Monday, July 25, 2016

The Worst of Times, the Best of Times

White currant going summer dormant
Let's be honest A California summer garden that's watered very little (or not at all) is not the prettiest of sights. And while the rains last season were quite adequate, they did not even come close to making up for several years of extreme drought. I was quite struck by a talk by Jay Famiglietti this spring in which he discussed issues around water in California. And his message was clear: Water as little as possible.

California native plants have different strategies for coping with the dry season - and regrettably, summer dormancy is a fairly popular one. The white currant above doubled in size during the rains - then it was unable to hang on to that much new growth. I've cut it back, and I'm hoping it comes back in the fall.

Monkey flower semi-dormant in summer
Monkey flowers are so popular for their beautiful, profuse flowers - but even in part sun, the monkey flower above looks unsightly even after I pruned the top 50%.

Many other plants drop many of their leaves and grow a new set. For example, my Cleveland sage - they grey plant in the background behind the buckwheat - now has leaves that are much smaller and more hairy to help it through the long sunny days.

CA native buckwheat (center) Cleveland sage (left) and Pajaro manzanita (right)
So, what's a gardener to do? Here are my strategies.

Ignore it!
Yes, with the neighbors dry lawns my garden doesn't look bad at all. And while the currant and monkey flowers are more brown than I like, having enough green and flowering plants in the garden helps move the eye away from the sore spots. Below, the yellow flowers and interesting fruit stands of the bladderpod take the eye away from the monkey flower in the background.


Embrace it!
This season more than ever I've done my best to let the annuals go to seed - and that included placing little "bouquets" of dry sticks on the ground where I want more flowers. Collecting seeds requires more time and energy than I have. Let's just do it mother nature's way...

Clarkia stalks in front of perennial goldenrod
Yes, my pitcher sages really don't like the long dry summer - but they were so stunning and green last spring that I'm thinking of this as a dry flower arrangement. And with enough green in the background, it' doesn't look bad. 

I water the front garden by hand every 3 weeks, really more a rinse than a watering, so I'm actually impressed it's doing as well as it is.

Pitcher sage, summer dormant
Enjoy it!
Finally, especially in summer, location is important. While some of the monkey flowers are looking pretty dismal, others, under a shade-cloth pergola, look pretty decent - the hummingbirds are happy!

And the buckwheats are doing their best to bring some cheer to the summer garden. Not to mention the pollinators and butterflies that visit the garden all the time. For the critters, there is a difference between a dead lawn and a mix of semi-dormant and blooming CA natives!

Buckwheat in background, iris leaves in foreground
This year, we even have berries on the "Claremont" current that bloomed so spectacularly this spring. They're tasty in a mouth-puckering sort of way, and I have one or two each time I walk by. 

The greatest joy, however, is still to see the birds and butterflies come by for a visit, enjoying the garden with us. Another reason to have a garden that's a little bit messy, a little bit bedraggled, a little bit wild. 

Juncos enjoying seeds of the lavender and Cleveland sage

Friday, July 15, 2016

California's Beautiful Beneficial Bountiful Buckwheats Beat the Heat

Island buckwheat, Eriogonum arborescens, in Town Mouse garden

The great Nevin Smith says of buckwheats:
They are the ridge runners, the cliff dwellers, and the denizens of rocky scree and (fortunately, for the more fainthearted tourist) road banks. (Native Treasures p 179.)
And -- they are the delightful denizens of native plant gardens in July and on into fall. This post is kind of a compendium of Buckwheats I have grown - or want to. And you might want to too.

All have lots of pom-pom (or sometimes flattened pom-pom) heads of densely clustered tiny flowers held aloft on stems that "radiate like spokes from a common base" (Smith), ranging in color from white, cream, yellow, orange, and pink to crimson.

Their blooms last long and slowly turn shades of cinnamon brown that have visual appeal even for those of us who have not fully learned the love of such sunny California tints.

Eriogonum is a huge genus. Over a hundred species and subspecies grow in California and as many again elsewhere. It is related through its botanical family tree to the kind we eat - in the genus Fagopyrum, which originated in Asia.

Buckwheats are great for pollinators; bees and especially butterflies love the nectar. In addition, bees use the pollen to feed larva and butterfly larvae (aka caterpillars, aka protein-rich baby food for birds) can eat the plants.

Caterpillars don't (in my experience) eat whole plants - please leave the caterpillars. No caterpillars, no birds -- or butterflies.

Deer never eat naked buckwheat or any other species I'm growing -- except sometimes coastal (E. latifolium) and rosy buckwheat (E. rubicunda)- at least my deer never do. Other buckwheats vary. Rosy buckwheat grows safe within a fence on my property, for example.

