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.

 

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Horridculture – Soaking Seeds

P91030Hooey! It’s a bunch of hooey! Sweet pea seed that gets sown this time of year for next spring does NOT need to be soaked before sowing. In fact, unless there is some strange species of plant that has become that dependent on human intervention, NO seed need to be soaked prior to sowing. Not only is the technique completely unnecessary, but it is completely unnatural as well.

Think of it. In the wild, plants grow, bloom and produce seed. This seed does what it can to disperse and get into or onto the soil to germinate and grow into new plants to repeat the process. Some seed appeal to squirrels for burial. Some prefer to be partly digested by animals who eat their tasty fruit. Heck, some are reluctant to germinate until heated by a cleansing forest fire.

Plants employ quite a range of techniques to disperse their seed and promote germination. As strange as some of these techniques seem to us, they are all justified. They all exploit processes of the respective ecosystems they naturally inhabit. For example, seed that crave heat know that the fire that provides such heat also incinerates competing plants, leaving them vacant soil.

Regardless, there are NO plants that produce seed with an expectation that anyone will collect and soak them. Dry seed that need to rehydrate can and actually prefer to collect the moisture they need from the moist soil in which they grow. If the soil is too dry for them to rehydrate, they do not waste effort trying. They merely assume that they should wait for rainier weather.

Furthermore, seed that are needlessly soaked prior to sowing must be sown shortly after rehydrating. Unlike dry seed, rehydrated seed can not be returned to their original packet and stored for later.

Save Some Seed For Later

90717thumbFlowers do not last forever. Whether they last for only a day, or weeks, they all eventually finish what they were designed to do, and then whither and deteriorate. They only need to stay fresh and appealing to pollinators long enough to get pollinated. After all, that is their only job. The next priority is the development of seed and any associated fruit structures that contain the maturing seed.

After bloom, most flowers are just ignored as they deteriorate and fall. Those in big shrubbery, vines and trees are out of reach anyway. Others are either too numerous or too insignificant to worry about. Of course, fruit and fruiting vegetable plants get to produce the fruits that they are grown to produce. Then there are few flowers that need to be ‘deadheaded’ after they are done blooming.

Deadheading is simply the removal of deteriorating flowers. The remains of sterile flowers might be deadheaded because they are unappealing. Deteriorating flowers that would like to produce undesirable seed or fruit after pollination might get deadheaded for the same reason, and to conserve resources that would otherwise be consumed by the developing seed and associated fruit.

However, there are a few flowers that might be left intentionally to provide seed for later. Different flowers finish at different times, and their seed gets sown in particular seasons, but most of those allowed to produce seed should probably be deadheaded through most of their season, with the last few blooms left to go to seed. The same applies to fruiting vegetable plants like pole beans.

Many flowering plants are genetically stable enough to produce progeny that will bloom mostly like the parents. Most are likely to be more variable, or revert to a more genetically stable form, even if it takes a few generations. Sunflower, cosmos, marigold, calendula, morning glory, columbine, snapdragon, campion and hollyhock are all worth trying.

California poppy, alyssum, nasturtium, money plant (honesty) and a few annuals that do not get deadheaded are often happy to sow their own seed.

Weeds Might Produce Hazardous Seeds

90710thumbWeeds are weeds because they grow where they are not wanted. They might be desirable plants in the wild within their native ranges, or beyond their native ranges where they are useful, but for one reason or another, are undesirable in other situations. In fact, many of the most invasive exotic (non-native) weeds were imported because they were useful for something, and then escaped.

Many invasive exotic weeds that were not imported intentionally by humans likely stowed away intentionally by their own means. Some produce edible fruits that contain their seed so that animals who eat the fruit transport and disperse the seed. When animals such as cattle, swine, sheep, horses and chickens are imported, they can bring such seeds with them, and have already done so.

