By Steven Hightower, Sonoma County Master Gardener
One of the routes, developed over many years of country living, for my daily constitutional is up Sonoma Mountain and out Enterprise Road. The country vistas are beautiful, and there is a stretch of cut bank where the road was pushed through a small hill rather than over, where for years I’ve noticed mounding bunchgrasses cascading down the steep roadside—swaths of Festuca californica (California fescue). I’ve always admired the grass, but until recently hadn’t thought much about it in relation to my own landscape.
This grass really fits the bill for my location—it’s both drought tolerant AND deer resistant. It produces really deep roots, allowing it to survive the summer with no water, and that makes it a great plant to introduce under live and deciduous oaks on the property, where I’m trying to fill in the landscape a bit. F. Californica is used sometimes for recapturing grassland that has either been taken over by non-native grasses, or cleared.
A mid-sized bunch grass (arching, really) this plant is native to both California and southern Oregon. Its fountain-like shape goes to about a foot and a half tall and the same across. The flower stalks—violet tinged in spring and summer—can stand up another foot or so. The foliage is blue-green, and will ‘tawny-up’ some with no summer water, or stay a bit greener with a very occasional summer drink. It will take part sun, but is best in shade or part shade if it’s going to be completely summer-dry after establishment. F. californica tolerates most soils, and clearly handles Sonoma Mountain clay.
I’m planting it in broad sweeps under oaks. It would also look great massed with other like-water natives—Ceanothus, Rhamnus, Ribes, and Baccharis—and why not some native bulbs thrown in—say Iris douglasiana. Or a gardener could dot it around a dry wash or rock garden.
This grass can be hard to find. I bought a few at the CNPS plant sale last fall in Santa Rosa. Many of the local nurseries we normally recommend do not currently have it in stock, as it is still early in the season. Buckeye Nursery has a few; Paul Martinez’s Sonoma Wholesale Nursery is growing some up; and mostly Natives in Tomales Bay shows availability, as does Digging Dog by mail order—they list a selection ‘Phil’s blue’ that originates from seed collected on the Sonoma coast by Cal Flora’s owner, Phil Van Soelen. This availability may improve as spring comes--and if you ask the usual suspects, such as Emerisa, Sonoma Mission Gardens or Cottage Gardens, they may be able to order it.
California fescue can be propagated from seed. Cold stratification is not required for seed germination—the grass won’t normally survive exposure to temperatures below 5-7°F.
Festuca idahoensis ‘Siskiyou blue’ is a reasonable substitute, or a grass to plant in addition. Close in look, it’s not quite as drought tolerant, and works best in shade. Urban Tree Farm has this grass in quantity; Buckeye has some that will be ready in a month or two.
Of scientific curiosity only, there are sub-species ‘parishii’ that occurs as a distinct population in the San Bernardino Mountains, and ‘hitchcockiana’ that occurs in San Luis Obispo county.