In the movies, Rene Russo's tenacity and infectious laugh have melted the hearts of tough guys Mel Gibson and Pierce Brosnan. Now she's leading a real-life crusade to save her hometown's true heritage: its indigenous plants.
By Susan J. Tweit
At the end of a lane in the Santa Monica Mountains outside Los Angeles, an ocher retaining wall topped with native sandstone rises above the road but doesn't quite conceal the quiet revolution in landscaping taking place behind it. The plants that spill over the wall in colorful profusion are native to these steep canyons: Cedros Island snapdragon with vivid scarlet flowers; silver-gray mats of hummingbird sage; rosettes of spiky foothill yucca, and succulent dudleya; California wild grape; ceanothus with wrinkled green foliage and snow-white blossoms; coast tassel bush; and a California sycamore with patchwork bark.
For the past century southern Californians have been replacing these “weeds” with every exotic imaginable, from Cuban palms to South African calla lilies, transforming the region and inadvertently eliminating habitat for many wildlife species. Now the natives have a champion in actress Rene Russo, the smart and sexy star of such box office hits as Lethal Weapon 3, Tin Cup, and The Thomas Crown Affair.
Russo is so passionate about southern California's natural heritage that she is rooting out the exotic plants and restoring the natives on the two and a half acres she owns with her husband, screenwriter Dan Gilroy. This landscaping ethic, often called wildscaping, aims to restore habitat and honor the character of the site by relying on indigenous plants and those nonnatives adapted to the local conditions and friendly to wildlife. It also avoids the use of pesticides, fertilizer, and supplemental water.
The slim and elegant actress with titian highlights in her dark curling hair has played strong female roles, winning over tough guys Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, and Pierce Brosnan. Her latest role may be equally challenging: advocate for a campaign to convince gardeners to embrace native plants in a region better known as the home of Hollywood than as the home of California holly, the indigenous shrub that is the town's namesake.
Russo had no idea of the scale of the project she would be getting into when she toured a ridgetop house with a mountain view six years ago. An expanse of water-hungry green lawn and weeping willows made the place look, as Russo puts it, “like Connecticut” rather than the southern California chaparral and woodland she had always admired. But something about the site with the steep slope dropping to a canyon felt right.
After purchasing the place, Russo discovered a huge, multibranched California buckeye tree hidden in the dense growth of exotics. When the buckeye lost its leaves that summer, Russo, fearing the tree was dying, called arborists for advice. The third one she spoke to said bluntly: “It's a native. That's what they do in summer.” (Summer is the dry season in southern California; the rains that green—and sometimes flood—these semi-arid landscapes come in winter.) He recommended landscaper Stephanie Wilson Blanc, an independent garden designer specializing in native plants and habitat restoration, to inventory the property before Russo, who loved native plants but knew nothing about them, began making changes.
As soon as Blanc looked beyond the lawn and weeping willows, she recognized the source of the property's appeal: a grove of native coast live oaks nearly buried in what Russo describes as “a jungle” of exotic trees and shrubs spawned by previous owners' plantings. The twisted trunks of the live oaks triggered a memory from Russo's childhood: “There was a street I loved to walk on because of the trees. They were just so beautiful and, I guess, peaceful.” Her connection to those sheltering trees, Russo realized, stemmed from the fact that they were part of the very fabric of the place because they were natives—like the grove of live oaks, like the beautiful buckeye that had led her to Blanc, and like Russo herself.
Thus was rekindled Russo's love affair with southern California's neglected heritage—its indigenous plants. She and Blanc embarked on a mission to save her live oaks, nearly drowned by overwatering and half strangled by the vines of invasive vinca and English ivy, and by thickets of exotic sweet gum, pittosporum, Brazilian pepper, and bottlebrush trees.
