Heather Johnson has a new watercolor for us to use on the cover of this issue of Obispoensis. One might ask what is the origin of the practice of putting a different plant on the cover of each Obispoensis issue? It all started with the founder of our CNPS chapter, Dr. Robert Hoover. At the beginning of the first CNPS chapter meeting I ever attended (Fall, 1969) Dr. Hoover got up and made a presentation of what he called the “Plant of the Month.” It turned out the plant he chose to discuss was not a native plant or to even be known to exist in the wild. He discussed Franklinia alatamaha or Franklin Tree, a plant that had been collected and described from Georgia during Colonial times but after exhaustive searches hadn’t been found since. Why did he talk about a plant extinct in the wild? It had just appeared on a newly published United States postage stamp!
However, Heather’s cover watercolor is of a plant found throughout California as well as all the surrounding states. One or more of its varieties spread north into British Columbia and South all the way to Central America. The plant is seen on practically every spring field trip, but I’m reluctant to call it common. I prefer to think of it as widespread. Miner’s lettuce prefers shaded, moist, disturbed areas. It tends to be common during the rainy season and spotty other times. In the early spring, when there’s still lots of surface water, it can be found just about anywhere. I have a picture from the Shell Creek area of it growing in the crotch of a blue oak tree.
I also suspect everyone who has any experience with native plants, especially edible native plants, already knew what it is. Yes, it’s most commonly identified around the central coast as miner’s lettuce (Claytonia (Montia) perfoliata). In a book entitled Edible Wild Plants (originally, 1939) by Oliver P. Medsger, that has been in my library since my childhood, has also been called Indian lettuce, or Spanish lettuce and in Europe it’s cultivated under the name of winter purslane. All these names refer to use as a spring green. I suspect the name, miner’s lettuce, is the most recent and probably dates back only to the mid-1800s when California was over-run with miners looking for gold. I also am sure the miner’s diet was mostly tubers, grain, legumes with some meat and whisky. All of these ‘foods’ lacked enough required vitamins and minerals which would have been amply supplied by grabbing a handful of miner’s lettuce leaves on the way to a stream to pan for gold.
Heather’s watercolor is only of a couple of flowering stems which produce the leaves that were used to coin the second part of the scientific name – perfoliata. The situation where a leaf blade base appears to be passed through (perforated) by its stem is said to be perfoliate. The regular leaves are all basal and form a mound a few inches high and wide. Each basal leaf is modestly succulent and is in the shape of the spatula from your kitchen. It has a long tapering base and broad squarish or egg-shaped tip. I suspect it’s these basal leaves that were eaten.
You may also have noticed that there are two possible generic names for this plant – Claytonia and Montia. So, which is the correct genus? Also, if you go to older floras and wildflower books you will find that its botanical family seems to have changed from Portulaccaceae to Montiaceae. The name currently valid according the Jepson Manual, 2nd Ed. Is Claytonia perfoliata and is placed in the Montiaceae family. According to the Jepson Manual, the change in genus and family is referenced to a paper published in 2006. This means that the change is probably based on modern DNA sequence data as well as new technical descriptive data which was then organized using current computer classification techniques. The Jepson Manual also noted that some of the characters used required a microscope with 20X magnification which most of us don’t have. This procedure resulted in miner’s lettuce (along with a couple of other species) being moved from the genus, Montia, to the genus Claytonia which included several species of spring beauties. The remaining species in Montia remained in Montia and a new family was created for them – Montiaceae. Why didn’t the species name (perfoliata) change when the species was moved to a new genus? This is due to another rule of Botanical Nomenclature. When a species is moved from one genus to another, the species epithet moves with it unless the species epithet already exists in the new genus. If it does, the mover must come up with a new name for the species in its new location. Since the epithet, perfoliata, didn’t already exist in Claytonia, the epithet moved with miner’s lettuce’s scientific name to its new location. This rule helps keep track of name changes.