Not all plants have such mutually beneficial relationships with the animal vectors who transport their seed for them. Rather than expend resources on fruit to appeal to, and reward the animals who eat it, they produce seed structures that cling to animals. Most get tangled in the hair of mammals. Some get wedged into cloven hooves. A few are just sticky enough to stick to the feet of birds.

It is sneaky and exploitative, but effective. Most of these sorts of seed structures stick to the fur only for short distances before falling to the ground, where they really want to be. Some types cling for longer distances, in order to take advantages of larger migratory mammals. Dispersion is their objective. Even though they provide no benefit to their vectors, they do not intend to harm them.

However, they sometimes do. Sharply pointed seed structures that are designed to slip smoothly into fur, but not come out easily, can get into eyes, noses, ears and throats of innocent animals. Foxtails are the most dangerous, and sometimes need to be removed by a veterinarian. Burclovers get tangled in soft fur, and sometimes do so in very uncomfortable clusters.

Domestic dogs and cats are more susceptible to the dangers of weed seeds than wild animals are, because their fur is longer, shaggier, and maybe curlier.

Horridculture – Bad Seed

P80317+California poppies are like no other wildflower. They are so perfectly bright orange, and look almost synthetically uniform in profusion, as if painted onto coastal plains and hillsides. They may be a bit more yellowish in some regions, or a bit deeper orange in others, but they are always bright and strikingly uniform.
Genetic variation is naturally very rare. I can remember hiking with my Pa up to the (lesser known) Portola Monument in the hills behind Montara, and finding a few pale white poppies, and even fewer pale purple poppies. It was like finding four leaf clovers! Genetic variants among California poppies are not quite as rare as four leaf clovers are, but finding a few of both white and purple was really strange. I never found a pink one though.
Nowadays, poppies can bloom in all sorts of shades and hues or orange, yellow, red, pink and soft purple, as well as creamy white. Some bloom with fluffy double flowers. Of course, all this variety is not natural. California poppies were bred to do this.
The potential problem with such breeding is that California poppy is naturally very prolific with seed. Any of these weirdly bred varieties could escape into the wild and interbreed with wild poppies, causing them to be more variable, and interfere with the ecosystem.
The problem is not just with California poppies. Many plants get bred extensively enough to interfere with how they behave in the wild if they happen to escape cultivation.
Fortunately for California poppies, the weird new varieties do not really get very far in the wild. The are not true-to-type, so revert back to their original bright orange in just a few generations, even without outside influence. If pollinators do not recognize their unfamiliar color and form, they are less likely to get pollinated to continue to tamper with the ecology. In fact, wild California poppies still have the advantage in that regard.
This yellow California poppy with an orange center is a second generation seedling, and is already halfway between the original yellow variety, and the wild orange.

Spring Fashions For Vegetable Gardens

60406thumbCompared to replacing cool season annuals with warm season annuals, the replacement of cool season or ‘winter’ vegetables with warm season or ‘summer’ vegetables is not quite as traumatic. Most of the cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower plants finish in time to make room for new vegetable plants anyway. Unlike flowering annuals, they make it obvious that they are done for the season.

If left too late into warming spring weather, the juvenile floral buds of broccoli and cauliflower will bloom, and become tougher and somewhat bitter. Cabbage does the same, but only after bolting first. (‘Bolting’ is the emergence of tall floral stalks from formerly basal foliage.) By the time beet, carrot, turnip and radish bolt, their plump roots are more like fibrous wood than tender vegetables.

Once space is relinquished, tomato, eggplant and pepper plants might be the first vegetable plants to go back into the garden. Even if the weather gets cool for a while, it will not get cool enough for frost. Roots disperse as soon as they get into the ground. Warming weather accelerates growth above ground. Fruit develops through summer. (Fruits contain seed. True vegetables do not.)

Tomato, eggplant and pepper are popularly planted as seedlings because only a few plants of each are needed. Each plant probably costs more than a single package of seed (which contains enough seed to grow many more plants than are necessary), but are still not too expensive collectively. Seedlings get established and start growing more efficiently than germinating seed does.

