It’s rush hour on the 134. Crawling along at a bracing 8mph, I decide to pass the time by taking a closer look at the greenish ribbon of landscaping running alongside the road. After a mile or so, I’ve managed to spot all the usual “drought-tolerant” suspects: Eucalyptus? Check. Oleander? Check. Mexican Fan Palm? Check. Oh, and there’s a lot of Plumbago – lots and lots of Plumbago.
Ugh. Where the hell am I? Sydney? Pretoria? Chihuahua?
Oh, right. I’m in Los Angeles. I can tell because I see a few California Sycamores and maybe two or three stunted Coast Live Oaks, the sole local native species in the whole, insipid, sterile, Gazania-infested mess.
But then, just as I’m about to look away in disgust, I spot what I think might be another plant native to Southern California, growing right in the middle of a particularly ratty patch of Lantana. Glory Hallelujah. There it is again, what appears to be the same species, stoically adrift in a Dead Sea of Ice Plant, Burger King wrappers and weeds. In fact, now that I’ve noticed it, I can see that there’s actually quite a lot of Laurel Sumac (Malosma laurina) crashing this tedious, Eurotrash-y little party – and I’d be willing to bet good money that CalTrans sure as hell didn’t plant it.
Can I just say that I’m totally in love Laurel Sumac?
I love it for the intensely weird, chalky smell of its leaves. Redolent of apples, the scent fills the air in my garden on balmy afternoons and, à la Marcel Proust, has the power to instantly transport me back to childhood summers at Camp Tumbleweed.
I love it for its gritty drought resilience, remaining freshly evergreen all summer long without a drop of water, due to its astonishingly deep roots.
I love it for its ability to re-sprout, phoenix-like, from its charred crown after a wildfire, despite having been burned to a crisp.
I love it for its stubborn insistence on remaining here in Los Angeles
I love it for the solid architecture of its smooth, gray, massive limbs.
I even love it for its creamy white, unassuming flowers that nonetheless support a host of pollinators in spring and the shiny, green drupes that follow, sustaining flocks of birds throughout the fall and winter months.
And finally, I love it for its stubborn insistence on remaining here in Los Angeles, with no clearer indication of its refusal to be erased than its unsolicited presence among the indifferent alien species chosen by CalTrans, in its wisdom, to line our freeways.
Laurel Sumac in the Garden: Bringing the Freeway Home
Just a wild guess here, but “Your garden reminds me of driving the 405” probably isn’t the kind of compliment you were hoping for when you first decided to plant your garden with California natives. And while Laurel Sumac may carry the dubious distinction of being an unofficial “Freeway Plant,” it still deserves a place in your native garden – if you have the room for it, that is.
For one of the most commonly occurring co-dominant species in Southern California’s remaining coastal scrub and chaparral habitats, you don’t see Laurel Sumac in planted native gardens all that often. If I were to hazard a guess as to why that might be the case, I’d say it’s mainly because it can get big – I mean, really big. (The first Laurel Sumac I planted here – from a 1-gallon pot back in the mid-1990s – is now over 25 feet tall and nearly as wide. And yes, I’m extremely fortunate to have this much space in which to garden.)
The other reason your average native gardener might not be immediately drawn to Laurel Sumac could be the fact that its flowers are admittedly not much to look at, at least not by Fremontodendron standards. And the fruit? Let’s just say it can’t possibly compete with Toyon’s festive clusters of bright, red berries.
Laurel Sumac is a robust habitat species that will lend structure, privacy and its own understated beauty to your garden
On the other hand, Laurel sumac is one of those miraculous plants that needs absolutely zero supplemental water once it’s established. It is, however, surprisingly versatile and can take as much water as you feel inclined to give it. Best of all, it will return the favor with accelerated growth – eventually. Even with extra watering, be prepared for Laurel Sumac to basically sit in the ground without doing all that much for the first year or two before it really begins to take off.
In short, Laurel Sumac is a robust habitat species that will lend structure, privacy and its own understated beauty to your garden. It’s also reliable, long-lived, evergreen yet xeric and virtually impossible to kill. Think about it: if it can insert itself and thrive entirely untended in an environment as despoiled as the exotic, weed-choked wastelands lining LA’s freeways, it’ll thrive just about anywhere.