The Unique Beauty of Native Plants with Gardener Madeline Morrow
by Paul Epstein on March 13, 2013
A resident of Saratoga, Madeline Morrow sits on the Steering Committee of the 2013 “Going Native” tour, a two-day extravaganza of 60 open gardens around Santa Clara, including hers. The event, hosted by the Santa Clara chapter of the California Native Plant Society, is a showcase for “the unique aesthetic appeal of gardens designed with native plants.”
Morrow has a painter’s eye and an alchemist’s touch. Formerly a computer programmer, she now volunteers extensively in her community and has traded in her silicon for gold —garden variety gold, that is: Her chief pride is her brilliant yellow Fremontodendron californicum (California flannelbush). Morrow spoke with me last week, and also invited me to explore her garden to take some photos.
BN: How did you first get to the Bay Area?
Morrow: Through the computer industry like many people. We moved out here from upstate New York in 1993 when my husband was offered a job.. We both fell in love with the place immediately. I fell in love with the weather and the drama of the landscape, compared to the rolling green hills I had left behind. Every day I still feel that thrill and I feel a responsibility to keep the world beautiful and healthy.
BN: Tell me about your background.
Morrow: I’m a former programmer, turned stay-at-home mom, turned major volunteer. I now tutor kids part-time in the language arts.
I’ve loved plants since I was a little kid when I had a copy of the Golden Book of Wildflowers. I loved to go out in the woods to look at the flowers. Somehow I got away from that, but when I had my first child in 1990, I planted an herb garden. Perennials and vegetables, too.
Then I read a book about native plant gardening, Sarah’s Garden. That changed my gardening forever. My first native plant was Swamp Milkweed—this was before we moved; Swamp Milkweed is native to the central region and east coast. Almost as soon as I planted it in my garden, I started to get Monarch butterflies.
When I got to California, I was stunned: I saw people with plants native to the East Coast. People watered their lawns! So I educated myself and embarked on an odyssey to convert my new yard to native plants over a period of years. It’s now 90 percent native species. With the very first few native shrubs, I noticed a marked increase in the number of birds in the garden.
BN: Tell me about your involvement with “Going Native”.
Morrow: I belong to the Santa Clara Valley Chapter of the California Native Plant Society. I started by attending the tour a few years ago and really got into it because it is such a great event: It’s free, there are all kinds of gardens and there are a lot of visitors. Now I’m on the steering committee and my garden is on the tour. The local CNPS also runs a symposium series, so this event gets lots of people involved. It’s great outreach.
BN: Tell me about a favorite element of your garden.
Morrow: My favorite plant is my California Flannelbush. It’s a spectacular plant, but it’s hard to grow. It hates water in the summer, so you have to make sure there’s no spray over. And it prefers sandy soil, so a soil with even a moderate amount of clay can damage them. When they bloom they’re covered with bright yellow flowers. And they have a pleasing branch structure and gorgeous leaves.
BN: What challenges do you face in your work with native gardens?
I try to convey to people that there are native plants that look good in the summer, that gardens can be beautiful all year round.
Another challenge is getting people to let native plants into their gardens and then to take care of them. There is one thing that people can do for the environment: if something dies in your garden, replace it with a native plant. Think how good this is for the native insects and animals!
BN: What is your favorite outdoor destination in the Bay Area?
Morrow: There are a lot, so many different landscapes. One of my favorites is China Cove at Point Lobos. You walk down a steep staircase to get there, and then you feel like you’re in your own little world. You can see the turquoise of the water and the green of the seaweed. It distills the essential beauty of the California coast.