I grow several different sorts of buckwheats on my sunny Central Coast ridge and I'll show you pictures of them below. Everyone who can should grow these cheerful plants!

For more info on buckwheats - advice on garden use, and pictures of even more species - see this Las Pilitas page. And for a list of many butterflies that buckwheats support, see this other Las Pilitas page.

Eriogonum nudum, Naked Buckwheat - My local native

This is the only buckwheat that grows wild near me. It's also the most common species in California, according to Nevin Smith. 

Native wasp on a naked buckwheat flower.
Buckwheats also provide food for caterpillars and pollen for bee larvae

Clouds and clouds of tiny white to pink pom-poms float about four feet in the air atop the long stems.

Naked buckwheat in my garden (this photo and following ones)

The nearest wild population of our local buckwheat is about a mile away from my garden. It grows on the dry sandy slopes uphill from a creek. This is where I gathered seeds, many years ago now.

Buckwheats are tough. Here growing wild on a dry sandy slope a mile from our home.

Naked buckwheat plants rise high from a basal whorl of felty leaves on upward-growing, elegantly dividing naked stems, which are hollow, and (like all buckwheat species) brittle.

Because the basal flowers tend to get crusty in the dry summer garden (and because it's rather tall for front of border), naked buckwheat is best used in the middle of things.

Here's a lovely article on naked buckwheat by a fellow native plant gardener and writer, Debbie Ballantine

BTW - I'm curious to see if I get any naked buckwheat hybrids popping up in the garden. This was my fear when I used to grow only this one species, but I've since loosened the reins. I feel only a little uneasy about this guilty pleasure! I'm not going to provide seeds or plants for restoration anywhere else, and I don't think the wild ones are close enough to be in danger of gene pool pollution from my other garden beauties.

Eriogonum crocatum, Conejo Buckwheat

Conejo buckwheat, Eriogonum crocatum. Photo: John Rusk

I bought my single plant some years ago from East Bay Wilds, Pete Veilleux's native plant nursery in the middle of Oakland. (Look for Pete's photos on Flickr - amazing!)
I'll let John Rusk give you some information on this lemony-yellow buckwheat, which grows successfully in my hot south garden.
Eriogonum crocatum—Conejo buckwheat. Included in the CNPS Inventory of Rare and Endangered Plants on list 1B.2 (rare, threatened, or endangered in CA and elsewhere). The species is also listed by the State of California as Rare. The only wild populations are in the Conejo Grade area of Ventura County (I probably trampled over several plants when I was with the Seabees back in the early 1960s). Successfully introduced to coastal southern California gardens, trickier elsewhere. Each flower within the inflorescence measures 5 to 6 mm. Photographed at Regional Parks Botanic Garden located in Tilden Regional Park near Berkeley, CA.

Eriogonum umbellatum var. polyanthum, Shasta Sulfur Buckwheat

Eriogonum umbellatum var. polyanthum, Shasta Sulfur Buckwheat -- in a friend's garden

Popular in gardens, this can be a short-lived species. But well worth it for the splash of color. It's a brighter yellow than the E. crocatum, I think, but like that buckwheat, is a compact plant. The flower heads have a nice tight geometrical arrangement. I'm not currently growing this one but have - and will again.

Eriogonum rubicunda, Rosy Buckwheat

This to my mind is simply the most GORGEOUS buckwheat you can grow! But deer will eat this one more than others. I'm growing it behind a fence.

Eriogonum grande rubescens, rosy buckwheat, in my garden with
Clarkia rubicunda, ruby chalice clarkia, to right, Keckiella cordifolia, heartleaf penstemon, upper right,
and Encelia californica, coastal or brittle leaf sunflower, upper left (nearing the end of its big bloom period).

A favorite shot of mine - Eriogonum grande rubescens in a garden I photographed for an article a while back

Here's E. grande rubescens, rosy buckwheat, turning cinnamon in late summer

Eriogonum latifolium, Coast Buckwheat

Coast buckwheat are gorgeous in the wild - you can see lots on the bluffs at Wilder Ranch State park, and other locations north of Santa Cruz. And elsewhere along the coast of California too.

Their pom-poms are about an inch big and vary from creamy to pink. Deer do nibble them though, in my garden.

Eriogonum latifolium, coast buckwheat, growing wild north of Santa Cruz

Eriogonum latifolium, coast buckwheat. Indificual plants grow in a big pincushion form

Oops! these are Eriogonum parvifolium, sea cliff buckwheat! Thanks to my astute commenter Katie for clearing up my doubts here!

