Cucurbita palmata

Cucurbita palmata

Coyote melon

Bonnie’s drawing for this issue of Obispoensis is based on a picture sent to me by George Butterworth. The species, Cucurbita palmata, has many common names. The ones I found on the web include coyote melon, coyote gourd, desert gourd, palmate-leafed gourd, coyote ear, buffalo gourd, stinking melon, calabazilla, or chilicote.

Coyote melon is primarily a desert species that grows best where there are summer monsoons. Since we are a little north of the summer monsoon track coyote melon is relatively rare in our area. However, a few plants can be found in the eastern edge of our Chapter area (i.e., Carrizo Plain and the upper Cuyama Valley). It’s a species that prefers sandy, disturbed soils where vegetation is scarce such as desert washes and dry, rocky slopes.

The most common name around here, coyote melon, refers to its vegetative resemblance to the pumpkin, squash cucumber, melon, or gourd, family Cucurbitaceae. The Cucurbitaceae are non-woody (herbaceous) vines with tendrils and broad, palmate-veined leaves. Flowers in coyote melon are unisexual (staminate or pistilate). In coyote melon they are large and yellow and borne solitarily in the in the axils of leaves. Fruits in the family are extremely variable and are considered unique to the family. Often it is a kind of quite large berry botanists call a pepo. Pepos have fleshy, fibrous, or watery flesh inside and usually are enclosed by a clearly defined outer skin or rind. When totally mature, they often dry out to a hollow dry spheroid.

From the list of common names for the family, I suspect it would be easy to conclude that the family produces a fair number of edible and otherwise useful cultivated species. The main economic species produce edible, fleshy fruit today. But this has not always been true and is certainly NOT true of coyote melon and most other wild members of the family today. The flesh of coyote melon is extremely bitter and if one is tempted to try to eat it, it would act as an extreme emetic. That is, it would rapidly be expelled from both ends.

So what’s the link between inedible and/or poisonous wild cucurbits of today with the edible cucurbits listed above? It is best summed up by a quote from a November 20, 2015 paper by A’ndrea Elyse Messer titled “Loss of Mastodons Aided Domestication of Pumpkins, Squash.” I actually heard (or read) about the article around Thanksgiving and decided to look it up on the Web. The quote that caught my interest was: If Pleistocene megafauna – mastodons, mammoths, giant sloths and others – had not become extinct, humans might not be eating pumpkin pie and squash for the holidays, according to an international team of anthropologists.

The article indicates that most wild cucurbits are bitter and that smaller organisms (and humans) tend to avoid trying to eat the fruit. It then notes that large mammals, such as the mastodon, have fewer bitter taste buds in their mouths so eating cucurbits shouldn’t have been a problem. The authors note that they could deduce that the mastodons were eating cucurbits because when and wherever they examined fossil mastodon dung it contained cucurbit seeds. Since the only way cucurbit seeds could get into dung is by being eaten, they concluded cucurbits were an important food source for them. Being huge animals, mastodons had to migrate over wide distances so they also concluded mastodons were major dispersers of cucurbit seeds. The researchers also found that the DNA they recovered from the seeds in the dung was more similar to wild cucurbits of today than to cultivated edible ones. Therefore it’s logical that the ancestors of the edible cucurbits were bitter.

What killed off the mastodons? A recent book titled, The Sixth Extinction, gives a possible clue. It turns out that large animals live in a very tight balance with their environment and the regular sustained loss of even a few key animals would lead to extinction in a relatively short time (a few thousand years). Early humans coexisted with the last of the mastodons. Early human hunters probably preferred to kill the biggest and healthiest animals as hunters still do today. This would mean they would have taken the breeding animals of a family or herd. When a parent is killed, often the rest of their family dies as well. So even with very modest losses of a few key animals a year, the book indicates it would lead to a slow extinction in a few thousand years.

