Foliage Matches (in Foliar Density, Shape, Color, Gloss)

The closer I look, the more manifestly universal it is becoming, that NO TWO kinds of trees/shrubs/vines have the same overall gestalt.  

I have been looking for foliar and overall matches for purposes of creating gardens/landscapes that incorporate maximal diversity (in species, that is) within a restfully homogenous mass of plantings—i.e. the reverse of “unity within diversity”.

Lately I’ve noticed a couple close-enough examples:

Prunus avium, P. armeniaca, P. persica all have roughly the same bright, more-or-less glossy green foliage (despite quite dissimilar growth habit, branch structure, etc, and leaf shape, from [drawings].  Another possible match is Asian pear, Pyrus salicifolia?  At least all are flowering fruit trees.

Actinidia arguta, Schizostylium sp., and possibly Hydrangea anomala are three vines with the same more-or-less glossy green drip-tip leaves [drawing].  And some trees that may fit the same general “prescription” are Idesia polycarpa (although very sparse), Nyssa ogeche?, Cornus florida?, and possibly Tilia spp.

Apple, Amelanchier, and Photinia davisiana all have more-or-less similar matt-gray-green simple leaves and are taxonomically close.  Also here may belong many evergreen Quercus, Cotoneaster spp., Aronia?

[See further on for Eurasian counterparts to typical Californian woody plants.]

Question:  What non-Californian analogs, or more importantly, homologues would look “appropriate”, i.e. fit more-or-less seamlessly into any of several typically Californian native landscapes?  For example:

  1. deciduous riparian forest
  2. lowland coniferous forest
  3. mixed-evergreen forest
  4. foothill woodland
  5. savannah
  6. chaparral of various sorts
  7. scrub of various sorts, coastal and inland
  8. and of course, any mixture of two or more of the above.  Various (or all) herb-dominated assemblages are intentionally omitted even though they comprise a large part of the California landscape, among which are marshes both fresh and salt, alkali pans, perennial grasslands, annual grassland/flower fields, “north slope gardens”, coastal “tundra”, wet meadows.  Also omitted, this time because they are not typical features of lowland cismontane California, are woody-plant assemblages of the following types:  Great Basin/sagebrush communities, desert communities, montane forests and other montane communities from ca. 4000? ft. to above timberline, i.e. alpine.

Using a typical coast-range mixed evergreen assemblage as an example—one of the most diverse assemblages with regard to woody vegetation—it is clear that the various species making up this very widespread and varied/diverse kind of California landscape are anything but alike in their overall gestalt (habit, density, color, gloss, leaf shape, etc.) even though their ecological requirements are nearly identical, and even though they invariably look harmonious and “right” together, even with a scattering of deciduous species thrown in (buckeye, bigleaf maple, poison-oak, elderberry, hazel, snowberry, creambush, ribes, etc. etc.).  

However, there must be something about their morphology that causes them to harmonize so well together:  conical evergreen redwoods and Douglas-fir; open, glossy, big-leaved madrones; dense, glossy, dark, small-leaved bays, and interior live-oaks; dark, matt, blackish- or grayish-greens of coast live-oaks and coffeeberry and ceanothus and snowberry and poison-oak? And honeysuckle and blackberry.  Somehow it all fits, even with the frequent admixture of deciduous species.  Maybe the unifying quality is something subtly related to a certain degree of sclerophylly!?  In any case, the soft, delicate, light/yellow greens of an eastern deciduous forest would not fit here, either in summer or in the colors of fall, except for a few highlights like poison-oak and the subdued yellows of bigleaf maple, hazel etc.

The same dichotomy (that is between California and the east) seems to obtain on the Eurasian supercontinent, with its parallel suites of plants, from conifers down to bulbs and ephemeral annuals.  The Mediterranean basin is very like California in its summer dark/dull greens and its dearth of muted fall color and its particular mix of “mixed evergreen”, scrub and chaparral (“macchia” etc.) and ephemeral patchy grasslands (a generally sclerophyllous theme adapted to dry hot summers and mild wet winters).  The eastern part of Asia, except for its much greater overall diversity, is a mirror of the eastern U.S., wth hot wet summers and cold snowy winters, all conspiring for a riotous array of soft-leaved bright/light greens in summer and an even more riotous array of flashy colors in the fall—and the source of the majority of our universally loved, irrigated-garden standbys, may of which, unfortunately, look as out of place in juxtaposition with a typical California wild landscape as a cactus garden in a marsh.  Fortunately, we still have abundant opportunities to grow such out-of-context glories in irrigated city parks and private lawns (mainly in the northern and interior parts of California where winters are coolest and summers warm), where they can’t clash with the native flora because it is long gone.

The third main biogeographic “theme” (for southern coastal California mainly) is the subtropics (wet hot summer, warm winter), another candidate for urban settings.

