My Home Ground

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 pot native shrub seedlings into tube-style pots that are designed with internal ridges running the length of the...

While out walking the trails and open spaces in various parts of Marin County, I’m often astonished at how certain native plants can grow and adapt very nicely to a variety of exposures, habitats, and communities. Coffeeberries, for example, grows in shady California bay forests, in dry oak woodlands, upslope from streams in riparian zones, or in chaparral and coastal scrub. Other natives, such as cream bush, California lilacs, sticky monkeyflower, California sagebrush and California bee...

I’m quick when it comes to spotting potentially edible foods in the wild; partly from lots of reading about California flora, and how the native peoples provided for themselves; and partly from an all-consuming curiosity that’s been with me since childhood. I like to decipher the connections between plants; what’s related to what; and I’m willing to try almost anything once.   

The fruits of the California Bay Tree (Umbellularia californica) looked remarkably like miniature avocado...

It’s a bit artificial to create a listing like this which is defined by the months of the year; as we all know, nature does not follow the human calendar. Day lengths are set and reliable, but local weather is not, and neither are the conditions within micro habitats. The natural world responds to these influences - and more - in the unfolding of various life cycles.

So I’m attempting to create a general guide by which a habitat gardener can determine to have resources available for...

I love watching the birds at my feeders, which are strategically placed away from potential danger and in such a way that I get a great view from my favorite place to sit and read. I’ll notice all the activity in a peripheral sort of way, but when something unusual happens, or a bird appears that’s out of the ordinary, my attention is immediately focused. I get so much pleasure from watching these beautiful creatures un-noticed, but still close up.

In years past I’ve participated in...

A native plant that we all know (or certainly should!) is Poison Oak (Toxicodendron diversilobium) because it is so widespread in the Bay Area. Many people get a very uncomfortable rash if they touch any part of the plant, so knowing how to identify it and avoid contact with it is pretty important. Poison oak is a plant, as the specific name denotes, of extremely variable forms; it can grow as a shrub, as a climbing vine, or a groundcover. It is also poisonous in the dormant state—touching...

Early in March, the Redbud is ready to burst into bloom; the beautiful zig-zagging tracery of its branches soon to be disguised in a cloud of pink flowers. I’ve planted several redbuds in different areas on our property, but the most spectacular is a well-developed small tree, now about 15 feet tall, in my front border. As it happens, it is an eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis), a beautiful case of a mistaken identity!

About eighteen years ago, I was enrolled in a Nursery Management...

A plant that is definitely not easy in garden culture is Mule’s Ears (Wyethia species) and there are several look-alikes—all native California sunflowers. I recognized a very large patch of Mule’s Ears growing on a south facing slope in the open space east of my house.

At first I was confused about exactly which species it was because I noticed that some of the flowering stalks could be eighteen to twenty inches in height, and therefore seemed much more like Helianthella californica...

From November through February my chipper pile grows steadily bigger. I begin cutting back perennial plants and shrubs as the fall blooming cycle ends; long, fairly straight stems go to the chipper pile, more twisted branches go to various brush piles along a low wooden fence. The leaves of Coast Live Oaks drop all year long, and many of them get raked off the pathways because layers of these leaves can be quite slippery. I drop buckets full of leaves onto the brush piles, where they drop...

Micro-Habitats; Knowing Your Land

My husband and I live on a south facing hillside situated above the Novato Creek floodplains; it’s a beautiful, warm, and sunny spot with a great vantage point. Our hill, called Cherry Hill on some maps, is a part of one of the ridges extending from Mt. Burdell, the 3rd highest peak in Marin County, and we’re directly facing Big Rock Ridge, the 2nd highest spot in Marin. When the skies are clear, we can actually see just a little tip of Mt. Tamalpais...

Before bringing caterpillars (larvae) into your home or classroom be sure that you know what species of butterfly they are and what their larval host plant is, and be sure that you will have an ample supply of fresh host plant material to raise them through all the instars.

When deciding to ‘capture’ a creature like this, and to bring it indoors for close observation, please make every attempt to try to replicate the ‘habitat needs’ of the animal. Caterpillars live and feed on plants...

The genus name, Asclepias, derives from the Greek god and healer, Asclepios. The Roman god of healing and medicine was named Aesculapius, and there was good reason for naming this genus of plants after this god. The plants contain organic compounds that have been used to treat various ailments and conditions of the heart and nervous systems, as well as the stomach and intestines. All parts of the plant contain cardiac glycosides and cardenolides, specifically one called oleandrin, which are...

In early October, I’m monitoring larvae in all stages on the narrow-leaf milkweed that grows in several large stands on my property. But Monarchs are not the only regal presence on my hillside; it’s the rutting season and a number of very handsome bucks have made themselves visible again. It’s almost comical the way they follow behind the does, their powerful necks outstretched, upper lip curled back to “taste” the smell of a particular doe—all of whom seem to do their best to ignore or...

I’m seeing more California Tortoiseshells (Nymphalis californica) than usual; it’s a high population year for these butterflies! During the summer months, this species is in the mountains at much higher elevations and then they migrate back down to the lowlands by October. Here, they over-winter as adults, and in early March, mate and lay eggs on ceanothus, right around the time of bud break, while the leaves are still young and tender. By late May, the adults emerge and start flying to...

Elderberries and Other Native Fruits of Summer

California native plants provided a rich and varied diet for the native peoples; this is a flora of plentitude, and I really like to partake of it. I recently picked and cleaned the fruits of Lemonade Berry (Rhus integrifolia) and in removing the flesh from seed within, discovered that, true to its common name, these fruits make a wonderful pink, Indian lemonade!

Every summer I pick large quantities of Blue Elderberries; I have...

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