Mastodons and the other large mammals died out over ten thousand years ago. So why do we have edible cucurbits today? The article indicates that early peoples didn’t use fresh cucurbit fruits for food, but waited until they were dry and hollow and used them for containers, noise makers (rattles) and/or fish floats. Although some species’ seeds (e.g., coyote melon) are edible when totally mature, at least some of their seeds would have ended up in their disturbed, highly nitrogenous trash heaps. So people took over from the mastodons as major seed dispersers. So cucurbits would have been become common around early human settlements. Since a bitter compound is often poisonous in large uncontrolled amounts, but medicinal in small, regulated amounts, it can be assumed that early peoples used fleshy immature fruits as medicine. It doesn’t seem to me to be a great stretch to assume enough genetic variability in early cucurbits so that some would have been less bitter. These would be selectively utilized by early people, probably the wives and mothers.

By the time the mastodons were gone, early peoples would have been planting various cucurbits around their settlements. Once there, they would have been selected to be less and less bitter until we have the edible squash and pumpkins we enjoy today. So next Thanksgiving, remember to thank the mastodons and other large extinct mammals for your pumpkin pie. One final thought, pumpkins and squash were domesticated in the new world and in all likely hood the jack-o-lantern pumpkin was one of the few major crops domesticated within the lower 48 states. Personally, I find coyote melon to be best (and safely) enjoyed as we find it, growing in nature.

by Dirk Walters, illustrations by Bonnie Walters | Dirk and Bonnie Walters are long-time CNPS-SLO members, contributors, and board/committee participants. In addition to his work at Cal Poly, Dirk is the current CNPS-SLO Historian.
Hoover Award – 2015

Hoover Award – 2015

Dr. Neil Havlik was recognized with the 2015 Hoover Award for his contributions to appreciation and preservation of the San Luis Obispo native flora. The honor, named for Dr. Robert Hoover, was presented to an appreciative Neil Havlik at the annual Banquet on January 23. Prior recipients meet yearly to select an honoree judged for their accomplishments in education, conservation and chapter support.

Dr. Havlik served as San Luis Obispo City Natural Resources Manager from 1996 until his retirement in 2012. In that role, he oversaw the creation of the city greenbelt. He was instrumental in the acquisition of key parcels, protection of other private parcels, the expansion of the greenbelt trail systems, and was the guiding force behind the joint publication
(with our chapter) of the immensely popular Wildflowers of San Luis Obispo guidebook. His role in protecting Chorro Creek bog thistle populations within the greenbelt led to a 2015 special award from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Neil majored in Biology at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, graduating cum laude in June 1968. At our banquet, Dr. Havlik recounted how honored he was to have studied under the late Robert Hoover. He then attended the graduate program in Botany at UC Santa Barbara from January 1969 to June 1971, earning a Master of Science degree in Botany. In 1978, Neil went back to school, seeking a Doctorate in the interdisciplinary Wildland Resource Science program at UC Berkeley. He earned his doctorate in that field in June 1984.

Havlik held a variety of positions with the East Bay Regional Park District in Oakland for fifteen years, involved in land use planning, environmental impact analysis and mitigation, natural resource management, property management, and land acquisition. In 1987 he became the first Executive Director for a non-profit land trust headquartered in Fairfield, California (Solano County in the lower Sacramento delta).

Since retirement, Dr. Havlik has contributed greatly to developing a local Carrizo Plains Conservancy initiative, a special purpose land trust targeted on bringing more property under protection in our Carrizo region. Neil Havlik also serves on the board of the Coastal San Luis Resources Conservation District. The RCD projects play an essential role in furthering preservation of our rural landscape, quietly enlisting landowners in vital protection projects.

Please share your appreciation of the Neil’s wonderful contributions to our county and its flowers.

CNPS-SLO Banquet 2016

CNPS-SLO Banquet 2016

California Native Plant Society –

San Luis Obispo Chapter

Annual Potluck Banquet

Saturday, January 23, 2016

5:30-9:30 pm

$10 per person, plus a pot luck item for the dinner

Morro Bay Community Center

1001 Kennedy Way, Morro Bay

Social Hour – 5:30 pm

Buffet Style Potluck Dinner – 6:30 pm

Chapter business – 7:30 pm

Program: “Native Plants and Bees, and Beyond” – 8:00 pm

Program: Dr. Gordon Frankie

Our banquet speaker this year will be Dr. Gordon Frankie, Professor and Research Entomologist at the University of California, Berkeley.  He’s co-author of California Bees and Blooms (  The book will be available for purchase and signing at the banquet.

