Sunday, June 27, 2010

Native Plant of the Moment - Spicebush (Calycanthus occidentalis)

This morning (Sunday morning as I write) I walked out my front door to see this beautiful bloom on my Spicebush (Calycanthus occidentalis).

It's the first time I have ever seen a bloom on it, and such a beauty. At least two inches in diameter, and a wonderful strong red, edging ever so slightly into the brown range - a kind of light maroon. It does have a pleasant spicy smell, not quite cinnamon, not quite nutmeg but in that general range.

I planted the bush on the other side of the trellis whereon groweth the Dutchman's Pipe vine, Aristolochia californica, which I planted at the same time, October of 07, so they are not quite three years old. I had hoped to see the interesting Dutchman's pipe blooms by now - conversation pieces as it were, for the entrance deck to our home, and enticements to the Pipevine Swallowtale (Battus philenor) whose larvae can feed on it. But so far nada. I did give it a thorough pruning early in the year though and I think it put all its strength into growing back from that. Next year!

I walked round to the other side of the trellis to get a better look at the spicebush -- lots of other blooms are coming! Late spring and all through summer is the promise, with some kind of interesting woody fruits that persist into winter - I look forward to seeing those too. I wonder if the birds will eat them?

And by the way, the deer pretty much leave spicebush alone. Yay! -- So far anyway!

Spicebush is winter deciduous, but I can't remember how it looks in autumn. In my planting notes I wrote that it has green long smooth ovate leaves, pale gold in autumn. The leaves are wonderfully large and very green and softly glossy, which I appreciate since so many of the local natives here have small hard leaves to withstand the summer dryness.

I planted this shrub - and the Dutchman's Pipe vine - from 1 gallon pots bought in a CNPS sale in October of 07. It is now about four feet tall and wide, spreading, in a typically shrubby multi-trunked way. It can grow to eight feet (Western Garden Book says 12).

I irrigate this area on a whimsical basis. At most once a month. It is not on the drip/microspray tangle of tubes I optimistically call "the irrigation system." It happy here in full sun from late morning to mid afternoon. California Native Plants for the Garden says this plant can take full sun to partial shade, with occasional to regular water. It grows in moist areas though, so it may prefer more water than I've been doling out in our dry summers.

Once established, it can spread aggressively, I read. It has started to take off this year, so we'll see how it behaves as time goes by. I read that it can be good for erosion control, but I won't use it that way: I plan to use local indigenous natives for the slopes around here (I have baby toyon and ocean spray from cuttings, growing in pots for fall planting). I'm using it as an ornamental, to soften the walls of the house.

I read that some American Indians used scraped bark of Calycanthus occidentalis medicinally in treating severe colds (D. E. Moerman 1986).

I also read that it is not necessary to prune this shrub for shape, and it is true that it grows lush to the ground and in a roundish shape. You can prune it to a multi-trunked tree, or a hedge. In due course I will prune out some of its nice light brown stems from the base. I don't want it to get too enormous or too congested. Also I think the deer may have pruned it for me early on. They eat pretty much any plant when it's very young.

California Native Plants for the Garden also has a few companion planting suggestions:
For shady locations: Foothill sedge, western meadow rue, Douglas iris, giant chain fern.
For sunny locations: Coffeeberry and deer grass.

Spicebush naturally occurs in moist places below 4000 feet in the North Coast Ranges, southern Cascade Range, and foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Interestingly, tell me that both of these plants have been observed just one time in my county - in the Watsonville Sloughs, a wetlands area which includes the well-known Elkhorn Slough - across the Monterey Bay from us. So they could be local, but if so they are very rare locally, and they are not local to my drier habitats here on the ridge.

My current restoration philosophy is this: Close to the house, I'll plant anything I like, as long as it is not invasive or a major fire hazard. Farther off I'm a bit more strict, and use only local natives, preferably propagated from what grows here or in the immediate neighborhood.

