Forage To Find Unexpected Fruit

Felton League, the Facebook group of the homeless and their friends in Felton, California, briefly mentions the source of some interesting, but typically overlooked fruits that can be found in the wild or unrefined landscapes. Blackberries, American plums and elderberries collected from rural roadsides have produced award winning jellies for the Santa Cruz Mountains Harvest Festival.
Unlike the fruit that so many of us put so much effort into growing in our home gardens, these fruits and others are productive without any help. They are commonly overlooked only because they are so easy to ignore. In some ways, they are inferior to ‘garden variety’ fruit; but they also have certain advantages. Free fruit that takes no more effort than harvesting is obviously a good thing.
The most common wild blackberries are actually Himalayan blackberries that have naturalized. Unfortunately, they do not compare well to garden variety blackberries. They are not as abundant, and are difficult to pick from the wickedly thorny and rampant canes. Blue elderberries really are native, and are just as good or maybe better than black elderberries from eastern North America.
Figs, olives, grapes, rhubarb, prickly pears, apples and various citrus can sometimes be found in abandoned or neglected landscapes. Walnut, almond and wild plum trees sometimes grow from self-sown seed. Purple leaf plum is not always as fruitless as it is purported to be. Then there are all the other ornamental plants that happen to produce fruit that is useful to those willing to try it.
For example, Australian brush cherry, English hawthorn, Indian hawthorn (‘Majestic Beauty’), strawberry tree and even common freeway iceplant all produce fruit that can be cooked into luscious jelly. Of course, no fruit, particularly unfamiliar fruit, should be eaten or experimented with until it is confirmed to be safe for consumption. Many fruits really are toxic! Also, fruit should not be harvested from where it might be illegal to do so, such as private property or parks.

NOTE: This is an old article. Felton League is no longer a group on Facebook, but is now a blog here on WordPress.B90803K


Six on Saturday: Bad Neighborhood


My six pictures for today are not from any of the landscapes. Nor are they from my garden. They are not from the forests or parks or other people’s gardens either. That is nothing new. I sometimes get my pictures from some rather randoms situations. These six are a bit more random than just average random though. They happen to be from around the big compost piles, where we dump some of our green waste and horse ‘fertilizer’.

This is the same compost pile where where the ‘Good Weeds‘ grow. Yup, good weeds from the bad neighborhood.

The first #1 is exotic. The second #2 and the third #3 are assumed to be native, but might possibly be exotic. The others are quite native.

1. Mullein – is a naturalized exotic species. It does not seem like the sort that would naturalize. To the contrary, is seems to be quite docile here. It is sometimes left in gardens where it self sows, just because it is appealing.P90727

2. Unidentified – but believed to be native, these tiny silvery white flowers are not as pretty as they are up close in this picture. I just happen to like them. I think I studied it in school, but just I can not remember what it is.P90727+

3. Bull Thistle – is not so easy to distinguish from other similar species. I do not even know if this is the native bull thistle. The prickly scales are not as straight as they should be. It is the only one that we now as such here.P90727++

4. Yerba Santa – seemed to be more purplish when I took this picture. The foliage looks grungy to me, as if sticky with honeydew and a bit of sooty mold. That is natural for it, and may explain why it is an unpopular native.P90727+++

5. Sticky Monkey Flower – has a funny name. It is native, but the sticky monkey that it is named after is not. It gets a bit shabby if allowed to grow wild in home gardens, but can be improved by aggressive winter pruning.P90727++++

6. Evening primrose – is not the same as the common yellow evening primrose that is familiar elsewhere in America, although I really do not know what makes it so special. Another species has smaller pastel pink flowers.P90727+++++

This is the link for Six on Saturday, for anyone else who would like to participate:

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.


