Buckeye

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Buckeye starts to bloom like lilac, or upside down wisteria.

Ohio is the Buckeye State. The Ohio buckeye that is native there must be very special. Perhaps all other trees that are native to Ohio are just not very uninteresting. Whatever the situation, I sort of believe that the Ohio buckeye is more appealing in some regards than the California buckeye that is native here. However, the California buckeye might be more weirdly interesting.

The main reason that California buckeye is not popularly used in landscapes is that it is ‘twice deciduous’. That means exactly what it sounds like. Just like other deciduous trees, it defoliates in response to cooling autumn weather, and refoliates in response to warming spring weather. Unlike other deciduous trees, it repeats the process through the warmest weather of summer.

When summer weather gets too warm and arid, the foliage of California buckeye shrivels and sort of defoliates. Without rain to dislodge the shedding foliage, it can linger and look shabby for quite a while and maybe until it is replaced by secondary foliage that develops as the weather mellows. The secondary foliage does not last long before it is time to defoliate again for autumn!

California buckeye is not often planted into landscapes because it really does look like the living dead through summer. It provides no shade when shade is most desirable. Those that I work with are only here in the landscapes because they grew from self sown seed that sneaked in on its own. Some will be subordinated to more desirable adjacent trees, although there is no rush.

I happen to like California buckeye. Except for the rarely seen red horsechestnut, it is the only species of buckeye that I am familiar with. Bloom is neither colorful nor reliably profuse, but is delightfully fragrant in close proximity. Not many natives are fragrant.

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The fragrance is sort of buttery and faintly sugary.

Sticky Monkey Flower

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‘Sticky monkey flower’ sounds too silly.

What a silly name this is! Sticky monkey flower, Diplacus aurantiacus (or Mimulus aurantiacus), is native to a broad range of ecosystems of California and the Northern Coast of Baja California. It is famously happy in situations that are too rocky or sandy for most other species. The resinous foliage really can be rather sticky during warm weather. The relevance to a monkey is a mystery.

Sticky monkey flower is more popular among hummingbirds and insects than anyone else. Those who welcome hummingbirds and insects into their garden happen to like it too. Honestly though, it might a bit too casual for refined landscapes. It works better in or on the outskirts of rustic gardens. If not already growing wild, cultivars and the straight species are available in some nurseries.

Bloom begins late in winter or early in spring, and might continue through summer, but is rarely impressively prolific. The bisymmetrical and tubular flowers are about three quarters of an inch long. Almost all are pastel orange, sort of like circus peanuts. Gold and yellow are uncommon. Supposedly, there are rare cultivars that bloom in red or white. Mature plants get more than three feet tall.

Pacific Coast Iris

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Bigger and bolder Pacific Coast iris.

Various species of iris that are native to exposed coastal hillsides are uncommon in nurseries. Even nurseries that specialize in native species grow only a few. Iris douglasiana was probably the most popular of these years ago. Its slender flowers are various shades of steely blue, like faded denim. Nowadays, most Pacific Coast iris are hybrids of various native and a few exotic species.

The color range of these modern hybrids is impressive. Many bloom with rich shades of blue, purple, burgundy, rusty red, orange, gold, yellow or rosy pink. Softer and pastel shades include coral pink, lavender, creamy white and bright white. There is even sky blue that is almost comparable to the color of well faded denim. Flowers are more substantial than those of their ancestors though.

Bloom is sometimes significantly early, or as late as May. Otherwise, it should happen about now. Each floral stalk supports about two or three flowers that bloom in succession. Floral stalks tend to lean outward from the center of mature plants, and curve to hold their bloom upright. Bloom typically stands less than two feet high. Their slender and arching dark green leaves stay even lower.

Buckbrush

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Buckbrush is California lilac without lilac.