In a fire prone area like this, you're not supposed to plant shrubs close to the house, but not all shrubs are equal. This is quite a juicy shrub, and anyway, the trellis is sticking out more than the shrub itself. Not that that is a good thing either, just a bit of justificationary mental gymnastics. On the Las Pilitas nursery leaf burn times page, Bert says:
If after sixty seconds the plant didn't light, that's amazing. Bushes that burnt after 15-30 seconds are about as flammable as your home. Some of the Ceanothus should be considered heat shields.
Well, Calycanthus occidentalis is one of those that takes longer than 60 seconds and the comment is "will not stay lit." Aristolochia californica also takes longer than 60 seconds to ignite.

So if you have room for a mid-sized shrub in your garden (Western Garden zones 4-9, 14-24), I recommend you consider the handsome spicebush. Besides its beauty and easy-care attributes, it is also resistant to oak root fungus and is insect and disease free.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Bountiful Harvest


This Is Just To Say

by William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

(from )


 This Is Just To Say (II)

by Town Mouse

Hey, have all you want.
Sweeter than anything
you can buy in the store,
and best when eaten right off the tree.

Take some to work,
give some to the neighbors.
So soon over
sweet summertime.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Garden worthy? Mmmm, maybe...

With many spring blooming California Natives going summer dormant, I'm delighted to welcome the blossoms of Chlorogalum pomeridianum (Soap lily) with its fragrant white blossoms. And for my wildlife garden in the back, it really is a perfect plant. But I'm not sure I'd plant it in the front, because here is the whole plant.

What do you see?
  • A very tall plant (over 6 feet), that leans unless in full sun. 
  • A few leaves, a lot of stem, and blossoms that open (and are fragrant) only late in the day and at night. 
  • Blossoms that, while numerous, are only about an inch across. 
Would I recommend this plant to my neighbors who are starting to get interested in natives? Maybe not. Its really for the connoisseur. Though it is such a delight when the first blossoms open. And then more the next day, and the next.

And then again, here's what the venerable Las Pilitas site has to say:

"Soap Lily has long, strap-like, wavy leaves that lie along the ground, and a loose spike of small white flowers up to 2 feet high, and flowers from around May-August. Soap Lily, Chlorogalum pomeridianum, ranges from southern Oregon to San Diego, California, grows in full sun, and is drought tolerant within its range. Chlorogalum pomeridianum survives the long rain-free season by means of underground bulbs, which are filled with food by the growing leaves during the winter and spring seasons. If you are starving, the bulb may eaten only when roasted (soapy onion), the raw bulb being utilized as soap. Soap Lily, or Amole, goes dormant in summer and fall. We can sell this only in spring and early summer. Soap Lily makes a unique addition to a California native garden (and having emergency food in the ground doesn't hurt either)."

There you have it. Let's hear it for emergency food and the fragile beauty that shines in the summer night.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Brilliantly rich in nature: A book preview of "How to Keep a Naturalist's Notebook

I'm so excited about this book I can't wait to write about it till I've read the whole thing. Town mouse got a copy for herself and knowing I'd love this book she kindly gave me a copy too.

How to Keep a Naturalist's Notebook, by Susan Leigh Tomlinson is a friendly, immensely practical, down-to-earth, and above all encouraging how-to book for those of us who like to observe nature, and learn and grow as we go. Susan wanted just such a book and none was to be found so she wrote one:
It is part lesson in the basics of sketching, part instruction in journal writing, and part walk through the process of identifying something and learning about it.
I'm particularly interested in her claim that field sketching is mostly a matter of learning a few simple techniques and practicing them. It's not as intimidating as you might think to sketch, for example a bird (circle for head, circle for body and so on) so you can record its characteristics for later ID. Not magic, just a technique.

