California native plant meadow

Is anyone immune to the allure of meadows ?  If you are a hiker and explore open spaces, parks, and natural areas, a meadow means a respite.  You are required to stop meandering and let the meadow hold you in its spell.

Meadows feel comfortable and safe; often they are openings in the woods, hidden bowls in the mountains, protected spaces that invite us to linger. They are nature’s garden rooms, and it is no wonder we want to bring them home.

California native grass in Sierra meadow

Imagine the edge of the forest as your fence line – and a meadow as your lawn.

A garden meadow is complex, and like any ornamental garden, it’s work, despite the simple look.  The natural grace and vibrancy of a native meadow does not translate to the garden without the work of maintaining an ecological stasis that nature does not know.

In the wild, a meadow is a transitional ecology, a habitat evolving, maybe from bog to woods, perhaps it is a fire or storm induced clearing being reclaimed, or a farm field on the way to back to becoming forest.  It is changing.

California native plant meadow

Old stumps and young trees in Sierra meadow show the transitional ecology.

At home this aesthetic needs maintenance or, like nature’s meadows, they too will transition to something else, often full of the neighbor’s weeds.  But as more and more gardeners get rid of lawns and chemically controlled grass monocultures, meadows look more and more inviting.  Nature’s garden rooms are coming home.

California native plant meadow with needle grass, paintbrush, corn lily, goldenrod

A native meadow is the model for an alternative lawn.

A meadow is not simply a lawn gone wild, though that is often a good place to start.The American Meadow Garden, Timber Press book cover  They are certainly grasses at their core, “grass ecologies” as John Greenlee says in our book, The American Meadow Garden; but they are also full of the wildflowers of our dreams.  The romantic fantasy of a meadow is full of flowers, a lush tapestry of ephemerals knit together by grasses that dance and shimmer, that tickle when we lie down among them.

Nature’s dream.

Deschampsia cespitosa, tufted hairgrass California native plant Sierra meadow with Castilleja miniata - Great Red Paintbrush.

Tufted hairgrass California native plant in Sierra meadow with Great Red Paintbrush.

Those of us in summer-dry climates are especially lucky because we get the best of what makes grasses special.  We have wet winters (we hope) that encourage the cool season grasses to green up in spring.  And we have dry summers that allow warm season grasses to strut their stuff, uninhibitedly ignorant of rains that might beat them down.

Deschampsia cespitosa, tufted hairgrass California native plant Sierra meadow with Castilleja miniata - Great Red Paintbrush.

Morning dew weighting down Deschampsia, Hair Grass.


California native grass in Sierra meadow

Summer-dry California meadow with flowering grasses, Deschampsia and Stipa.

With this vision of meadows I went to the Sierra Mountains in search of inspiration – validation that the native plants in this summer-dry climate inspire gardens; and in search of the beautiful solace I knew a stressed out photographer would find.

I had not been in the mountains in years.  Now that I have returned the reasons for not going mystify me and deserve no analysis.  What I found revitalized my commitment to gardening with native plants and grasses.  Years of hauling my camera through gardens served me to recognize what I saw.  Days of lying with these new friends were a communion.

California native plant meadow

Lupinus formosa – Blue flowering summer lupine in Sierra meadow

The meadows I sought needed to have moisture to look vibrant.  So too the meadows gardens we bring to suburbia, where some degree of irrigation is necessary in summer-dry climate to maintain growth and green that soothes our souls.

Gardens deserve some degree of the water resources we capture as a society bound by cities.  We need to efficiently use that portion of water allotted to gardens, certainly; but use it we should, to maintain a green sanity and connection to the earth.

The High Sierra Mountains are the source of most of the water that ends up, through an intricate maze of dams and canals, diverted rivers and irrigation districts, in our faucets and hose bibs.  In a good year, a year with a wet winter and snow, the mountains store water all summer to melt into reservoirs until the next winter.

California native plant meadow at headwaters South Fork American River

Water gathers in the seeps of meadows, becoming rivulets, then rivers.

This year was not a good year and, indeed, has been the worst year on record for snow accumulation.  The drought is a well reported crisis for farmers, and every municipal water district in the state has been mandated to cut usage by 25%.  My own garden, already stressed by the previous 3 years of cutting back is full of plants on life support.

I had begun to believe there was no beauty to be had in California’s gardening future when I headed to see for myself what the mountains held.  I felt sure I could find meadows surviving the bad publicity.

At the headwaters of the rivers, in seeps and springs that snows normally replenish, meadows thrive.  Despite the lack of snowpack, there were decent rains early in the winter and I did not have to look hard to find wonderful meadows.

Carex sp in damp meadow seep at headwaters South Fork American River, California native plant meadow

Sedges in damp meadow seep at the headwaters South Fork American River.

I admit I had no idea where I was going when Ieft my home in the flatlands.  My inquiries to friends in the native plant community gave vague suggestions of past years, but no first hand knowledge of what might be looking good this year.  I thought about heading down to the Southern Sierras, to sites I had visited in the past, but it seemed a long way to go if it turned out badly.  A couple friends suggested Tulomne Meadows in Yosemite, but even the ranger there could not confirm blooming meadows.