E. latifolium in a friend's garden, with native bee.

In my garden, they are growing creamy white with big flower heads. Does it depend on soil, the color?
These are children of the children of the wild plants pictured above (or their nearby siblings)

Eriogonum arborescens, Santa Cruz Island Buckwheat

Eriogonum arborescens, Santa Cruz Island buckwheat, in Town Mouse garden
Nevin Smith is really enthusiastic about this long-lived buckwheat as a great small shrub (up to three feet tall and wider) especially for dry slopes. Its flowers are a kind of old-fashioned muted pink I really love and they grade into a lovely pinkish brown shade as they dry.

I've got a small one growing which I dug from Town Mouse's garden while she wasn't looking. No - just kidding - she kindly offered me a couple that had grown from seed near her lovely plants (see top of post). One is surviving and I'm hoping for great things from it next year.

Eriogonum giganteum, Saint Catherine's Lace Buckwheat

If you want a big dramatic statement -- go for the giant! 

Eriogonum giganteum, Sant Catherine's lace buckwheat in my garden
 - actually just below it on a dry sandy chaparral slope

E. giganteum reseeded itself massively this year - after several years of just not being there!

The flower heads are big as dinner plates - no, bigger! Unlike most buckwheats and like other unrelated plants
given the common name Saint Catherine's lace -- the flower heads are spread out in a flat arrangement.
Flower heads are as big as - no, bigger than! -- dinner plates.

Attractively felted large gray-green leaves grow up the plant rather than in a basal whorl.

I love this buckwheat - but it may reseed too enthusiastically in my totally dry, sandy, sloping chaparral slope. In fact some years ago, I stopped growing it - uprooted all my plants and any seedlings that followed -- when I was growing E. nudum for seed collection and sharing (to avoid danger of hybridization).

That was some years ago - and yet this year, a whole bank of them has sprouted up where I used to grow them! I put it down to the rainy winter which seems to have primed all sorts of things to put on a great show this year. I'm not sure if I'll let it spread - it really is nice and I might let it go a bit to see how it behaves.

Eriogonum fasciculatum, California buckwheat

Eriogonum fasciculatum, California buckwheat, in the amazing Regional Park Botanic Garden,
a native plant wonder in Tilden Regional Park, in the Berkeley hills.

Eriogonum fasciculatum, California buckwheat - maybe!
See commenter Katie's comments below on it being possibly a "narrow-arrow form of seacliff (E. parvifolium)"

I don't grow this buckwheat currently but I plan to. It has such huge wildlife value, being a host plant for a lot of rather rare butterflies. Plus it's so tough - good for sunny dry areas. I think it gets a bit sprawl but I can't comment from experience - so it might be better for -- less formal gardens.

The leaves are different from other buckwheats, being held in needle-like fascicles, a sign of its ability to get by in hot dry summers.

For more info on this tough plant, widespread from the Central Coast south, you could start with this Wikipedia article.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Why Plant Local Natives?

All photos show local native plants and critters on our land.
Here, Clarkia rubicunda in a protected area has been reseeding for several years

I'm writing this post for a lovely person I met recently, an aesthetic pruner and lover of California natives and natural gardening, who requested it.

UPDATE 7/2/16: I just read a post on Beautiful Native Plants called The Science Behind our Commitment to Native Plants and it is worth your while to read it too. It backs up with scientific studies the points that Tallamy makes regarding native plants supporting more insect food for insectivores like birds than non-native plants - studies comparing two similar gardens, one mostly natives and the other not - and etc. Read it - it's good stuff!

Why plant local natives is a topic I've been tussling with for some time and if I waited for the tussle to be over, I'd never complete the post! 

For me - the joy of experiencing and working within a semi-intact ecosystem (or three in my case) where I live is one of the main reasons. Also keeping the native gene pool free from genes they would not encounter in the normal course of evolution (though on this a little more later.) For gardeners living in suburbs - there are other reasons.

lupin with spiderwebbing. I think it's the l lavender form of Lupinus arboreus

A little green sweat bee!

First let's find a useable definition of a native: 

A plant or animal that has evolved in a given place over a period of time sufficient to develop complex and essential relationships with the physical environment and other organisms in a given ecological community. (My emphases.)
Definition taken from The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden by Rick Darke and Douglas Tallamy.

Monardella villosa and Eriophyllum confertiflorum - coyote mint and golden yarrow

I've divided this post into five tidy little sections - and here they are.

Basic section:  Why plant local natives? Most insects evolved to need local native plants to breed on. And birds need those insects and their larvae to feed their babies.

