Tuesday, December 30, 2014


A lot of plants in my garden are now responding to the rains of the last month. Here's a sampling:

Mission Manzanita (Xylococcus bicolor). This shrub had a a lot of dead branches on it after this brutal summer. About 2 weeks ago I pruned off most of the dead stuff, and now it is rebounding with new leaf growth and flowers. The flowers are the typical upside-down urn of the Ericaceae family.

My Ceanothus 'Ray Hartman' also suffered quite a bit this summer, and I had to prune away a lot of dead branches. Fortunately, it is also coming back strong. When these buds open up, the fragrance will be fantastic. The local pollinators will go nuts.

Verbena lilacina 'De la Mina'. A cultivar of a rare species from Cedros Island, Baja, this plant has become quite popular with many gardeners. It's an early bloomer and has a long blooming season. I don't know how it would do in inland gardens, but it's great in coastal gardens where you can create a microgeography to mimic the conditions it would have enjoyed in its place of origin.

 A plant I have mixed in with the Verbena is this member of the Asteraceae, Sea Dahlia (Leptosyne maritima). It is pretty much limited to the coastal strip of San Diego County, except for a couple of odd reported observations in LA County and on Santa Cruz Island. As a garden plant it has some drawbacks. When green, as at this time of year, it is rather weak stemmed, causing it to flop over or break easily. In the dry months, it sheds its leaves and the stem turns woody and dry, becoming stronger but less attractive. However, the flowers are great, and the dry stems pop back to life readily with Fall rains. It also seeds itself readily, which you may either like or hate. I like it because it is one of the plants that was probably on this site in pre-European times. In fact, I'm going to try something new here and inset a link to the Calflora interactive location map for this species:
 http://www.calflora.org/entry/dgrid.html?crn=10954. You'll have to zoom in to San Diego County to see the locations, and I think it helps to select "Show Individual Observation Points."

Above is Wart-stemmed Ceanothus (Ceanothus verrucosus), a somewhat rare shrub that is a member of the Southern Maritime Chaparral community. It grows near the coast in eroded sandstone soils from Pt. Loma through Carlsbad. In Encinitas it is found along El Camino Real. Here's the Calflora location map: http://www.calflora.org/entry/dgrid.html?crn=1837
Although Ceanothus verrucosus might not have been found growing on the site where my house is, I'm glad to see that it is happy here. It's about 3 years old and showed no sign of distress this past summer.

Winter Currant (Ribes indecorum) is also blooming like crazy right now. I guess that would explain the common name. Like other members of the Grossulariaceae (gooseberries) it will produce berries that are favored by birds.

This Lance-leaf Dudleya (Dudleya lanceolata) is doing really well in a container. I have a couple of others in the ground but none of them is doing as well as this one, which is starting to put up an inflorescence now. I find that D. lanceolata needs a bit more moisture and shade than some of the other Dudleyas, such as pulverulenta. By accident I seem to have put it in the perfect spot.

Another Dudleya that is putting up an inflorescence now is D. candida from the Coronados Islands, just a few miles below the border and just offshore from Tijuana. This is a really nice, compact Dudleya that is only available from Grigsby Cactus Nursery in Vista, and they don't have it all the time.

Moving slightly farther afield now, the Cliff Spurge (Euphorbia misera) has become fully leafed out and has produced a few flowers. The reason I say this is farther afield is because it is not clear whether this plant ever occurred in significant numbers north of the border. While it becomes quite common from Tijuana southward, there are only a handful of current locations in Pt. Loma, Torrey Pines, Otay Mesa, and scattered other spots. http://www.calflora.org/entry/dgrid.html?crn=3558
On the other hand, it is possible that it was previously more common on the coastal bluffs and around the lagoons. Like Coast Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus viridescens) it would have been considered worthless, and its removal by early farmers would have been scarcely noticed.

Another species that seems to barely cross the border is Small-leaved Rose (Rosa minutifolia). Known from only a handful of locations in the Otay area and threatened in Mexico by the rapid spread of agriculture into formerly unspoiled habitat, Rosa minutifolia has been propagated for the garden as a way of trying to preserve it. The simple pink flowers are clearly roses, and it blooms profusely in response to the rain. I think it works great in the Baja section of my garden.

