California Sketches: Hot, dry: Just right for native plants

07/07/2013 12:00 AM

08/23/2014 8:39 PM

Riding high in the cab of a mowing machine, John Anderson drives slowly. Baby quail run for their lives. Anderson's aim is to harvest native plants for seed, he tells me as he gives creatures time to flee from the spinning blades.

Anderson, a scientist and owner of Hedgerow Farms in Winters, is a pioneer in native plant restoration with years of methodical cultivation, matching seed from specific eco-regions to compatible sites in California. His land is a living laboratory for what he preaches, from hedgerows of rushes and dune sedges to salt grass, lupine and clover. He develops seed by selecting the best attributes of each species, rather than modifying them genetically, to return to fields and watersheds for weed and erosion control, water quality and habitat restoration.

What's so important about native plants when almost all of the plants in California are nonnative, all introduced since Europeans arrived? One answer: It's hot and it's getting hotter. Drought-tolerant native plants have thousands of years of adaptation to the extreme conditions that exist here. Second answer: Riparian plant species help Central Valley rivers flow naturally, critical to flood control and habitat preservation within our over-engineered landscapes.

Anderson walks into a field and wanders between rows of fuzzy milkweed and grasses. He picks a sample of grasses and rolls the seed in the palm of his weathered hand. He inspects plants for destructive invaders. A monarch butterfly lands on a milkweed, ignoring iridescent green beetles chewing. Sixty native species in rows of grasses and plants wait for harvest, seed separation, propagation and delivery. I ask him where the seeds and young plants go next. Restoration projects from the northern reaches of the Central Valley and farther south benefit from Anderson's decades of experimentation.

Near Red Bluff, a group of scientists floating on the Sacramento River observe restoration projects that are monitored and maintained by universities and various agencies. From shelters of mature cottonwoods and oaks to savannah grasses, we see species thriving. I count five bald eagles. Songbirds, an indicator species, are returning. Bank swallows, on the California list of threatened species, are nesting. Where riprap has been removed, the Sacramento River resumes its natural path through the Valley. A meandering river is a healthy river and one that nurtures a diverse ecosystem along and within its banks.

At the confluence of the San Joaquin and Tuolumne rivers, from a bluff overlooking other restoration sites, sandbar willow, black willow, creeping rye, evening primrose, cottonwood, box elder and valley oak flourish. Here, landowners are encouraged to remove old levees, to let the river meander. This is where Hedgerow Farm seeds and seedlings have come to grow. In a field amended with byproducts from nearby canneries, they prosper, selected to adapt to the area's frequent flooding.

Rivers and wetlands in the Central Valley are all about flood plain physics – velocity, sediment and diversity of wildlife habitat. State, federal and private entities collaborate all over California. The results of this science demonstrate that native plants can dominate nonnative plants that squander water, and that rivers can flow naturally, given space, within the confines of engineering. In partnership with nature, purposeful restoration can mitigate harm we've done on the human side.

To enjoy previous California Sketches, go to www.sacbee.com/CAsketches

To see more of Stephanie Taylor's art, go to www.stephanietaylorart.com Stephanie Taylor, a Sacramento artist, graduated from UCLA with a degree in history and a focus on political philosophy.

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