Sunday, December 25, 2011

It Must be Christmas: California Christmas Berry

This time of year always brings fond memories for me. As a child, upon arrival at my grandparents’ house on Christmas day I would see a large wreath hung on the front door. The wreath was aromatic and made up of cedar, small pine cones and, of course, English holly. Or was it?

As I look back now the latter may not have been holly at all. Taking into account my grandpa and great-uncle Bert’s interest in San Diego’s back country, it could very well have been created from a local favorite found in the foothills and mountains where my great-uncle had a cabin. The favorite I’m referencing was Heteromeles arbutifolia (Toyon) also known as Christmas Berry.

Heteromeles arbutifolia is a dicot, a shrub native to California occurring only slightly beyond our state’s borders. An extremely diverse plant, Christmas Berry is found in forty-five of California’s fifty-eight counties. A large evergreen shrub/small tree typically growing from eight ft. high and wide but known to grow to twenty ft. where growth conditions are optimal. 

Because the first European settlers in Southern California thought the leaves and berries resembled English holly, coupled with the fact the species grew so abundantly in the area of what is now Hollywood, it is believed that the infamous city received its namesake from the plant.

In fact, it is said that the berries were so popular for use in Christmas decorations that a law was passed in the 1920’s making it illegal to pick the branches on public land!

Prior to the arrival of the first Anglo inhabitants, local Native American tribes, such as  Chumash, Tongva, and Tataviam, utilized the berries of Christmas Berry as a food source. They made tea from the leaves which served as a stomach remedy.  These leaves were also dried, stored and cooked as porridge or pancakes. Later settlers made the berries into a jelly also adding sugar to make custard and wine.  The berries are known today to contain small amounts of cyanide but these compounds volatize off after being cooked, leaving a flavor reminiscent of cherry.

Fast forward to today. Heteromeles is a very hardy and drought tolerant plant for the native garden.  It’s tolerant of most soil types; summer irrigation also makes it fire resistant by keeping the plant lightly hydrated during spring and summer. In addition, it is versatile—growing in the shade of mixed forest and oak woodland plant communities. Thriving in full sun from coastal sage scrub to inland chaparral, Christmas Berry looks great pruned up as a stand-alone specimen plant, as a hedge, or grouped with manzanita, Rhus integrifolia, Rhamnus spp., deer grass and Ceanothus.

Toyon’s signature red berry clusters appear in winter, but they start in spring as small white five-petaled flowers that attract butterflies and have a spicy odor similar to Hawthorn. Toyon also qualifies as a habitat plant attracting a variety of birds—including cedar waxwings, quail,  towhees, western bluebird, robins, mockingbirds and native band-tailed pigeons.

Regardless of what one calls it, be it Heteromeles, Toyon, or Christmas Berry, for me it will always be a reminder of the holly wreath on my grandparents’ front door that meant only one thing—it must be Christmas! 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Native Plants, Healthy Diet?

In the 1960’s and 70's my father extolled the virtues of the natural food movement popularized by the  generation. Even though at the time I didn’t appreciate the benefits of eating a healthy diet, that soon changed as my palate began to mature with the onset of adulthood.

During those exploratory years I read that people questioning the right diet for themselves could look to the region where they grew up. Refining the idea further, they could also consider areas that 'resonated as home’. The philosophy professed that one’s ideal diet would emulate that which native peoples of that particular region would have eaten. 

At the time I discovered this philosophy I was living in Utah. I began to ponder what my ’home region’ diet would consist of. Hailing from Southern California, it dawned on me that the ideal regional diet for myself would be native Californian, hence California Cuisine.

