The “Fried Egg” Plant

Romneya blossom             At the Granada Native Garden, we have coffeeberry, milkweed, miner’s lettuce, and even a plant that gives off the savory aroma of sauteed onions and peppers!  To continue the foodie theme, currently in bloom is the so-called “fried egg flower”, properly named the matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri).  That’s “ma-TIL-i-ha”, by the way.  And you can easily see how it gets its whimsical nickname!                                                                           Or “sunny side up” flower, if you prefer?                                                            Blossom cluster               “Queen of the California Wildflowers” is another title that has been justly bestowed on the matilija poppy because, as Greg Rubin and Lucy Warren have said, “Drama is Matilija poppy’s first, last and middle name.”  It is in good company with our famous California poppy, belonging to the same botanical family (Papaveraceae).                           The genus name “Romneya” has no relationship to a recent presidential candidate, nor even to a botanist, but rather to the Irish astronomer John Thomas Romney Robinson (1792-1882), who also happened to be the inventor of the anemometer, a device for measuring wind speed.  We’re not sure how he happened to get a flower named after him, except that it might have been given to him by an admirer because of his efforts as an active organizer in the British Association for the Advancement of Science.                                    However, even tho the matilila poppy is truly a California native which luxuriates in hot, dry weather with no water except whatever has fallen during the winter, it has apparently acquired an extensive following in England, with its wet weather, cold winds and overcast skies.  Several gardeners in England report having grown it successfully there, where it is a showstopper wherever it has been successful.

Hard to Start, Hard to Control                                                                                                     The matilija poppy insists on special treatment when transplanted from a pot.  Be careful not to disturb the existing roots any more than necessary.  Water thoroughly once, then withhold more water for a month, or until the leaves seem to be stressed.  Bert Wilson of Las Pilitas Nursery confided that he “plants three to get one successful plant”.               But be careful what you ask for!  Once the matilija poppy gains a foothold, it takes over — literally.  In a single season, it can reach 6-10 feet tall and just as wide.  It spreads by means of underground rhizomes (plant stems that grow horizontally under or along the ground and send out new roots and shoots, which become new plants), so it will pop up all over the place.  It has even been known to tunnel under a house and come up on the other side!  (You can enlarge the pictures below by clicking on them.)  However, this very characteristic of sending out runners can be used to control erosion on a slope.

New growth in May

Just two months later

New growth in March

New growth in March

The matilija poppy usually blooms from March thru July.  The flowers are said to have a faint apricot scent.  After that, the plant starts to die back, and in the fall or winter it should be cut back to about 3-4 inches from the ground, except for any new shoots that have begun to appear.  Winter rains will start the growth cycle all over again.  But needless to say, the matilija poppy needs its space and isn’t a good match for a small garden.Ferruchi's matilija for Newsletter

Nonetheless, this matilija poppy growing in a parking strip on Fifth Street in Livermore insists on defying the odds!

 

 

 

Propagating the Matilija Poppy                                                                                                     For all the toughness and resilience that this poppy possesses, it can be difficult to start new plants.  While seeds are readily obtained from the blossoms, they refuse to germinate unless they have experienced the heat of a flash fire.  (See our Newsletter article “About Fire Followers”, posted in July, 2014. )  The common way to accomplish this in the nursery or at home is to sow the seeds in a flat, cover the soil with a layer of dry pine needles, and carefully set them on fire.  The heat provides the stimulus for germination, which is said to take place within a few days.                                                                                  Another approach is to propagate from root cuttings.  Marjorie G. Schmidt recommends selecting young lateral roots in November or December, cutting them into small pieces, placing them horizontally in a sandy rooting medium in flats or large, shallow pots, and keeping them moist and shaded.  Roots should develop within a month, followed shortly thereafter by new shoots.  The plants can be moved to “permanent quarters” and should begin to flower the following year.   (Growing California Native Plants, 1980 ed., p. 148.)

GNG Seasonal Update                                                                                                                 The variably red, pink and white Clarkias are in full bloom now (that’s why they are nicknamed “Farewell-to-Spring”; see the article “Clarkia – A Native Flower with a History”, published in May, 2014), but most of the other spring wildflowers have set seed and are gradually being removed, along with the superbloom of weeds resulting from this year’s rains.  During the summer, we plan to install a few secondary pathways that will allow visitors to explore more remote sections of the Garden and appreciate some of the other native plants that are off the main trails.  We will also be adding a few larger plant identi-fication markers, in addition to the more informative tubular ID markers.                               New ID Marker           One or more staff of the GNG are routinely on duty at the Garden on Mondays and Thursdays, roughly between 10:00 AM and 12:00 noon.  But it isn’t very hard to arrange a guided visit at other times.  If you are interested in scheduling a visit, just email Jim at  JIMatGNG@gmail.com .  Or if you have any questions or inquiries, please email Jim at the same address!