P90602Not just any nuts, but precisely the sort that I recently discussed with a colleague, as I explained how they do not grow here. The nuts that is. The big thicket forming shrubs that are supposed to produce them not only grow here, but are a relatively common native. I just rarely see even a single nut on them. I sort of wondered how they mange to procreate with such rare seeds that invariably get taken by unconcerned rodents or birds.
They are the beaked hazelnut, Corylus cornuta. You can see why they are known as such. The elongated nut husks look like Big Bird. The very rare nuts within are quite small with good rich flavor, like hazelnut concentrate, and develop only on the biggest and most distressed old hazelnut shrubs.
However, the young and healthy hazelnut shrub that produced the nut in this picture actually produced quite a few. They were just not close enough to each other for me to get more than one in a picture. A few other young and healthy hazelnut shrubs are doing the same at the same time. There are more hazelnuts now than I have seen collectively in many years. I can not explain why.
Some species of oak tend to produce an overwhelming abundance of acorns every several years or so, only to limit acorn production for the several years in between such abundance. All trees of the same species within a region somehow know to do this collectively at the same time. They do not do it often, but when they do, they do it together.
The oaks who do this supposedly produce just enough acorn to sustain a healthy squirrel population without promoting overpopulation. When they occasionally produce an excess of acorns, the squirrels instinctively bury many more acorns than they normally would, just because the acorns happen to be available. Since the squirrels can not consume all that they bury, many more stay buried to germinate and grow into trees later.

Box Elder

90605This ain’t no ordinary maple. Although there are other maples with trifoliate leaves (divided into three distinct palmately arranged leaflets), box elder, Acer negundo, is the only maple with pinnately compound leaves (divided into three or more distinct leaflets that are arranged pinnately on a central rachis). Leaflets might be solitary too. Almost all other maples have palmately lobed leaves.

Box elder is considered to be the ‘trashy’ maple. It grows fast, but only lives for about half a century. The happiest barely get to be twice as old. Because it gets more than forty feet tall, possibly with multiple trunks wider than two feet, it can become quite a big mess as it deteriorates and drops limbs. Yet, it is aggressive enough to have naturalized in many regions where it is not native.

Despite all this, and the lack of good foliar color where autumn weather is mild, a few cultivars of box elder have been developed for landscape use. ‘Flamingo’, which is likely the most popular, is variegated with white through summer, after pink new growth fades. ‘Violaceum’ develops smoky bluish growth in spring. ‘Auratum’ starts out yellowish. Mature leaflets are about three inches long.

Wild Roses

60518Compared to extensively bred garden varieties, wild roses are not much to look at. Their tiny flowers do not get much wider than two inches, and may not get much wider than those of blackberry, with only about five petals. Flower color ranges only between pale luminescent white and pale pink. Bloom is typically rather brief in mid spring. Only a few healthy specimens bloom again later.

The main advantage to wild roses is that they are ‘wild’. Once established, they do not need much more water than they get from annual rainfall. Without pruning, canes of larger varieties develop into intimidating thickets that bloom annually. Smaller types stay short, but are intimidatingly thorny nonetheless. The deciduous foliage is not bothered too much by mildew, blackspot or insects.

Some types of wild roses appreciate a bit of pampering that might be offensive to other wild plants and most natives. Winter pruning, occasional summer watering, and perhaps a bit of fertilizer improve bloom. Alternatively, pruning after spring bloom may stimulate a second phase of bloom. Long canes can grow roots where they touch the ground, and grow into new spreading plants.

Santa Cruz Island Ironwood

60504A few years ago, it was known as Santa Catalina Island ironwood. However, the rare subspecies native to Santa Catalina Island lacks the distinctively angular foliar lobes of the Santa Cruz Island ironwood, Lyonothamnus floribundus ‘aspleniifolius’. The evergreen compound leaves are about five inches long and four inches wide with three or five narrow leaflets, and look like chicken feet.

Young trees can grow at an impressive rate, but rarely get to thirty feet tall, which is only half as tall as they get in the wild. Most stay rather narrow, and shorter than a two story house. They work nicely in groves, but not as symmetrical groupings. Each tree has a unique personality and form, and some stay smaller than others. The finely shredding bark fades from cinnamon brown to gray.

Six inch wide trusses of tiny white flowers bloom late in spring or early in summer. These circular trusses are flattened, similar to those of toyon but larger. They fade to brown and can hang among the foliage for years. Older trees bloom more than vigorous young trees do. Deteriorating older trees can be cut to the ground and allowed to regenerate with fresh new growth from their stumps.

