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Posted by Charlotte on Wednesday, October 12, 2016 - 2:08pm
  • Foothill Penstemon in Mendocino National Forest.
  • Showy Milkweed
  • Narrowleaf Milkweed growing in a meadow by Lake Pillsbury.

At the end of the dry season my garden is just that; at a glance many of the native plants look dry, and dead; but once you look more closely there’s always a bit of green within the brown. Plants are dormant, but definitely not dead; seeds are abundant, as are all the creatures coming to the garden to partake in this abundance.

Goldfinches come for the tarweed seeds, each plant with a flock of five or six birds taking the small flat seeds from each spent flower. Bushtits, most always in a flock of course, make their way from one side of the garden to the other, working over one shrub, then on to the next closest, and so on, carefully inspecting both the top and the bottom of leaves, flowers and seed heads  as they forage for tiny insects. The Golden-crowned Sparrows are back in Marin, busy practicing their songs and doing the sparrow double-scratch, which both brings up seed for them to eat, and helps those they miss get properly planted.

Posted by Charlotte on Wednesday, October 12, 2016 - 1:45pm
  • Yellow Hayfield Tarweed keeps blooming, sometimes until November.
  • Early in the rainy season the natural meadow next to my garden is all green.
  • By late summer the meadow is golden brown, but still full of life.

Seeds so clearly represent the end of one cycle of life and the beginning of another: And the start of the Rainy Season also heralds the beginning of a new year for native plant gardeners. Here in California we really have only three seasons; the rainy season, the wildflower season, and the dry season. We’ve had a mere sprinkling at the beginning of October, and it won’t be long before our hills turn green again. I’ve already noticed annual wildflowers germinating in areas where I hand-water. All are species that grew and flowered and set seed in my garden this year; and as much as possible, I will let them grow on exactly where they seed themselves in.

The only species that I’m still collecting seeds from is the lovely little yellow flowered tarweed (Hemizonia congesta ssp. lutescens). As long as the weather is dry, I’ll be collecting seeds almost daily from various plants in various areas; that’s the best way to insure genetic diversity. Once the weather is cool and consistently moist, it’s no longer a good idea to gather seed.

Posted by Charlotte on Wednesday, September 14, 2016 - 11:42am

Now that fall is soon upon us, and hopefully the rainy season as well, the time is perfect to plant California natives.  Many gardeners have issues and great frustration with the deer interfering with their planting plans. I happen to love and respect these animals, and from personal experience know that it is possible to create a beautiful native garden despite the presence of deer. You can have it all; a wonderful habitat rich in natural resources, complete with the native wildlife; your own zoological parkland !

I've summarized some simple steps for success below; if you care to know a lot more about the Columbian Black-tailed deer that live throughout the Bay Area, read my "Gardening in Deer Country' essays in Home Ground's resources pages.


1 –Familiarize yourself with native plants that grow wild in areas close to your home by participating in naturalist’s led hikes.

2 – Go to http://Calscape.CNPS.org, where visitors can enter their street address to get a list of native plants that are most appropriate for your locale.

Posted by Charlotte on Wednesday, October 21, 2015 - 4:05pm
  • Bumblebee foraging on Lacy Phacelia
  • Mountain Garland grows in part shade or full sun.
  • Sphinx Moth foraging at Bird's eye Gilia
  • Honeybee foraging on a Gilia flower; notice the turquoise pollen!

The days are still warm, and we’re all still hoping that this will be an ‘El Nino’ year with ample rainfall, and a good snow pack in the Sierras. The days are noticeably shorter, and the evenings are much cooler. The shorter day-length is a cue to many native plants and seeds that the season of growth in California is arriving; now we just need the rains!

I’ve already noticed annual wildflowers germinating in areas where I hand-water. All are species that grew and flowered and set seed in my garden last year; and as much as possible, I will let them grow on this year exactly where they seed themselves in. Wildflowers often seed into my gravel pathways; this seems to be an ideal situation for them; but since I still need to be able to walk the pathways, I let them grow at the edges, and just thin them out a bit. In thinning delicate seedlings it’s often best to just cut the stem at the ground level, rather than pulling out the seedlings, which also disturbs the root systems of neighboring seedlings.