Most other specie of ceanothus are more colorful and tame than Ceanothus cuneatus is. It is known as ‘buckbrush’ because the abundant round trusses of minute flowers are typically dingy white instead of the more familiar shades of blue that have earned other ceanothus the common name of ‘California lilac’. However, a few wild plants and some garden varieties bloom blue.

Mature plants are at least six feet high and wide, but typically less than ten feet high and twelve feet wide. They are pleasantly fragrant as they bloom between March and April or May. Roots seem to tolerate almost any soil that drains well and does not get watered too much. Once established, no watering is needed. The scrubby evergreen foliage likes full sun exposure.

Although it is a bit unrefined, and does not want to be pruned for confinement, buckbrush works nicely as screening shrubbery on the perimeter of a landscaped area, or in unlandscaped areas. Newly installed small plants only need to be watered occasionally as they disperse their roots through their first year. Since they are native, established plants are satisfied with rainfall.

Silk Tassel

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Pendulous blooms hang like delicate icicles.

With so many exotic species to enjoy in our gardens, it is easy to miss what might be growing wild just beyond. Silk tassel, Garrya elliptica, is endemic to coastal slopes within thirty miles of the ocean, between San Luis Obispo and Newport in Oregon. Yet, it seems to be more popular abroad than it is here at home. It is more adaptable to refined landscapes than most other natives are.

Silk tassel is more tolerant to supplemental irrigation than most other species from the same region are. It actually prefers to be irrigated at least occasionally through summer, particularly in drier and warmer climates. However, as a native, it is resilient to lapses of irrigation too. If necessary for form or confinement, awkward and obtrusive stems can be selectively pruned out after bloom.

Long and elegantly pendulous catkins of tiny pale grayish white flowers bloom late in winter or early in spring. After bloom, dried catkins linger prettily into summer. Garden varieties are male, with longer blooms. ‘James Roof’ can produce catkins nearly a foot long. Female plants in the wild bloom with shorter catkins. Glossy evergreen leaves are two to three inches long with wavy margins.

Rush

91204Not to be confused with the Canadian rock band from the 1970s, this rush, Juncus patens, is native to riparian areas between western Washington and San Diego County. It is also known as the common rush because it is, obviously, the most common species of the genus on the West Coast. It is only occasionally planted intentionally, but more often sneaks into well irrigated landscapes.

Those planted intentionally are mostly cultivars with slightly bluish or grayish foliage, such as ‘Elk Blue’, ‘Occidental Blue’ and ‘Carmen’s Grey’. Those in the wild, or that sneak into landscapes from the wild, are dark green like avocado skin. The upright foliage is really very slender stems that look more like leaves than the vestigial leaves do. It forms dense clumps about one to three feet tall.

Although it is a riparian plant that survives soil saturation and inadequate drainage through winter, rush can survive as soil drains and dries somewhat through summer. It prefers somewhat regular watering in landscapes and home gardens. If cut back to the ground at the end of winter, and perhaps divided, fresh new growth regenerates through spring. Growth is sparse and floppy in shade.

Buckeye

P91109KCalifornia flora is remarkable. It all does what it must to live comfortably in every ecosystem, climate and geographical region here.

California horsechestnut or California buckeye, Aesculus californica, is one of the more unusual native species. It is so in tune with the climate that it makes other deciduous trees seem to be inexperienced. Of course, to those who are unfamiliar with it, it just looks dead right now.

In chaparral climates of California, some deciduous trees start to defoliate early, before the weather starts to get cool in autumn. California sycamores, for example, can start to defoliate late in summer if the weather gets too warm and dry for them to want to hold their foliage any later. Such defoliation is more the result of minimal humidity than the result of chill.

California horsechestnut takes this technique one step further, by shedding spring foliage even earlier in summer, then refoliating once the rain starts in autumn, and then defoliating again as the late autumn foliage succumbs to frost through winter. It is ‘twice-deciduous’. It is a weird process that should not work, but obviously does.

