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!