The spring equinox has come, and last week’s gentle rains are awakening the watersheds and plants that surround our homes.
The equinox has been a source of celebration and rituals for many cultures. To some, the spring equinox is sacred to dawn, youth, the Morning Star and the East. The Saxon goddess, Eostre, from whom we get the direction East and the holiday Easter, is a dawn goddess.
Just as the dawn is the time of new light, so the vernal equinox is the time of new life.
The Gardens at Heather Farm are unfolding with the new light, and soon the layers of color will bring many visitors to the garden. The first rains in February already have brought many of the California natives into bloom.
One beautiful bloomer that is often overlooked, tucked behind the bench in the waterfall garden, is Ribes speciosum.
Ribes is a member of the Grossulariaceae or gooseberry family, and California is home to 31 species and 11 varieties. The name Ribes is said to come from the Arabic word “ribas,” which refers to the acidic tasting fruit used by physicians.
There are two species of plants in this family; those with spines are called gooseberries, and those without are currants. All currants and gooseberries have flowers that hummingbirds love, fragrant foliage followed by blue-black fruit that is edible to both humans and birds, and some even have fall color.
Ribes speciosum, the fuchsia-flowered gooseberry, is the showiest with its cherry red fuchsialike flowers. Hummingbirds aren’t the only birds who love these plants. After flowering, the bright spiny fruits attract grosbeaks and mockingbirds.
The thorny branches grow 4 to 6 feet tall and wide. Give it a place in the garden where it won’t hurt children, or use as a barrier plant. Ribes loves morning sun and high shade. In the summer months without water, Ribes, like other native plants, will begin to rest, and as it does it will lose it leaves, making it a summer deciduous plant.
Ribes also can tolerate water, so it can be planted either in a garden that is totally dry, such as one under an oak, or in one that gets some irrigation.
A recently released book on natives, “Growing California Native Plants” by local author Katherine Greenberg (University of California Press, $26.95) is an updated version of that classic by Marjorie Schmidt, first published in 1980.
At that time for many gardeners there were few books written about natives that addressed the beginning steps of identifying native plants, evaluating them for use in a home garden and learning detailed techniques of propagation and culture. This new version is just as wonderful as the original and easy to use. It includes plants not in the first edition as well as options for companion plants.
This small book has the look and feel of a guidebook that can be easily transported while working in the garden or out hiking in the many open spaces that are in bloom with our beloved native plants.
— Patrice Hanlon