“Be a good Californian; be loyal to your own state and keep your landscape Californian, by planting trees from California.”

—Theodore Payne

The Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants, off the 210 in Sun Valley, is a nonprofit education center and retail nursery offering California native plants and seeds.

Theodore Payne (1873-1963) was born in England, moved to California in 1893, worked for a time as head gardener for the renowned Madame Modjeska in Orange County, and in 1903, opened his first nursery and seed store in Downtown Los Angeles. In 1906, he opened his second store, and in 1922, he moved to 10 acres on Los Feliz Boulevard in Atwater Village across from what is now the Tam O’Shanter restaurant and lounge. 

By all accounts, a classy, gentle man, Payne introduced more than 430 native plants into cultivation. He also helped to develop many Southern California private landscapes, as well as public gardens, including a short-lived, five-acre “Wild Garden” in what is now Exposition Park; Descanso Gardens in La Ca√±ada Flintridge; and the Rancho Santa Ana (now in Claremont) and Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens. 

The foundation website reports that he and Alice, his wife of 56 years, “found the orchid-flowered clarkia” (now there must have been a moment!), and that an especially beautiful lupine — Lupinus paynei — is named after him.

The foundation offers, among much else, the Theodore Payne archives (the staff still uses his scales to weigh seeds), a native plant database, a speakers’ bureau, lectures, classes, a Wild Flower Hotline, an Annual Garden Tour, an art gallery and a store.

Recently, I attended a four-hour Saturday morning class there entitled “California Native Plant Horticulture.” Instructor Lili Singer is an award-winning horticulturist, educator, editor and garden writer who for more than a decade hosted “The Garden Show” on KCRW. She started working with her father, a self-taught horticulturist, as a teenager. She began accompanying him on plant-collecting expeditions to Baja California, and by age 22 she was hooked.

Lili’s vast knowledge and experience were coupled with a delightful sense of curiosity, fun and adventure. Clad in jeans, a gingham shirt and comfortable shoes, she was all invitation. “Don’t worry about mispronouncing the botanical names!” she assured us (though FYI, the general rule of thumb is to put the emphasis on the third-to-last syllable) and “Give yourself permission to start small.” She gave us a solid grounding in the basics of identifying, selecting and gardening with native plants, along with resources, a reading list and a planting guide. 

California is home to 6,500 native plant species, subspecies and varieties — more than all the other continental states combined.

Other interesting facts: Not all native plants are drought-tolerant and vice versa. Nonetheless, once established in a garden, drought-tolerant California native plants use, on average, one-seventh the water of most non-natives.

Native plants have learned to thrive in soil that is less than “ideal” — plus there is no ideal. Soil is what it is! says Lili. Clay is clay, sand is sand. I was surprised to learn that amending the soil — even with compost — is thus unnecessary.

The reasons to use native plants are many.

You preserve the harmony and balance of the ecosystem. You will be an ARK!

Native plants attract birds, butterflies and wildlife. You will start your own zoo.

Native plants are beautiful, fragrant and reduce pesticide use and your carbon footprint. 

After the first year or so, a native plant garden requires less maintenance than a traditional garden.

I loved Lili’s philosophy of making do with whatever’s at hand. For hardscape, use old logs, broken concrete and fencing material that is already on your property.

When you plant, space according to the size of a mature plant. Pruning is a wound. Nothing is more charming or beautiful than a plant that has grown naturally.

Learn to love insects — insects are our friends!

By the end of the class, I was ready to buy several gallon pots of hummingbird sage, St. Catherine’s Lace, coyote mint and mock orange and go to town in my Pasadena backyard.

But native plants are best planted in the fall, during the cooler months. They’re also best bought as close to the time of planting as possible.

So instead, I will educate myself further. Per Lili, I will assess my climate, soil, light, space, wind and “needs” (a shady pergola! a place to drink iced coffee and read!). I will start planning my site like a reasonable, sane person.

Before leaving, I took a tour of the comfortably sprawling nursery. There were sections called Sun-Loving Perennials, Desert Plants, Riparian/Shade, Butterfly Garden, Vines, Chaparral Shrubs, Grasses and Tree Yard.

Then I took a short hike up Wildflower Hill — “Watch for rattlesnakes!” — which was bone-dry and offered a commanding view of the surrounding neighborhood and smelled pleasantly of sage.

“I made up my mind that I would try to do something to awaken greater interest in the native flowers,” said Theodore Payne.

He had certainly awakened mine.

Heather King is a blogger, speaker and the author of several books.