If you are living in an area where wildfires are a threat, you may want to seriously consider planting Lomandra hystrix Tropicbelle, commonly known as mat rush, around your home.
This Australian native proved its fire-retardant quality in the Thomas fire of 2017. Jo O’Connell, proprietor of an Australian plant nursery located between Ojai and Ventura whose home burned to the ground in that fire, witnessed a nearby home that O’Connell says was spared because of Lomandra that grew in close proximity to it.
O’Connell has a list of 60 fire-retardant Australian natives. By selecting them for your firescape, you can create a barrier to an approaching wildfire that may provide you with a valuable window of time to douse the flames or, in a worst-case scenario, provide more time to evacuate your residence if needed.
O’Connell lists these fire-retardant Australian natives on her nursery’s website (australianplants.com). She grows Lomandra and extols it for its protean qualities as it thrives in both sun and partial shade, can survive temperatures as low as 14 degrees, and withstands drought but is not bothered by excessive moisture either. Its ability to thrive in wet soil is an advantage when it comes to fire fighting since plants adjacent to homes and other structures are more fire-retardant when they are well-soaked. Its leafy foliage is another bonus where fire retardancy is concerned since herbaceous plants are much less combustible than woody ones. An added bonus of planting Lomandra Tropicbelle is the fragrance of its flowers, which bloom at length from spring into summer. Lomandra spreads by rhizomes and so you can propagate it easily enough by division and so expand its reach throughout your garden. Lomandra grows to three feet tall.
For the next layer of fire-retardant plants, moving up vertically, you will definitely want to take a look at pearl bluebush (Maireana sedifolia), whose columnar branches may reach a height of six feet and remind you of stalagmites. Few succulent plants are native to Australia but pearl bluebush is often classified in that category. Depending on the light at any particular moment, the fleshy leaves of this plant — tiny and packed closely together along the stem — appear white or grey, typically with a hint of blue. Pearl bluebush is a tough plant, capable of handling most soil types and accepting full sun to partial shade, depending on how hot your summer waxes. It is also tolerant of temperatures down to 20 degrees.
Pearl bluebush is endemic — meaning its native range is confined to one place on earth — to the southerly portion of western Australia’s Outback known as Nullarbor Plain, a region that annually receives an average of only 7 1/2 inches of rain, exactly half of the Los Angeles annual average of 15 inches. Thus, once bluebush is established in your Southern California garden, you will never have to water it — although it does grow faster and more lush with water. Then again, if you want it to live for 300 years, an age that it has been known to reach in its habitat, you would be wise to be quite stingy with its water allotment as it is highly sensitive to any standing water in its root zone, from which it will quickly die. Because of its silvery-blue sheen, bluebush goes well with virtually any garden design scheme and will bring out the luster in any plants with lush green foliage and vivid blooms.
Grevilleas, while not as fire retardant as Lomoandra or pearl bluebush, are also recommended for firescaping. Grevilleas are sometimes referred to as spider flowers due to their curvaceous stamens that simulate the long, jointed appendages of certain spiders. They typically appear as woody ground covers or shrubs but may also reach the stature of small trees. Silk oak (Grevillea robusta), noted for its distinctive orange flower combs and are probably the first trees to bloom in the new year, can reach a height of 60 feet.
O’Connell recommends trees with smooth bark for firescaping purposes. Outstanding among this group are the bottle trees. They are possessed with rubbery, hydrophobic trunks that allow them to withstand lengthy periods of drought and serve admirably as fire-retardant species. Common bottle tree (Brachychiton populneus) has delicate, kinetic foliage and been compared to that of a quaking poplar; Queensland bottle tree (Brachychiton rupestris) displays a plump trunk that appears as watertight as a trunk could be; flame tree (Brachychiton acerifolius) has brilliant, waxy red flowers; lacebark (Brachychiton discolor) shows off small pink flower cups.
While we have been speaking up until now of fire-retardant plants, fire-tolerant plants must also be mentioned. These are plants that burn to the ground but grow back up when the fire is gone. Most malees (a eucalyptus category) have lignotubers that allow them to send up new growth after a fire. Lignotubers are found among Banksias, those Australian natives with thick flower cylinders, cork oaks (Quercus suber), coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), ginkgo trees, camphor trees, and bay laurels (Laurus nobilis).
“Leaning Toward Light” (Storey Publishing) is a newly published collection of quirky garden poems edited by Tess Taylor. Recipes that include fresh-picked garden vegetables are included. A poem I found particularly amusing, penned by Danusha Lameris and titled “Feeding the Worms,” includes this line: “Ever since I found out that earthworms have taste buds all over the delicate pink strings of their bodies, I pause dropping apple peels into the compost bin, imagine the dar,k writhing ecstasy, the sweetness of apples permeating their pores.”
A hibiscus show and sale will be held at Sherman Gardens in Corona del Mar on September 30th and October 1st. For more information, go to thesherman.org/calendar.
California native of the week: Anacapa Pink California morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia ssp. macrostegia var. Anacapa Pink) is a rampantly growing vine that rivals morning glory itself for its capacity to cover fences in rapid fashion. It has a long flowering period and may also be used as a ground cover. Like the familiar morning glory to which it is related, it will self-sow and can become something of a garden pest. However, where it has no competition and cannot wind its way around neighboring plants, it can provide quick coverage of an unsightly fence or large expanse of bare ground.
If you have any fire-retardant or fire-tolerant plants to recommend, based on personal experience, please let me know about them. You are always welcome to send questions, comments, and photos to email@example.com.
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