Tickets are $10 per person – You may reserve your spot with credit card or PayPal by clicking the Tickets button, or if you prefer, you may send payment to D. Krause, 2706 Newton Drive, Cambria, CA, 93428. Questions? Contact David Krause  at or 805-927-5182 Tickets

Potluck suggestions: CNPS will be providing the beer, wine, coffee, tea, and assorted beverages included with the cost of the banquet. Plates, glasses, cups, and napkins will be available; we ask that you bring your own eating utensils, although plastic utensils will be available.

For the dinner potluck, we are asking those with last names beginning with the following letters to bring the suggested item (and serving utensils). However, if you have a dish you especially want to share with the group, please feel free to bring it or contact Lauren (805-460-6329, for alternative suggestions.

A to H: salad (with dressing) or side dish
I to Q: dessert
R to Z: main meat or veggie dish

Please put your name on a label or piece of tape on your serving items so they can be returned to you.

Driving Directions: Exit Hwy 1 at Morro Bay Boulevard. At the “roundabout” turn right onto Quintana Road, and left onto Kennedy Way (after Albertson’s). Go ½ block. Community Center is on the right.

If you have any questions, please contact Lauren at, or 805-460-6329.

Hope to see you there!


Tour the gardens at Leaning Pine Arboretum

Tour the gardens at Leaning Pine Arboretum


The gardens at Leaning Pine Arboretum focus primarily on the world’s five Mediterranean climate regions: Australia, California, Chile, the Mediterranean basin, and South Africa. Additionally, there is an Entry garden, a New Zealand garden, a Dwarf and Unusual Conifer garden, a Formal garden, a Primitive garden, and a Palm and Aloe garden. Featuring a varied assortment of trees, shrubs, and other landscape plants, each garden is unique while continuing the cohesive experience of the entire arboretum.

The California garden is designed to resemble many of the natural plant communities found throughout California. Here, you may walk through a lush redwood grove, view a grass meadow, or overlook a restoration bank that demonstrates the strength and adaptability of our state’s native flora. The Ceanothus collection produces a must see show of blue flowers in the spring, while some of the other collections include Agave, Arctostaphylos, Quercus, and Salvia.

Tour the gardens at Leaning Pine Arboretum with Bill Waycott, Saturday, January 9, 2016, 9:00 am.



Bryophyte Workshop

Bryophyte Workshop

Bryophyte Workshop

The CNPS monthly meeting Thursday, December 3 at the San Luis Obispo Veterans Hall will kick off with a workshop from 6:10 to 7:00 pm on bryophyte identification led by Dr. Ben Carter.

Our county is very rich in these often-overlooked little plants, and this will be a chance for you to learn their distinctive features. Ben plans to cover differences among mosses, liverworts, and hornworts, important characters of their gametophytes and sporophytes, and provide field characters for identifying several of the most commonly encountered genera in SLO County. We’ll have a few microscopes, but bring your hand lenses!

View this event on our Event Calendar

Image By Bob Blaylock (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons


Plant Update for the Dune Mother’s Wildflower Guide

Errata and Jespon updates

For those of you who own our chapter published book, Dune Mother’s Wildflower Guide, you will want an Errata and New Nomenclature Conforming to the 2nd edition of The Jepson Manual.

Our excellent botanist member, Lauren Brown, took time this past summer to do this information update.

You can download the Errata here, or email me and I will forward a copy to you.

– Linda Chipping

Errata and New Nomenclature Conforming to the 2nd edition of The Jepson Manual is also available for Wildflowers of the Carrizo Plain and Wildflowers of Highway 58.

