by Agke Grow
photography by Jen Newman

With the mission of saving water, Dr. Robert Neher, University of La Verne professor of biology, dug up his entire front yard about 10 years ago and replanted it with drought tolerant plants, such as agaves, native palms and Manzanita. / photo by Jen Newman

With the mission of saving water, Dr. Robert Neher, University of La Verne professor of biology, dug up his entire front yard about 10 years ago and replanted it with drought tolerant plants, such as agaves, native palms and Manzanita. / photo by Jen Newman

It is the middle of July. Mercury in thermometers stretch well past 100 degrees in the shade. The hot breeze is enough to make the rocks sweat. In the cloudless sky, the sun is merciless. And in Dr. Robert Neher’s garden, the plants are enjoying the great weather.

His front yard is entirely made up of native and drought-resistant plants, which can survive without any human assistance. Biologically adapted to handle wet winters and dry summers, these energy-efficient plants are beautiful and need only a sip of water to get by.

But many choose to discount their beauty since they are not green year-round. “Everyone wants a nice green yard,” says Dr. Neher, chair of the natural sciences division at the University of La Verne. “You can do it, but it takes a real expenditure of energy. By energy, I also mean water, because you have to spend a lot of energy to get it here.”

His garden is not quite as lush as the front yards surrounding his, but it is an attractive landscape nonetheless. Absent are exotic flowers, foreign vines, or Midwestern vegetation. Instead, Dr. Neher has planted a number of native plants, including palms, some Sugar Brush and short-trailing Manzanitas, as well as some drought-resistant plants such as Organ Pipe Cacti, native to Arizona and agaves. He explains that landscaping with natives “actually doesn’t look bad at all until you start polluting it. When you have paper and trash and cans over it, like we see too often, you look at that and say to yourself, ‘that really looks ugly.’ But in more pristine areas of desert, like you see in Joshua Tree, you realize that it can really be quite beautiful.”

That beauty is augmented by the fact that the plants are not sponging water like a traditional turf-and-tree yard does. “We’re living in a desert and using water and growing plants that belong in a more semi-arid, tropical region,” says Dr. Neher. “There’s nothing wrong with that if you don’t mind spending all that energy and all that water to grow them. And we put out huge amounts of energy to grow them and to get them where we are today. It’s a very, very wasteful lifestyle,” he says.

As he strolls around the La Verne campus observing the exotic flora that adorns the planters, Dr. Neher points out that almost none could survive without human caretakers. “There’s nothing here that’s native,” he observes. “The lilies are probably from Africa. These plants are from Brazil-these jacarandas. The Scotch Pines, they’re not even from this country. This tulip tree is from the Midwest. It never would have grown here by itself. The grass is Kentucky Bluegrass and Quack Grass. Various ivies you see around campus wouldn’t survive a year without watering. Even though we get 14 or 15 inches of rainfall as an average here, it falls just during the winter.”

As far as the dangers of introducing foreign plants into the environment, Dr. Neher considers the area lucky that a particularly hardy and prolific species has not taken hold and spread across the foothills, like Kudzu did in the South. Imported from Korea to prevent erosion, the plant began to grow out of control and displaced dozens of native species. “We’re fortunate that we don’t have more of those here,” cautions Dr. Neher. “Up at our field station in Montana, we have this plant called Knapweed. It is the perfect weed. It’s come in and covered fields. You can’t kill the stuff, and you can’t pull it up easily with its huge taproot. It’s covered millions of acres up in Montana, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.” He also warns that some plants, such as the oleander around the ULV track, are highly toxic. “Don’t chew the leaves,” warns Dr. Neher. “They’re really poisonous. I mean, they’ll kill you.”

Another danger in introducing exotic plants with high water needs is the fact that the large amount of water residents pour on the soil can potentially alter the environment.”We’re really somewhat changing the weather by how much water we’re putting in the air,” says Dr. Neher. “We’re changing the climate a little bit as a result of this. We’re putting literally millions of gallons of water into the atmosphere as well as the ground. That’s going to have some effect on the Angeles [National Forest].”

Such a climate change could potentially ruin certain native plants’ chances for survival, and the potential for a fundamental altering of the food chain could be the end result in an extreme circumstance. Despite the dangers of using exotic plants for landscaping, few people consider using natives instead. Dr. Neher feels the main reason for that is familiarity. Many Southern California residents were born and raised in the Midwest and East, and when they buy homes, they landscape the yards with what they saw there.

