Coffeeberry must be and ‘acquired’ taste. (Ick!)

Before the 49ers of the Gold Rush discovered that the seeds of the native coffeeberry, Rhamnus californica (or Frangula californica), make a nice uncaffeinated coffee substitute, the native American Indians were eating the fruit and using the leaves and bark herbally. The black berries supposedly make good jelly, but do not last long, and are too bitter while still red or greenish.

Before the birds get them, the quarter inch wide berries are somewhat colorful, but are not very abundant. The small clusters of tiny greenish yellow flower that bloom in spring are not much to look at either. The army green evergreen foliage is the main appeal. New stems are somewhat ruddy. Old stems and main trunks have smooth gray bark.

Large coffeeberry plants in the wild can get more than ten feet tall, with relatively open branch structure. Garden varieties stay smaller, with compact branch structure. ‘Eve Case’, which is probably the most popular variety, stays less than six feet tall, and is densely foliated. ‘Mound San Bruno’ is even more compact, with smaller leaves. ‘Seaview’ is a groundcover.

California Native Plants Exemplify Diversity

Redwoods are the grandest native trees.

California native plants are logical options for the gardens and landscapes of California. It is only natural. They are already happy with the climates and soils here. They do not need to adapt quite as much as plants from other regions and climates do. After all, they lived here long before anyone else was here to water and maintain them.

Unfortunately, it is not that easy. California is a very diverse place. There are more climates here than there are within many other states combined, over a much larger area. Plants that are native to the Mojave Desert would not be happy in a rainforest of the Siskiyou Mountains. Coastal plants would be no happier high in the Sierra Nevada.

Within reason, California native plants for landscapes and home gardens should be either locally native, or native to similar climates. Plants from very different climates within California are about as exotic as plants from other continents. Just like foreign exotic plants, they may require special accommodation, such as irrigation, to survive here.

All plants need irrigation when first installed. Irrigation can be slightly complicated for plants that are native to climates with long and dry summers. They certainly need irrigation until they disperse their roots. However, a bit too much can rot their roots. California native plants can be sensitive like that. After all, they do not expect to be moist through summer.

Then, once established, many California native plants do not want frequent irrigation. Many want none at all. Chaparral plants like oak, manzanita, toyon, ceanothus and coyote brush tend to rot with too much watering. Plants that are native to riparian or coastal regions, like redwood, bigleaf maple, willow, cottonwood, elderberry and ferns, tolerate more irrigation.

Most California native plants that are from chaparral or desert climates do not perform well within the confinement of pots or planters. They prefer to disperse roots very extensively and directly into the soil, just like they do in the wild. Once established, they do not transplant easily.

Sticky Monkey Flower

‘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.

Nature Gets Too Much Credit

So much of nature is unnatural.

Vegetation make people feel closer to nature. It is, after all, what most of us expect to see out in the wild. Most vegetation that is observed in forests and undeveloped areas really is natural. Much of the associated insects and wildlife are natural as well. Such flora and fauna know how to survive within their respective ecosystems. They can not rely on any unnatural intervention from anyone.

Naturalized exotic (non-native) species proliferate only because they are adapted to similar environmental conditions. A lack of pathogens that afflicted them within their natural ranges is a major advantage for most of them. Nonetheless, they are unnatural components of what is commonly considered to be nature. Most naturalized exotic species actually interfere significantly with nature.

Vegetation and associated wildlife that inhabits synthetic landscapes is very different from that which lives out in nature. Only some of the vegetation has potential to naturalize. Even less is native. Almost all of it is reliant on artificial intervention for survival, particularly irrigation. Associated wildlife is reliant on the survival of the reliant vegetation. Landscapes accommodate. Nature does not.

With few exceptions, landscapes that emulate nature are impractical. Landscapes within forests are some of those few exceptions that might need no more than what the forests provide. Even in such situations, combustible vegetation and structurally deficient trees should be cleared away from homes. In California, nature is innately combustible. It is messy and potentially dangerous too.

Most urban landscapes of California would still be dreadfully bleak if limited to natural components. Both San Jose and Los Angeles are naturally chaparral regions. They were formerly inhabited by sparsely dispersed trees on scrubby grasslands. Now, relatively abundant vegetation in both regions is more appealing, and improves urban lifestyles, but is nothing like what nature intended.

Nature is simply inadequate for what is expected of urban landscapes of California.

Exotic Species Can Become Naturalized

Naturalized Himalayan blackberry is detestably aggressive.

Every palm tree in local landscapes is exotic. Simply put, all palms are originally from somewhere else. The desert fan palm, the only palm that is native to California, came from isolated colonies in desert regions many miles away. In fact, most plants in common landscapes are exotic. Landscapes composed of Californian plants likely include some plants from other regions of California.

With few exceptions, exotic plants are not a problem. However, some of those few exceptions have become very serious problems. Himalayan blackberry, blue gum, silver wattle, pampas grass, giant reed and broom are some of the more notorious examples. They naturalized to become prolific and aggressively invasive weeds. Some are more common than natives in many situations.

Naturalized exotic plants such as these are problems for local ecosystems, even if they do not affect refined landscapes. They compete with native plant species for limited resources, space and pollinators. A lack of pathogens from their homelands can be a distinct advantage. They alter the lifestyles of some of the native fauna. Some enhance the combustibility of the forests they inhabit.

The justifications for importing exotic species are as varied as the species themselves are. It might have been for lumber, forage, fruit, or vegetable production. Giant reed might have arrived here as packing material for cargo from southern Asia. Nonetheless, most naturalized exotic species, including the most aggressively invasive, came here simply for home gardening and landscaping.

Realistically, of all the countless exotic species that came here during the past few centuries, very few naturalized. Fewer are now aggressively invasive. Some with potential to naturalize may not have yet been able to escape the urban situations they inhabit. The problem now is that there are so many more exotic species readily available from all over the World than there has ever been!

Online marketing facilitates procurement of exotic and potentially invasive plant species from other regions, with minimal regard to regulation of such commodities.

Silk Tassel

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.

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:

Garter Snake

P90525KThis little critter surprised me at work last week. Even though I knew it to be harmless, my instinctual response was to get away from it fast. I have encountered enough rattlesnakes to know better than to take the time to identify a snake before getting some distance from it. Even after identifying a snake as a harmless garter snake, I still prefer to avoid it as it leaves. This one was in no hurry, so got picked up with a rake and set safely aside.
Between high school and college, I took a summer job for a (primarily) retail nursery in Miramar on the coast of San Mateo County. At this job, I sometime went with the maintenance crew to work in a few home gardens. At one such job, just overlooking the beach in Montara, I needed to mow an overgrown lawn. Rather than mow back and forth from the upper edge to the lower, I mowed a concentric pattern inward from the outer edge.
What that meant was that I mowed the edge first, and then just inside the freshly mown edge, and then just inside that second track, and so on, with the intention of finishing at the center of the lawn. What I did not consider was that this technique concentrated the several garter snakes that happened to be on the lawn at the time into the diminishing unmown center. Needless to say, I needed to stop mowing while I chased them off with a stick.
What I also neglected to consider during my Indiana Jones experience was that these were no ordinary garter snakes. They were the more colorful and endangered San Francisco garter snake. I remember their extra pair of red stripes on top. Supposedly, they also had an extra pair of blue stripes underneath. I did not get close enough to notice.

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.

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+++++