Upon further research, I realized that California Cuisine was made up of mostly exotic foods endemic to the other four Mediterranean climates. The ideal diet I was seeking would consist of authentic California Cuisine. These sources of sustenance would occur naturally in the mountains, foothills, valleys and coast line of California. I began to ponder that which the indigenous people of California would have included in their diet.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the incredibly diverse flora and fauna of California supported fifty two tribes of aboriginal people, the largest population of all the states in the union. Along with traditional lean meats acquired from hunting deer, rabbit, foul and seafood, the original California Cuisine was made up of grains, fruits, acorns, shrubs, succulents, forbs, and the seeds of native grasses and wildflowers.

Today forward-thinking Californians are beginning to realize that they can enjoy the health benefits of authentic California Cuisine right in their own backyards.  There are many plant species available that not only provide aesthetic interest, water savings, and habitat restoration, but provide the very food sources that the indigenous inhabitants included in their healthy and tasteful diets. These plants are easy to grow and make a tasty and interesting addition to the contemporary balanced diet.

As a garden designer specializing in California’s native flora, people often ask my opinion with regard to the ethno-botanical aspect of native plants. Ultimately, site conditions of your home garden will dictate which plants work best, but popular examples of plants that will tempt your taste buds include Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), Mexican Elderberry (Sambucus mexicana), California Grape (Vitis californica). Seeds of Blue Wildrye (Elymus glaucus), Red Maids (Calandrinia ciliate), Tidy-tips (Layia platyglossa), Goldfields (Lasthenia glabrata) and  Chia (Saliva spp.). Other common favorites for the native garden include Buckwheat (Eriogonum spp.), Artemisia spp., Prunus illicifolia, Ceanothus spp., Purple Needlegrass (Nassella pulchra).

There is so much more than meets the eye in the native garden. We can take a cue from our four-legged and feathered friends as well as our states’ indigenous inhabitants. Look a little deeper and discover some of the nutritious and delicious foods that have been hiding in plain sight, right in our own backyards!

Monday, September 12, 2011

A Hum Dinger: Attracting humminbirds to the native Landscape

Add a delightful element to your landscape and attract hummingbirds. Luring these energetic creatures to the native garden enlivens your yard and provides these winged visitors with a variety of benefits.

"Hummingbirds and the native flora that they feed from and nest in have co-evolved for thousands of years," says Rob Moore of California Native Landscape Design in Brea, California. "Native plants that attract hummingbirds and provide them with the best source for a balanced diet are the flowers, shrubs, and trees that naturally occur along their migration routes and native haunts."

To make your yard a preferred hummingbird dining and nesting spot, Moore suggests a few tips.

Provide quality food sources.  Hummingbirds have to eat twice their body weight in nectar and insects daily, so the ideal menu is important to maintain their energy. Flowers, hummingbirds like dining on include Diplacus species, better known as Monkey flower. All colors are used by hummingbirds, but they seem to prefer the red species such as  Diplacus puniceus, D. rutilus and Mimulus cardinalis. Penstemon spp, such as Scarlet Bugler, Penstemon centranthifolius, are preferred by hummingbirds as well.

Trees and shrubs favored by hummingbirds include Sambucus Elderberry, Arctostaphylos spp.. Manzanita and Ceanothus are popular examples.

Choose red and orange tubular-shaped flowers whenever possible. Hummers flock to red flowers, which tend to be overlooked by insect pollinators who fail to see this color clearly according to scientists.

When choosing plants focus on variety of species. Hummingbirds prefer a mixed diet of nectar from multiple sources for their daily diet. Arrange and locate plants throughout your property with species that bloom at different times and that are in eye-shot of places you enjoy viewing the garden.

Provide water. Hummingbirds especially like bird baths that drip or recirculate and will hover and sip the flowing water. They will also perch on the edge and drink as other birds do. The sound of running water is like a magnet to humming birds and other species such as goldfinches. Additionally, it will add the soothing and relaxing element of sound to your landscape.

Keep snags and introduce deadwood. Both provide food, shelter, and nesting places for many birds, and other garden friendly critters. For example hummingbirds, most often perch on dead limbs rather than living ones, and decomposing deadwood provides added food sources. 