Native Plants at Alden Lane Nursery                                                                                         As mentioned in our previous article about the “Water-Wise Buckeye”, the native plants section at Alden Lane Nursery has been relocated.  There are now two places at the nursery where you can find California native plants.  The original assortment of natives, mainly stocked with 1-gallon and larger specimens, is now at the rear of the nursery.  A table containing smaller, 4-inch pots can be found in the main part of the nursery.  Check both out!                                                                                                                          

Plants in 4-inch pots

Plants in 4-inch pots

1-gal and larger plants

1-gal and larger plants

Quote du Jour                                                                                                                   Blossom with bees (Internet)            “Do not even bother trying to contain this plant, as it always escapes.  You may be forgiven when you curse the day that you invited Matilija poppy into your garden, but the plant’s flowers and foliage are so beautiful that nearly everyone eventually succumbs to its charms.”                                                                Bornstein, Fross & O’Brien, California Native Plants for the Garden, p. 172.

Stumpy's

The Water-Wise Buckeye

Buckeye, dormant (1-20-15)            “That tree is dead”, said the visitor during his first visit to the Granada Native Garden one day in August.                                                                                                              “No, actually it isn’t” replied Jim, the Worker Bee who happened to be doing garden maintenance that day.  “It’s only dormant, because it’s a buckeye, and they lose their leaves during the summer in order to save water.  It‘ll grow a new crop of leaves in the spring, and be good as new.  We say it’s aestivating, the opposite of hibernating.”                           “That don’t look like no buckeye we used to have back in Ohio.  You know, Ohio is the Buckeye State.”                                                                                                                     “I know what you mean” agreed Jim.  “We had a big one near my home in Pennsylvania, but we called them horse chestnuts, and I liked to collect the pretty nuts when I was a kid.  This one is the western variety, the California buckeye, but some people call it a horse chestnut too.  I’m not sure why they are called horse chestnuts, because the seeds are poisonous to most mammals, including humans.  But I understand that the California ground squirrel can eat them, probably because the trees and the squirrels evolved together in California.”

Buckeye with "candles" in April

Buckeye with “candles” in April

A buckeye panicle

A buckeye panicle

 

Shortly after the buckeye begins leafing out in late winter or early spring, the future blossoms, resembling candles, form in abundance at the tips of the new growth.  In a matter of a few weeks, the candles burst into clusters (panicles) of sweet-scented, white to pale pink flowers.  Each panicle consists of numerous individual blossoms, but only one or two of them will eventually mature into a buckeye fruit, which contains the seed of a potential new tree.  (You may click on a photo to enlarge it and get a closer view.)

Aesculus, full bloom, 5-13-13

Buckeye in full bloom

 The Buckeye in the Home Garden – Pluses and Minuses                                                       Not everyone appreciates the striking silvery architecture of the dormant California buckeye (Aesculus californica), if they expect everything in their garden to be lush and verdant in the summer.  Its size (15-30 or more feet), shape (sometimes single-trunked, sometimes multi-trunked) and summer-deciduous habit (it loses its leaves in the summer) does require careful placement in a home garden (altho a source of summer water will keep the leaves green).  One author describes its form as “best in sun, where trees develop into a living sculpture of multiple or low-branching trunks, symmetrically out- stretched branches, and a delicate tracery of small branchlets.”   The short-lived display of blossoms are sure to attract attention, followed by the unusual drooping fruits containing the mahogany-colored seeds.                                                                                              FruitsFruits 2           The seeds are about the size of a golf ball and are sure to be noticed when they fall to the ground in the autumn.  But because they are poisonous to mammals, they could endanger a dog who might be tempted to chew on one.  Native bees and butterflies, who have co-evolved with the buckeye over the centuries, are readily attracted to the buckeye blossoms and are not harmed by the toxin in the pollen and nectar.  However, it is of concern to some gardeners that the blossoms are toxic to our non-native honeybees, who have not developed resistance to the toxin.                                                       Painted ladyTiger swallowtail

 

 

 

 

 

 

But it might be fun and instructive for a child to plant one or more of the seeds and watch it grow.  The tree is a fast grower – it might achieve as much as 1-2 feet in a year.  Plant the brown seed half-buried in a pot of damp but well-drained soil, or directly in the ground, with the light spot on the seed facing downward so that the spot remains covered with soil – the root will sprout from this area.  Make sure the soil stays damp, but not soggy.  The chances are excellent that it will sprout when the weather starts to warm.  It needs a little water during the first year or two of growth.  Like so many native California plants adapted to drought conditions, it develops a long tap root to reach water deep-down.  After that first year or two, it should need no summer water at all, but it will characteristically lose its leaves in the summer unless it is given a little water once a month or so.

A Novel Way to Catch Fish!                                                                                                         The seeds of the buckeye, as well as several other plant varieties, contain chemi- cals called saponins.  A characteristic of this class of chemicals is that they create a foamy, soapy mixture when shaken with water.  They are also bitter to taste, and toxic to most animals, which protects plants containing them from being eaten and even protects them from microbes and fungi.                                                                                                        Nonetheless, many Native American tribes learned to use this characteristic to catch fish.  They would pulverize the seeds and roots, shake them with water to create a foam, and add the suds to a stream where fish were plentiful.  This would kill or stupify the fish, which would float to the surface and could be easily gathered up.  Some tribes used other plants, such as the soap lily (Chlorogalum), in the same way.                                                  While saponins are poisonous to humans too, in addition to being bitter, they reportedly are poorly absorbed by the human body (but children are more vulnerable).  Thus buckeye seeds could be used as food by Native Americans, especially when other food sources were scarce.  But the seeds had to be crushed and rinsed in water for up to three days to leach out the saponins.  The flour made from the treated seeds could then be used in cakes, porridge or soup (similar to the way holly-leafed cherry seeds were used; see the article on Prunus ilicifolia in the October, 2015 issue of the Granada Native Garden Newsletter).                                                                                                                                     Lest any part of a valuable plant go to waste, Native Americans also used the wood of the buckeye for firemaking drills and bows for hunting small game, and as fuel for fires.  Medicinally, one tribe even made a tea out of the fruit for bathing hemorrhoids, or mashed the fruit and mixed it with kidney fat for the same purpose.  The Pomo Indians made a poultice from the bark and applied it to a snakebite.

