10 Fire Wise Landscape Qualities


It’s up to each of us to make LA safer and more resilient.

 By Cassy Aoyagi: After evacuating husband, boy, pup and chickens from our home last year, my long term interest in fire-wise landscapes became an obsession. We spent much of 2017 and 2018 waist deep in research and deep in conversation with expert after expert. In August, as LAFD began gearing up for a heavy fire season, we had the honor of curating a panel of fire-wise landscape experts for Descanso Gardens.  

  With so much misinformation about fires and our landscapes out there, we think it is critical for Angelenos, and California more broadly, to understand the qualities of a fire-wise, home-protective landscape.  

10 Fire-Wise Landscapes Qualities


  1. Native: While no plant is fire-proof, some native foliage does a particularly good job of withstanding drought and heat, retaining moisture that helps these plants resist fire. Here are a few of our favorites.

  3. Non-Invasive: Several popular plants marketed as “drought tolerant”, like Pampas, Feather, and Fountain grasses, and Pride of Madeira, are actually quite combustible. When these plants make their way into wilds space, they act like arsonists, increasing our fire danger.

  5. Well-Spaced and Placed: Planting foliage young with room to grow to its full size will minimize the amount of fire clearance necessary each year. It’s also a great way to save money and maximize the impact of landscape on your home’s appreciation.

  7. Treeful: Healthy tree canopy at a safe distance from rooftops can shield a home from flying embers. This is really lovely news, as treeful landscapes provide so many other benefits.

  9. Palm-Free: LA’s native palm trees live in marsh-like areas where fire danger is low. In contrast, when planted near foothills and homes, palms present grave dangers.

  11. Devoid of Ember “Bowling Alleys:” The gravelscapes created to respond to drought, as well as some fire-clearance methods create ample free-space for embers to roll into homes.

  13. Well-Irrigated: Well-hydrated objects, even those that may otherwise be considered fuel, do not burn. This includes both foliage and homes. Smart irrigation can get your foliage there. Australians in fire-prone regions have tested rooftop sprinkling systems that, likewise, make homes too wet to burn.

  15. Clean: Keeping your landscape tidy and healthy helps your home resist fire. Debris, weeds, dead plants, even un-stored tools become places where embers can catch. This is true on hardscapes, in gutters – everywhere.

  17. Smartly Located: We have built communities within known fire pathways. Those homes are simply in greater danger than those located in areas that burn less frequently. As we work to create more housing, policy makers, planners and developers must consider fire-safety as a criteria for judging locations.

  19. In Proactive Communities: Invasive plants will find their way to wild spaces. We have common areas that create bowling alleys. Communities that come together to reshape common ground, removing invasives, and stabilizing slopes (like Sunland, La Crescenta, and Sierra Madre) increase their luck and resilience.

  Please note that these are proactive steps to take well before fire breaks out in your area. Examples of fire wise landscapes can be seen at LAFD Station 74, the Sunland Welcome Nature Garden, the Fire Station Garden in the Authentic Foothill Gardens at Sierra Madre City Hall, the Rosemont Preserve, and the Fire Wise demonstration garden at Theodore Payne Foundation.  

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Why Not Fountain Grass?

California Native Plant Society, September 2012. By Roger Klemm: Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum) is a bunchgrass from Africa that is widely planted as an ornamental plant in portions of the United States with warm winters. It is a tough, vigorous plant that will tolerate adverse conditions of heat and drought. It does not appear to suffer from any pests or diseases, and many people appreciate its graceful seed heads produced in profusion over the spring and summer months.

The downside is that in California, Fountain Grass has no natural enemies and readily out-competes other plants. It is invasive, and if you plant it in your yard, you will soon have seedlings of Fountain Grass popping up wherever there is bare soil. It will even grow vigorously in the gaps between sections of concrete and bedrock of natural slopes. Its seeds are carried long distances in the wind, so if your neighbor has it in their yard, it will eventually end up in yours, and the nearby natural areas. If you are in a fire hazard area, it is especially dangerous, as it dries out early in the summer and becomes extremely flammable. Read More

Fountain vs. Deer Grass

Two beautiful, shapely blondes, but only one is a true friend to LA

September 30, 2017. By Cassy Aoyagi:  Her beautiful, sparkling gold feathers flow like cornsilk in the wind. The movements of her curvy shape can mesmerize. The power of Fountain Grass is obvious.  No doubt, she’s one of the more popular grasses in LA. We aren’t fans.

Pretty can get you pretty far, and she is that. Her advocates make Fountain Grass sound friendly too. They’ll go so far as to call her drought tolerant! Well, that’s technically true. (But it’s the Regina George kind of tolerant.) If we take the time to look beyond her surface beauty, Fountain Grass is nothing but the ultimate mean girl. Lest you think I’m just jealous of her looks, check out what Roger Klemm has to say about her.

I’d like to nominate another homecoming queen, the equally pretty and far more generous Deer grass.

Fountain, like her look-alike friends Pampas and Mexican feather grass, spreads seeds of trouble near and far.  In contrast, Deer grass has some truly endearing qualities. She:

  • Waves delightful gold wands that sparkle in the sunlight
  • Rocks a curvy base of deep, true green
  • Holds her own while respecting others space
  • Plays well with others, even letting friends take center stage
  • Keeps her seeds to herself

We know, Fountain Grass is pretty and popular. But at some point, don’t we all have to ask ourselves what kind of friends we want to invite to our homes?