“People lived in other parts on the world, came here, and this doesn’t look very green. They want it to look as much like where they came from as possible,” says Dr. Neher. “There’s even a difference in the way different ethnic groups treat their landscaping around their houses. For my ethnic group, it’s almost heretical if you decide to pull up your grass and plant desert plants. With people who lived in desert areas, such as the Latino population, you find the ground isn’t covered with grass. You’ve got cactus and agave growing in the yard. There’s a real difference in the way people perceive the way a yard looks like.”

Desert yards are inherently adept at surviving drought, and the lack of a thirsty groundcover plant means less watering and no mowing. Not only does learning to appreciate and grow a desert landscape increase our ability to perceive beauty, but it saves water as well. And somewhere down the line, people in Southern California are going to wish they had all that water we are pouring on the ground today.

“If we project at all, we realize that we’re really going to run out of water. There’s no question about it. We’re depending on water from everywhere around us: the Colorado River, the Owens River Valley, and the Feather River Project. We also pump a little out of the ground, but that’s a relatively small amount compared to what we need to survive here. Here, we are in the desert, and it looks like we’re in the tropics.”

Three miles east of Dr. Neher’s home, it still looks lush, green and fertile. Yellow Verbesia flowers reflect up off a pond, which is nestled between bushes flowering red and orange. Large pines tower around the bushes, shrouding the treasure from unalert passers-by. Of course, most people walking by are on the lookout for the beautiful plants, all native to California, at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (RSABG). Established in 1927, the garden is nestled in the center of Claremont, on a historic Native American settlement. Of RSABG’s 86 acres, 83 are devoted to gardens and collections boasting more than 2,800 species, including 299 rare or endangered species.

At the entrance to the garden, the plant arrangement is composed of “cultivars,” native plants that have a look that appeals to John Dolan, lead gardener at RSABG. He explains how the plants are born. “These plants are cultivated by cuttings. All these plants are reproduced by making clones. This garden is more or less what we try to encourage people to do; take away these plants and work them into their landscape. They look good, and they’re California natives.” Dolan is not optimistic about the widespread implementation of these plants in people’s landscaping plans. “I’ve worked in gardens for 20 years,” he reveals. “There’s always some people who are interested, and then there’s always – I would say 98 percent of the population- those who don’t even know what the hell’s going on. So it’s hard. We have an education department. We have our research and development department. We’re constantly trying to bring these into the public’s eye. You’re always introducing new people, but there’s millions of people out there who don’t have a clue.”

Dolan points out that although some native plants are hard to keep healthy through the summer, as they are susceptible to soil pathogens if overwatered, ignorance is the main roadblock keeping native plants out of front yards. The general population is rather unaware of the proper channels to select, obtain and care for natives. RSABG offers classes to teach people these skills. Dolan says native plants are sometimes unpopular because of the way they deal with summer drought. For example, some species are deciduous, like Buckeyes. Instead of shedding leaves in the winter, like many plants do to avoid freezing, deciduous plants shed their leaves in the late summer to minimize water transpiration. This makes them look unattractive to some.

In some areas of the garden, wildlife has found its way to an appropriate habitat. In other cases, wildlife was introduced, most recently by Dr. Lee Lenz, director emeritus at RSABG.

“Dr. Lenz just introduced a moth that he found out in the wild that pollinates Yucca shedigera. He had noticed that over the whole time that he had been here, these yucca had never produced seeds.” Out in the field, Dr. Lenz noticed moth larvae among the yucca and deduced that they were the pollinators. “He brought some fruits infested with the larvae, and he put them all around that type of yucca that we have in the garden. We’ll see next year whether we have succeeded in pollinating them.”

One of the main concerns Dolan has with exotic landscaping is that it compounds the problem of habitat destruction from development. “As we develop more and more into the chaparral, there’s less and less chaparral. Our gardens we carry in our houses are displacing all the native plants. It’s only a matter of time before it’s gone.” Some plant communities have already disappeared. There have been instances of plants that people have collected, like wildflowers; then they’ve been back the following year, and the area’s an apartment complex.”

A case study in development encroaching on local plant communities can be found in vernal pools. Vernal pools are puddles that occur in the spring after the winter rains. A unique flora grows in those puddles, a flora that occurs nowhere else in the world. These pools and the plants that come with them are now endangered due to land development. “After the rains, the puddle’s wet. As the puddle dries, everything goes to flower, goes to seed, and then it disappears. It looks like nothing’s there,” says Dolan. But the vernal pools happen in prime areas for development, because the pools occur on flat expanses of land. “So people come in, ‘doze it, build a condo, and something’s gone, just like that,” sighs Dolan. We’ve found it’s very difficult to maintain [vernal pools]. We can’t duplicate the way it’s done.”

Duplication of nature can take place, though, with xeriscaped yards with plants that sip instead of gulping water. It all adds up to a yard one can enjoy, and a water bill one can pay without wincing.