CNPS is Hiring

CNPS is Hiring an Associate Director

As you may have heard, CNPS is hiring an Associate Director. Please help us get the word out to find someone special who will help continue the great momentum we’ve built. Due to the great response so far, the hiring committee will begin reviewing applications early this month, so potential candidates should apply as soon as possible.

The Associate Director (AD) is a new leadership position. Under the direction of the Executive Director, the AD manages and enhances internal organization processes and infrastructure to ensure smooth and seamless operations that support CNPS’s ability to fulfill its mission. In the absence of the Executive Director, the AD assumes responsibility for directing the day to day operations of CNPS.

The AD provides key strategic leadership to the Executive Director (ED) by advising on issues of significant organizational importance and long-term sustainability. The AD is responsible for overseeing and monitoring financial practices, leading the budgeting process, managing human resources, and providing oversight of facilities and IT infrastructure. They will have broad latitude to shape this growing organization, including defining strategy and scoping/hiring new positions to help fulfill these important responsibilities. For the right person, one who sees how Californians can work together to celebrate and save our flora, this is a rare opportunity to make an enduring difference.

View the full job announcement here in a new tab.


Conservation: Projects on the Horizon; Veldt Grass Impact

Conservation Committee Update

November was  quiet  as  far  as  specific  projects  up  for   CNPS  review,  but  there  are  several conservation issues  growing  in   the  background  that  will  require  our  wary  eye.

Price Canyon Trail (Proposed)

I   attended  and  gave  input  to  a  scoping  meeting  for  a   proposed  trail  through  Price  Canyon  from  Edna  to  Pismo  Beach.  This  will  be  a  section  of  the  bi-­state   Anza  Trail,  and  would  have  to  pass  through  the  Arroyo   Grande  Oil  Field.  I  commented  against  sections  of  trail   that  went  through  relatively  undisturbed  oak  woodland  and  the  habitat  of  Pismo  clarkia  rather  than   staying  in  areas  that  are  currently  disturbed.  I  find   that  there  is  a  conflict  between  potential  trail  users   wanting  a  pleasant  “nature  experience”  and  the  need   of  nature  to  avoid  the  “human  experience”  as  much  as   possible.  The  SLO  Council  of  Governments  are  taking   the  lead,  and  at  this  time  there  is  no  money  for  any   trail  development  and  right-­of-­way  issues  are   significant.

Nipomo  Mesa

It  is  possible  that  the  rampant  development  that  has   destroyed  much  of  the  older  dune  surfaces  of  the   Nipomo  Mesa  might  slow,  due  to  newly  revealed issues  associated  with  water  supply.  The  Northern   Cities  Management  Area  (basically  the  Five  Cities   minus  Avila)  are  challenging  Nipomo  CSD’s  continued   issuance  of  building  permits  on  the  basis  that  the  CSD   is  intercepting  groundwater  that  would  normally   percolate  from  the  Santa  Maria  valley  toward  the   NCMA.    Recently  water  tables  in  the  area  are  dropping   to  the  extent  that  sea  water  intrusion  is  a  distinct   possibility.

Veldt  Grass Impact

A  circa  1970  photo  of  the  Nipomo  Mesa  oil  refinery   reveals  the  eucalyptus  groves  since  removed  for  the   Woodlands  Development  and  the  once  vibrant  dune   scrub  community  seen  above  and  below  the  tank   farm.  The  area  above  the  tank  farm  was  the  pride  of   the  ‘Dune  Mother’,  Kathleen  Goddard  Jones,  who   called  it  Wild  Almond  Meadows.  Dark  dune  shrubs   cover  the  land  in  1970  (left),  almost  vanished  in  the   Google  Earth  2013  image (right)  due  to  competition   with  veldt  grass  and  attempts  to  control  it  using livestock.veldt


David Chipping, Professor of Geology (Emeritus), Cal Poly State University David Chipping was educated at Cambridge, England and Stanford, California. His doctoral thesis addressed the displacements of rocks along the San Andreas fault and the configuration of ocean basins in to which the rocks were deposited. He is active on the Board of the San Luis Obispo Chapter of the California Native Plant Society and has served as the statewide Conservation Director for that organization. David is currently leading a joint project between CNPS-SLO and Friends of the Carrizo Plain to develop a photographic collection of the entire flora within the Carrizo Plain Monument.
Quercus Kelloggii