Since I am on to Baja plants now, the Bursera hindsiana is putting out new growth. This surprises me somewhat because I did not expect it to respond to winter rain. I guess some of the Baja species are able to take advantage of rain at any season. Rebman and Roberts say it is found along almost the entire length of the peninsula, so that would mean the northern populations would be accustomed to receiving winter rain.

The last selection for this post is Burroughsia fastigiata (no common name). Another Baja plant, this one is rarely seen in gardens. It forms a shrub 4-6 ft, in height, relatively upright and narrow. The flowers look a bit like Lantana. I haven't noticed them attracting any particular butterflies, but it may be attracting smaller, less conspicuous pollinators that I just haven't been paying enough attention to see. Or it may be that the preferred pollinator is not around here. If anyone knows more about this plant, let me know.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

And More Rain

The plants are REALLY responding now. The rain we have been getting is in nearly ideal amounts and interval to get everything greening up fast. Here's what's been happening in the last week.

Mystery Mushrooms

I moved some trash cans that I use for yard waste, and these things were underneath. Very interesting because the cap is asymmetrical. This area is always in shade and has a couple inches of d.g. on it. Usually only stray weeds pop up there. These mushrooms show that there is organic material in the soil that is feeding this fungus. I love these because it shows the presence of a mychorrhizal network.

Miners' Lettuce

A few years ago I sprinkled some seeds of Miners' Lettuce (Claytonia perfiolata) under the oak tree in the front yard. They germinated quickly and really liked that spot, so now they are re-seeding themselves every year. They look like a grass at this stage, but later they will develop a single round, clasping leaf that looks like a tiny water lily pad. Miners Lettuce is edible and is common in oak woodlands and other shaded places throughout the state.

Soap Plant

I have a number of corms of the geophyte Chlorogalum pomeridianum which is commonly known as Soap Plant, Amole, and a few other names. The name Soap Plant comes from the fact that native people used the corm to make a soap. They also used the fibrous outer coating of the corm as a brush or whisk broom. It isn't often grown in the garden because the flowers are really tiny and hard to see. However, I wanted some as part of my ecosystem approach to gardening. I always forget where they are until they start to come up, as below. Overall, this plant tends to hide among other plants, making itself known only to its preferred pollinators which are most likely a very tiny insect.

Silene Laciniata

Commonly known as Catchfly, this plant is the opposite of Soap plant in that it proclaims its presence in the garden or the wild with stunning red flowers. This is a flower that apparently wants to look beautiful for people. It has a lengthy bloom time, from now through April. I got two of them from the last Recon plant sale and I want more, more, more. Perfect for a border in front of more rugged chaparral plants.

Ribes Speciosum

Commonly called Fuchsia-flower gooseberry, this rather brambly vine is a great one to have if you can give it some space. It goes totally dead-looking dormant starting in late Spring, but with the first rains it starts shooting out green leaves so fast that it seems like you can watch it happening. A month from now it will be covered with red, tubular, pendant flowers that have a sort of firecracker look.

Cochemia Halei

One of the most unexpected results of this rain is that one of my Baja cacti has decided to bloom. I can't really explain what's going on here because its sisters only a foot away are not blooming. It just shows once again that plants don't tell us what they are doing or why. They just do it.

Native Plant Wreath

Anyone that knows me will testify that I am not a holiday lover. However, my wife (Sheila) likes to do Christmas decorating. This year she made a wreath for the front door from springs of plants from the garden. I must admit that it's a nice idea, even though I think wreaths are generally stupid. It smells good because it has some white sage and cleveland sage in it, so it's not all bad.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Let It Rain

Photo: fir0002
As I write, it is raining again in Encinitas. This is welcome news. It appears we are on our way to at least a "normal" rainfall year of about 10" or perhaps even a little better, thus alleviating the effects of the drought for this year. It also means we should have good flowers in the Spring. Some of my plants have immediately responded by putting out leaf sprouts - and I mean immediately. Below is a Giant Coreopsis (Leptosyne gigantea) before the rain and about 24 hours after it started.