Various melons and squash, including zucchini, can either be planted as seedlings or sown as seed. Their seeds germinate and grow so efficiently that seedlings probably do not have much advantage. However, their seedlings are relatively fragile to handle, so might be at a disadvantage. Seedlings might be practical for one or two plants; but seed might be best for several plants.

Bean and cucumber grow most efficiently from seed mainly because several or many of each plants are grown, and also because seedlings are somewhat sensitive to transplant. Onion and potato are popularly grown from onion or potato ‘sets’, or ‘seed’ onions or potatoes, which are merely juvenile vegetables that grow into productive plants. Onion can also be grown from seed.

Pull Weeds Before They Seed

60323thumbSpring brings out the best and the worst in the garden. While warm season annuals and vegetables are getting established, so are a variety of weeds. Just like other annuals and perennials, they respond to the changing weather. Cool weather and moisture stratified their seed through winter. Warming moist soil prompts germination. Warm and sunny spring weather promts rapid growth.

There are all sorts of weeds. A few are big trees like bluegum eucalyptus and shamel ash. Some are substantial shrubbery, like privet and cotoneaster. Pampas grass and giant reed are big grassy perennials. The most familiar and prolific weeds are annuals or small perennials, like foxtail, burrclover, purslane, bindweed, sowthistle, pimpernel, spurge, crabgrass and Bermudagrass.

It is best to pull weeds as soon as they are big enough to grab onto. It will take more effort to pull them as they disperse their roots, and as the soil gets drier through spring. Unwanted shrubbery and tree weeds should be pulled like any other weed because they are likely to regenerate from roots if merely cut down. Once they recover and grow more, they will be much more difficult to pull.

Many small grassy weeds can be cut down low with a weed whacker, instead of pulled out completely. In some situations, low cut or mown weeds are better than bare soil. Some types of weeds will neither bloom nor disperse seed if mown. However, many types adapt to mowing by merely blooming and seeding lower. Dandelion and foxtail are notorious for their defiance to mowing.

Weeds are very efficient and creative with the dispersion of their seed. It is impossible to prevent seeds from coming into the garden from the outside. Yet, it is still best to inhibit the production and dispersion of seed from within the garden. Spurge and oxalis bloom and disperse seed in secret before they seem to be mature enough to bloom. Other weeds have taller or more prominent blooms that can be cut down before producing seed, even if the weeds are not actually removed completely.

Weed Seeds Can Hurt Pets

80725thumbPlants are quite ingenious with their technology of exploitation of animals and people. Many get insects, birds, bats, spiders and anyone who is animated within their environment to disperse the plants’ pollen for them. Plants who prefer to not rely on wind, water or gravity to disperse their seed exploit a different range of animals to do so. They know how to compensate for their immobility.

This sort of exploitation is generally not as bad as it sounds. Many pollinators are rewarded for their service with nectar or surplus pollen. Dispersion of many types of seed is likewise rewarded with the fruit that surrounds the seed. Many types of nuts produce significant surpluses of seed to reward squirrels for burying them, and leaving just a few to germinate and grow into new plants.

However, there are many types of seed that are not so gracious, and several that are potentially dangerous because of the tactics they use to exploit those who disperse them. Mistletoe is an odd parasitic plant that makes very sticky berries. Those that do not get eaten by birds (for later ‘deposit’) can stick to the feet or feathers of unconsenting birds in order to catch a ride to other trees.

It is sneaky but effective. Most other plants that use this technique are small annual plants that rely on mammals instead of birds. Instead of sticking to feathers, their seed are designed to stick to fur. Such seed are not often a problem for wild animals who have short fur that the seed can stick to only for short distances before slipping out and onto the ground where seed really wants to be.

Domestic animals are not so fortunate. They have longer, shaggier and maybe curlier fur that weed seeds such as foxtail and burclover can get very entangled in. Because foxtail is designed to go into fur but not come out, it is seriously dangerous if it gets into the eyes, ears or noses of domestic animals. Because dogs and cats go wherever they want to, it is very important to eliminate such weeds from gardens where dogs and cats live, and to hopefully do so before they go to seed.