Claytonia perfoliata, Miner’s Lettuce; original watercolor by Heather Johnson
A member of the Asteraceae family, Italian thistle is an annual herb native to the Mediterranean region and is widespread in California, Oregon and Washington, however it is not found east of the Sierra Nevada. It was accidentally introduced into United States (Batra et al. 1981) and California (Goeden 1974) in the 1930s. Robbins (1940) reports it as early as 1912 near Fort Bragg in Mendocino County. It forms a deep taproot and prefers fertile, well drained soils but is found in disturbed areas, roadsides, pastures, meadows and grasslands. It dominates sites and crowds out native species and discourages wildlife from entering infested areas. It grows well in oak savanna and can carry grass fires to tree canopies. Although Italian thistle can grow to over six feet it is usually knee high and is often present in clusters. Its leaves are white-woolly below, hairless-green above and deeply cut into two to five pairs of spiny lobes. Stems are slightly winged. The thimble-sized flower heads in pastel shades of rose, pink to purple flowers are clustered in groups of two to five are covered with densely matted, cobwebby hairs. Italian thistle is bisexual and a single plant can produce 20,000 seeds in one season (Wheatley and Collett 1981). Its light seeds are spread by lodging (bent or broken stems in contact with the ground), wind, vehicles, and animals and also may spread from seed-contaminated hay and soil from infested quarries. To remove Italian thistle dig them out 2-4 inches below the soil before flowering. Mowing is a waste of time, in fact, plants cut 4 days after flowering can still produce viable seed. Italian thistle seedbank may last up to 10 years. Intensive grazing by sheep and goats is effective. A pre-emergent and growth regulator such as Milestone is one of the most effective herbicides for thistles and generally does not harm grass. Did I say don’t touch Italian thistle? Wow does it hurt! Use your thickest gloves!
As we march closer to fall, it’s time to think about preparing our landscape for the upcoming rains, cold nights and of course weeds. I thought it would also be a good time to think about tearing out overgrown shrubs and trees to replace them with new plants or the same thing.
Our chapter has always targeted our plant sale for November because it is the best time to plant with the winter rains coming, hopefully. But in a perfect world we can expect rains in January through March. So, what to do? Well, here are a couple of thoughts.
First, its time to take a walk through the garden and look closely at what you have already. Are you happy? Are some plants old and need to be replaced? Take a note pad with you and write down your thoughts. Sometimes I like to do this after work, when I’m feeling relaxed. I look at the yard and think to myself, “What would look really cool here?” This could take weeks, but knowing that the rains are coming, now is the time to, as my Dad used to say ‘Johnny, put your nose to the grindstone’. Second, prepare for the weeds, and this is best done by mulching. There are so many ways to mulch and there are some articles that say mulch can encourage weeds. In my experience, when mulch is applied too thin it is ineffective. A thick layer of three inches will put an end to most annual weeds. Perennials, such as Bermuda grass, will not be controlled with mulch, sorry. Further, it’s important to keep an eye on pests. Many pests will show up when you least expect them. I’m going straight to Neem oil now, with a soap spray every other treatment; very effective for spider mites, thrips and aphids. For loopers, which are prone to attack oaks, I use Bacillus thuringiensis. Spray at night, because it breaks down in the sun. It only controls loopers; therefore, it won’t hurt other insects.
This brings me to my last point. Whenever we spray in the garden, even with Neem oil that is totally organic, we need to watch for bees. If you see bees, the rule is to not spray. Spray late in the day when the bees have returned to their hives. I’ve covered a lot. So until next time, Happy Gardening.
This CNPS-SLO chapter workshop will provide a short lecture followed by field trips to local native plant gardens.
Which plants tend to be available and work well
Selecting appropriate plants based on site conditions
Learn from local landscapers and gardeners
Morning refreshments and coffee will be provided.
Class size is limited and advanced registration is required.
Registration ends October 4th, 2019. Cost is $30 for members and $40 for non-members. We will meet at UC Cooperative Extension (2156 Sierra Way # C, San Luis Obispo) for the lecture and first garden tour. Other garden tours will be at native plant enthusiasts’ homes in SLO. Questions? Please email David Krause firstname.lastname@example.org
Please arrive by 8:45 for check-in and breakfast refreshments. Participants are encouraged to bring a sack lunch to enjoy at the last tour stop.
CNPS went live with past week with the new Calscape feature whereby users can search for host plants by butterfly species and location. This exciting addition to the Calscape website occurred during National Pollinator Week and is a tangible way ordinary folks can play a part in halting the dramatic insect decline.
After months of rain we are finally in Spring! I’m sure most of you are knee deep in weeds and your mature plants are growing crazy which brings us to this month’s topic of pruning. As I mentioned several months ago, most California native plants bloom in March and April. Then they will began a vegetative growth spurt that will end in early September after which they will go into a dormant period due to our Mediterranean climate.
So how do we take advantage of the growth cycle to prune the natives in our gardens? My theory is to follow the bloom and seed transition. As I have discussed before, pruning during flower production is not productive. However, after flowers have gone to seed, it’s time to prune.
Pruning can vary depending on the genus and/or species of each plant. For example, Baccharis pilularis (coyote brush) can be cut to the ground and it will come back with a beautiful flush of new growth. On the other hand, Arctostaphylos species (Manzanitas) and Ceanothus species can be shaped but no more than what is needed to maintain their desirable size. Salvia species are late bloomers, so when they are finished blooming you can prune off the old flower stocks to promote a more compact plant. Perennials, such as Heuchera species and Iris douglasiana (Douglas iris), will respond to the removal of old leaves and flower stock pruning. California native grasses can also be cut back after their seed head production to create a more desirable appearance.