The first step was to quit watering. As Blanc reminded Russo, the native plants were adapted to essentially two alternating seasons: rain in winter and drought in summer. Next they set to work evicting alien plants, including at least 150 trees, with the help of a crew that included Russo's husband. As they stopped flooding the soil and eliminated invaders, sprouts of toyon, flowering gooseberry, and other natives emerged, “just as if they were waiting to come back,” says Russo. “The land knew what to do.”
So Russo and Blanc followed its guidance. They watered sparingly and only in the driest times, and planted clumps of native shrubs and wildflowers with names that evoke California's Spanish heritage: manzanita and osoberry, both from the Spanish for their fruits—the first looking like little apples (manzana); the second, beloved of bears (oso)—along with Catalina perfume, mountain mahogany, chaparral honeysuckle, and coast tassel bush.
To mimic the pools in native dry streambeds and increase habitat diversity without wasting water, Blanc designed “watering rocks,” shallow basins cut in the tops of sandstone boulders that are flushed twice daily by an automatic system. Since the region averages only about 16 inches of precipitation a year and must import water from as far away as the Colorado River to supplement its meager local supply, the rock pools had to be efficient. Each holds less than a cup of water, yet even that small amount creates runoff that nurtures seep areas for moisture-loving natives, including red twig dogwood, California maidenhair fern, stream orchid, and yerba buena.
Wandering the path that crisscrosses the steep slope under the dappled shade of the coast live oaks one February morning with Blanc, Russo picks a sprig of leaves from a bush sage, inhales its pungent aroma, and hands it to me. “There's not much in bloom now,” she says. Still, we find the dark-red flower tassels of Catalina perfume, the just-opened buds of white-flowering currant, and one early blue-violet spray of mountain lilac.
As we scuff through oak-leaf litter next to dry-laid sandstone retaining walls, Russo exults over both the shiny new leaves on a mahonia that was slow to take hold and the sprouts on a Catalina cherry, as proud as any mother showing off her brood. She points out a woodland strawberry bearing a few starry white flowers, and a mahogany and gold blossom of a Douglas iris.
We stop to watch a ruby-crowned kinglet foraging for insects in the branches of a large California bay laurel. A male Anna's hummingbird chatters nearby, defending his patch of Cedros Island snapdragon blossoms.
“The other day I was just sitting in the lupines watching these big black bumblebees doing their stuff and there was this scream—keeeeer, ” Russo says. “There, overhead, were two red-tailed hawks.” Shading her eyes, she looks up at the sky. “It was magic. I have always loved the plants, but I didn't understand that by bringing them back I'd get the birds and other wildlife, too.”
One day in 2002, the driest year on record in southern California, Russo and Blanc attended an event at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden in Claremont, a facility devoted to showcasing California's thousands of native plant species. There Russo met Adán Ortega Jr., then vice-president of external affairs for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a cooperative of 26 cities and water agencies serving 18 million people from Ventura County to the Mexican border.
As they talked about the persistent drought and the opportunity it provided to educate people about saving water, they realized they shared a passion for native California. Growing up in east Los Angeles, Ortega remembers discovering the incredible wetlands at a Malibu Canyon camp for inner-city kids. He also recalls walking to school up a hill with a patch of native brush that “most people would have called weeds.” The scrub looked dead most of the year, but after the winter rain, it came alive with blossoms that would draw “huge swarms” of butterflies. Since the vegetation was converted to lawn long ago, the butterflies flutter only in Ortega's memory. “I miss them,” he says.
Ortega told Russo that exotic landscaping and excessive watering were not only harming native plants and wildlife, they were also affecting the region's native people. He recalled meeting the treasurer of the Pachanga Mission Indians, who mentioned her concern about the extinction of the native sages, which were sacred to her people. Ortega connected that to the loss of critical habitat for southern California wildlife, including the threatened coastal California gnatcatcher.
In his work for the Metropolitan Water District, Ortega had begun shaping an effort to motivate landowners and developers to conserve water used in landscaping, which accounted for nearly half of domestic water use in the district. He was searching for a way to connect water conservation to restoring the region's sages and other native vegetation.
