Sunday, May 26, 2013

Native California Bulbs & Corms

Several years ago, when I felt that the basic structure of the garden was established, I wanted to begin to fill in the space between the larger shrubs. In the wild this would be called the understory and it would consist of a mix of grasses, herbs, annuals, and geophytes. The last group includes plants that arise from bulbs, corms, tubers, rhizomes and the like. So I set to work finding out where I could get bulbs and corms that are native to San Diego County.

I got off to a good start with some Wild Hyacinth, also known as Blue Dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) in the Brodiaea family (Themidaceae). A friend of mine had a property with a ton of Dichelostemma on it, and he was planning to build something that would take out a big chunk of them. He allowed me to collect the corms, which was very easy. My soil was the same as his, so with no special preparation I stuck the corms in the ground and waited. When the rains came in winter, they took off.

As you can see in the above photo, the flower of D. capitatum is a dense umbel (cluster) of tiny lavender colored flowers. This plant multiplies and spreads itself readily by seed and by producing offsets from the corm, as shown below.

Dichelostemma capitatum is a great plant for the San Diego area garden because it is typically found in a variety of habitats throughout the region.

A genus that is quite common in coastal sage scrub and chaparral habitats in this region is the Mariposa Lily (Calochortus sp.). These are of course in the Liliaceae family. I have several, as shown below:

Unfortunately, I have lost track of what species these are. I feel terrible about this. The top one is probably Dunn's Mariposa Lily (C. dunnii) from the foothills and mountains of the region. The bottom one is almost certainly Splendid Mariposa Lily (C. splendens) which is fairly common in a variety of habitats and is the most likely species to have been present in Encinitas in the pre-urban past. The middle one is a complete mystery to me. I don't remember anything about it.

Another member of the Themidaceae family is Thread-leaf Brodiaea (Brodiaea filifolia). This is a somewhat rare and state-listed Threatened Species, but fortunately the corms are available from a few vendors. In the wild it is found near vernal pools or other areas with clay soil where they can retain moisture for a longer time. I have only sandy soil in my garden so I compensate for this by giving the Brodiaeas more frequent water, and this seems to work. I didn't understand this at first and wasn't getting any blooms because the plants would dry out too soon. Now, with supplemental water, I'm getting good flowers.

The last geophyte for today is Golden Star (Bloomeria crocea), yet another member of the Themidaceae. I only have one corm of this one, but it's really nice when it blooms which it is doing right now (May). It is slightly past its prime but still looking good. I'm hopeful that it will either produce offsets from the corm or produce some seed so I'll get more of them.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Baja Natives

To be honest, I am somewhat more fascinated by Baja plants than San Diego plants. I guess it's because I'm so familiar with the landscape of San Diego County, while Baja remains a sort of mystery for me. Also, Baja has some weirdly beautiful species that you just don't find anywhere else. So here are a few Baja natives that I have in my Encinitas garden. The first one is Shaw's agave (Agave shawii), one of my earliest acquisitions. Behind it is Golden-spined Cereus (Bergerocactus emoryi). I love these two in combination, which you often see in the wild in north coastal Baja. The cereus is blooming right now (May). The agave has never bloomed although it is over 20 years old.

Another one of my early acquisitions was Baja Spurge (Euphorbia xanti). Spurge is a common name for plants in the Euphorbia family, which includes many familiar garden plants - Poinsettia, Crown of Thorns, and a number of popular cactus-like succulents. Baja Spurge forms a tall shrub consisting of numerous slender stems.

The flowers of Baja Spurge are tiny but beautiful and long lasting. The entire shrub flowers all at once and stays that way for several months.

Baja Spurge puts up a great many sprouts from the roots, so if you plant this one be prepared to do a lot of hand pulling of the sprouts, or else let it spread as much as it wants to.

Another Euphorbia, but much smaller, is Cliff Spurge (Euphorbia misera). It is found in just a few places on the U.S. side of the border, but it is very commonly seen on coastal bluffs in Baja. Notice the structural similarity between the flowers of E. xanti and E. misera.

Among the most weirdly beautiful plants of Baja are the Elephant Trees and their kin. These plants are from several different families but they share one thing in common - they have disproportionately fat trunks in relation to their height, sometimes referred to as caudiciform. Someone apparently thought these fattened trunks resemble the leg and foot of an elephant, leading to the English common name. The Spanish names for these plants do not make reference to elephants. The photo below shows five of these that I have in containers.

#1 is known as Copalquin or Torote Blanco in Baja (Pachycormus discolor var. pubescens). Perhaps surprisingly, it is in the Cashew family (Anacardiaceae). In the wild it will get to be 30 ft. tall with a trunk nearly 3 ft. thick at the base. The middle three are members of the Torchwood family (Burseraceae). #2 is Bursera Hindsiana. In Baja it is known as Copal or Copal Roja and can get to be 15 ft. tall. You may be able to see in this photo that the trunk is gray but the smaller branches and twigs are reddish. #3 is Bursera Fagaroides, also known as Fragrant Bursera. Note the fattened portion of the trunk in this specimen. #4 is Bursera microphylla, known as Torote or Small-leaf Elephant Tree, which occurs in the Anza-Borrego Desert and Arizona as well as in Baja. It can be either a large shrub or a tree up to 25 ft. in height. #5 is a member of the Fouquieria family - Fouquieria columnaris. It is related to the Ocotillo (F. splendens) which is common to the deserts of California and Arizona. But F. columnaris has a really different look, especially when it becomes large. Below is a photo of one growing in the San Diego Botanic Garden. This one is not particularly large but you can get an idea of the general appearance of the plant.