In summary, April and May are great months to prune California native plants lightly to promote a more desirable shape. If you have any specific questions, please feel free to contact me. Hope you have an enjoyable summer. Until our next newsletter in the Fall, Happy Gardening.
The stars finally aligned for us. On March 21, 2019, our chapter had the opportunity to work with Bev Gingg and Learning Among the Oaks, a program that has been working to introduce young children to the oak woodland community at the Santa Margarita Ranch, and, more recently, at the Pismo Preserve. The successful program, started in 2005, is now part of the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo and has grown so that it services Ocean View Elementary in Arroyo Grande in addition to Santa Margarita Elementary School, the original ‘home-base’ for the program. Children are recommended by their teachers to be part of the nine-week Oak Ambassador Training Program in which they learn how to serve as a docent and lead hikes in the oak woodland for younger students and their families. The Ambassadors receive comprehensive training about the oak ecosystem through classroom lectures and field visits, and spend time shadowing older Ambassadors as docents so they are prepared to do the same when they become fifth graders.
CNPS participated in one of the classroom trainings by preparing a botany lesson for a group of very motivated Ocean View Elementary fourth graders. We displayed numerous plant specimens representing plant communities of the Pismo Preserve, as well as plants that illustrated different seed dispersal methods and leaf arrangements. We knew that our efforts in preparing the lab were well-received when we heard the excited exclamations as the kids filed into the room. Our favorites: “It smells so good in here!” and “Botany is the best!” It was a whirlwind of an hour, packed with opportunities to learn about xylem tubes through the magic of celery and water cohesion by combining droplets together with a toothpick; discovering the parts of a flower through a keying exercise; smelling and questioning the pungent leaves of some of our common local plants; and, for a few lucky kids, getting ‘stamped’ with the lovely spore print of goldback fern on their clothes. We even had an excellent slideshow to pull it all together, created and presented by the engaging Lindsey Roddick.
Lindsey, Bill Waycott, and Susi Bernstein made up the CNPS team of “Plant Nerds” this time, but we welcome any of you reading this article to join us next spring. There are plans to expand the program to additional schools in the future, and CNPS has been asked to conduct botany lessons for these schools as well. Would you like to join us? There are bright children out there with receptive, spongy little brains. YOU could inspire and help mold them into future conservationists and CNPS members. -Susi
Dana Elementary School, Nipomo
Here are a couple of projects CNPS is currently working on in Nipomo, CA. Last summer, we reported on work with a 5th Grade class at Dana Elementary School, who had helped plant a CA native garden on the north side of the Nipomo County Library. Now, six months later, that garden is flourishing and the librarian, Heidi LoCascio, has asked CNPS to organize a larger planting for the front of the Library. This new garden will be planted by the parents and children who use the library and live in the local community, at the end of April 2019.
The other project involves the current 5th Grade class at Dana Elementary, which is creating a California native and vegetable garden at their school. Two weeks ago, those kids sowed flats of wild flowers seeds (arroyo lupine, tidy tips, and CA poppies), along with lettuce seeds. By the end of April, the students will have prepared the garden soil, and by mid-May their native plant and veggie seedlings will be large enough to transplant into the garden, it is hoped that by the end of the school year during the second week of June, the kids will have flowers and veggies to take home and enjoy.
This plant was used for a variety of uses throughout California. The Chumash made a tea to put on poison oak to relieve the symptoms. They also made a felt cone from the dried leaves to burn on a patients skin to cauterize a wound (Source: Jan Timbrook). Leaves were placed in food storage containers, such as acorn granaries, to keep pests away. It was used ceremonially by many tribes. I think it has a lovely aroma, which according to some tribes, will give you pleasant dreams when put it under your pillow.
One time, many years ago, I volunteered to cut down a very large bush of poison oak next to a building at work because I did not think that I was very allergic to it. In the process of chopping it, there was so much sap that it went right through my clothes to my sweaty skin with open pores. I caught a bad case of it. I was on my way that weekend to a camping trip with the California Indian Basket Weavers Association in the Sierra foothills. I forgot to pack the Caladryl and was so miserable in the heat with my rash. I thought I might have to give up and go home. Then I remembered what I had heard about the mugwort. I asked one of the local women where it might grow nearby and she told me to go to where the highway goes close to the river. I gathered a bunch, crunched it up in a bucket of water. It kind of looked like Mug root beer. I found that when I sloshed it on my skin, I got just enough relief that I could stay at the event and enjoy myself.