– Julie Bawden Davis

Master Gardener Julie Bawden Davis is author of "Indoor Gardening the Organic Way" (Taylor Trade, 2007).

Excerpted from Wildflower, the Magazine of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center University of Texas at Austin

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Plant Selection: California Native Plant Communities

When designing a California native garden, plant selection is probably the one aspect people find most exciting – and daunting! At this juncture it’s good to pause and consider questions such as “What plant community do I live in?” and “How do I go about identifying this community?” This step requires one to look at the design process from a different perspective—that of emulating the natural ecosystem or plant community that existed prior to the development of the home and neighborhood where the garden is to be developed. Identifying this natural ecosystem is the first step in the plant selection process.

Generally speaking, most of the densely populated areas in California (primarily those in the southern part of the state) are located in the coastal sage scrub plant community. Inland areas in southern California such as Riverside and San Bernardino have their own version of this plant community referred to as interior, or Riversidian sage scrub. There are many other specific climates to be considered depending upon where in California you live. Examples include northern oak woodland, northern juniper woodland, central oak woodland, yellow pine forest, Douglas Fir forest, valley grassland, and Great Basin sage, to name a few.

Look around the neighborhood where the garden is to be designed, and take note of areas that haven’t been developed. Do stands of intact native plant groups still occur naturally? Note what plants are growing there, and how they grow together. Another clue is to look for native plant volunteers popping up in people’s ornamental landscapes. These indicator plants offer insight as to what will easily grow in your particular neighborhood.

If you live in an area where no natural areas exist and native plant volunteers are not obvious, there are other resources available. Las Pilitas Nursery has a website where you can enter your zip code, locate the plant community associated with it, and find links to plants that occur naturally in that specific region.

Tree of Life Nursery’s website is a valuable resource as well. In particular, their series Sage Advice “The California Garden” (located under Resources/Sage Advice) is an excellent source from which to choose plants based on California native plant communities.

Take a tip from Mother Nature, make California's native plant communities the starting point when choosing plants for your new garden!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Water Conservation Equals Energy Conservation!

Most Californians understand that swelling populations in the southwest are and will continue to outpace water supply both from the California State Water Project sources and the Colorado River.

Additionally, Golden state residents are learning that water-wise habits in our landscape and gardens can save up to 60 percent of this precious resource. But something many folks aren’t aware of is that there is another compelling reason to reduce excessive water usage: energy conservation.  

The California State Water Project is the largest state-built water and power development and conveyance system in the nation. It includes facilities—pumping and power plants; reservoirs, lakes, and storage tanks; and canals, tunnels, and pipelines—that capture, store, and convey water to 29 water agencies from one end of the state to the other.

The SWP’s watershed begins in the mountains and waterways around the Feather River and Lake Oroville areas north of Sacramento. It continues south through a multitude of conveyance systems and pumping stations finally terminating in the southern most point at Lake Perris in Riverside county. 

Pumping (moving) and treating this water is incredibly energy-intensive! For example, the state water project, with its big pumps that move water over the Tehachapi Mountains to Southern California, is the state’s single biggest user of electricity!

With this in mind we as consumers of this water can make smarter, more informed choices. Collectively we can have a powerful impact on energy consumption in our state. 

How so you may ask? It’s simple, outdated energy-use habits associated with water use from our landscapes and gardens combined with our home appliances such as dishwashers, hot water heaters, and laundry machines — add up to a lot of unnecessary pollution and waste. The California Energy Commission estimates that twenty percent of our state’s electricity is associated with water use, mostly by urban customers.