This plant from the Channel Islands and Pt. Mugu area looks completely lifeless in the drought of summer, but it is merely leafless, not lifeless. As soon as the rain got to its roots, its stored energy in the stem started pushing out leaves from the top. The Halloween rain probably primed it for action, and this storm set it in motion. Another islands plant that is very happy with this rain is Munzothamnus blairii (Blair's Wire Lettuce) which is found on San Clemente Island and a weird, disjunct population on the mainland in Alameda County. Both the Leptosyne and Munzothamnus are members of the Aster family, though one would never know it by looking at them. It is only by examination of the flowers that the family resemblance becomes evident.

In my last post I showed Blue Dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) sprouting up. Now the Thread-leaf Brodiaea (Brodiaea filifolia) is following suit. This species is listed as Endangered by the State and Threatened by the Federal government because it occurs in a very limited distribution in coastal southern California in precisely the places where people want to build houses. It is often said to be a vernal pool species, but I have also seen it extensively in grasslands in Carlsbad. Although it is a listed species, you can obtain the bulbs legally from Telos Rare Bulbs: (http://www.telosrarebulbs.com/).

Some of my plants don't want to get too wet. This is especially true of the Baja cacti. They have a tendency to rot if they get too wet, and I have lost a number of them that way. So I covered them before this storm. They will still get plenty of water from underground. They just won't get too much water directly on them.

Dudleyas are also picky like that. They don't want to have water standing in the center of the rosette. The vast majority of wild Dudleyas are found on slopes, and in the garden they should be planted on a slope or at an angle to the ground so water can drain off of them. It doesn't have to be a lot of slope, just enough so the center of the rosette can drain.

I used to not have any rain barrels. I just let the water run into the soil, and I have a few decorative pieces at the bottom of some of the downspouts.

Recently I got an email from a local nursery called Barrels and Branches (www.barrelsandbranches.com) telling me that I could get a rain barrel for $75 and I could get a $75 rebate from SoCalWaterSmart (http://socalwatersmart.com/index.php/home/?p=res). I went to Barrels and Branches and bought the rain barrel. I don't have a rain gutter in the location where I decided to put it. I just let the water run into the opening at the top of the barrel. I got a totally full barrel out of this storm.

Some insects had their own reactions to the weather. This butterfly, possibly an Orange Sulfur male, found himself a spot to hang out on the trunk of the oak tree. Not a bad spot to stay out of the rain.

I picked up a pot and underneath it was this Jerusalem Cricket. It didn't like being disturbed so I covered it up again. These things are harmless but they look positively evil.

Let's hear it for winter in So Cal.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Spring Comes in November

Due to California's Mediterranean climate, our plants emerge from their summer dormancy with the first rains of Fall. This is really our Spring when annual seeds sprout, new shoots emerge on trees and shrubs, mushrooms (the fruiting bodies of underground fungi) pop up, and the growth centers of plants go into overdrive. This happens as a result of the combination of rain, cooler temperatures and shortened daylight period. An example is shown below, the new sprouts of Blue Dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) in my front yard. It looks a lot like a grass because it is a monocot, meaning that it has a single cotyledon and it has parallel veins rather than a network.

Dichelostemma is a geophyte which grows from a corm and is one of the first to sprout after a Fall rain. The photo below shows some of the corms in April with the leaves and flowers. The corms are usually covered with a papery brown skin but I peeled that off to reveal the white flesh of the corm. Native people of California harvested and ate these corms, and they are reportedly delicious.

Below is this same area of Dichelostemma in full flower a few years ago.

Another geophyte that I like a lot is Golden Star (Bloomeria crocea). It hasn't sprouted yet but I mention it because I bought more of the corms from Telos Rare Bulbs. They have a great selection of native California bulbs and corms as well as others from around the world. I previously had only one solitary Golden Star so I bought 10 more. Now I will have a nice little cluster of them.

Although the plants perk up with Fall rains, most of the insect activity dies down. Before the rain came on Halloween, we had this big, beautiful spider in the back yard.