Mugwort grows easily from runners and likes soggy winter soil that dries up in summer. It will die back then but come back when the rains start again. It likes the shade of oak trees, and will grow in sun if it has more water. It tolerates heavy clay soil just fine. It is often found along the side of trails and streams. It doesn’t have much in the way of flowers, but smells great.
I’ve collected my first seeds of 2019. Buttercup seeds are turning brown even as more buds open. Collecting will be an ongoing process which I can do easily since it is in my garden. This is just a reminder that seed season is upon us. As this newsletter is for both May and June and we won’t have another issue until October, this is my only opportunity to urge you to think of collecting seed for the seed exchange which will be held just before the chapter meeting in October.
We had more than seventy different species of seeds available last fall thanks to contributions from many of you. It would be fun to have more species and more people participating. We don’t mind duplicates. Perhaps there is genetic diversity between the seed from your yard and the seed from someone else’s. It all depends on pollen and the pollination. I have little ‘babies’ growing from seed I obtained at the seed exchange. I have a few Allium unifolium. The seeds did not germinate well for me and they don’t look happy. Time will tell. It’s fun to try though. The Ericameria ericoides are doing better.
Whether they will like my environment remains to be seen, but if they continue to survive I will have several to play with. It would be beautiful to have that splash of yellow in my yard. I planted Penstemon centranthifolius seeds from 2016 which were at our exchange several years ago. I made a mistake on that though. I planted them next to some Penstemon heterophyllus which germinates readily. I should have known better. Rain or watering may have knocked the seed into a different slot. It’s much better to plant similar things farther apart. Since my seed germination trays are out on tables by the garage and open to the wind and the birds I am not positive at this point that it’s really P. centranthifolius. It could be P. heterophyllus. Again time will tell. As they mature the plants will look very different.
I hope that some of you who got seed from the exchange have had success and will be enjoying the benefits of lots of plants with just a bit of time, soil and water. My favorite time is when the seeds first germinate. It’s fun to see what I can grow and what just doesn’t like my methods. It’s a bit of work to keep moving the plants up but once planted in the garden I can point to them and proudly say “I grew that from seed.” I hope to see you at the seed exchange in October.
The illustration on the cover of this Obispoensis is another of Heather Johnson’s wonderful watercolors. It was just too beautiful not to use, in spite of the fact its natural range barely reaches our Chapter’s area.
The text below was written by Alice Meyer back in the 1970’s or early 80’s for the local Audubon Chapter Newsletter. Alice, along with her husband, Bud, were the very first recipients of the Chapter’s Hoover Award. As you will probably gather from Alice’s discussion below, she was a very good native plant gardener. She is also the person most directly responsible for the creation of our annual plant sale back in the early 1970’s.
I feel compelled to add one additional tidbit about the Matilija poppy. It had a very important but behind-the-scenes role in a 1998 film entitled “The Mask of Zorro.” The plot of the movie involved the kidnapping of a young girl, who was then taken back to Spain where she grew up and where she was told she had been born. Upon returning to California, she remembered the odor of the plant her true parents had placed around her crib. That plant, of course, was the Matilija poppy which as you are about to learn is basically confined to California (Upper and Lower). But, let’s leave it to Alice to tell you the rest.
The Matilija poppy is regarded as one of our most magnificent perennial wild flowers, with its gray-green foliage and its 3-5 inch wide crinkly white flowers. It was discovered by Dr. Thomas Coulter, who named it after the Britsh astronomer Dr. Romney Robinson. Hence the botanical name, Romneya coulteri Rom-nee-a colt-er-i).
The common name, Matilija poppy, was bestowed because it grew so profusely in Matilija Canyon in Ventura County, but it is also found in canyons and washes from Santa Barbara to lower California at 1000-2500 feet. Locally one may see it occasionally along the roadside on Hwy 101 from San Luis Obispo to Arroyo Grande. It flowers from June to September. This plant is so attractive it is much in demand for home gardens, but nurseries have the plant for sale only occasionally.
Growing it from seed is difficult, since the seeds are very slow germinating – (up to 2 years). Germination can be hastened by planting in sand in a flat with a foot of pine needles on top, then burning the pine needles. When cool, remove the ashes and water the flat from the bottom. When the seedlings have a few true leaves, transplant into small containers. When containers are full of roots, transplant the plants in gallon cans.
Propagation may also be done from root cuttings taken in December or January, which is the easiest way to propagate the plant. After the plants are set out, they should receive supplemental water for the first two years, but when well established, natural rainfall should suffice.
Our Chapter almost always has it at our annual native plant sale in November. From conversations overheard at our plant sale Matilija poppy is relatively difficult to get started. Customers indicate that they have tried several years before having success, then they complain that once established, the species can be difficult to contain).