Debbie Arrington

Birds, bees keep UC Davis Arboretum buzzing; plant sale Saturday

Cape balsam is one of the original Arboretum All-Stars.
Cape balsam is one of the original Arboretum All-Stars. Sacramento Bee file

Spring always is a busy time at the Arboretum Teaching Nursery on the UC Davis campus. But lately, the place really is humming – and buzzing, too.

“There are so many hummingbirds, it’s unbelievable,” said Ellen Zagory, the arboretum’s director of public horticulture. “We have these really beautiful red columbine with long spurs; their long necks are full of nectar and the hummingbirds love them.

“Just this week, the hoverflies and honeybees started to come out,” she added. “They like it when it’s warm and not windy. We’re seeing so many native insects in the gardens.”

Located on Garrod Drive near the small-animal veterinary hospital, the teaching nursery is ringed by pollinator-friendly demonstration gardens that show off the many water-wise plants offered at its sales. Recent warm weather has brought out an exceptional display of spring flowers.

“The redbuds and the earlier ceanothus (California lilac) are blooming together; that’s super unusual,” Zagory said. “The deep blue Concha ceanothus is in full bloom and absolutely gorgeous. The Mutabilis rose looks really beautiful. A lot of the perennials are just at the beginning of their bloom and they look great, too.”

Visitors can see for themselves – and perhaps find some new favorites to take home – during the nursery’s first public sale of the year, on Saturday, April 2. Hundreds of drought-tolerant flowering plants will be available. Also on hand will be master gardeners and other volunteers who can offer advice and suggestions on how to make the most of these water-wise alternatives to traditional turf-heavy landscaping.

Prompted by California’s prolonged drought, the whole UC Davis campus has gradually transitioned from lots of lawn to water-wise alternatives. For example, a mile of median along La Rue Road was replanted with California deergrass, pine muhly, dwarf miscanthus and other drought-proof grasses. The campus not only saves on water, but maintenance. These grasses need mowing just once a year.

“We’re getting the last of the mowing done,” Zagory said. “The grasses are all popping right back up, and look at this beautiful bright green.”

Zagory has seen a transformation in the community, too, as more homeowners replace lawns with something else. That includes many plants tested and suggested by the arboretum as part of its popular Arboretum All-Stars or other series.

“All over Davis, I’ve been seeing yellow and orange bulbine (cape balsam), a plant we featured in the original All-Stars,” Zagory said. “It’s just beautiful. This spring, it’s blooming with big, full-bloom bursts of color. And it’s super drought-tolerant; you hardly have to water it at all.”

For this sale, the teaching nursery has a great selection of plants for dry or partial shade, both problematic locations for many drought-tolerant plants.

“For this sale, we have several Tiarella (or foamflowers),” Zagory said. “They’re like Heuchera or coral bells with a wide selection of colored foliage. Tiarella are kind of delicate looking, but they’re tough and do surprisingly well in dry shade.”

So do coral bells, which come in many new varieties as well as familiar favorites. That colorful foliage offers garden interest year round.

“We also have a good selection of hybrid hellebores, which love dry shade,” she said. “Most people are familiar with the (green-flowered) Corsican hellebore, but we have some with silver foliage or variegated or dark maroon or light pink flowers. And the hummingbirds took nectar from them, too.”

Arboretum plant sale

Where: Arboretum Teaching Nursery, Garrod Drive, UC Davis

When: 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday, April 2

Admission: Free

Details: 530-752-4880,

Note: Additional spring sales will be held April 23 and May 14.