It seems like a tree that is defoliated most of the time would exhaust its resources and wear itself out. However, California horsechestnut somehow stores enough resources to produce weirdly big seeds. These in the picture above are the same that were featured in ‘Six on Saturday‘ last week, while they were still in their husks.

Squirrels might chew on a few of these seeds, but do not bother storing them. They are mostly ignored by wildlife, perhaps because of their objectionable flavor. So, without squirrels to bury them, they fall to the forest floor near the trees that produce them, where they are too bulky to sift through the detritus to reach the soil below.

It makes one wonder why they put so much of their limited resources into seeds that are too big to reach the soil, but unappealing to wildlife that might otherwise disperse and bury them.

They know what they are doing.

Once the rain starts, and the seed sense that the weather is damp, they germinate on the surface of the detritus on the forest floor, and extend their tap roots through the detritus to the soil below. The seeds are too bulky to reach the soil directly, but contain all that their primary tap roots need to survive without desiccation until they reach the damp soil.

 

Western Sword Fern

90911Within its natural range on the West Coast between the southern extremity of Alaska and the southern extremity of California, Western sword fern, Polystichum munitum, is the most common of the native ferns. A few disjunctive wild colonies live as far inland as the Black Hills of South Dakota. Yet, with few exceptions, Western sword fern is difficult to cultivate outside of the natural range.

A fern that is so resilient and undemanding seems like it should be more adaptable. Although foliage is fuller and richer green with regular watering and occasional fertilizing, established plants do not need much at all. They survive in the wild here, with naturally limited rainfall, and just go dormant if they get too dry. Symbiotic soil microbes might be their limiting factor in foreign regions.

The dark evergreen and pinnately compound fronds get about two or three feet long, but can get more than four feet long in damp and partly shady situations. They form thick mounds that mostly obscure lower old fronds that die after their first or second year. Since it is naturally an understory species, Western sword fern prefers somewhat rich soil, partial shade and shelter from dry wind.

Matilija Poppy

90703If California poppy had not been designated as the California state flower, Matilija poppy, Romneya coulteri, might have been. It was nominated, but was less popular at the time, partly because it was familiar only to those near its native range in Southern California. Some of us know it as ‘fried egg flower’, because the big and floppy white flowers with yellow centers look like fried eggs.

Matilija poppy is a big and bold perennial, with flowers that are bigger than any other native species. They can get more than six inches wide! These flowers stand on top of lanky stems that might get taller than six feet. The somewhat sparse and light grayish foliage has a uniquely bristly but also slightly rubbery texture. Individual leaves might be longer than six inches, with elongated lobes.

As a native of dry chaparral regions, Matilija poppy is very resilient, and does not need watering once established. However, to survive long and dry summers, it starts to die back early, so should get cut to the ground later in summer or early in autumn before it becomes too unappealing. It then stays dormant through winter before regenerating in spring. Rhizomes can spread aggressively.

Coast Live Oak

90522The valley oak of the Sacramento Valley, San Joaquin Valley, and coastal valleys to the west, is the grandest oak of North America. Within the coastal half of that range, and extending down past San Diego, the coat live oak, Quercus agrifolia, is a nearly comparable second grandest. The biggest subjects may be as tall as seventy feet, and nearly as wide, with trunks wider than ten feet!

However, there is significant variability. Trees in forest situations do not get as big, and may stay lower than twenty five feet, with shrubby branch structure. While the biggest can get older than two centuries, smaller trees may not live half as long. The canopies of exposed solitary trees might reach the ground, while more social or sheltered trees are likely to shed lower growth with maturity.

Coast live oaks are typically pretty gnarly, and many have multiple flaring trunks. The dark evergreen leaves are only about an inch or two long, and half as wide, with bristly teeth on convex edges. The narrow inch long acorns can be messy. Roots are very sensitive to excavation and excessive irrigation. Sudden Oak Death Syndrome prevents new trees for getting planted in many regions.