Posted by Charlotte on Thursday, September 17, 2015 - 2:14pm
  • Elegant Madia flowers and seedheads.
  • Notice the nectar guide in the Madia flower.
  • Elegant Madia seed head.

The term Ecology is a relatively new field of study in the world of Biology; it was coined in 1866 by the German scientist, Ernst Haeckel (1834 – 1919). There are now two major subdivisions; animal ecology or plant ecology; and as many as twenty-one different specialty areas of study. One of the broadest specialty areas is Bioecology, when plants and animals are given equal emphasis; Autecology is the study of a single species of organism; and Synecology is the study of ecological inter-relationships among communities of organisms. I quickly realized that this is exactly what inspires me! I’m a Synecologist! I think about inter-relationships when I’m out walking in the wilds, and when I’m working in my garden. I’ll use one of my favorite native plants, Elegant Madia (Madia elegans) as an example.

Posted by Charlotte on Sunday, August 9, 2015 - 11:55am
  • Nevin Barberry in full bloom.
  • Nevin Barberry with fruits in June.
  • Ash-throated Flycatchers find plenty of insect life to feed their brood..

This year my Nevin Barberry (Berberis nevinii) truly made that leap and ‘came into its own’! Lovely, fragrant yellow flowers smothered the plant in early spring, right about the same time as many Ceanothus start to bloom; and then abundant, small red berries followed, maturing in June.

Nevin Barberry is a rare endemic shrub, now extirpated from most of its rather restricted original range from Los Angeles south to San Diego; so it’s an especially good thing that the shrub is quite easy and adapatable to garden culture. It’s just that it is really slow at first, so the adage often quoted for California natives really applies here; the first year they sleep, the second year they creep, the third year they leap! With this plant it’s actually several years of ‘sleepiness’ but very much worth the wait!

In the garden it needs full sun and good drainage, and does best with regular, low water. It is totally deer-proof; the leaves are quite leathery, and equipped with sharp spines; this plant doesn’t even need protection from the deer when it’s first planted out!

Posted by Charlotte on Wednesday, July 8, 2015 - 1:07pm
  • The upper wing of the Gray Hairstreak is often a bluish-gray. (photo by Bob Stewart)
  • The underwing of the Gray Hairstreak shows the pattern of delicate dots. (photo by Suzi Katz)
  • Larva found on Sidalcea 'Party Girl - the pupa is at the top of the container.
  • A Gray Hairsteak eclosed from the pupa !
  • Notice the unusual looking larva feeding in the Buckwheat flower.
  • The flower umbels of St. Catherine's Lace can be huge!

Several other smaller groups of butterflies are included in the larger family commonly known as the Gossamer-winged butterflies; there are the Blues, the Coppers, Metalmarks and Hairstreaks. Most of these small butterflies are uncommon in Marin gardens; many of them have associations with just one or two species of native plants in specific habitats. There is just one butterfly within the sub-family of Hairstreaks that is often seen in Marin gardens, and that’s the Common, or Gray Hairstreak.

The Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus) is easy to spot, even amongst lots of other butterflies because of a distinctive behavior; its wings are folded while it’s sipping nectar, and it rubs its hind wings together steadily as it feeds. On both surfaces of the hind wing, close to the abdomen, is a large black-pupiled red spot, and delicate, highly mobile ‘tails’. The spots are vaguely like eyes, the tails like antennae, and the rubbing sets it all in motion; constituting a ‘false head’ which diverts predators away from the real body. It’s another wonderful example of ‘back to front’ mimicry!