We all can do our part to reduce excessive water usage with very little effort and lifestyle change.  Turn your tap off whenever possible, upgrade that inefficient water heater or dishwasher when it is at the end of its useful life and install water-wise landscapes and gardens

Remember that adopting smart water-use habits is an easy way that every one of us can have a direct, positive impact on our environment statewide and with a modicum of effort we all can conserve our most precious resources!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Sowing California Native Wildflowers

Late autumn is a great time to sow next spring’s annual California wildflower crop in your home garden. California’s indigenous people utilized our native annual seeds as a food staple for thousands of years. Along with other sources of sustenance such as the acorns of our local oaks, California’s wildflower seeds were ground in mortar pits and used as a regular food source called Pinole.
Today, as forward-thinking gardeners we can take a page out of history and continue the tradition of sowing seeds of the many different varieties of wildflowers available. Doing so requires little effort and will reward you with an abundance of annual beauty year after year. 

Start by choosing varieties that naturally occur in the plant community you live in. Not sure which community? Learn more here: California native plant communities

Next, find a reputable source such as Larner Seeds or Tree of Life Nursery and order a packet of seed mix that is appropriate for your property’s micro-climate.

Follow this link for step by step planting instructions for California native wildflowers

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Plant Profile: Vitis californica ‘Roger’s Red’

Vitis californica ‘Roger’s Red’ is a fast growing native grape vine discovered by Roger Raiche.  Although previously considered a cultivar this plant is now considered to be a natural occurring hybrid between the native Vitis californica and the European wine grape Vitis vinifera.

Like its European counter-parts this grape vine is a vigorous climber (spreader) and can meander up a trellis quickly creating a screen to hide a bare wall or fence. This plant has large green oval shaped leaves, tendrils, and produces edible clusters of small grapes in late summer. The fruit is seedy, but makes a tasty juice and is a great habitat plant for birds! This Vitis is also adaptable to a variety of soil and watering regimes as well as sun/shade micro-climate exposures. Just make sure you have plenty of space as it can easily spread to 30+ feet.

Vitis californica ‘Roger’s Red’ is my choice for planting in narrow beds next to walls and fences. Couple with a rock, a Rush and/or riparian variety of California native bunch grass for an interesting plant grouping. The aforementioned attributes, combined with it’s cool, flaky cinnamon colored bark, and the fact you can make jelly, juice and even wine from the fruit makes this Vitis a perfect addition to the California native garden!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Plant Profile: Nemophila menziesii Baby Blue Eyes

Nemophila menziesii Baby Blue Eyes get their name from bright blue flowers dotted with black on white centers. Found virtually throughout the state in a diverse setting of  California plant communities such as meadows, grasslands, chaparral, woodlands, slopes, and desert washes; Nemophila menziesii is an endemic California wildflower, attractive to bees, butterflies and birds making them an excellent addition to the California native garden.

They are freely self-sowing if planted in a mulch-free environment and are suitable for growing in containers. Typically, Baby Blue Eyes are early bloomers (mid-winter) and have a growth habit under 1 ft in height/width with average water needs. Growing happily in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 3-10, Nemophila menziesii prefer light soils and dry conditions, but are adaptable and make an excellent front of border plant.

Sow seeds of this California native in full sun on the coast transitioning to filtered sun/part shade inland. Group them with taller-growing spring bloomers such as Layia platyglossa Tidy Tips, Lupinus succulentus Arroyo Lupine, Gilia capitata Globe Gilia and late blooming wildflowers such as Clarkia amoena Farewell-to-Spring for a long-lasting show of California native annuals!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Theodore Payne: the Man, the Vision, the Legacy

Theodore Payne, arguably known today as the father of California’s native plant movement, was introduced to California native plants at The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in England in 1891.

Born in Northamptonshire, England on June 19, 1872 a young Theodore Payne began his career serving an apprenticeship in horticulture for J. Cheal and Sons, a nursery firm in London. After three years, in 1893, Payne completed his contract and traveled to the United States.

Arriving in New York, he traveled to Chicago and visited the World's Columbian Exhibition, shortly thereafter setting out for Los Angeles, California. After arriving in Southern California, he took work picking apricots, before finding a job overseeing the gardens on the ranch of Madame Helena Modjeska in Santiago Canyon. Nestled into the Santa Ana Mountain range in Orange County, it was there that he began his life-long interest in California native plants, exploring the extensive natural areas surrounding the Ranch.