Screen shot 2016-04-14 at 8.04.22 AM

 

The GNG Is a Destination!                          Rex and Jenny Mananquil chose the Granada Native Garden as the site of their annual family photo, with almost-2-year old Zara as the centerpiece (in addition to the Garden itself).  The photo was taken by local photographer Dylan Douglas, but Rex himself is a professional photographer whose work is well known both in the Bay Area and in southern California.  Google “photography by Rex” to get to his website.

 

Welcome Dean to the Granada Native Garden!                                                        Dean                 Dean has joined the GNG Worker Bees and is now sharing his wealth of gardening experience with the GNG.  Currently he has offered to tackle the Murrieta Blvd. approach to the Garden, which was becoming more unsightly with each passing day.  It’s a challenging task!

 

Native Plants at Alden Lane Nursery Have Been Moved                                                                                                          If you are looking for the display of native California plants at Alden Lane Nursery and can’t find them, don’t panic!  They have been moved to the rear of the nursery, where I am told there will be a bit more shade for plants that need it.ALN CreditGuided Tours of the Granada Native Garden Are Available!                                                     Are you interested in seeing some of the plants that are described in this Newsletter or in past issues?  One or more staff of the GNG are routinely on duty at the Garden on Mondays and Thursdays, roughly between 10:00 AM and 12:00 noon.  But it isn’t very hard to arrange a guided visit at other times.  If you are interested in scheduling a visit, just email Jim at  JIMatGNG@gmail.com .  Or if you have any questions or inquiries, please email Jim at the same address!

Stumpy'sQuote du Jour                                                                                                                               “A lot of people still think native plants are dull and don’t really do anything, so we want to get them here to the garden to understand that everything they see is a California native plant, that they’re really quite lovely and are wonderful additions to any garden environment.”                                                                                                                                   Bart O’Brien, garden manager at the Regional Parks Botanic Garden in Tilden Park

What’s In Bloom? – March, 2016

Poppies at EntranceThe Poppies Are Back!                                                                                                                 As of the end of February, the Livermore Valley had actually received about two inches less rain this year than last year.  Nonetheless, the unusually warm weather this winter, plus other climatic factors, have resulted in a lush growth of both natives and non-native weeds compared to earlier years.  (You may click the photos to enlarge them.)

February, 2014

February, 2014

February, 2016

February, 2016

                                      So what would justify a visit to the Granada Native Garden at this time this year?  There are always the California poppies, which threaten to overwhelm GNG every year and actually do have to be restrained before they smother other notable members of the Garden.  They are just now starting to bloom.                                                                       Cal. poppies            Equally striking are the island bush poppy (Dendromecon harfordi), which is actually a member of the same botanical family (Papaveraceae) as the California poppy, in spite of its different appearance, and the early-blooming golden currant (Ribes aureum gracillimum).  Both have bright yellow flowers, and you can’t miss them.  (Click the photos to enlarge them.)

Bush poppy

Bush poppy (chaparral, G3)

Golden currant (riparian D1 & grassland E2)

Golden currant (riparian, D1 & grassland, E2)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Garden Outline, Color, no legendThe map at the right will help you locate some of the natives that are blooming this month at the Granada Native Garden.  You can click on it to enlarge it, and maybe print it out to take with you on a trip to the GNG.

Some Grassland Wildflowers                                      The previous issue of this newsletter featured fiddleneck, the earliest bloomer at the Garden.  To read more about it, click the link in the “Recent Posts” column on the right at the beginning of this article.                     Take a stroll alongside the grassland section of the GNG (the yellow part), and look for a few of the spring wildflowers that are characteristic of the California grassland environment.   If you are there with a young child, he or she can help you spot them.  Here are some that are appearing now.                                                          Baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii) and five-spot (Nemophila maculata) are related — both members of the same genus.  Can you guess why they are so named!

Baby blue eyes (grassland, A)

Baby blue eyes (grassland, A)

Five-Spot (grassland, A)

Five-Spot (grassland, A)

Similar to the above two is the bird’s eye gilia (Gilia tricolor).  Can you describe the similarities and differences between this one and the others?  (Don’t ask me how it got its common name (not to mention where “tricolor” comes from)!

Goldfields (grassland, A)

Goldfields (grassland, A)

Bird's eye gilia (grassland, A)

Bird’s eye gilia (grassland, A)

           I once heard that California’s reputation as the Golden State was due not to the legendary California poppies, but to the vast fields of goldfields (Lasthenia glabrata) that the first settlers encountered.  Bert Wilson of Las Pilitas Nursery noted that, in the San Joaquin Valley, goldfields makes massive displays of bright yellow in areas that are still intact.                                                                                                                                              Another grassland wildflower with a cute name, for obvious reasons, is tidy tips (Layia platyglossa).  And arroyo lupine (Lupinus succulentus), mostly absent from the GNG a couple of years ago, has been spreading to several different parts of the Garden more recently.  (To read more about lupine, click Lupine in the Index.)

