This section is from the book "How To Make A Flower Garden", by Wilhelm Miller. Also available from Amazon: The Well-Tended Perennial Garden: Planting and Pruning Techniques.
The beauty of many of our California wild flowers and their suitability for garden culture are not as well recognised by the horticulturist and garden-lovers of our own country as by those of other lands. In England, for example, no town or country garden would be considered complete without its "herbaceous border," containing among plants from other lands many of the charming flowers which make the California hills and plains, and even deserts, such a blaze of glory in the months of February, March, and April. Among these old-fashioned favourites is the golden orange Eschscholzia, or California poppy, usually grown in northern Europe as a summer annual. How well I remember the keen delight I took, in my boyhood days, in running out into the garden in the dewy hours of the June mornings to watch the little patches of Eschscholzia, sown by my mother's own hand, throw off their quaint nightcaps and show their rich, satiny petals at the first touch of the sun's rays, and the dainty little "baby blue-eyes," and the prettily spotted Nemophila maculata, drooping with the weight of glistening dew-drops, respond with a welcoming smile to the gentle caress of the sun.
Other summer annuals from far-off California always graced our flower beds - slender pink clarkia, gorgeous lilac godetia, blue lupine, pink calandrinia, the quaint, pink-and-white collinsia, called by California children "Chinese pagodas"; yellow collomia, dainty, white, pale-yellow or pinkish "meadow foam" (Flœrkia), bright little "birds' eyes" (Gilia tricolor), prim tidy-tips (layia), golden bartonia (Mentzelia Lindleyi), rich blue California bell-flower (Phacelia Whitlavia), and the delicately cream-coloured "cream-cups" (Platystemon Californicus).
In the shrubbery, also, California is represented among the earliest flowering shrubs of spring by the beautiful pendulous, pink racemes of the flowering currant, with its spicy odour, and the golden-flowered, evergreen mahonia.
I could easily describe a dozen other species which would grace the garden of the most fastidious lover of flowers, provided he is not wedded to the formal bedding-out style of gardening. I may only mention, however, the white forget-me-not (Plagiobothrys), with its fuzzy, warm bud-covering of rich-brown hairs: California children call it the "pop-corn flower," but the more poetic Spanish-Californians euphoniously named it Nievitas, the diminutive of nieve (snow). This is an annual plant, grown from seed, and, like the gilias, is found on the dry plains and hillsides of middle California. Singly, this plant is not showy, but sown in a mass it is wonderfully effective. Shooting stars (page 33) are charming spring flowers. There are three or four species in California. The plant is also called "mosquito bills," "wild cyclamen," "mad violets," "prairie-pointers," "pickler-bills," and "roosters' heads,' the latter name applied by boys with fighting propensities, who gather two stems, hook the flowers together, and pull to see which head will come off first. The most beautiful species of them all is Cleveland's shooting star (Dode-catheon Clevelandi), from southern California, blossoming in the early springtime, even before the baby blue-eyes are awake.
It sends up a tall shaft, crowned with a large cluster of beautiful blossoms, varying from a delicate lilac to pure white. The petals are ringed below with pale yellow, and the beak of the flower is a rich prune-purple. There is a generous, fine look about these flowers, although they are exquisitely delicate. Their charm is completed by delicious perfume, like that of the cultivated cyclamen.
Wintergreen and Indian pipe.
Shooting stars are perennial, tuberous-rooted plants, not difficult of cultivation if properly managed. They can be grown in pots, like the cyclamen, and dried off when the seeds mature and the leaves wither. They should then be kept dry until late in the following fall, when they may be gently watered and placed near the light if they are to be flowered in the house, or placed outside in the spring, care being taken not to allow them too much water. They should be protected from mice while dormant.
The beautiful prickly phlox, Gilia Californica, is a bushy perennial plant with densely fascicled needle-like leaves and masses of handsome pink or lilac flowers. The texture of the petals "is of the finest silk, with an exquisite sheen,' and the blossoms have a delicate fragrance. It grows on dry hills, or on the plains in dry, gravelly washes of torrential streams, in southern California and northward to Monterey. This plant has a peculiar charm for the traveller, because it produces such bright masses of colour among the cacti and boulders of the most desolate "washes," so characteristic of those semi-arid regions with torrential rains, where there is not enough natural verdure to check the rushing off of the waters. And it charms one by its generosity in blooming so late in the summer season, when the hills have exchanged the greenness of their winter costume for the sere brownness of the summer, which is our dormant season, when the roads are thick with dust, and when few other wild flowers are to be seen.
The lemon-illy (not an American plant) along a driveway.
The annual and perennial herbs, though the most noticeable, are not the only plants of California which produce beautiful flowers. We have gorgeous masses of pink rhododendron and cream-and-yellow azalea in springy places on mountainsides; the deep magenta chaparral-pea forms dense, tangled, impenetrable thickets of spiny shrubs on the dryer and more exposed ridges of the same mountains, intermixed with the white tresses of the chamisal and the delicate pink or white waxen bells of the manzanita; elsewhere we find the glorious white halos of the Matilija poppy, the stately cream-coloured spikes of the yuccas, and dozens of other ornamental shrubs, too numerous to mention here, which would grace any garden. Our ornamental flowering trees are few, but the creamy trusses of Madro·a blossoms, succeeded by bright scarlet berries, and the white candelabras of the California buckeye, are worthy a place in any garden. Among the shrubs, none are greater favourites or more characteristic of California than the blue-tinted ceanothus, or California lilac. It grows on arid, shaly slopes of the mountains near the ocean, where it can catch a whiff of salt-laden air, and seems to reflect some of the blueness of the water in its masses of blossoms.
Often it forms the prevailing shrub over areas of hillside many acres in extent, to which it gives a quiet and hazy china-blue tint. California lilac was cultivated in the gardens of the early settlers in San Francisco until replaced by exotics, often much less worthy of a place there; it is now rarely seen in cultivation in the West, though sometimes grown in English gardens. The odour of the flowers is peculiar and not altogether pleasant, but recalls many a joyous California mountain-climb to one who has imbibed a deep love for her solitudes.