Chalcedon Checkerspot on seaside daisy, Erigeron glaucus - which is local to our coast in Santa Cruz though not my ecosystems. Used as an ornamental and good nectar plant.

Crysalis of Chalcedon Checkerspot on local monkey flower, Mimulus aurantiacus

Douglas Tallamy is an entomologist. He's raising a movement among gardeners to build corridors of native plant gardens that will link the tiny fragments of natural land that remain "undeveloped." And only about 5% of land in the USA falls into that category. On his Bringing Nature Home web site, he says:
Our studies have shown that even modest increases in the native plant cover on suburban properties significantly increases the number and species of breeding birds, including birds of conservation concern. As gardeners and stewards of our land, we have never been so empowered to help save biodiversity from extinction, and the need to do so has never been so great. All we need to do is plant native plants!
Tallamy doesn't say local here - but in the body of his work he does stress the necessary connections between organisms in local ecosystems, especially between local native plants and local native insects which require them to breed.

Banana slug!

Tallamy works in Delaware, but while his examples are local, the principles are universal. Wherever you live -- read his book, Bringing Nature Home, and his new book (co-authored with Rick Darke), The Living Landscape.

Be sure to check his Bringing Nature Home web site for a more detailed intro to these ideas.

Pretty Clarkia rubicunda - photo 2. It's just going crazy now where it reseeds in my garden!

Slightly ranting section: Smearing life forms around the globe (or the state) is not evolution and decreases biodiversity!

One thing we humans are increasingly good at is picking up gobs of life forms from here and dumping them over there. We all know about this. It began in a serious way about 500 years ago with sailing ships, and accelerated after internal combustion engines etc turned globe trotting into globe galloping. Plants, animals, pathogens - you name it, we've spread it. Well, almost.

"But we are part of nature, and so this is natural," is a common response to this human activity. "It's all just part of evolution, isn't it?"

No. No, no no. No, I can't accept that, sorry! -- for so many reasons.

Without the natural checks and balances that exist in an organism's evolutionary home, some of these imported life forms spread freely, most especially if they are very far from that home. Those that become invasive smother the million-fold subtle relationships of naturally evolved ecosystems.

To say that all this rapid spreading is OK is (to use an extreme example to make a point) like saying it's OK to spray orange and yellow paint all over the Mona Lisa and call it a neo-Rothko: It's different but it's still good, right? Like novel ecosystems. Cos Rothko is great too, right? Oh - sorry about the Mona Lisa, though.

To me, this is a novel ecosystem -- composed of local natives some of which
(like the paintbrush, Castilleja affinis, I introduced!

Spreading life forms beyond their evolved homes has been demonstrated to reduce biodiversity.  Especially when it comes to insects. (For some supporting studies see article You Can't Evolve if You're Extinct.)

It's true we have to accept the trashed up and unmanaged areas that are now called "novel ecosystems." There's no going back, not on a large scale. But I'm still not about to celebrate it or use it as an excuse to do questionable things to the environment. (For more on this see novel ecosystems are a trojan horse for conservation -- the very term is 'novel ecosystem' is ill-defined and unsupported by examples).

Fence lizard at home

Towhee, I think, munching on native needle grass - Stipa cernua, nodding needle grass.

Like many, I'm sighing and trying to find resignation as I read about people valiantly making lemonade out of this inevitable "new normal" and its potential for perhaps providing ecosystem services -- to us humans, if not to the former ecosystem inhabitants!

Pearly everlasting

Madia elegans

Now, I know that 10 to 40 thousand years ago, wherever humans migrated to, megafauna disappeared in fairly short order, and this had a huge impact on ecosystems. Did you know that? It's not that we slaughtered them like Buffalo Bill, hundreds per day or wiped them out for fun like Passenger Pigeons. We just steadily ate them faster than they could reproduce. That's one compelling theory anyway. Except in Africa, where we all evolved together to start with.

Human interference isn't new. We were the first invasive species, you might say.  But change today is vastly greater and tremendously faster.

I also know that the forces of evolution would eventually do something with "novel ecosystem" messes -- if humans could actually leave things alone for a few thousand years. It takes time to evolve an actual ecosystem - an intricate-at-all-levels network of interdependent organisms and energy flows. But we don't stop interfering, do we.

True there are efforts made. Regulations are perhaps implemented and policed. But are they ever going to be enough?

If I'm wrong, please tell me how - because this is too depressing and I'd like to cheer up.

Another "neo-novel ecosystem" ;-)
composed of local sword fern and sedges and other local natives.

