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JOHNNY APPLESEED LOSES SOME GROUND\Valley expert champions native plants.

Byline: Steven J. Gorman Daily News Staff Writer

Chris Van Schaack, a contractor and naturalist who lives in the rugged hills above Chatsworth Reservoir, probably wouldn't get along too well with Johnny Appleseed.

Unlike the folk hero who helped domesticate the early American frontier by planting apple orchards, Van Schaack is on a personal mission to bring back indigenous plants pushed aside by modern-day development.

He has devoted much of his spare time and money during the past four years to planting and protecting the trees, shrubs, flowers and even grasses that grow naturally in the area, while weeding out imported species of plants.

"There's a value in what was already here that we didn't create," said Van Schaack, a 38-year-old Cal State Northridge graduate who holds a degree in international finance. "We need to wake up and smell the sagebrush, because that's what's here."

Van Schaack is part of a dedicated circle of botanical activists promoting native plants as beneficial to the environment and easy to care for because they thrive with little or no need for irrigation, pesticides or fertilizers.

Enlisting the help of volunteers, Van Schaack has ventured in recent months to Chatsworth Reservoir, Chatsworth Oaks Park and the Chatsworth Metrolink rail station to conduct a series of daylong "native garden" plantings.

But his most prolonged and intensive effort has been the development of a native plant seed house, nursery and natural arboretum on land surrounding the Quonset hut he shares with his wife below the craggy sandstone outcroppings of the Chatsworth Rocks formation.

"I'm trying to set it up so people can come here and see what used to be here (naturally)," he said last week.

All the plants he uses were grown from seeds collected during hikes through the nearby Santa Susana and Santa Monica Mountains, home to diverse communities of chaparral, coastal sage scrub, oak woodlands, streamside woods and grasslands.

Van Schaack's reputation may not have reached the legendary proportions of Johnny Appleseed, but he is widely known among native plant enthusiasts in the area.

"He's full of enthusiasm to replant the entire San Fernando Valley," said Betsey Landis, a leading member of the Los Angeles-Santa Monica Chapter of the California Native Plant Society. "He hasn't quite figured out just how big a project he's gotten himself into."

And Van Schaack is hardly alone. Landis said her group sponsors regular "weed wars" in area parks, mustering volunteers to help clear away exotic plants that are crowding out native flora.

"Our project this year is to restore the entrance to Malibu Creek State Park," she said, adding that California ranks second after Hawaii in the loss of native species.

Statewide, California is home to some 5,000 types of native plants, said Steve Dreher, manager of the native plant nursery operated on 22 acres in Sun Valley by the Theodore Payne Foundation.

Dreher said commercial demand for native plants has grown in the past 10 years, with interest peaking during periods of drought. Natives also are "excellent choices" for homeowners concerned about fire prevention and erosion control.

In addition, the Payne Foundation supplies seed and plants for landscape restoration and replanting projects by the U.S. Forest Service, Caltrans, cities and groups like the Nature Conservancy and Friends of the L.A. River.

A number of native species have gained relative popularity in conventional nurseries, he said, such as golden currant, black and white sages, leopard lily, California poppies, monkey flower, blue-eyed grass, bush mallows, lupins and penstemons.

The main problem Van Schaack has encountered in promoting native plants is overcoming conventional landscaping aesthetics that require a good deal of human intervention.

"We need to stop trying to control everything," he said. "Our mind-set is that our lawns have to be green all year-round, and we have to water them to maintain that. That mind-set is very hard to change."

Planted properly and left to their own devices, aboriginal flora will thrive, he said.

Van Schaack said it took him a long time to shed traditional notions of the yard and garden.

"Now, when I plant a yard, I just try to plant it where it wants to be, not where I want it to be," he said. "I'm trying to make my life as simple as I can."

Still, Van Schaack's preoccupation with native plants - he says "it's like a religion" - has cost him an estimated $10,000 and has been anything but simple.

He has spent countless hours ridding his own "yard" of non-natives - ripping up trees and shrubs that don't belong and burying smaller invaders with tons of mulch - then replanting with native vegetation.

He's even put up tiny flags all over the brushy, wooded slopes around his property in attempt to save some of the less conspicuous natives from destruction under the Fire Department's weed control program.

His efforts have paid off. A short walk from his nursery, Van Schaack is surprised to find deep red blooms of maroon monkey flower growing right next to clusters of purple nightshade and white-blossoming California everlasting.

To Van Schaack, even a relatively nondescript plant such as stipa pulchra, a native perennial bunch grass that the average person might overlook or trample during a hike, has its own character.

"That clump of grass could be 50 years old. So you're walking on an old man when you walk on it," he said.

Van Schaack clearly admires the ingenuity of native flora in finding a niche to survive.

One of his favorites is the rare and endangered Santa Susana tarweed, a fragrant shrub that blooms yellow from July to November and grows out of rock outcroppings that provide moisture and shade for the plant's roots. His nursery is named for the tarweed.

Van Schaack's enemies are the pepper trees, the pealms, the bougainvillea and other transplanted shrubs and domestic grasses he says may be well-adapted to

Southern California and pretty to look at, but are nevertheless alien. And most of them, he said, require artificial "life support" to survive.

For now, Van Schaack is taking a breather from the some of the more labor-intensive aspects of his work, including volunteer plantings, which have left him exhausted.

He's concentrating for the time being on plant cuttings, trying to sell or give away the 3,000 seedlings he still has in his nursery and preparing for upcoming wildflower shows.

As for his larger mission, toiling as a kind of modern-day Johnny Appleseed in reverse, Van Schaack realizes he has his work cut out for him.

"It's going to take a lifetime."

CAPTION(S):

PHOTO

(1) Chris Van Schaack, at home above Chatsworth Reservoir, grows native plants for landscaping and leads volunteer efforts to re-establish original species. (2) Van Schaack's nursery is named for a native California plant. (3) A hummingbird sage at Van Schaack's has purple blossoms. Phil McCarten/Daily News
COPYRIGHT 1996 Daily News
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 18, 1996
Words:1143
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