Arroyo lupine (several locations)

Arroyo lupine (several locations)

Tidy tips (grassland, B1 & A)

Tidy tips (grassland, B1 & A)

Strolling Down Lilac Lane …                                                                                                        … otherwise known as the chaparral section (G1-4), you can find five varieties of California lilac (genus Ceanothus), all in stunning full color now.  One white variety, named ‘Snow Flurry’ (C. thyrsiflorus) dominates the far north end of the GNG, but there is a smaller one half-way down, right along the path.  They were covered with busy bees gathering nectar when I took this picture!Snow flurry             It’s hard to miss the dark blue ‘Dark Star’, even from a distance.  A bit farther down the path is the younger (planted just this Fall) but precocious ‘Julia Phelps’ in its protective cage.

Julia Phelps

Julia Phelps

Dark Star

Dark Star

Farther still is the dusty blue ‘Yankee Point’.  And you might probably miss the ‘Owlswood Blue’, which is also is a youngster and is planted at a high point on the berm, off the path.

Owlswood Blue (chaparral, G2)

Owlswood Blue (chaparral, G2)

Yankee Point (chaparral, G3)

Yankee Point (chaparral, G3)

This is also the time of the year when the sages (Salvia spp.) begin to burst forth.  The first two include the lavender-hued S. leucophylla ‘Amethyst Bluff’ variety and Brandegeei sage.  Two other varieties, black sage (S. mellifera) and the hybrid ‘Pozo Blue’, have not yet flowered.  All are located in the chaparral section of the GNG.

Brandegeei sage (chaparral, G3)

Brandegeei sage (chaparral, G3)

Sage 'Amythyst Bluff' (chaparral, G2)

Sage ‘Amythyst Bluff’ (chaparral, G2)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An extensive article about the sages will appear in a future edition of this Newsletter, so watch for it.  If you are a Follower of this Newsletter, you will be informed by email when it appears.  If your aren’t already a Follower, just click the “FOLLOW” button that usually can be found at the lower-right corner of your screen (sometimes it doesn’t appear, or it shows up late) and enter your email address.  No extra charge!

Other Seasonal Attractions                                                                                                         There are three redbuds in different places in the Garden, of different sizes and in different stages of blooming.  Wander around the Garden and try to find all three (I cheated – the one in the photo is in my front yard!)  The bladderpods are interesting because the leaves have an aroma (so to speak) resembling sauteed onions and peppers (in my opinion).  Gently massage a cluster of leaves, sniff your fingers, and see if you agree!                                           

Redbud (grassland-riparian, E1)

Redbud (grassland-riparian, E1)

Bladderpod (grassland-riparian, E1)

Bladderpod (grassland-riparian, E1)

           The columbines are hiding among other vegetation in the Woodland section near the table area, under the sycamore.  The yarrows are in different places along the paths, but also in the table area.

Yarrow (several locations)

Yarrow (several locations)

Columbine (oak woodland-riparian, C1,2)

Columbine (oak woodland-riparian, C1,2)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Roundup Strikes Again!                                                                                                    RoundUp Damage           Every year, the Granada Native Garden lives in fear of being sprayed with Roundup, always by mistake, but unfortunate nonetheless.  This year it was worse than in the past, probably due to inadequate instructions to the crew sent out on the mission, or lack of knowledgeable supervision.  The crew sprayed a long strip of the Oak Woodland-Riparian section (D2,3) containing our gumplant colony, many young lupines and poppies, and several other special plants, while ignoring the opposite side of the bike trail which was (and still is) full of a luxurious growth of weeds!  We are trying to figure out how to prevent this in the future.

Quote du Jour                                                                                                                               “Gardeners enjoy their hobby for many reasons:  A love of plants and nature.  The satisfaction that comes from beautifying home and community.  The pleasures of creative effort.  The healthful benefits of exercise and outdoor air.  … (And) there is pleasure in just watching plants grow!”                                                                                                                                      Adapted from Douglas Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home, page 11.

ALN CreditStumpy's

Fiddleneck – What Good Is It?

Amsinckia cluster             A park ranger was showing native plants to a group of visitors.  She singled out one rather non-descript flower in particular, and it could easily have been a fiddleneck.   One of the visitors innocently asked, “What is it good for?”                                                              The ranger explained how both native and non-native bees gather nectar from this plant.  The leaves of the same plant are a favorite food for the larvae of several attractive butterflies.  And the plant is frequented by birds for their seeds, and by insects which many birds also rely on for their food.                                                                                                        Unimpressed, the visitor replied, “Yes, but what is it good for?”Fiddle head                                            Fiddleneck (Amsinckia menziesii), also called “rancher’s fireweed”, is not one of the California native plants that you expect to find in a native plant nursery.  Yet, it is one of the very first wildflowers that appear in the Spring, and it may appear in great abundance even in mid-winter, like currently at the south end of the Granada Native Garden.                                 The fiddleneck is so named because the flower stem, bearing many small flowers, curls over at the top like the head of a fiddle.  It is in the same botanical family as borage (Boraginaceae), an often-cultivated garden plant.  (Note:  “Fiddleneck” is a flowering plant; fiddleheads are the young shoots of some ferns, which are similarly shaped but are not flowering plants.)