Which is one reason why on my property I'm trying to bring in a bunch of very very local natives that I propagate from local wild seed and then - if I can restrain my human urge to fiddle with things - I'll let them go and see what they do. On most of the property that is. And I'll continue to remove non-natives. It's my local refugio for local lovelies. It cheers me up.

The inevitable global warming section.

But what about planting Southern natives in the gardens of Northern California, where they will thrive as the earth warms and local natives frizzle and fry due to climate change?

So what if those Southern natives hybridize with local natives and / or escape from horticulture into the wild? Is that a good or a bad thing?

I tend to think it's bad - and that it would be better for plants in the wild to drift north under their own steam in response to climate change. After all, plants have drifted north and south and gone extinct for many ice ages now, moving and evolving at that - er - glacial pace.

Local bee on Eriophyllum confertiflorum, golden yarrow

Southern Alligator Lizard!!

Burbling Bushtits - gotta add water to that bath!

But global warming is happening so much more rapidly than any previous climate change. It's unprecedented. So how do we know what's right? This question is further explored in the article As World Warms, How Do We Decide When a Plant is Native? published in Environment 360, a publication of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Interestingly for us literature buffs, the spark for the essay came from a tree that escaped from Emily Dickinson's garden.

A section about some naysayers.

Tallamy and his scientific ilk have their naysayers, such as those who write on websites like Death of  Million Trees (e.g., see post: Do insects prefer native plants? ) and Save Mount Sutro Forest. They're where to go if you're a native plant lover and want to see yourself recast as a "nativist Nazi."

While it's fun to visit these web sites to play Spot the Logical Fallacy games (including Count the Strawmen), it can also be salutary to read them for content. Not all posts are vituperative. They have some points to make. Non native trees can indeed support a lot of wildlife and can be beautiful and harmless.

(And of course -- there IS no mythological fixed state back to which conservationists are trying to pin ecosystems, despite what Million Trees website folk say.)

Be sure to check sources, though, before you buy any ideas. Compare them with those of Douglas Tallamy and other science-based writers, and judge for yourself which are more trustworthy.

Another salutary use for these naysayer sites: it's much easier to notice how passion can distort other people's thinking. But having noticed, check yourself for symptoms. Not always fun, I can tell you from experience, but good for you.

Nice positive closing section with some practical value: Plants from the same community share the same mycorrhizal fungi. So plant them together!

Deer-nibbled ocean spray, Holodiscus discolor - with golden yarrow, Eriophyllum confertiflorum

The Las Pilitas Nursery's page on California native plant communities and companion plantings states that Mycorrhizal associations are the foundations of the plant community:
Most California native plants, their roots, their fungi (mycorrhizae), ... and other associated microorganisms are interlinked and support each other, sometimes for vast areas. ... This interconnection can extend across a whole plant community, even if that community runs for 200 miles.
The Las Pilitas Nursery page says that different plant communities have different fungal relationships - so that if you put, say a riparian habitat plant in a chamise chaparral habitat garden the seedling is unlikely to thrive even if the shade and watering are adequate. Instead:
Plant the plant within the right plant community as we've described, and the fungal community will also be stable. This fungal-plant intermix spreads the stresses of individual plants among the other plants of the community. The seedlings are supported by the larger well-established plants of the community, as long as the community is intact and the young seedlings match the community.
Cool! So at least create blocks in your garden where all the plants come from the same plant community. Probably will work better if you choose plants from communities that would have been on your garden before it was developed - since there might be some local mycorhizzae in the soil - maybe. Or from some soil you could get from nearby. It doesn't take much to inoculate a garden - a handful or two.

Toyon - Heteromeles arbutifolia

Monkeyflower, Mimulus aurantiacus

I am lucky -- I live at conjunction of three active ecosystems: Chamise chaparral, mixed evergreen forest, and redwood forest. I have lots to work with while staying very local. But I also mix things up a little as we get closer to our house. 

You could for fun try to establish plant communities from remoter regions, like a Channel Islands garden for example -- and that might work - not sure about the specific types of fungus though, if it would be present in your soil or if you could get an inoculant would it survive? 

Now what are these guys called again???

Jerusalem cricket in the evergreen forest leaf litter

I suspect a native-but-not-local section of garden would serve your California ecology better than a Mediterranean-but-not-Californian one. And that a Mediterranean-but-not-Californian one would serve wildlife better than most plants from a wet-summer climate like popular garden plants that originate in China or Europe.

As Tallamy says - even if just a part of a garden is devoted to local natives - the benefit to wildlife is tremendous. There's reason enough to plant local!

Pretty Clarkia rubicunda - a last look!