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 plant also thrive in a variety of habitats and exposures.
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.
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.
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 the bare branches can result in a rash for those that are especially susceptible.
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!
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, the highest peak in Marin! To the east, we can see the twin peaks of Mt. Diablo, which is the highest peak of all in our area and therefore the base meridian of much of northern California.
The views are wonderful here on our land, but the rainfall is sometimes disappointing; while other places in Marin are measuring and inch or so, we might get ¼ of an inch of rain! We’re in a rain shadow; I can see all the rain falling on the north side of Big Rock Ridge and in Indian Valley, but the clouds are often blown east. If they do get to our side, there’s not much moisture left.
Even so, with not much more than an inch of rain, I’m witnessing an almost instantaneous re-greening of the landscape! Within days thousands of seeds are germinating; lots of grasses, and a great variety of weeds and wildflowers. This is where the fun begins. I love the challenge of identifying these minute plantlets. Sometimes I’m already so familiar with the plant that I know it from the cotyledons, but very often I need to see the first true leaves before I really know what they are.
Thinking About Weeds
Annual grass seeds are amongst the first to germinate, and of course wild oats (Avena species) are well represented. Wild oats, very different looking than the native Oatgrass (Danthonia californica) were introduced from Europe and brought to California, most likely with the very first Spanish settlers who brought livestock, and with them the seeds of these grasses. In Europe, during the olden times, the leafy new spring growth of one wild oat species (Avena sativa) was used as a medicinal to treat various conditions, including diminished sex drive. This is where the term "sowing one’s wild oats" originates from!
Along with the annual grasses come lots of thistle seedlings; their cotyledons are large and somewhat spoon-shaped. I can identify Italian thistles (Carduus pycnocephalus) easily when the first set of small and somewhat spiky, medium-green true leaves have developed. Some of the non-native weeds, including thistles, that plague wild areas in Marin, are thought to have been brought to the county by Samuel P. Taylor in raw materials for his paper mill. At first there was plenty of wood pulp locally available, but as those sources dwindled, and while the demand for paper kept going up, he also made paper using rags that were imported from Europe. It’s within these supplies that the seeds of some European weeds are thought to have "hitched a ride".
Here’s where my thoughts about weeds differ from those of many others; weeds are not all bad!
A beautiful Western perennial, perfect for the border or in a meadow blended with bunchgrasses, poppies, clarkia and flowering bulbs. Summer blooming, flowers open over a long time; full sun, low water, 12-18” tall, needs good drainage, deer ignore it.
All of these native annual wildflowers are great for pollinators and other beneficial insects!
Clarkia unguiculata / Mountain Garland
The blooms of this native clarkia range from white, pale pink, salmon, and bright pink to magenta—all on the same plant. Flowers in full sun or partial shade. Clarkia grows in sandy, well-drained soils, but also thrives in clay soil. Spring blooms, 1-3 ft. tall, drought tolerant, moderate water for best flowering display.
The Flickers have now left my oak woodlands and moved to higher elevations in the Coast Ranges; I’ll look forward to seeing them again when we’re camping in the forests this summer. Meanwhile, the Tree Swallows are here already and I’m waiting to hear the first calls of the Ash-throated Flycatchers as they arrive from wintering grounds in Baja California. For the last five or six years they have shown up about the fifth of May, and by June are raising a brood in the nesting box hung in an old Coast Live Oak.
The Natural World has been my touchstone; a certain intimacy with the land and other creatures that always rings honest and true. When I think about why I like to garden it always comes back to my desire to be a participant with nature. I came to California as a child from the other side of the world, but now I have become ‘native’ to this place, and it suits me to get to really know this hillside that is now my home ground, rather than seek many others to climb.