Quercus Kelloggii

Kellogg Oak

The following is an article from February 1993. It was chosen by the editor to spare me the choice since Bonnie and I were away in late October. We totally agree with his choice; we had totally forgotten about it. The repeat of this article reminds me that many species of oaks have been producing fewer and fewer offspring primarily due to habitat modification and outright habitat loss. They are also probably being impacted by rising temperatures due to global climate change. It is also important to remember that oaks have been extremely important in the history of the human race. Various oak species have provided food, cork, charcoal, and lumber. A few species still do.


Dried Leaf Retention in Black Oaks

The idea for the cover was hatched out of a statement made by Bonnie while we were traveling to Yosemite Valley just before Christmas. She remarked that the dry, brown leaves and black trucks of the Sierra black oak (Quercus kelloggii) made a beautiful counterpoint to the white snow. This got me to thinking about the advantages that might accrue to a tree to keep its old, dead, dry leaves until spring of the following year. I had noticed this same phenomenon first in the eastern black oak of my youth in Illinois (Quercus nigra). Two ideas came readily to mind. First, it might provide some advantage to the plant that would aid its survival in the Montane Mixed Coniferous Forest where the Sierra black oak most often occurs. Some herbaceous plants produce hard leaves (e.g., bracken fern, Pteridium aquilinum) that last through the winter; these have been shown to shade out seedlings of competing plants during early spring growth. Last season’s bracken leaves begin to break down shortly after the new, young shoots get a foot or so tall. However, it is hard for me to accept a similar explanation to account for trees retaining dead leaves. I can think of a number of disadvantages such as increasing wind resistance and holding more snow on the branches. Both should result in more broken branches.

Retaining dead leaves could merely be an artifact of its history. Its closest relatives are all evergreen oaks and include the island scrub oak (Q. parvula) and the coast and interior live oaks (Q. agrifolia and Q. wislizeni). This group of oaks is called the red or black oak group (Erythrobalanus) and differs from the other major group, the white oaks (Lepidobalanus), primarily by having the leaf veins extending beyond the margin of the leaf as fairly heavy, tawny bristles or spines, possessing dark gray to blackish smooth bark, having thin flat acorn scales, generally taking two years to mature their acorn (exception the coast live oak) and having reddish-brown wood.

A third group of oaks is also found in California and these possess characters in combinations not found in the two major groups. All three groups include species of evergreen and deciduous oaks, but, as far as I know, only the deciduous black oaks retain many of their dead leaves for so long a time period.

Could it merely be a trait indicating a relatively recent origin of deciduous habit from the more general evergreen habit of the group? If my memory serves me right, both eastern and Sierran black oak leaves seem thicker and more leathery than one would expect for a deciduous tree.

What about the advantage of flowering trees and shrubs from evergreen habit? Primarily it is due to the fact that the off season (cold and/or dry) is not always so cold and/ or dry as to preclude a leaf from functioning. There are short periods, even in the most severe of seasons, when conditions are favorable for metabolism and growth. Evergreen plants can take advantage of these short periods because their leaves are in place, whereas deciduous trees must forgo them since, by the time they could produce new leaves, the favorable period would have been long gone.

Of course, evergreen plants must pay the cost of maintaining and protecting these living leaves during times when conditions prevent them from functioning, a cost not required of deciduous trees and shrubs. In other words, whether a flowering tree or shrub is evergreen or deciduous depends on the balance between cost of maintaining non-functional leaves versus the gain from being able to take advantage of short periods of moderate conditions. Thus, evergreen flowering trees and shrubs tend toward coastal and/or low to mid elevations where severe conditions tend to be rare and of short duration. Evergreen conifers, on the other hand, are a different story which will have wait for another time.

Dirk Walters Illustration by Bonnie Walter

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