In the Interest of Full Disclosure …                                                                                             First, let it be frankly acknowledged that, in some circles, fiddleneck is considered a weed.  One easy definition of a weed is, “something that grows where you want something else to grow”.  In agronomics (a branch of agriculture dealing with crop fields, pastures and orchards), fiddleneck causes problems.  A small growth of fiddleneck rapidly spreads over a large area in just a few years, especially in disturbed, open or unmanaged places.  The leaves are hairy and possess cystoliths, which are plant cells that contain deposits of calcium carbonate (chalk) and silicon dioxide (sand) taken up from the soil.  These deposits serve the plant well as they may serve as a kind of protection from leaf-eating insects or other animals.  They are visible as bumps on the leaf surface.  But the hairs can also induce itching and rash in some individuals, especially in anyone who has occasion to come into contact with the plants regularly.  (Note:  Click on the photos below to enlarge them and better view the leaf hairs and bumps.)

Leaf showing cystoliths

Leaf showing cystoliths

Leaves & stem showing hairs.

Leaves & stem showing hairs.

                                    The seeds and foliage are poisonous to livestock when ingested in quantity, because they contain toxic alkaloids (intermedine and lycopsamine) and high concentrations of nitrates.  Poisonings occur when livestock consume contaminated grain or feed.        

So Really, “What Good Is It?”                                                                                                      Fiddleneck might not be very good for humans, nor for our imported livestock which didn’t evolve as natives in this landscape anyway.                                                                  But the Native Americans who prospered for centuries while being dependent for their existence on the plants that grew around them, the shoots, seeds and leaves of the abundant fiddleneck were used as food.  A pinole (an ancient “power food” prepared from ground and toasted seeds and used as an ingredient in cereals, baked goods, tortillas, and beverages), made by the Chumash and other Indians, was described by the Spanish settlers as having “good flavor and pretty color”.   The plant also had some limited medicinal uses.                                                                                                                  Lawrence's goldfinch              Fiddleneck seeds are the favorite food of Lawrence’s goldfinch (Carduelis lawrencei), and are of special value to honey bees which in turn pollinate many of the crops we depend on for our food.  The leaves are used as food by the larvae of the popular painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui).                                   But aside from Painted ladytheir use to wildlife, fiddleneck stems and leaves are soft and juicy, and they rot easily when turned under as green compost.  This, together with its ability to spread widely and rapidly, makes fiddleneck a potentially useful soil amendment for the home gardener.                                                           So, if you want to know “what good it is”, you need to ask the birds, bees and butterflies, and home gardeners who have learned to value it to improve their garden soil.

Congratulations to Malvika & Meenakshi !                                                                     Meenakshi & Malvika           Two Granada High School students and Granada Native Garden Volunteer Worker Bees, Meenakshi and Malvika, recently won the App Challenge sponsored by Congressman Eric Swalwell.  After “coding like crazy” all weekend, the sisters created an app that could help people (especially stressed-out high school and college students!) deal with negative emotions and convert them into positive messages.  Meenakshi reports that they are looking forward to getting the app on the App Store soon.

Stumpy’s Tree Service Becomes a GNG Partner                                                 Stumpy's            Stumpy’s Tree Service recently delivered a large load of mulch to the Granada Native Garden, to be used in dressing parts of the Garden, suppressing weed growth, and helping to mitigate a mud problem at the Garden entrance.  Stumpy’s joins the Alden Lane Nursery in helping the GNG create a native plant garden that Livermore can be proud of, and lead to an increased appreciation of native plants in the California environ- ment and home landscapes.ALN CreditQuote du Jour                                                                                                                               “Plants are as close to biological miracles as a scientist could dare admit.  After all, they allow us and nearly every other species to eat sunlight, by creating the nourishment that drives food webs on this planet.  As if that weren’t enough, plants also produce oxygen, build topsoil and hold it in place, prevent floods, sequester carbon dioxide, buffer extreme weather, and clean our water.”
                                                 – Douglas Tallamy, in the New York Times, March 11, 2015

The Curious Foliage of Miner’s Lettuce

Leaves with blossomsFirst, Why Is It Called “Miner’s Lettuce”?                                                                                  Miner’s lettuce was a traditional food of the Chumash Indians of California’s central and southern coastal regions.  The leaves are soft and tender, resembling fresh spinach, and remind me of the expensive tasty Bibb or butter lettuce that we buy in our markets.  It was eaten raw or cooked; a tea made of the leaves was used as a mild laxative or diuretic, or as an “invigorating Spring tonic”.                                                                                                 Like other highly nutritious salad greens that we are encouraged to eat more of, the plant is rich in Vitamin C.  During the Gold Rush era, it was an important way for the miners in California to avoid developing scurvy, a serious disease caused by a deficiency of that vitamin.  Hence the name!