I sent this photo to Jim Berrian at the SD Museum of Natural History. He identified it as a member of the orb-weaver family Araneidae, probably a dark phase female Crossed Orb-weaver, Neoscona crucifera. He said they can inflict a painful bite if mishandled but they are not medically dangerous. I left her alone. She was the perfect Halloween decoration.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

A Couple More Baja Plants

This is a short post to mention a couple of Baja plants that I want to highlight.

The first is Mammillaria albicans. This cactus is blooming like crazy right now (October). It is a lovely little species from Baja California Sur. As shown in the photo below, it has very white spines which are very light reflective, a useful adaptation for desert species. (Many of the spines are dark tipped, especially at the top of the cactus where the new growth is found). Like all Mammillarias, this one doesn't get very large, up to about 8 inches in height. Mine is a young, single stem specimen, but older ones in the wild develop multiple stems and form large clumps. The stems can also develop numerous round wart-like bumps. The flowers are obviously quite showy, and when conditions are right it will put out a lot of them. The flower is followed by a typical red fruit. This cactus came from Grigsby Cactus Garden in Vista.

The second plant I want to mention is a totally new one for me, Jatropha vernicosa. Like other Jatrophas, it is in the Euphorbia family and develops into a small tree or large shrub. Unlike Jatropha cinerea, which I have had in my garden for a couple of years, J. vernicosa is endemic to Baja Sur and has very shiny leaves that are thin and almost transluscent. J. cinerea leaves by contrast are somewhat thick and leathery, as shown in the bottom two photos. I have both of these Jatrophas in containers so that I can control their size. I bought this Jatropha mail order from Arid Lands Nursery in Tucson. It was shipped bare-root. I immediately but it in damp soil and it only lost one leaf. Rather amazing. When I planted it in the large pot, I dusted the roots with rooting hormone and used a standard fast-draining soil mix. Since then it has put out new growth very rapidly.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Baja Plants

I have written previously that I love Baja plants almost more than California plants. Actually that is a false dichotomy because the California Floristic Province continues well into Baja. According to Rebman and Robert's book, Baja California Plant Field Guide, 3rd edition (Sunbelt Publications 2012), Californian climate and vegetation extend roughly 250 miles south of the border to the El Rosario region, eastward to the mountains, and including the Pacific Islands as far south as Cedros and Natividad. Even the Sonoran Desert portion of Baja is phytogeographically linked to California's deserts of San Diego, Riverside and Imperial Counties. For example, the Anza-Borrego Desert and Palm Springs are northwestern extensions of the Sonoran Desert.

All this verbiage is intended to justify my inclusion of lots of Baja plants in a garden that I refer to as California natives. In fact, a great many species are found on both sides of the border. To mention just a few common examples, Mission Manzanita (Xylococcus bicolor), Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia), Chamise (Adenostema fasciculatum), Laurel Sumac (Malosma laurina), Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica), White Sage (Saliva apiana), California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum), and Coast Prickly-Pear Cactus (Opuntia littoralis) are found in the chaparral and coastal sage scrub areas of both Baja and Alta California.

In my search for Baja plants for my garden, I have found some good nurseries that have items. rarely seem for sale. I have compiled a list of these to aid others in their search for interesting Baja plants. Below are three nurseries and their web sites. All taxa listed below are native to the California Floristic Province.

Arid Lands Greenhouses, Tucson – aridlands.com
Agave deserti var. deserti
Agave deserti var. pringlei
Agave moranii (west slope San Pedro Martir mountains)
Agave shawii ssp. goldmanniana
Agave turneri (Sierra Cucapa)
Bursera hindsiana
Bursera microphylla
Pachycormus discolor var. veatchiana (Cedros Island)
Lophocereus schottii
Pachycereus pringlei
Ferocactus fordii (coastal dunes)
Ferocactus gracilis ssp. gracilis
Cylindropuntia molesta
Cylindropuntia tesajo
Yucca valida