Even in the early years of the 20th century, native vegetation was being lost to agriculture, housing, and ever-increasing construction of infrastructure. Recognizing this was happening at an alarming rate, Theodore Payne began advocating for the use of California native plants in place of the standard fare of exotic species being pushed by the California Dept. of Forestry. He lectured up and down the state on the importance of preserving wild flowers and landscapes native to California, and the preservation of native habitat.

Read more about Theodore Payne’s enduring legacy preserving California’s native plants!

Plan on attending the Eighth Annual Theodore Payne Garden Tour April 9th and 10th 10-4!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Plant Profile: California Native Bunchgrasses

One of the questions I always ask my clientele during the preliminary design phase is if they like California native bunchgrasses. From a design perspective, bunchgrasses offer a plethora of benefits both aesthetic and functional.  Attributes include contrast, the element of motion, habitat restoration, visual interest, and historical value.

Experts conclude that native grasslands in California are among the most endangered ecosystem in the United States. Due in most part to historical land use and introduced disease, it is estimated that less than 1% of our state’s original grasslands remain. Fortunately, as forward-thinking home and business owners, we can address this issue by including California’s native grasses in our residential and commercial landscapes.

A short list of favorites for the garden include Purple Three-Awn Aristida purpurea, Blue Grama Bouteloua gracilis, California Fescue Festuca californica, Giant Wild Rye Leymus condensates, California Melic Melica californica, Deer Grass Muhlenbergia rigens, and Purple Needlegrass Nassella pulchra (our state grass here in California). Grass-like species such as Sedges Carex spp. are a great addition to a California-friendly, native garden as well.

In their natural environment, native grasses typically occur in groups with bare ground between them where wildflowers grow. Even though some gardeners feel grasses look messy; in consideration of wildlife value, letting things go to seed and having an area that's 'messy' is good for seed-eaters and butterflies.  Alternatively, hand trimming at the appropriate time of year is preferable aesthetically, and an occasional grooming to remove dead leaves and spent flower stalks or a seasonal coppice is perfectly acceptable and will keep them looking tidy.

Most of the aforementioned ornamental grasses will prefer a sunny spot in the landscape and will be tolerant of drought once established, though most species will look better with occasional summer water.

Like many native plants, grasses play an important role in providing cover, nesting materials, and additional food sources for beneficial, garden-friendly wildlife. Coupled with the addition of contrast, the element of motion, habitat restoration, and historical value, I’m confident that you will enjoy the addition of California’s native bunchgrasses to your garden!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Stubby's Story

Statistics show that by the early '90's urban sprawl in California had reduced our coastal sage scrub ecosystem by more than 90 percent. As you may already know, coastal sage scrub is the habitat of the threatened California Gnatcatcher and Cactus Wren. Another lesser-known example of native bird that has been impacted by this statistic is the California Towhee. On top of habitat loss, Towhees and other ground-foraging birds are suffering heavily from suburban populations of feral cats.

I've become fond of these particular birds since becoming aware of their plight. Also contributing to this affection is the fact that a pair of Towhees have been frequenting my backyard now for quite some time. I would recognize them not only by their signature chirp as they flew into my yard, but because one of the birds had a short tail and I would find it humorous to watch as she hopped across the yard before stopping to scratch for seed. I  affectionately referred to this particular bird as 'Stubby' the Towhee.

Whenever I would see this pair, I'd have a sense of empathy and feel a bit of concern because in providing a backyard habitat for local, native critters, I'd noticed that feral cats also had been frequenting my garden more often.

On an afternoon in August, my wife commented that one such regular neighborhood cat was in the yard. When I glanced out the window I noticed that this particular cat was carrying something in its mouth and my first thought was that it had caught a bird. There is quite a bit of bird activity in our yard; mostly mourning doves, house sparrows and the like so I suppressed the urge to go out back and intervene, accepting the harsh reality that nature plays out its own drama in both natural ecosystems as well as ones designed.