To give you a flavor of the author's friendly tone, here's her advice on picking a notebook:
I've purchased my share of expensive journals with rich textured papers on which to write. They are all still on my bookshelf, largely untouched. Every time I open one, I feel compelled to write something important in it - something befitting its esteemed status. The trouble is that the best journaling is often exploratory, sometimes random, and usually just plain routine. Fancy journals are not the place for the everyday, and the everyday world is a big part of what we are recording. In my notebooks, I have sketches of grasses, grocery lists, variations in sentences from poems that I am working on (over and over and over. . .). Not only are the expensive journals intimidating, it usually seems the snazzier the tome, the fewer the pages. And since you'll be carrying these notebooks into the field with you, where they are going to get kicked around quite a bit, tough and utilitarian is the better way to go. In the best of all possible worlds, you'll take your journal hiking, backpacking, fishing, canoeing, and so on., so you'll want one that can go the distance with you. / In summary the features you want to look for in a notebook are as follows: inexpensive, durable, lightweight, and not too big, good tooth, and plenty of pages.
Her pick: the Strathmore sketchbook.

She goes on to itemize the characteristics of a good field bag and what you might want to put in it - all in the same practical and pleasant manner, and getting into many useful details you might not know about, based on her experiences. For example, in picking binoculars, she explains the difference in binocular types, those with the porro prism (they look like an M) and with the roof prism (look like an H) , interpupillary distance, and so on.

I love the attitude to nature that is behind all this preparation. It's summed up in this moment of discovery that set her off on her lifelong love of exploring the natural world.
I had grown up in New Mexico and west Texas and thought I knew something about my home ground--namely, that it was devoid of anything remotely interesting! But under the tutelage of the Midnats [a group of amateur naturalists], I was astonished to discover that that subtle landscape was in fact brilliantly rich in nature.
Brilliantly rich in nature. I love that phrase, and I love the sentiment that nature encountered anywhere - even in a potted geranium - even in a sow thistle - is a source of wonder and amazement. Especially coupled with her practical advice on how to support your fascination by keeping a naturalist's notebook.

I am reminded of a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins which I disliked as a teenager but really enjoy now. Though I'm not a theist I do certainly feel the glory, especially when I'm out in a natural environment.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89). Poems. 1918.

13. Pied Beauty

GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough; 5
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: 10
Praise him.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


To weeks ago, Mr. Mouse and I went to Mendocino for the weekend. The Friday drive was congested and tedious, but we did arrive in time for a delicious dinner at the Raven, a vegetarian restaurant not far from where we stayed. The next morning,  after a 3-course breakfast, we decided on several short hikes that promised to highlight different aspects of this beautiful coastal area.

The first hike was in Van Damme State Park, where we first hiked the bog trail and then the fern canyon trail. The bog trail lived up to its name and was muddy, with quite a few mosquitos. The fern canyon trail also lived up to its name.

I'm quite sure I saw at least 3 different ferns, probably more. Because there is much more rainfall up in Mendocino, the vegetation was very lush and green, a welcome sight after the browning hills back home.

Sizable horsetail plants dominated the landscape part of the way. I think it's Equisetum telmateia, giant horsetail, but I could be quite wrong.

A special surprise was this elderberry growing in a more open area of the canyon.

Regular readers of this blog might remember that Country Mouse is questioning whether her elderberry is Sambuccus mexicana (blue elderberry) or Sambuccus racemosa (red elderberry). The plant seemed to say red, but Jepson has the red elderberry at higher elevations. Well, this elderberry not only does not have the flat fruit stand of the blue elderberry, it even has a red fruit stand stem. And while that area wasn't totally wild, I did not see other garden plants there, so I expect it's indigenous. Which means that Ms. Country Mouse might have a red elderberry after all.

After a few hours walk, we had a healthy lunch with a significant anti-oxidant component (chocolate). While we were sitting on a redwood stump, a yellow warbler came very close and looked at us curiously. Of course it left just as I whipped out my camera, but we were delighted nonetheless and ready for the second part of our adventure, the coast.

While we did not walk the Pygmy Forest Trail in Van Damme State Park, we did see some interesting stunted trees on our way to the ocean, like the tree/bush above. Then, as we were approaching more open country, the wildflowers began. It was very exciting. Where I live, much further south, wildflower season is almost over (a few farewell-to-spring still brighten the paths). Up there, wildflower season was still in full swing.