Well, Well, Well!

P80106+Right next door to my downtown planter box, ( https://tonytomeo.wordpress.com/2017/11/04/my-tiny-downtown-garden/ ) just to the east on Nicholson Avenue, there is a tree well for a small London plane street tree that has not grown much in the past few years since it was installed. The poor tree is in a difficult situation. It probably does not mind getting bumped with car doors every once in a while, but bicycles getting chained to it have been abrasive to the bark of the main trunk. The location next to a Mike’s Bikes does not help. The staff at Mike’s Bikes has had limited success with promoting the use of a nearby bicycle rack instead, by displaying their own bicycles next to the tree.

The tree well collects a bit of trash that gets blown about by the wind. Weeds are sometimes able to grow up through the mulch of detritus. No one wants to pull the weeds or collect the trash because dogs do what dogs do on street trees. The crew that comes by to water young street trees through spring and summer occasionally stops to pull weeds and remove trash. As the tree eventually grows, they will cut more rings out of the grate to accommodate the expanding trunk. For now, the grate is only a few inches away from the trunk and the stake.

My planter box next door generates quite a bit of biomass. Some of it gets shared with neighboring planter boxes. The big houseleeks have really gotten around town. Two large specimens were installed into a pair of urns that flanked the front door of Mike’s Bikes, although only one remains. The nasturtiums that get so impressive through winter and into spring are even more prolific and generous with their seed. Cuttings of other minor succulents have been shared as well.

The tree well was a bit too vacant. We all know that the Public Works Crews take care of it, and no one want to tamper with that. Well, maybe. You know, houseleek and nasturtium can be so prolific. Nasturtium will drop their seed anywhere, and some unavoidably found their way into the tree well, where they grow right around the trunk. They do not go much farther without getting trampled back into bounds. A big cutting of houseleek seemed like it would be a good companion to the nasturtium, and adds a bit more substance. It grew like a weed last year before getting roasted and broken over summer. It is making a comeback now, with nasturtium seedlings appearing around the base. The Public Works Crews do not seem to mind them. Both the houseleek and the nasturtiums inhibit weed growth, and neither mind what dogs do to them. Well, well, well, the tree well gets a happy ending.

Collecting Seeds For Next Year

80110thumbWhere winters are cooler, the deteriorating stems of flowers that bloomed last year either got pruned away already or got knocked down by the weather, and are now rotting on the ground. Around here, where the weather is milder, and some flowers only recently finished blooming, used up flower stalks still stand in stasis. Most but not necessarily all should get pruned out and raked away.

Dahlias succumb to frost as soon as it arrives. If not already cut back, they fall to the ground like steamed spinach, and should get raked up and put into greenwaste. There is nothing to salvage. Sunflowers are related to dahlias, but do not collapse so easily. Even if they are not pretty, those that produce seed can be left for whatever birds like to eat them, and then recycled when empty.

Of course, not all of the seed must be left to the birds. Some or all can be saved for next year. The flowers only need to be allowed to dry so that the seed matures. If the birds start to eat them first, old flowers can be cut and stored in open bags or boxes in a shed or garage, out of reach of birds. Stems should be cut longer if they are still green. Seeds should fall from the flowers as they dry.

Seed can also be collected from lily-of-the-Nile and African iris, although these perennials are so easy to propagate by division that growing them from seed might be more trouble than it is worth. Their seed capsules must be allowed to dry, just like sunflower seed. Belladonna lily makes a few weirdly succulent seed that are worth collecting. Some primitive cannas make weirdly hard seed.

It might be worth researching flowers that happen to be in the garden to determine if they produce viable seed worth collecting. It is also important to know what seed requires scarification or stratification. Seed that needs stratification must be exposed to cold temperatures to be convinced that it is time to germinate in spring. Canna seeds need to be scarified by filing through the hard shells before they germinate. Other seeds need other types of scarification or stratification.