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GARDENING: California dreaming

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Gardens which take inspiration from dry climates, when designed with suitable plants of varying forms, textures and colours, remain attractive throughout the year

Which regions have a Mediterranean-type climate? The Western Cape, south-western Australia, California in the US, all the countries that surround the Mediterranean Sea, as well as the central coast of Chile. What do these regions have in common?

Prolonged drought and water restrictions have severely affected gardening and gardeners have had to adapt. Most plant lovers in these regions are appreciative of water-wise local plants and use plants from similar Mediterranean-type regions.

Next year, the International Society of Mediterranean Ecology will bring their 15th International Conference to South Africa. California is a classic example of the Mediterranean-type climate.

More than 140 aloes species grow in Lotusland Botanical Garden, near Santa Barbara, considered one of the world’s 10 best gardens. Aloes also feature in public and private gardens and arboretums. Aloe “Rooikappie”, and the slightly larger A.

“Cynthia Giddy”, credited to Cynthia Giddy, late owner of Umlaas Aloe Nursery, are popular. There is a plaque on Ocean View Boulevard, on the Monterey Peninsula, that honours Hayes Perkins, who single-handedly removed poison ivy from the shoreline and planted species he knew from his travels in Africa. 

These include the indigenous krantz aloe (Aloe arborescens) on rocky outcrops and a groundcover of glistening pink vygies in spring. On-street verges, central islands and at entrances to restaurants, banks and offices in many Californian towns, South African agapanthus, tulbaghia, euryops daisy, dietes, arctotis and gazania are popular.

Cape honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis), a favourite of our sunbirds, is also a favourite of hummingbirds. The official tree of Los Angeles is the coral tree (Erythrina caffra) and the official flower is the bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae). Pelargoniums are a popular choice for hanging baskets, containers and as groundcovers.

The official flower of Los Angeles is the bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae). Picture: Lukas Otto


Prolonged drought and water restrictions in the Western Cape and California have seen the replacement of lawns with permeable paving that allows rain to soak into the soil, with gravel gardens and with groundcovers.

Landscapers and homeowners are choosing water-wise, Mediterranean-type plants with hairy leaves that reflect heat, needle-like leaves that reduce the surface area and succulent leaves stems and roots that store water. Succulents are indispensable in these water-wise gardens, their sculptural form, texture and colour giving year-round interest.

Succulents are indispensable in a waterwise garden. Picture: Lukas Otto


Drought has seen the increasing risk of wildfires in many Mediterranean regions. Although often harmful and destructive to humans and property, wildfires are part of the eco-system. They remove harmful insects, cut undergrowth to allow light in and return nutrients to the soil.

Fire-prone regions are adopting fire-wise practices that require the removal of dead plant material, ensuring there is adequate plant spacing, growing plants that are high in moisture and changing from organic to pebble mulch.

What to plant

The Californian chaparral and the Western Cape’s fynbos have many similarities. The diversity of soil increases the variety of plants and many waterwise plants with interesting forms, colours and textures from similar climates add beauty and fragrance to gardens.

In alkaline soils, proteas and Australian waratahs, that need free-draining, slightly acidic soil, are successful when grown in raised beds with amended soil. 

What can local gardeners successfully grow in water-wise gardens? Thyme, lavender, santolina and rosemary from the Mediterranean, and Australian rosemary (Westringia fruticosa) and Cape buchus and wild rosemary (Eriocephalus africanus) are valued for their aromatic foliage.

Following winter rains, bulbs appear, annuals germinate, and golden Californian poppies and orange Namaqualand daisies brighten spring gardens. Cape forget-me-not (Anchusa capensis) and Californian blue-eyed grass and lupins add splashes of blue; sea holly (Eryngium spp.) and rock purslane (Calandrinia spectabilis) from Chile and our spekboom (Portulacaria afra) have interesting forms.

Much like our Namaqualand daisies, Californian poppies (Eschscholzia californica) herald the coming of spring. Picture: Lukas Otto

Invasive species

The ecology of Mediterranean regions is threatened by invasive species, many of which have become naturalised. For example, South African plants such as agapanthus and arums are invasive species in Australia.

Arctotis, gazanias, asparagus fern and some freesia and lachenalia are particularly invasive in western Australia. The Australian Port Jackson willow is an invader in South Africa and Chile. South Africa’s ice plant (Carpobrotus edulis) is so rampant it smothers native plants in Australia, Chile and California.

Attend Medecos

Interested in Mediterranean-type ecosystems and ecology? Consider attending the 15th International Medecos Conference, which is to be held in Langebaan on the West Coast, from September 1 to 6 next year.

Organised by the International Society of Mediterranean Ecology, Medecos is hosted every three to four years in different locations of the five Mediterranean areas of the world (Mediterranean basin, south-western Australia, California, central Chile and the Cape region of South Africa).

Contact secretariat@ for more details.


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