A nice shrub from Baja is Hind's Nightshade (Solanum hindianum), known as Mariola or Mala Mujer in Mexico. It is in the Nightshade Family (Solanaceae) which also includes peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco, petunias, and many other familiar plants. The great thing about S. hindsianum is that it blooms all year long, at least in my garden.

Another really nice shrub is Baja Fairy Duster (Calliandra californica). Like the Baja Spurge it forms a clump of many individual stems, but Fairy Duster doesn't get nearly as tall. The flower is a very showy spray of stamen radiating out from the center.

To wrap up the Baja plants (for now), I will finish with Britton's Liveforever (Dudleya brittonii). This member of the Crassula family is found only in northern Baja near the coast. The succulent foliage forms a low rosette and comes in a green form or a bluish-white form with a white powdery coating on the leaves. Both color variations are available in native plant nurseries. Below are some green form plants that I have had in my garden for many years.

There are some excellent resources for learning more about Baja plants, mostly coming from the SD Museum of Natural History. The museum has a great online Biodiversity Research Center of the Californias that examines all life forms in upper and lower California. You can find it at and there is a ton of great stuff to learn there.  In addition to the online resources, Dr. Jon Rebman, Curator of Botany at the museum, has co-authored (with the late Norman Roberts) the 3rd edition of the Baja California Plant Field Guide, a tremendously valuable reference book for anyone interested in the plants of this region. You can buy the book at a number of places including Amazon. For more info, see

Monday, May 13, 2013

A Garden's Progress

My earlier posts have showed my garden as a finished product with the flowers in full bloom. That view is a distortion of what actually occurs in any garden. In reality, a garden goes through an evolutionary process from season to season and from year to year. It is the nature of plants to produce their flowers for a finite time, because flowers are simply the means to an end - reproduction. Annuals produce their flowers, go to seed, and then die. Even among perennials there are plants that I've grown in the past that are gone now. So let's take a look at the progression of a few areas of my garden that I have totally redone, from 2012 to the present.

One always starts with a weed patch, and job #1 is to eliminate the weeds. I use a combination of hand pulling and herbicide in small amounts. The photos below show a couple of different areas of my back yard after I had removed the weeds and other unwanted plants.


The top photo is an area that used to have 2 gigantic ficus trees. The combination of their shading and leaf drop effectively prevented anything else from growing there. So I had them taken out, including all their roots. It was a huge job but well worth it.

The middle photo is the area underneath my Santa Cruz Island Ironwood (Lyonothamnus floribundus sspl. asplenifolius). I had never done anything with this area and I decided it was time to add an understory of California Channel Island species.

In the bottom photo is an area that used to have European Rosemary and Lavender. I cleared them out, and you can see some of the plants that I am ready to put in the ground. There is also a boardwalk that I later removed.

I did this preparatory work in the summer of 2012 so that I could do my planting in Fall/Winter which I believe is the best time to plant natives.  Below is the next phase with new plants in the ground.

The upper photo shows a 15 gal. "Dr. Hurd" manzanita, an Indian Mallow (Abutilon palmeri), a couple of Penstemon spectabilis, a Cobwebby Thistle (Cirsium occidentale), a Catalina Island Lilac (Ceanothus arboreus), a Heart Leaf Penstemon (Keckiella cordifolia), and a number of annuals from seed.

In the Ironwood understory (lower 2 photos) I used Giant Coreposis (Leptosyne gigantea), Santa Cruz Island Buckwheat (Eriogonum arborescens), St. Catherine's Lace (Eriogonum giganteum), Santa Barbara Island Liveforever (Dudleya traskiae) and miscellaneous others.

In the area next to the house I planted Indian Mallow (Abutilon palmeri), Apricot Mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua), Chaparral Snapdragon (Keckiella antirrinhoides), and more annuals from seed.

The next set of photos shows everything at its peak in March-April.

Now in mid-May I am in the process of deadheading the perennials in the hope that they might bloom again. Most of the annuals have gone to seed and I am collecting the seeds to spread around for next year. There are still blooms on Giant-flowered Phacelia (Phacelia grandiflora), Botta's Clarkia (Clarkia bottae), and Sea Dahlia (Leptosyne maritima).

Friday, May 3, 2013

Bees and Lizards Revisited

Geez, it's been a week since I posted anything. Time to get busy. In my previous post about insects in the garden, I mentioned bees both native and introduced. I just found out about a great source of info about native bees. It's called Urban Bee Gardens and the URL is The info on plants is not restricted to native species (which I prefer), but that's good because not everyone wants natives.

On a recent cool morning I found some Yellow-faced Bumblebees apparently sleeping (or at least resting) while holding onto flowers. When it got a bit warmer they began to fly and forage as usual.

In my previous post about lizards I mentioned that I have Silvery Legless Lizards in my garden but I've never taken a picture of one. I finally got the chance a few days ago. I was moving around some loose, damp dirt in an area where I had nothing growing, and I uncovered a young legless lizard. Instead of immediately relocating it to a safer area, I got my wife to take a picture of me holding it.

That's all for today.