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April 20, 2015

Plants: Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

Before I began working at Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, I worked for the Bureau of Land Management in New Mexico. My job title, Land Management & Conservation Intern, gave little indication of what I really did every day, which was drive around southern New Mexico collecting seeds of native flowers and grasses. It remains poetic and pastoral sounding to me still, and it generally was except for the amount of time I spent driving to sites in my gas-guzzling government truck. Many of my collecting sites were in the Chihuahuan desert, the huge expanse of arid land from New Mexico dropping into ol’ Mexico. I love deserts but many people don’t, because they see a flat, dead surface. When I look at deserts I see a flourishing, diverse array of flora – albeit a temperamental one dependent on seasons. It’s easy to love lush forests, thunderous rivers, breathtaking valleys and tall mountains. It’s harder to love deserts because you have to look much closer to see the life and color. Almost everything is small, from the plants to the animals. But everything is so tenacious and resistant and unwilling to die from the heat and dryness! I’ve always favored the underdog and it’s no different when it comes to biomes. Desert plants have become so well adapted to their environment that some will even die if the elements get too cushy (like overwatered).

Why am I talking about deserts? Because there is so much to learn and appreciate in these barren places.  Like that plants change with the seasons and they aren’t always beautiful and lush. Or that some plants have amazing adaptations like silvery foliage or waxy leaves that reduce their need for water. Or that small can be beautiful.

Not all of California is a desert (as some are fond of saying), but neither is it the East Coast or the United Kingdom, areas we have tried to emulate in our landscaping, a.k.a. lawns. There is such a beautiful diversity of Californian and Southwestern native plants well acclimated to our hot and drought-prone environment, that thrived before we ripped them up to lay sod. Blah, blah, blah – you’ve heard this chatter all before, the lawn is the enemy, it’s been drilled into your brain by now and for that I’m sorry. I don’t want the lawn to be the enemy, it’s good for many activities and serves a functional purpose. I want people to PREFER native landscapes over turf grass. I want there to be a shift in what’s considered beautiful. Perhaps you’ve walked around your neighborhood and passed by a house without a lawn but with a variety of colorful plants of different textures, heights and smells.  I find such a yard so engaging and fun to look at and I hope other people feel the same. Maybe people will become more interested if they have more information. Yes, you are supposed to stop flooding your native plants in the summer and they will look dead, that’s what’s supposed to happen. But what a treat when it that brown bush is flush with green foliage after the first fall rain?  Egad, a season!

It will take time, better information and a lot of discussion to change people’s perspective about native plants. The drought has gifted us (if you want to call it that) with a great opportunity to open this discussion with other neighborhoods and friends. It will definitely require a shift in mentality and our ideas about beauty, but change is always possible! 

Kate Wilkins
Garden Coordinator
Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services

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