Posted by Charlotte on Thursday, April 30, 2015 - 1:45pm
  • Acmon Blue showing the underwing
  • The brilliantly blue male Acmon Blue - photo by Bob Stewart
  • A mating pair of Acmon Blues - photo by Bob Stewart
  • Eriogonum grande rubescens - Pink Flowering Buckwheat
  • Eriogonum nudum - Naked Buckwheat
  • Eriogonum latifolium - Coast Buckwheat

Acmon Blue – Plebejus (Icaricia) acmon

This little butterfly is fairly common, and more widespread than some of the other ‘Gossamer Wings’ (Lycaenidae); the Acmon Blue has a much longer flight period than many other ‘blues’ and it visits gardens, and can be seen in open fields, and even along roadsides.

Basically, as with so many butterfly species; the butterflies are where their host plants are! The Amon Blue larvae usually feed on plants in the Pea (Fabaceae) family, but also on some plants within the Knotweed (Polygonaceae) family, primarily various native Buckwheats. The Acmon Blue, which often produces multiple generations each year feeds interchangeably on plants in these two families; giving scientists a hint that there must be a chemical commonality between the two plant families.

Posted by Charlotte on Wednesday, April 1, 2015 - 11:02am
  • Mating pair of Silvery Blues - photo by Bob Stewart
  • Winter Vetch in flower

Silvery Blue – Glaucopsyche lygdamus

My home and garden are situated next to an open meadow; and within that meadow grows lots and lots of vetch! The vetch also shows up at the edges of my cultivated areas, but early on, while the plants are still small I pull some of it. There are two species of vetch commonly seen along roadsides, fields and idle lands;  Hairy or Winter Vetch (Vicia villosa), and Spring or Common Vetch (Vicia sativa). Both species are native to Europe, and were brought to this country to be used as a rotation crop in fields; but both have since escaped into wild lands.  

On my land it’s mostly Winter Vetch that shows up at the wilder edges, and grows so quickly, draping itself over nearby plants, that without some control it can easily obscure established shrubs. It is an annual plant with stems reaching six feet or more. I pull much of it out of garden areas long before flowers set fruit; there can be ten to fifteen flowers per stem; and about four to six seeds per pod; and those seeds have a very hard coat and can persist in the soil in a dormant state for years.  

Posted by Charlotte on Wednesday, February 25, 2015 - 2:04pm
  • Ceanothus 'Ray Hartman' in a hedgerow planting.
  • Spring Azure or 'Echo Blue' butterfly (photo by Bob Stewart)
  • Common Sheep Moth ; this is a male with it's feathery antennae.

The Lycaenidae; Blues, Hairstreaks, Coppers, and Metalmarks, are usually small, very delicate looking butterflies; many of them brilliantly colored and some with very interesting life cycles. The apparent fragility of these tiny creatures earned the family the common name ‘gossamer-winged’; but the vigor apparent in their life strategies, belies this moniker. This is the largest family of butterflies, with almost 6,000 species worldwide; but named species are often termed ‘complexes’ because there is still so much to be learned about their anatomy and behaviors. New species are still being discovered – and not just in the tropics – a new ‘blue’ was discovered and named right here in California as recently as 1998!

Posted by Charlotte on Saturday, January 31, 2015 - 11:13am
  • Golden Currant growing with Hummingbird Sage in the partial shade of a Coast Live Oak
  • A native bee, probably one of the 'Leafcutters' sips  nectar from the flowers
  • Salvia spathaceae 'Avis Keedy' has pale yellow blooms

Golden Currant (Ribes aureum) grows in my garden in the partial shade of a big old Coast Live Oak. I established the shrubs several years ago with the aid of DriWater, and now the whole planting exists on rainwater alone. Deer do like to nibble on the small smooth leaves, so to create some protection I planted Hummingbird Sage all around the shrubs. I choose a yellow flowered hybrid of this native Salvia called ‘Avis Keedy’; the pale yellow flowers put on a show about the time that the Currant flowers are fading.   

Hummingbird Sage (Salvia spathaceae) is a creeping groundcover which goes dormant in the summer. The leaves are large, very sticky, and strongly scented; and the deer hate this plant. They dislike it so much that they avoid stepping into it, and so now, they no longer get close enough to the Currant to do much browsing.   