Here some coastal poppies (yellow with orange center) and sea thrift (Armeria maritima). The poppies were beautiful. Very short stems and large blossoms.

They were intermingled with lupine in some areas.

And in other areas poppies and some other flowers formed golden carpets, beautiful against the wild ocean. It's often foggy during Mendocino summers (winters are clearer, unless it rains). I wondered whether the many yellow plants were almost like foglights, penetrating the mist, making themselves visible to the insects.

Forming a golden carpet.

It was hard to turn around. So many undiscovered wildflowers were beckoning, and the ocean and the tidepools were waiting as well. But we were getting a little tired, and wanted a shower before dinner. So we returned to our bed and breakfast, the Glendevan Inn. We had a cup of tea (and a few cookies) looking out onto the garden and rested for a bit.

Then we had a special treat. The inn offers dinner prepared by two chefs twice a week, and we had signed up. It was quite possibly the best vegetarian food I'd ever had, and I could not believe the attention to detail and inventive combination of ingredients. Mr. Mouse, a carnivore, also commented favorably on his meal. The chefs, Brian and Shennen Morris, also own a catering business and teach classes, and I'm truly sorry I live so far away.

The next morning, we said our final good-byes to the resident lamas and were on our way back south, where my garden was thirstily waiting for me.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Telling Alligator Lizards from Fence Lizards

Just as I am doing here, so did I boldly post a picture of a lizard in front of my last post, the June bloom day pics one. I just wanted to share it, in each case.

The bloomday post shows a baby lizard that found its way into our house. Another shot of him below. He walked right into the old yellow tumbler (one I use in the garden) and I got a good look at him, before letting him slither away into the undergrowth. "Bye-bye, baby fence lizard!" I crooned.

Obviously I was looking with my brain and not my eyes. A friendly comment from biobabbler put me on the right track: "Pretty sure it's an alligator lizard vs fence lizard..."

The eyes are one thing that is different. The alligator lizard, has those dramatic golden irises, whereas our friend the Coast Fence Lizard has warm brown eyes. For a lizard.
The eyes of the Southern Alligator Lizard are yellow or light. Its Northern kin, who I think are also found around the Bay Area, have darker eyes. My baby really had bright yellow eyes. (It wasn't just that yellow plastic tumbler.) So it was the Southern Alligator Lizard - Elgaria multicarinata. Also known as California Alligator Lizard, and found throughout the state.

As for other differences, you can see that the toes are much shorter on the alligator lizard. By comparison, look at the length of this fence lizard's hind toes!

The pattern and shape of the scales down the back is different too. Here's an alligator lizard that was in a wood pile in a clearing in our chaparral area.

Smoother more rectangular looking scale patterns. You can see he's growing a new tail!

The adult alligator lizards like the above photo are very easy to tell because they are simply much bigger. Not huge, but heftier and about twice as long maybe. We've only seen one or two here. They're pretty shy I think.

I had just assumed my young captive was a fence lizard because that's what lives in abundance around here.

I think they're Sceloporus occidentalis bocourtii - Coast Range Fence Lizard. The page on Coast Range Fence Lizard has some shots that could be in my photo files.

But then so does the page on the North Western Fence Lizard. I'm not sure how you tell them apart. Hm. It looks like their range doesn't overlap in our area at least.

Here's one in mid moult. I haven't before or since caught a lizard in mid molt. or moult in the UK.

I do see a variation in the fence lizards here. Some are a bit smoother and often darker, sleeker looking, but with the same basic shape as the other lizards. I had thought it was just another variation on a fence lizard. Now I think they might be Western Sagebrush lizards S.G. gracilis. A new theory to explore.

Here is a not too great shot I got of a light and dark one together; they were darting in and out of a deck that sits on a slab of concrete. The darker one also looks pregnant to me. Just because she has a very swollen looking middle.