Second, What Is Curious About the Foliage?
           The above photo, courtesy of consulting botanist, ecologist and arborist Neal Kramer, shows the unusual circular shape of the mature leaves of miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata, also known as Montia perfoliata and Limnia perfoliata), with the blossoms seeming to originate from the center of the leaf.                                                                               The name Claytonia honors John Clayton, said to be the greatest American botanist of the mid-18th century.  Perfoliata is derived from the Latin per-, through, and folium, a leaf.                                                                                                                                   When miner’s lettuce appears after the first winter rains, it can be recognized by its long, slender cotyledons (“cot-til-EE-duns”, or “seed leaves”).  In order to capture any available sunlight reaching the forest floor, they are lifted above any ground cover by means of a stem called a petiole.  As the plant matures, these cotyledons develop into a cordate, or heart-shaped form.  (Note:  Most photos can be enlarged for better viewing by clicking on them.)

Linear cotyledons

Linear cotyledons

Heart-shaped leaves

Heart-shaped leaves


 

 

 

 

 

As the leaves continue to mature, the two lobes near the stem of the heart-shaped leaves grow closer together and eventually fuse to form a circle, and a flower bud forms in the center of the leaf.  Hence the species name, “perfoliata”.

flower-formation Single leaf with blossomOnce the miner’s lettuce gets well-established, it easily shades out most other competi- tors, including non-native grasses.  After the seeds form and fall to the ground, the miner’s lettuce disappears until the next spring comes around.

claytonia-patch-1-9-17Miner’s Lettuce on Your Dinner Table                                                                                        Archibald Menzies (1754-1842) was a Scottish surgeon, botanist and naturalist.  He served as a surgeon on a number of British exploratory missions, which included to North America.  During these trips, he both tended to the health of the crew, who needed a well-rounded diet during long ocean voyages to prevent scurvy, and  collected new and unfamiliar plants.  On a trip to the west coast of North America, he became familiar with greens that the Native Americans ate as salads, such as clovers, sour docks, watercress … and miner’s lettuce.  Back in England in 1794, he brought seeds of miner’s lettuce to the Kew Royal Botanic Garden in London, where it flourished.  Eventually some even showed up in the Botanical Gardens of Paris.

Salad

Salad and photo created by Ashok Jethanandani

The British regarded miner’s lettuce an important source of vitamin C and subsequently planted it in Cuba and Australia.  In Europe it is known as winter purslane.  Bert Wilson of Las Pilitas Nursery says that it “kept the British in greens” during World War II.   You can use it as you would any other salad greens – in salads, sandwiches, tacos and tostadas, or steamed like spinach.  Reportedly a few chopped leaves help thicken a soup or stew.

Miner’s Lettuce Is Easy to Grow                                                                                                 In fact, it is so easy to grow that it can rapidly take over a garden without any help.  Of course, it wilts and disappears as soon as the weather warms, and you won’t see it again until next winter.   Some appeared in my yard about two years ago.  Now it is all over the yard, front to back.  I was told that ants will pick up the seeds and carry them about.  Why?  I don’t know.  But this might explain why some miner’s lettuce seeds that I spread at the Granada Native Garden last year are now sprouting in a completely different location.
Child in garden 2“Easy” is a good word to keep in mind when stimulating your youngster to try something new and different, like planting a garden and trying new foods.  Miner’s lettuce germinates quickly (given favorable conditions), has that interesting leaf sequence, and it can be eaten!

Some Nutritional Information                                                   For anyone who is concerned about eating any food they don’t find at their neighborhood supermarket, here is the lowdown on miner’s lettuce as a food for humans.                                                                                                                                          The only warning I have found about eating miner’s lettuce is that it contains oxalates, which are responsible for forming kidney stones.  To put this into perspective, miner’s lettuce is regarded as low in oxalates.  The Children’s Medical Center of Dayton, Ohio reports that common foods that are highest in oxalates include spinach, rhubarb, beets, nuts, chocolate, wheat bran, strawberries, peanuts, almonds, and tea.  These are not foods that we normally discourage people from eating, but probably should be avoided by people who are prone to develop kidney stones.                                                                         On the other hand, the American Dietetic Association reports that 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of miner’s lettuce contains 33% of the adult recommended dietary allowance (U.S. RDA) for vitamin C, 22% of the vitamin A allowance, and 10% of the iron.                             Nevertheless, any edible native food that is harvested for consumption should be washed, just like any vegetable or fruit we obtain at the market.

ALN CreditQuote du Jour                                                                                                                               I like to think that the people who do the graffiti at the Granada Native Garden have generally learned that there are nice people working at the Garden, and they should not graffiti it.  But every so often someone new does some damage, but in general the community likes all the things that the staff does at the garden.”                                                                                                             – Dave Lunn, one of our volunteers at the GNG.

Guided Tours of the Granada Native Garden Are Available!                                                    Are you interested in seeing some of the plants that are described in this Newsletter or in past issues?  One or more staff of the GNG are routinely on duty at the Garden on Mondays and Thursdays, roughly between 10:00 AM and 12:00 noon.  But it isn’t very hard to arrange a guided visit at other times.  If you are interested in scheduling a visit, just email Jim at  JIMatGNG@gmail.com .  Or if you have any questions or inquiries, please email Jim at the same address!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Blaze of Glory – California’s Native Grape!

Roger's Red             Nothing gets your attention quite like an array of California native grape vines (Vitis californica) in the Fall, once the cool weather has caused the green chlorophyll in the leaves to recede and reveal the brilliant red pigments hidden inside the leaves.  This is especially true of the ‘Roger’s Red’ cultivar, which is actually a hybrid of the native grape with a European wine grape, Alicante bouschet (Vitis vinifera).  This red wine grape has pigment not only in the skins, but also in the pulp of the berries, which results in an intensely dark juice.  These pigments are called anthocyanins, and they do more than turn the leaves and resulting juice red.  But more about that later.