I thought about it again and decided to go out and have a look anyway. I found the cat under a shrub and clapped loudly to scare it away-which worked, but upon closer inspection, I realized that I had become a witness to a statistic, and that the bird that had been caught by the cat was Stubby the Towhee. Stubby was still alive but died after an hour or so.

I don't usually become attached to the wild critters that frequent my yard, but I was really sad when I realized that of all of the birds that visit my little backyard habitat, it was not only a Towhee, but just happened to be that funny little, stubby-tailed Towhee that I found so entertaining as I would look out my studio window in the morning.

Domestic cats are pound for pound one of the most efficient hunters anywhere in the world and they prey on rodents and beneficial garden-friendly critters alike. One way you can help with this specific issue is to put a bell-collar on your cat if you let them outdoors. Or better yet, just keep them inside!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Create a Certified Wildlife Habitat

Whether you have an apartment balcony, a 20-acre farm, or just your standard suburban home, you can create a garden that attracts beautiful wildlife and helps restore habitat in commercial and residential areas. By simply providing food, water, cover and a place for wildlife to raise their young--and by incorporating sustainable gardening practices --you not only help wildlife, but you also qualify to have your garden become an official Certified Wildlife Habitat™.

Provide Food for Wildlife

Everyone needs to eat! Planting native forbs, shrubs and trees is the easiest way to provide the foliage, nectar, pollen, berries, seeds and nuts that many species of wildlife require to survive and thrive. You can also incorporate supplemental feeders and food sources.

Supply Water for Wildlife

Wildlife need clean water sources for many purposes, including drinking, bathing and reproduction. Water sources may include natural features such as ponds, lakes, rivers, springs, oceans and wetlands; or human-made features such as bird baths, puddling areas for butterflies, installed ponds or rain gardens.

Create Cover for Wildlife

Wildlife require places to hide in order to feel safe from people, predators and inclement weather. Consider Natural Features such as Deadwood and Snags. Use things like native vegetation, shrubs, thickets and brush piles.

Give Wildlife a Place to Raise Their Young

Beneficial Wildlife need a sheltered place to raise their offspring. Many places for cover can double as locations where wildlife can raise young, from wildflower meadows and bushes where many butterflies and moths lay their eggs, or caves where bats roost and form colonies.

Let Your Garden Go Green

How you maintain your garden or landscape can have an important effect on the health of the soil, air, water and habitat for native wildlife--as well as the human community nearby. Reducing chemical use, composting, mulching and reducing turf grass in your yard are important steps to gardening greener.

Once you have provided these essential elements to make a healthy and sustainable wildlife habitat, Get your Certified wildlife habitat sign and proudly post it in your garden. Join the thousands of forward-thinking homeowners and wildlife enthusiasts across the country who have been recognized for creating havens for neighborhood wildlife in their very own yards. These individuals have provided the essential elements for healthy and sustainable wildlife habitats and have earned the distinction of being part of National Wildlife Federation's Certified Wildlife Habitat™ program.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Public Can Help Stem the Spread of Gold-Spotted Oak Borer

University of California scientists are calling on the public to help stem the spread of the gold-spotted oak borer, a small invasive beetle that has already killed 20,000 San Diego area coast live oak, black oak and canyon live oak trees. The key to preventing the pest’s spread to additional Southern, Central and Northern California woodlands, the scientists believe, is not moving beetle-infested oak firewood from one place to another.

Firewood hauled from GSOB’s native turf - in southern Arizona, Mexico or Guatemala - most likely carried the pest to Southern California, where it was first detected in 2006. For millennia, the vast, dry Mojave Desert protected California from a GSOB invasion. But, the desert is no match for a pickup truck piled with logs.

Read more about the gold-spotted oak borer problem at