The hue and cry to “grow natives” was raised in California only a few decades ago by well-meaning people newly enamoured with the remarkable flora of our home state.  The idea sounded nice.  Unfortunately, what began as a kind of enthusiastic admiration on the part of new converts soon degenerated into an orgy of wholesale meddling under the banner of political correctness.  “Growing natives” is a perfectly harmless idea when it is indulged in a small suburban-backyard sort of context.  It becomes more than a little problematic, however, when applied wholesale in and near real native landscapes and becomes entrenched as policy by governmental agencies, wildland “restoration enterprises” (these sprang up like mushrooms after a rain, along with their attendant crop of overnight “experts”), public schools, boy scouts, Caltrans . . .

A Pandora’s Box was opened in the last decades of the 20th Century that can never be closed again.  From that time on, no California botanist or native-plant enthusiast will ever again be able to trust their eyes; there will always be a nagging doubt as to whether the particular genetic makeup of a plant they encounter along the way, or even its very presence at that location, was authored by Nature or simply an artifact of some well-meaning but meddlesome Johnny Appleseed.  There is no more “pure Nature”, that erstwhile dispenser of endless exciting discoveries and wisdom.  Even when that interesting plant you found by the roadside was put in that spot by pure Nature, there will always be that nagging doubt—never quite possible to know for sure that Caltrans or some “restoration ecologist” didn’t have a hand in it, 20 years ago, or two, no matter how remote the location.

Government agencies hae been dumping new noxious weeds onto California’s wildlands in the name of “range improvement” and “erosion control” long before the “plant natives” fad hit; but at least they pretty much left the native species alone to do their own thing—those of them that were still hanging on.  Now almost nothing is safe from our ill-conceived wholesale genetic and geographic scrambling of our poor native flora.  Rarely was Pope’s ? old axiom more true:  “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”.

As usually happens, of course, we will eventually discover, and maybe even regret, this latest rash of ill-advised meddling, but by then, of course, it will be too late to correct the mistakes already made.  It is, of course, too late already.  Shoot first, ask questions later.

Some generalizations about California trees:

  • Leaves are nearly always smallish, and never very large
  • Leaves are nearly always neutral green to gray- or blackish-green, not light- or yellow-green, or bronzy.
  • Leaves are generally not very glossy? (notable exceptions are madrone . . . ?)
  • Outline of nearly all trees, evergreen or deciduous (with few exceptions like gray and knobcone pine) is more-or-less solid, rounded, like cumulus clouds, i.e. they are dense).
  • Leaves are rarely pinnate or otherwise divided, i.e. mostly simple.
  • Shape is generally rounded, not tall and narrow or pyramidal

Tropical trees tend to be bright green to conspicuously bronzy, large, and glossy, and mostly evergreen, and never conifers.

Desert trees tend to be open and airy, with tiny or finely-compound leaves (mostly legume trees).  Mostly evergreen? and no conifers.

Eastern/deciduous trees are mostly light green, often yellowish-green and sometimes bronzy.  Leaves average larger than in California, are more often compressed, and trees can be more open and more irregular in outline, and often tall/narrow or pyramidal.

Anyway, back to the main subject.

(The point of pp. 5 and 6 is one of the reasons why, in and near real native landscapes, it might be preferable to grow related Eurasian taxa rather than California ones—only thing to really worry about is introducing new diseases, although . . .)

Down to specifics:  some examples of lowland California trees and shrubs with close counterparts (both phylogenetically and ecologically) from Eurasia (those from Gondwana are mostly/all? Phylogenetically and morphologically—though comparable ecologically?—too unlike anything in California to be appropriate in this context).


California                                                                          Eurasia

Pines (Monterey, bishop, shore—the dark, coastal pines)      P. pinea

(Knobcone, digger, Torrey?, pinon—the

open,gray, hot-climate species)                                         P. halepensis

Douglas-fir, redwood, torreya?, incense cedar, 

Cupressus spp.                                                                 C. ?

Evergreen Dicots

Umbellularia californica                                                     Laurus nobilis

Arbutus menziesii                                                             A. unedo and andrachne

Quercus wislizeni                                                              Q. ilex

  1. agrifolia                                                                   Q. suber
  2. chrysolepis
  3. kelloggii
  4. lobata                                                                      Q. robur
  5. douglasii

Rhamnus californica and crocea                                          R. alaternus and ?

Prunus ilicifolia and lyonii                                                   P. lusit and lauro



Open and gray, like no California Floristic Province tree, but

Is like many desert species                                                Olea




Deciduous Dicots (non-riparian)

Sambucus mexicana

Acer macrophyllum

Aesculus californica

Toxicodendron diversilobum

Corylus californica                                                             C. avellana—too close?

Ribes spp.                                                                        Ribes grossularium and Almond