Some Plants Should Stay Wild

P80804+Native plants should be the most sensible options for local landscapes and home gardens. It seems natural that they would be the most sustainable, since they survive in the wild without watering, soil amendment or fertilizer. Once established in landscapes, they should be satisfied with the moisture they get from annual rainfall. Plants that are not native are considerably more demanding.

However, even native plants are not perfect. Some of the same qualities that help them survive in the wild are not so desirable around the home. To make matters worse, adapting to unnatural landscapes and home gardens can be as difficult for native plants as it would be for many of the common exotic (non-native) plants to adapt to the natural climate and endemic soils without help.

Natives obviously do not need much water. They certainly do not get much in the wild. They are resistant to drought because they disperse their roots so efficiently. The problem with this technique is that it does not work while plants are confined to cans (nursery pots). Once planted, new plants might take a bit of time to disperse their roots enough to survive without supplemental watering.

This might not seem like much of a problem for those who do not mind watering new native plants while they get established. New native plants still use less water than established exotic plants. The difficulty is that too much water can rot roots before they disperse! So, new native plants need to be watered regularly, but also need to not be overwatered! Monitoring them can be a hassle.

It might seem that larger new plants would be more resilient than smaller plants would be, but it is quite the opposite. Smaller plants (such as #1 or 1 gallon) disperse roots more efficiently, so get established sooner than larger plants (such as 5 gallon). Roots contained within small volumes of media (potting soil) are damaged less when planted than roots in larger volumes are. Roots of native plants, although efficient at dispersion, are innately sensitive.P90309+++++

The Overlooked Trillium

P90407Other species must be more interesting than what is native here. There are supposedly as many species of Trillium as there are of Yucca; forty-nine. All but ten are native to North America. The others are in eastern Asia. They are desirable and respected perennials to those who are familiar with them. White trillium is the official wildflower of Ohio, as well as the official floral emblem of Ontario. Ours would not likely qualify for such status.

The few around here appear only briefly about this time of year, and bloom with these small purplish burgundy flowers. They are only a few inches high, so are easy to miss. By the time they get noticed they are finished with their bloom. Their foliage lasts only until the weather starts to get warm in late spring or early summer. During their brief season, they somehow manage to store enough resources to repeat the process for many years.

This particular species is supposedly known as ‘giant wakerobin’, or Trillium chloropetalum. It is so diminutive, that I can not help but wonder about those that are not ‘giant’. Others that I see around here have more rusty red or ruddy brown flowers that stay closed most of the time. Western trillium, Trillium ovatum, lives here too; and I may have seen its foliage without distinguishing it from giant wakerobin, but I have never seen it bloom.

The trilliums that are native here live in partial shade out in forests, but away from more aggressive plants. They do not transplant easily, and do not like refined gardens.

Other trilliums in other regions bloom with bigger flowers in white, pink, red, purple, pale yellow or green. They must be more impressive than ours, and should at least be more adaptable to home gardens and landscapes.

Corndog Orchard

P80728KUrban sprawl replaced the formerly vast orchards of the Santa Clara Valley a long time ago. Nowadays, it is difficult to imagine that they were ever here. Apricots, prunes, cherries, almonds, walnuts and all that the region was once famous for are all now rare commodities.
Only a few minor corndog orchards remain. They survive only because they are not actual orchards that are grown on land that is useful for something else, but instead grow wild on otherwise useless marshland and along the few creeks that flow through the region. Some marshland that could not be converted into usable space was developed into parks, and within many such parks, the remaining marshlands are protected as native habitat.
Vasona Lake County Park and the small Vasona Lake within were once a large marshy area that sustained what was probably the biggest corndog orchard within the Santa Clara Valley. It is at the transition where the Los Gatos Creek flows swiftly from the slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and then slows as it reaches its flat alluvial plain within the Santa Clara Valley. Although not nearly as abundant as they were prior to development, corndogs still inhabit the banks of Los Gatos Creek and Vasona Lake. We know them as cattails.
Because they are a native species that had historically been more common locally than anywhere else nearby, and because of their common name that is coincidentally associated with cats, cattails had been nominated to be the official Town Flower of Los Gatos (which is Spanish for The Cats). There are not many natives that would be as appropriate, and the only comparably culturally significant flowers would be those of the old fruit orchards, such as apricot blossoms. No other flower is both native and so culturally significant.