Column: Responding to a growing love for native plants

There was a time when selling plants native to Southern California was like trying to get homeowners to buy weeds.

Today, as hearts and minds listen more to the natural world, Jose Cohen scrambles to meet the wholesale demand for native plants that have often been suppressed by garden enthusiasts keen to landscap with thirsty exotics.

As the new owner of the Moosa Creek Nursery in Valley Center, Cohen is pleased with the growing attention to native plants.

“It wasn’t that long ago that people were just removing native plants from their property as if they were weeds,” he said.

But that has changed.

Jose Cohen, owner of the Moosa Creek Nursery in Valley Center, with his “weeds”.

(Ernie Cowan)

Now homeowners concerned with conserving water, attracting birds, bees, butterflies and wildlife are clamoring for native plants.

The nearly 400 species Moosa Creek offers include everything from aquatic ground cover to native trees and decorative shrubs that attract birds, butterflies, and rabbits, and require little to no additional watering. They are supposed to be here.

Many plants in Moosa Creek are grown from seeds, either purchased commercially, often collected from private property, or obtained from plant hobbyists who have legally gathered from the wild.

Recently, on a warm spring morning, I enjoyed chatting with Cohen and two of his key employees in the gaping shade of an old wisteria vine, one of Moosa Creek’s few non-natives.

It didn’t take long to realize that they are more about the heart than the bones of the native plant trade.

Cohen is new to native plants. He was born in Mexico City and was in the orchid business, in addition to importing vegetables.

He moved to San Diego, where he discovered the growing interest in native plants and maintaining the ecosystem. This led him to buy the nursery founded 10 years ago by Hank and Su Kraus when they couldn’t find any native plants to sell. They are retired now, but Su Kraus still serves as the “knowledge base” for the company.

Today, the Moosa Creek wholesale business supplies 17 Southern California nurseries, including 10 in San Diego County. Check out the Moosa Creek website, moosacreeknursery.com, for a list of the local nurseries they provide.

Karen Parke is the manager and calls herself the “pest scout” at Moosa Creek. She is certainly a “native plant nerd”.

“I’ve learned a lot since I started, and the only plant I knew at the time was a poppy,” she said.

She was from the office supply industry, but “I needed less stress and wanted to be outside,” Parke recalls.

Amid the fluttering butterflies, the chirping of birds, and the collection of native plants, she now has it.

Renee Murphy is Director of Sales and Marketing at Moosa Creek and left a long career in fashion to pursue a Masters in Plant Science.

“My heart needed nature,” she said.

While volunteering at a nature center in Orange County, she was shocked at how disconnected children were from nature and didn’t understand the importance of native plants.

“The kids loved learning about soil and plants and how the natives don’t take anything from the soil, but are all part of nature’s big puzzle,” she said.

This awareness is now seeping into home gardens, along with government regulations requiring that landscapes cleared for housing and highways be restored with native plants.

Rising water costs are also spurring interest in native plant gardens.

Local native plants thrive in a hot, arid environment. They have adapted to times of drought and extreme heat, while many exotics require enormous amounts of water to survive.

“In fact, the biggest problem with natives is that you can’t plant them near lawns because they get too much water,” Cohen said.

Native plants are also part of the larger ecosystem that helps wildlife thrive by providing the natural food, shelter, and nesting sites they need.

As the demand for native plants increases, it can be difficult to select the right ones. San Diego has a wide range of climates ranging from mild, humid coastal regions to hot, dry deserts. Not all native plants will grow well everywhere.

Parke suggests owners visit calscape.com, a great source of information, including the best places for growing, water requirements, and what birds, butterflies, and animals will be attracted to natives.

Once selected, the best time to plant is in the fall, so the natives are established when the spring growing season arrives.

Milkweed is one of the most requested plants because it is the host of monarch butterflies. Due to high demand, it is often out of stock and needs a special order.

Some of the more popular native species include sage, herbs, and roots used for medicinal purposes.

My expanding native plant garden on Mt. Whoville now has palo verde, brittlebush, monkey flower, manzanita, coffee, and lemonade berries. The two berry shrubs will attract birds and colorful moths. Manzanita has delicate lantern-like flowers, but also tiny apple-like berries that coyotes enjoy.

There are several species of brittlebush, and it is important to plant the right one, depending on the location. Desert species do not require additional watering, while bush sunflower is a brittle species more suited to coastal areas.

For homeowners looking to improve their habitat, attract more wildlife, and conserve water, native vegetation is one of the most important things to consider.

Fortunately, there is a place like Moosa Creek that sells weeds.

Email ernie@packtrain.com or visit erniesoutdoors.blogspot.com.


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