I decided to head to the closest mountains, toward Lake Tahoe and the El Dorado National Forest on the western slopes of the Sierras before the lake, and to drop by a ranger station.  As it turns out the junior ranger on duty at the desk said she really didn’t know much about meadows, but asked,  “do you know Wright’s Lake?”.  It was full of water and she imagined that must mean something.  Indeed.

A High Sierra source of South Fork American River - Carex springs, California native plant meadow.

Meadow on the road to Wright’s Lake, El Dorado National Forest.

I have come to realize that maybe everybody does not appreciate meadows.  What I found to be spectacular was ignored by others.  I drove the forest road to the lake, beautifully surrounded by a mixed conifer forest with every cabin and camping space full.  Not a sole camped by the huge meadow 2 miles from the lake.  I had nature’s garden all to myself. Or almost to myself.

Canada geese feeding on native grasses in California mointain meadow.

Canada geese feeding on native grasses in California mountain meadow.

California native Sierra mountain meadow with tree stump and young pine trees

California native Sierra mountain meadow with tree stump and young pine trees

This meadow has no name I could find on any map.  Just one off the many mountain drainages at the headwaters of rivers flowing from the Sierras.  Tracing a topo map I see it becomes Silver Creek which  becomes the American River.  Throughout the meadow were damp, spongy spots, often with sedges, and as I wandered to the center of the meadow, the  depressions led to a creek bed, mostly dry but with occasional pools.

California native plant meadow

Lush meadow with Goldenrod and Corn Lily adjacent to dry creek bed.

And everywhere were wildflowers and flowering grasses, a grass ecology that is the prototype mountain meadow, exactly the sort of summer-dry ecosystem that translates to gardens.  The moisture that nature provides in the mountains need to be irrigation water for gardens in the lowland, warmer cities.  But it is a manageable and sustainable amount of water, justified for gardening.  In dry years, native plant survive the drought, in normal years they are glorious.

Veratrum californicum, California corn lily, California false hellebore, native perrenial in Sierra meadow

Veratrum californicum, California corn lily, native perennial flowering in Sierra meadow

In summer-dry climates the dry summers are not drought, they are normal; and the plants native are climate tolerant, a much better term than drought tolerant.  All plants can survive drought in their native habitat.  Let’s promote climate tolerant plants for gardeners.

There are many wonderful plants from other summer-dry climates that are wild in their regions and are well adapted to California gardens.  And there are many wonderful California native plants that are sometimes overlooking in their own region.  I want to find them.

California native plant mountain meadow - nature's lawn.

California native plant mountain meadow – nature’s lawn with gray foliage Silky Raillardia

I set off with my camera, giddy, knowing meadow lovers and lawn reformers alike would be giddy too.

California native grass in Sierra meadow

California native grasses, Hairgrass, Needle grass, Sedge, in Sierra mountain meadow


California native plant meadow

Solidago canadensis Canada Goldenrod in California Sierra meadow

It is easy to get overwhelmed in a beautiful place, knowing no picture can do the place justice, and not knowing where to start.  But somehow, here I was calm.  I knew my main task was to photograph the grasses and that no matter where I set up the camera it would be in the meadow.  I knew I had plenty of time, and nowhere else I would rather be.

I would stay all day, photographing in the Needle Grass (Stipa occidentals) in late afternoon light, before throwing out my sleeping bag on the meadow, my bedroom for the night.

California native grass in Sierra meadow

California native grasses in Sierra meadow, El Dorado National Forest.

Then awake to start again, with the morning dew glistening on the Hairgrass (Deschampsia cespitosa).

Deschampsia cespitosa, tufted hairgrass, California native grass in Sierra meadow

Deschampsia cespitosa, tufted hairgrass, California native grass in Sierra meadow

Because these meadows are at the edges of the forest it was easy to image almost every vignette to be a garden next to a hulking home, a garden room with walls.

In these rooms, these meadow grass ecologies, the wildflowers become the décor, what John Greenlee calls “sweeteners” in the book, so, of course I had to spend time working to photograph them too.

Here I was here celebrating these plants that needed no supplemental water, no weeding, no fertilizer, no nursery; all for the sake of gardeners in summer-dry climates – working in the spell of the meadow.

Eriogonum umbellatum - Sulpher Buckwheat ymellow flowering wildflower above Martin Meadow Eldorado National Forest

Eriogonum umbellatum – Sulpher Buckwheat flowering in Eldorado National Forest

Castilleja miniata - Great Red Paintbrush, scarlet paintbrush, flowering wildflower, California native plant meadow

Castilleja miniata – Great Red Paintbrush, in California native meadow.


In recent years, I have  working on illustrating plants by photographing them straight on, face to face at the plant’s level, to get a sense of an illustration.  PhotoBotanic has become a technique as much as a business name.  For more on how I photographed these flowers, see “Photographing Wildflowers”, a Workshop Tip, also in the Learning Center.

“To photograph wildflowers in meadows I have to get down on my belly, lie in the soft grass and study the flowers”.