by Charlene Burgi
Mother’s Day found me driving north to the ranch in Lassen. The sun was shining as I left my three-week stay in Marin behind. I was eager to see how the garden at home had developed in that period of time. The focus was on the lilies, peonies and other perennial bulbs and veggies that were planted earlier.
As I climbed Hatchett Mountain, I noticed the Cercis occidentalis (western redbud) was in full bloom. As I climbed higher, the color intensified against the deep blue sky. On occasion, the magenta flowers popped out against the still snow-covered Mount Lassen.
As I neared the top of the mountain before descending to Burney, something caught my eye: splashes of large white petals on the steep banks. Curiosity got the best of me and I pulled over at the nearest pullout along the highway. One of the plants stood tall and straight about 15 feet below the road bed. It was covered in beautiful bracts. This impromptu stop immediately confirmed that the hills were covered in Cornus nuttallii, or western dogwood.
What a delightful surprise! I had seen a few of these natives tucked into the heavily forested area on Bogg Mountain in Lake County, but I had never seen them here before. The color was dappled up and down the steep ravine where I stood. The trees were too far from the stream below to draw on the water and seemed to thrive in the heat of the sun.
I thought of the Cornus kousa that we planted in Novato. It is located in the shade and is on the receiving end of a hydrozone that gets adequate water during the irrigation season. I also remembered we always had the dogwoods under shade cloth at the nursery, and they were watered along with other high-water-users such as rhododendrons and camellias.
As soon as I had arrived in Lassen and inspected the amazing growth of the garden, I cracked open Sunset Western Garden Book to learn more about the growing conditions of this native dogwood. Apparently it wants minimal summer water, good drainage and ventilation, and it doesn’t like to be pruned. Researching further, I pulled out the revered L.H. Bailey’s Standard Encyclopedia of Horticulture belonging once to my husband’s father. It seems we all live along the growing belt of this native as it extends from British Columbia to Southern California. This plant can grow to 80 feet, much to my surprise. It is claimed by both books to be tender and susceptible to sunburned trunks if not protected.
How were these natives growing in such adverse conditions? And why are so few seen in the wild? In the limited view along the Highway 101 corridor that took me to work and back again, have I missed these glorious natives in Marin? Are some of you fortunate to enjoy these spring beauties where you live?
Don’t forget to attend the Marin Bay-Friendly Garden Tour tomorrow, May 19. If you haven’t registered yet, you can still purchase a guidebook up until 5:00 p.m. today (Friday) at North Marin Water District at 999 Rush Creek Place in Novato. The guidebook is $10 (cash or check only) and includes directions, garden descriptions and 36 garden entrance tickets that can be shared with your family and friends. This is a great opportunity to get new garden ideas and inspiration from your Marin neighbors!
If you attend the tour and take pictures, send us your favorites and we’ll post a selection to our Facebook page—credited, of course! (Please note that we can’t post photos that include recognizable people without their permission.)