Posted by Charlotte on Tuesday, July 29, 2014 - 3:25pm
  • Cabbage White on Origanum 'Santa Cruz' (Photo by Suzi Katz)

This lovely little Cabbage White butterfly (Pieris rapae) really stands out against the beautiful flowers of the 'Santa Cruz' Oregano.  It might seem unsafe, for a small creature, to be so visible in a habitat garden full of other creatures; but the white color sends a warning to visual predators.

Birds with some experience know that this butterfly is distasteful! That's because the white coloration in the wings comes from a waste product called a pterin; but  instead of being excreted, the compound is used to color the wings. Pterin is just one of several types of pteridines  which are closely related to uric acid, and chemically very similar to the white paste in bird droppings.

The larvae feed on Cabbage family plants, many of which contain mustard oil glycosides and sulfur compounds; these chemicals are passed on to the adult stage, where they are sequestered in the wings of the butterfly and add to the very disagreeable taste of this little creature!

Posted by Charlotte on Thursday, July 11, 2013 - 12:25pm

As a propagator I often try different approaches to germinating seeds of certain species. Sometimes I get such a definitely positive response to one pre-treatment method, that it becomes the one I’ll always use.

Like soaking Toyon seeds for just one hour before sowing; this treatment results in vigorous germination. I won’t bother with a hot coffee soak of these seeds again. We potted up nearly five dozen healthy seedlings in May. We pot native shrub seedlings into tube-style pots which are designed with internal ridges running the length of the tube; this encourages roots to grow long and fairly straight, and helps to prevent roots from circling and eventually strangling themselves. The seedlings stay under shade for several months, and as they get potted up to larger style tubes, and eventually to tree-pots, they also get more and more exposure to direct sunlight.

Posted by Charlotte on Tuesday, March 19, 2013 - 11:29am
  • American Robin eating a Pyracantha berry
  • Cedar Waxwing eating Cotoneaster berries
  • House Finches on Toyon
  • American Robin on Toyon
  • American Robin eating a Toyon berry
  • American Robins on Toyon
  • Northern Mockingbird on Toyon

All through the rainy season many birds rely on fruits as a major part of their diet. These birds often travel in flocks, like the Cedar Waxwings and American Robins. Sometimes the flocks are mixed; several different species will travel together, and all are “on the lookout” for resources. 

Bright red berries are easy for birds to spot; and large quantities of fruits in one place make foraging more energy efficient. Red Toyon berries (Heteromeles arbutifolia) certainly attract the attention of hungry birds, but so do other red berries such as Cotoneaster and Pyracantha.

Birds will partake of all the edible fruits they find, and therein lies the problem! The fruits are eaten at one location, say your backyard, but then they fly off, sometimes into open spaces, and a few hours later they excrete the seeds that were contained within the fruits. When I walk through the woods and meadows of Marin's wild lands, I often spot seedlings of Cotoneaster; they can and do grow without cultivation, and over time could displace native shrubs and damage native ecosystems.

Posted by Charlotte on Wednesday, February 13, 2013 - 12:25pm
  • A male House Finch eating Toyon berries

Whenever I'm out collecting I always keep it foremost in my mind that seeds are food. Food for all sorts of insects and other invertebrates, food for birds, rodents and other mammals, including humans!

When I gathered Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) berries in December, I took just a handful from each cluster, and went to several different shrubs to collect. I want to make sure there’s still plenty of food for the birds; the red berries are a magnet for Cedar Waxwings, Robins, House Finches, Band-tailed Pigeons and the Mockingbirds. By February there are no more berries on the Toyon.

The native peoples also gathered Toyon berries, which they cooked on hot rocks until the skins bubbled; then the berries were mashed and eaten. I imagine that the seeds contained within each berry were also mashed and eaten. That’s not the case when a bird eats the berry; only the flesh is digested, leaving the seeds to be expelled with the feces.