Going Native

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As a teenager in Newport Beach, Mike Evans spent a fair share of his time exploring the southern California coast. The region’s wide land expanses were the ideal playground for an avid surfer and hiker like himself. Evans spent many days hopping fences and ducking beneath “No Trespassing” signs, and his wanderlust didn’t die after high school graduation. At 18, Evans made his way to Mexico’s Pacific coast, surfing during the day and sleeping on the beach at night. It was a thrilling time, but also tinged with a quiet anxiety.

“I knew in the deep places of my heart, ‘I can’t do this for the rest of my life,’” says Evans. “I had to get it out of my system, but I knew I had to buckle down and go home and be a real productive member of society.”

Inspired by the young Mexican men who were operating their own small farms and ranches, Evans returned home with a plan. In 1978, he opened Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano, a nursery specializing in native California plant life. Thirty-five years later, Tree of Life is the largest native plant nursery operating in California.

While a typical workweek for Evans runs the gamut from studying specimens in the wild to any number of administrative tasks, this month he used his expertise to curate plants for the Sustainable Living Wall inside the Lincoln Lounge at the LA Auto Show. For Evans, the challenge wasn’t just to create something beautiful; the plants could do that on their own. He pushed himself to create what he calls an “ecological statement,” a narrative that tells the story of southern California’s plant life.

“It marches across southern California’s plant communities from the beach to the foothills out to the desert, and then up to the mountains,” says Evans. “We wanted to tell a regional story.”

Intended to be read from left to right, the Sustainable Living Wall inside the Lincoln Lounge traces the gradual changes in the region’s landscape from the coast up into the highlands. The wall’s far left is sparsely populated with cattails and California rye, plants typically found in the wet, marshy soil near the ocean. Moving right, those coastal plants give way to bushier,  broad-leaf specimens found in the foothills like coyote brush and California lilac. Moving further right, Evans tucked in some desert lavender and California fan palm, plants intended to invoke the feeling of a desert oasis. Finally, at the wall’s extreme right, the shrubs and grasses surrender to the emerald leaves of the Pacific wax myrtle and the silvery needles of the San Pedro Martir cypress.

“Lincoln’s display of native plants encompasses a concept of steady growth and natural inspiration,” says Erika Heet, editor at dwell. “From the strongest trees to the biggest ideas, everything grows from the smallest seed.”

Evans’ dedication to native plant life is twofold. He believes that proximity to wilderness is calming and healthy, even if it’s a miniaturized version of a larger ecosystem recreated in a backyard. Plus, native gardens have what Evans calls a “sense of place,” a term that’s typically used in the study of art, but in this instance refers to the seamless transition of a native garden into the surrounding natural area.

“A native plant garden is a small model of nature right there for you every day,” says Evans. “You engage in this garden. It’s more than simply decoration or window dressing.”

But from a practical and economic standpoint, native plant gardens can just make more sense than traditional ones, especially in the arid climates of the western United States. The typical American lawn, for instance, requires huge volumes of water, pesticides and labor to look pristine, whereas native plants are already well suited for the soil and climate where they will be planted.

While Evans spends more time in his office than he prefers, he still makes it a point to get out into the forest to collect seeds and cuttings for propagation. He’s heartened that native plant gardens are enjoying a boost in popularity; native plant associations and meet-up groups have been popping up with more frequency on the Internet and in communities across the country for quite some time now. And while his favorite part of the job is still exploring the wilderness the way he did as a teenager, he’s found a new joy in watching children interact with the complexities of a native plant garden.

“Kids really get into them because they see pollinating insects like butterflies and lots of birds and maybe a few lizards,” says Evans. “And when you see that, you say ‘Hey, this is really working! This place is home to more than just me.’” 

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