And just as my last post was all flowers shots headed by one lizard, let this one be all lizard shots, followed by one flower:

Matilija poppy, Romneya coulteri. I forgot to take its picture for the bloom day post. The stalks are about eight feet tall, some of them!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

June Blooms on the Ridge

(If you clicked here from May Dreams Gardens in July - I linked wrongly! Click Here for July!)

Before the blooms - above is another picture of my favorite critter - this time a baby alligator lizard

[note: earlier I thought it was a fence lizard but I've updated this post to make this correction. See next post for more on this.]

that somehow got in the house. I captured him easily in a handy yellow plastic tumbler and we had a good look at each other before I sent him on his way! He was a tiny little whippersnapper, all shiny with youth and good health! - And he even has a feather in his cap as you can just make out!

As usual these days, I'm in a rush. My free time has been spent in weed removal - so that weed flowers don't become part of my July bloom day! As ever thanks to Carol at May Dreams Gardens for putting on the monthly bloom day every 15th of the month. Here's what's blooming around my neck of the woods...

Our indigenous deerweed, Lotus scoparius, is blooming all over the hill - I just love it. It's funny how the other yellow blooms don't thrill, because we know they are invasive French broom or myrtle! And sage is also scenting the air. The one in the photo (barely) is I think Winifred Gilman.

My elderberries are too young to bloom - here's what they will look like, in a neighboring area of wilderness...

Also blooming on the chaparral side are the indigenous gnaphalium californicum.

Indigenous Golden yarrow is making a huge splash too with its chrome yellow blossoms.

This non-native Mexican salvia was here when we arrived and earns a place because it thrives with absolutely no irrigation and feeds the hummingbirds. I just whack it back each year.

Also indigenous, these tiny-flowered madia are popping up everywhere. Not sure the specific species - the huge sticky Madia sative are sprouting too and they get enormous - I let them grow only in the wilder areas.

Indigenous monkey flower are stunning everywhere right now.

And the garden kind! - here with some seaside daisies, native on the coast just south of here.

But oh the indigenous chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum) - for which the chaparral type is named - are just lovely right now. Forget the fire hazard and just enjoy these creamy blossoms that cover the chaparral right now. Here's a close up...

And here's how they look massed on a hill. (I can't see my hill from below, but it looks like my neighbor's, shown here.)

Too bad the picture is a bit washed out - it is more vivid in actuality.

Above is a bit of yarrow, planted monkey flower, and planted hummingbird sage - I'm excited because this - though it doesn't look like much - is the best I've seen on this lower part of my driveway where the ground is very poor and the light not the best.

In the shade of the Ribes indecorum are a few columbine I planted thinking they were native.
They survive unassisted and don't spread. But when I propagate columbine, they may have to go. I collected some good seed this year locally and hope to grow a bunch.

And California aster, planted, starting to bloom. not showy but in masses, a good effect. These are spreaders - plant with care!

Pitcher sage, planted, not thriving so well this year - the plants may just be old, not sure.

Mimulus guttatis is not growing in my garden but I hope it will be next year! I'm keeping an eye on these seep monkey flower plants that grow in a moist shady spot down the road. Town mouse grows these successfully in her garden. Here's a close up.

(Wow a big turkey vulture just flew right by my window!)

In the same vein - I would like to propagate these little violets, blooming near the seep monkey flower - they are so sweet:

They are Viola glabella, stream violet. Again, good for shady moist spots.

The indigenous yerba santa, Eriodictyon californicum, is blooming profusely this year. Mine was all whacked back as it was growing too close to the road, and it is resprouting vigorously. I wonder if it will start to get the sooty mold again that plagued it before?

Almost finished blooming now is our native black sage, Salvia mellifera. I love catching the sage backlit by the morning sun. A trick I learned from Saxon Holt, and try to use every chance I get.

Happy bloom day all - Be sure to check the lovely garden natives posted by my good friend and co-blogger Town Mouse here!