged for greater support and buy-in to conserving and restoring native habitats, and creating ways for the public to engage respectfully with California’s exceptional biodiversity.

A great ray of hope in this conversation of cultivating public buy-in is just how effective urban restorations can be. Creating wildflower fields, coastal sage scrub gardens, and wildlife sanctuaries within the city limits is completely attainable, and there are acres upon acres of lawns that could be converted to stunningly beautiful and life-supporting native plant landscapes. If you join us on the tour this year you’ll see some incredible examples of places private and public that have taken on that challenge.

Coinciding with the tour is a new gallery show by artist Kelly Malka. Kelly created the wonderful imagery found on the cover of our Garden Tour guidebook, which depicts the unique vibrancy of Southern California’s ecology. For her show, she expands on that, and also brings her own identity into the work. This really struck me as such an important and sometimes underappreciated aspect of environmental progress – Reflecting on the human experience and how we communicate to grow awareness and support for a new way of doing things. As you enjoy this spring for the record books, I hope you’ll join me in reflecting on how we can make native plants the standard choice, and with that, restore the unique habitats of our region.