By the end of their conversation Russo and Ortega had agreed to cooperate, and within months they had convened a forum including builders, the water district, environmental groups, and native-plant enthusiasts. Out of that effort came the California Landscape Heritage Campaign, a drive to educate nurseries, landscapers, developers, and homeowners about native species and “California-adapted species,” those exotics that thrive in California's climate without crowding out natives. People could thus save water and help replant southern California's vanishing indigenous habitat, yard by yard.
With Russo lending her passion for native plants to the project as an advocate, and with Ortega persuading the Metropolitan Water District to invest its financial resources and political muscle, the Landscape Heritage Campaign soon took off. Home-improvement stores such as Home Depot and Lowe's, as well as Armstrong Garden Centers and other regional nurseries, now feature California native flora. Large developers are joining the effort, too, touting model homes landscaped with native and California-adapted plant species, and, in one case, an entire development designed to integrate with the surrounding vegetation, rather than replacing it, which has been the norm in southern California.
Last year Metropolitan Water awarded $750,000 to community-based organizations, including the Buena Vista chapter of the Audubon Society, which is working in cooperation with the city of Oceanside. The funds are for landscaping in public places using native and “California-friendly” plants. In 2003, the first year of the Landscape Heritage Campaign, Russo, who helped conceive of the grant idea, assisted in giving out the awards. In April 2005 Russo earned an award of her own when Audubon California gave her its Audubon At Home Award for creating a sustainable, healthier habitat for plants, birds, and other wildlife.
Back at home, the actress is engaged in an improvement project of a different sort: remodeling her house with environment-friendly, nonflammable materials such as native sandstone, and earth-tone stucco and concrete that will protect against wildfire and complement the ridgetop view. The construction gave Blanc the opportunity to try out a new idea: a formal garden surrounding the house that would restore habitat while appealing to those who don't like the “natural” look.
Terraces below the remodeled house, for example, will be edged with hedges evoking a clipped Mediterranean garden. But instead of traditional boxwood, a water-thirsty exotic, Blanc plans to plant a drought-tolerant, low-growing form of manzanita to attract native butterflies and bees.
Like every garden, Russo's landscape is a work in progress. Still to come is a small lawn watered by “gray water” reused from sinks and washing machines and a cistern system that will collect rainwater. She also has plans for a small orchard under-planted with native wildflowers to attract pollinating bees in order to increase fruit production. But the first goal of Russo's landscaping project has already been accomplished: The coast live oak grove is thriving. And the whole property is so easy to care for, Russo admits, as she stoops to tug a weed out of a particularly vivid patch of blue lupine and orange California poppies, she tends it herself.
Walking down a set of sandstone steps with Blanc, Russo stops to look back over her shoulder. “It's a good thing I met Stephanie,” she says with her trademark full-bodied laugh. “Or I would still be pulling up toyon [also called California holly, for its evergreen, hollylike leaves and clusters of bright red berries] and overwatering my oaks.” She points up at the still-bare slope. “That was full of toyon, and I pulled most of it out—I've never told her before.”
Blanc smiles indulgently. “True-confession time,” she says.
Farther down the path, Russo grows serious as she points to a grove of toyon on the slope across the gully on a neighbor's property. A big eucalyptus tree, native to Australia, and a good-size South African pittosporum tower over the thicket.
“They'll shade out the toyon,” she says. “You should see the masses of birds that feed on the berries in the winter. They just flock in there.”
“I'm going to see if they'll let me cut those down,” she says. “I'll ask nicely.
“And if they say no,” she pauses, her blue eyes alight with mischief, “maybe they'll just blow over some night in a winter storm.”
Moments later she peers down into the gully, pointing to a red-flowering clump of shrubs. “See the currant I planted last year? It's really taking off,” she says. “Isn't that beautiful? It's like the land was just waiting for us to treat it right.”
© 2005 National Audubon Society
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