Mesa Gardens, Belen, NM – mesagarden.com – they have both plants and seeds
 Agave shawii
Echinocereus maritimus (coastal bluffs)
E. pacificus (coastal bluffs)
Ferocactus chrysacanthus (endemic to Cedros Island)
F. fordii (coastal dunes)
F. gracilis 
Lophocereus schottii
Mammillaria dioica
M. setispina (reclassified to Cochemia setispina)
M. tetrancistra
Myrtillocactus cochal
Opuntia burrageana (reclassified to Cylindrountia alcahes var burrageana)
Pachycereus pringlei

Grigsby Cactus Gardens – Vista - cactus-mall.com/grigsby/
Ferocactus chrysacanthus (endemic to Cedros Island)
F. Gracilis 

Dudleya attenuata var. orcuttii
D. candida (endemic to Coronados Islands)

I recently got a large, sturdy but old and beaten up terra cotta container from a neighbor. It had cracks and crevices in it that reminded me of a Baja canyon, and I decided it would be perfect for some Baja succulents. I enlarged the crack to make it look even more canyon-like and made other alterations.

In the upper part of the container I planted a Boojum Tree (Fouquieria columnaris) that I bought from Arid Lands. They ship their plants bare-root which most succulents can handle with no problem. The Boojum was leafed out but the leaves were wilted and soon dropped off, which is typical of Fouquierias. It re-leafed again in about 2 weeks and is looking great. 

In the lower part of the container, stepping down the "canyon" wall, I planted two cacti: Echinocereus brandegei (the taller one in back) and Mammillaria blossfeldiana (the shorter ones in front). These are both native to the Sonoran Desert part of Baja where Boojums live. At the bottom of the V is a Dudleya attenuata var. orcuttii which is from closer to the border and also occurs in San Diego County. I have this container in full sun and watering every 2 weeks during the warm weather. When it cools off I will cut back to monthly watering, or less if we get rain.

Next is a Grusonia invicta (formerly classified as Opuntia) which comes from the Vizcaino Desert of Baja, a much more arid region than the Sonoran. When the Vizcaino gets rain, it is usually only when a Chubasco (hurricane) hits central Baja, such as Odile did this summer. I put my G. invicta in a container where I can more easily control how much water it gets.

One of the notable features of this cactus is its formidable spines which are flattened and quite stout, almost like a stiletto.

I am placing this cactus in a small grouping with two other Baja cacti, a Ferocactus fordii and a F. peninsularis. The former is from the beaches of the Pacific coast in the California climate zone. The latter is from hillsides and plains in the southern portion of the peninsula.

I recommend Baja plants to anyone interested in expanding their palette of California plants, particularly for So Cal gardens. Mine all seem really happy in San Diego County.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


I have previously tried to grow a Passiflora arida (Baja passion flower) from seed, but I was unsuccessful. Aside from wanting the plant itself, I wanted to attract Gulf Fritillary butterflies. They use various species of Passiflora as a host plant, meaning that they lay their eggs on the plant and the caterpillars eat it. Most butterflies will go to any flower for nectar but they will use plants from only a selected family, genus or species as their host. In the absence of a P. arida I decided to just go to the nearest nursery and buy a passion flower. Below is the plant I bought and a good view of the flower. Most passion flowers are vines. I planted this one in a container and started training it up a post.

I don't know what species/variety it is and I don't care. I just wanted something to attract the butterflies. It worked immediately. In the photo above you can see that some of the leaves have already been chewed. The Gulf Fritillary butterflies found it right away and started laying eggs on it. Below is the butterfly in the process of egg laying.

Sometimes there would be several butterflies on the vine at the same time. Soon the eggs hatched and the caterpillars became large enough to be readily visible.

The vine grew rapidly, but the egg laying and caterpillar chewing of the leaves was even more rapid. Soon the caterpillars had entirely stripped the vine of leaves. That's okay with me because I want the butterflies, not the plant. The plant is still alive, though leafless, and dozens of butterflies still come around every day. The plant must put out a chemical signal that attracts them, even the bare stem.

Now the caterpillars have been replaced by cocoons. They are everywhere in the vicinity of the plant. They resemble a dried leaf, which is excellent camouflage. Also, passion flowers contain a chemical which is ingested by the caterpillars and makes the adult butterflies somewhat toxic to birds and other predators. This mechanism is very similar to the relationship between Monarchs and Milkweeds.