A Very Useful Native Plant                                                                                               Bunch of grapes            Judith Larner relates this historical note:  “California writer Mary Austin described moving as a young girl to southern California, where from homesickness she languished and fell ill, until she discovered some vibrant local populations of California wild grape.  Gorging on the fruit, she ate her way back to vigorous health, while beginning to experience the essential feeling of connection with her new California home.”                      Just as we do with our modern grape varieties, the Native Americans used the grapes for juice, raisins and, so I’m told, wine.  Reminiscent of our use of the leaves for making dolmas (the Greek dish consisting of vegetables wrapped inside grape leaves), the Indians used the leaves to wrap foods for roasting, and the stringy part for twine.                                                The long, tough vines were an important basketry material in northern California, and were used to hold together the poles that formed the structure of their shelters.  Cutting and pruning the vines to encourage their growth was an example of how the Native Americans mindfully tended the wild to support the needs of their community.

Native (L) & Roger's Red (R)

Native (L) & Roger’s Red (R)

Do Grapes Have a Place in My Garden?                                                                                    If you have a south-facing wall, arbor or a deck that needs to be shaded from the heat in the summer, but open to warmth and light during the winter, a native grape might be a good choice.  The vines can grow as long as 60 feet, and can cover an arbor in just a few years.  Allowed to sprawl over the ground, it makes a broad ground cover, attracts songbirds and stabilizes a slope.  Or you can create a focal point of interest by confining it in a container and keeping it trimmed as necessary.  And once established, it needs no summer water.                                                                                                                     Grapes in a pot            But it comes with this warning:  In nature, the vines readily wind their way up into trees.  Untended over the years, they can grow 4-5 inches thick, strangling the tree or forming a canopy over the tree which shuts out sunlight and kills the tree.

Climbing vines 2Grapes and Anthocyanins                                                                                                           Mary Austin apparently didn’t mind that the native grapes are rather small and sour, especially if they are shaded from the sun during maturation by the large, attractive leaves.
Whether or not Mary Austin’s recovery was due to the healthful properties of native grapes, red grapes are rich in pigment chemicals called anthocyanins.  The healthful benefits of the anthocyanins are still subject to scientific confirmation, and there is some question about whether the anthocyanins act directly on the human body by way of our gastro- intestinal tract, or whether our saliva breaks down the anthocyanins into compounds which are more easily absorbed by the body than the anthocyanins directly.                                    In any event, according to the National Institutes of Health, grapes and grape seeds have been shown to block the proliferation of some cancer cells.  They may also “protect cardiovascular health by helping to prevent platelet aggregration, LDL oxidation, high blood cholesterol, reduce fatty streaks in the aorta, minimize inflammation, and prevent decreased blood flow to the brain.”  They may also help combat Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.  (In fact, fruit flies that were fed grape anthocyanins lived longer than other fruit flies!).                                                                                                     That said, there are many different edible berries, not just grapes.  Some might be better for providing health-promoting effects within the mouth, the colon or the nervous system.  Berries are good food!

Native Grape Wine?                                                                                                       Native Grape Wine               It has been said that the native grape doesn’t make a very good wine.  In my experience, this isn’t necessarily so, but the high acid level (typically about 1.4%) does need to be reduced to a palatable level (like, by 50%), both by making sure the grapes get enough sun and by carefully treating the wine with calcium carbonate to neutralize some of the acid.  Winemaking is both a science and an art.  In any case, as one California winemaker once said, “A little sugar can cover a multitude of faults.”                                                            In the 1850s, the phylloxera aphid was unwittingly introduced to Europe by English botanists who had brought native American grapes to the Continent.  The immature aphids find their way into the roots of the vines, secreting a substance that prevents the roots from healing, and eventually killing the vines.  Native American grapes had evolved resistance to phylloxera, but the European grapes did not have this resistance, and the aphid destroyed most of the vineyards for wine grapes in Europe, most notably in France.
The industry was ultimately saved by grafting the European grapes onto native American rootstocks.                                                                                                                                      Had native American rootstock not been available and used, it is said that there would be no wine industry in Europe.

Other Native Grape Varieties                                                                                                       A second cultivar of  Vitis californica is the ‘Walker Ridge’.  It grows less aggressively than ‘Roger’s Red’ (to 10 feet), has yellow to red fall-colored leaves, and is a good choice for a container or where space is limited.                                                                     There is a second species of native California grape, Vitis girdiana, or “desert wild grape”.  It is found primarily in the southern half of the state, has attractive pea-sized black grapes, grows very fast, tolerates high, dry temperatures, and is loved by bluebirds, thrashers and other berry-eating birds.

Quote du Jour                                                                                                                               Recently, two ladies who are occasional visitors to the Granada Native Garden noticed the comely shape of the coast live oak at the Murrieta entrance.  It had been recently manicured by Mary Ann, and it was looking its best.  “What a lovely shape it has!”, remarked one of the ladies, the older of the two.                                                                             Strolling up the path, they encountered a large coyote brush, covered with bees gathering pollen.  “Why, look at all the bees!” she exclaimed.  A little farther up the path was a Santa Cruz Island buckwheat.  She admired the contrasting mixture of pink and coppery colors of the old blossoms, with the evergreen leaves nestled underneath.  And then she wisely left us with our quote for this issue:

“You see all kinds of things if you just stop for a while and look!”