Feather Grass vs. Aristada



By Cassy Aoyagi:  Both Stipa tenuissima and Aristide purpurea grasses provide vertical visual interest and tendrils that will wave in a breeze. In addition, both actually perform without much water.

Curious as to how Stipa earned its seat on the [wet-to-dry] exchange? A clue:  Stipa’s seeds place it in the same category as Pennisetum and Pampass grasses – invasives that are nothing but trouble!

formla_041Aristada Purpurea

Blondes do not always have more fun! This sweet grass, native to areas throughout California, has a lot of Stipa-like characteristics.  Unlike Stipia, Aristida purpurea does not increase fire danger, supports wildlife and will maintain its place. As an exchange, Aristida has some distinctive charms:

Provides the same height and texture. Aristida is a very light and airy textured grass that reaches the same height as Stipa, with a narrow and upright form.

Pops with PURPLE seed heads. What could be prettier! When in seed, Aristida purpurea takes on some of the “blonde” colored qualities as the Stipa, but the contrast of the purple seed heads is glorious. It won’t get as thick as a Stipa, but you can counter that by planting more clumps of it to make your point.

Attracts birds. Aristida sings!

Holds its looks in the long term. Very low water, Aristida purpurea grass will look its best during the warm seasons, but being a perennial, will hold its own year round.

Is hassle-free. It may enjoy your admiration, but it won’t require much attention – just a little cut back toward the end of summer.

Pair Aristada with companions and materials that will not overwhelm it and with colors that will contrast nicely against it, like, Festuca idahoensis,Carex tumilicolaCarex glauca or Artemisia ‘Canyon Grey’ or ‘Davids Choice‘.


Stipa Tenuissima, Mexican Feather Grass

Stipa tenuissima, local to areas all over the US has a blonde color and fine texture matched by no other grass, making it eye-catching and highly desirable from an aesthetic perspective. One aspect of that fine texture is the multiplicity of seeds that the grass produces. If not for the terribly invasive nature of its seeds, this grass would have a big thumbs up.  Unfortunately, Stipa, like other invasives:

Create fire danger. While they outperform natives during the good times, invasives tend to dry up when the going gets tough. The more invasives we have in our hills, the more we exacerbate the fire, flood, slide cycle.

Can’t stay put. By definition, an invasive is a wanderer that will quickly leave its spot in the garden to explore the rest of your landscape… and California hillsides.

Repel wildlife. Invasives often outperform the native foliage, leaving native species of wildlife bereft of sustenance and shelter.


Pampas Grass vs. Yucca

Pampas Grass (Cortaderia selloana) vs. Our Lords Candle (Hesperoyucca Whipplei Parishi)

By Cassy Aoyagi: Two plants provide plumes of white that look like large sticks of cotton candy peppering California hillsides. Don’t be fooled! Both have spikey foliage capable of taking a good bite out of you! One is native here and throughout much of the warm-weathered U.S., and it is well adapted to fight drought and fire. The other invaded our hillsides and bears responsibility for a good share of Los Angeles’ fire, flood, slide cycle. Which will you choose to have in your garden?

Pampas Grass (Cortaderia selloana)


Foam-capped waves of the ocean line one side of the Pacific Coast Highway, cliffs of feathery white the other. We see so much Pampas Grass in our wild spaces, it is easy to believe it belongs there. It does not!

Pampas Grass was introduced as an ornamental for erosion control. It was not an entirely illogical choice. It thrives in hot sun, adapts to a wide variety of soils, and resists deer.  Now well established in our community, Pampas Grass makes profound contributions to our fire, flood, slide cycles. Why?

  • It works itself into the delicate soils of crevices and corners, further dislodging soil.
  • It resists many California native fauna – unappealing as a food source, it depletes habitat as it spreads.
  • Each of the sparkling, feathery plumes of Pampas Grass can contain 100,000 seed heads. Is it any wonder the California Invasive Plant Council rates it as highly invasive?

Ironically, there is a lovely California native with truly unique blooms and extraordinary architectural foliage that retains slopes with none of the Pampas’ downside.

Hesperoyucca Whipplei Parishi, Our Lords Candle

Coming upon a Yucca Whipplei sparks wonder. Prevalent from the coast to the alpine regions around California, Yucca’s blue-grey, spikey and highly architectural foliage can be as much as 6’ feet in diameter where it has space to grow. A pretty extraordinary wet-to-dry exchange, Yucca actually likes periods of completely dry soil.


Yucca, another edible fire fighter, finds spots nestled within the California Buckwheat.

Yucca’s blooms are both impressive and unique. Lasting for weeks, hundreds of bell-like flowers form clusters that top 8’ foot spikes. They fill the hills in June, wrapping up their bloom in early July. Check out rocky slopes to catch the last of these magnificent “candles” interspersed with fully blooming Eriogonum fasciculatum (California Buckwheat), and Zauchneria species.

Yucca has its own downsides – harmless quirks, really. After Yucca’s bloom, the full plant dies. Its pups and seeds then create new plants in its place. These pups and plants will take several years to bloom themselves. Also, like Pampas Grass, sharp Yucca leaves can bite and slice, so it’s smart to place them away from paths and walks.

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