ALN CreditGuided Tours of the Granada Native Garden Are Available!                                                    Are you interested in seeing some of the plants that are described in this Newsletter or in past issues?  One or more staff of the GNG are routinely on duty at the Garden on Mondays and Thursdays, roughly between 10:00 AM and 12:00 noon.  But it isn’t very hard to arrange a guided visit at other times.  If you are interested in scheduling a visit, just email Jim at  JIMatGNG@gmail.com .  Or if you have any questions or inquiries, please email Jim at the same address!

The Delicious Holly-Leafed Cherry

P. ilicifolia, ripe fruit           The holly-leafed cherry (Prunus ilicifolia) is an evergreen native that has leaves like holly, but really is a cherry (the cherries that we relish in pies, desserts and jams belong to the same genus, Prunus.  Sweet cherries are Prunus cerasus; sour cherries are Prunus avium.  And both of these are deciduous, not evergreen.)  But before you get too excited about making a pie out of these luscious-looking cherries, there are some things you should know about them.  (Remember – Most photos can be enlarged by clicking on them.)

Holly-leafed cherry in bloom

Holly-leafed cherry in bloom

Young tree

A young holly-leafed cherry

The holly-leafed cherry can be grown as a tree that will be covered with clusters of white flowers in the Spring, or can be kept trimmed as a dense hedge.  By summer, the blossoms will have turned into round, marble-sized fruits that gradually blush red, then almost black when they are fully ripe.

Cherries almost ripe

Cherries almost ripe

Screen shot 2015-10-09 at 8.07.52 AM

Anatomy of a holly-leafed cherry

Holly-Leafed Cherries as an Indigenous Food Source                                                             The comedian George Burns said that God’s only mistake was making the avocado pit too large.  But the avocado has nothing on the holly-leafed cherry.  Bite into one and you will find that the sweet-tasting pulp, unlike our commercial cherries, is little more than a thin coating around a large, hard pit.  Sweetness rapidly gives way to the bitterness of the pit, due to the presence of hydrocyanic acid in the pit.                                                                     Nonetheless, the Native Americans of California found a way to use Prunus ilicifolia, commonly called “slay” or “islay”, as a popular and versatile food.  They were more interested in the pit than in the pulp, and for some tribes the kernels inside the pits were second only to acorns in importance.  But first, the highly toxic hydrocyanic acid had to be removed from the pit.                                                                                                             To de-toxify the pits, they were first dried in the sun and cracked open to remove the kernels.  The dried kernels could be stored indefinitely, but before using them as food they were pounded and mashed and rinsed in water for several hours, until they were no longer bitter, in order to leach out the hydrocyanic acid.  The kernels could then be ground into a flour or porridge, or formed into cakes or balls and served with meat.  The flour made from it tasted like beans or chestnuts.  The ground meal was used as a base for soup, or made into tamale-like foods.  In fact, prepared islay was considered a delicacy that was used for ceremonial offerings, or offered as a welcoming gift for visitors.                            The Spanish missionaries recognized the importance of the holly-leafed cherry to the Native Americans.  Judith Larner relates that Indians living at the missions were given time off to allow for them to harvest this nourishing food.  The fruit was sufficiently abun- dant that enough could often be gathered to feed an entire village.  Captain Don Pedro Fages, who was in charge of the Presidio of Monterey in the 1770’s, wrote of the “good tamales made from islay by the Salinan people”.

The Rest of the Plant Wasn’t Wasted                                                                                         It might take a lot of cherries, but the thin pulp did not go to waste.  Consumed fresh, they were a welcome snack or a source of moisture for thirsty hunters.  They could be made into fruit leather, or soaked in water to make fruit juice.  They could even be fermented!                                                                                                                           Blossoms            The leaves have an almond scent when crushed.  The flowers are full of bees in the Spring.  A tea made from the bark or roots was used in treating coughs and colds.  The wood was used for making bows.                            The fruits were an ample food source for scrub jays, mockingbirds, robins and small mammals.  The leaves were an important browse species for bighorn sheep and mule deer, especially because they are still green during dry California summers when many other browse foods are gone.                              And in addition to being an attractive evergreen for any domestic landscape as well as being trimmable into an effective hedge, holly-leafed cherry is a good control for erosion on steep hillsides.

Mama tree and its baby!

Mama tree and its baby!

Quote du Jour                                                                                                                               “One person’s scruffy native, begging to be pruned, is another’s harbinger of our subtle seasonal changes and a desirable emblem of the naturalistic garden.”                             From California Native Plants for the Garden  (Bornstein, Fross, O’Brien), p. 35.

Guided Tours of the Granada Native Garden Are Available!                                                    Are you interested in seeing some of the plants that are described in this Newsletter or in past issues?  One or more staff of the GNG are routinely on duty at the Garden on Mondays and Thursdays, roughly between 10:00 AM and 12:00 noon.  But it isn’t very hard to arrange a guided visit at other times.  If you are interested in scheduling a visit, just email Jim at  JIMatGNG@gmail.com .  Or if you have any questions or inquiries, please email Jim at the same address!

ALN Credit