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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 several shrubs in my own garden, and also have access to established shrubs in the gardens of several friends. Blue Elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp.caerulea) is edible and full of healthy nutrients, with a long history of human uses both in Europe and North America. The raw berries should not be eaten in quantity because they can cause stomach upset. Other parts of the plants; roots, bark and leaves, are poisonous, and should not be eaten, though when prepared, and taken in small doses, they have been used as an emetic.

I’d bet that we’re all pretty happy that the rainy season is over and cherishing the beautiful sunny days. With a good layer of mulch to help retain moisture in the soil, plus the warm days, plants are now putting on growth that can almost be measured day by day!

Over several years now, I’ve been creating a meadow in an area within my garden; and this year some nice patches of clovers have taken hold. It’s mostly a non-native rosy-colored clover, but it's still good for the animals! While the new leafy growth persists, the deer browse the patch every morning, and once the flowers have set, bees of all sorts are buzzing around.

The time for planting natives is pretty much past, but now as the nights are warming, it’s time to get the summer vegetables in the ground. Though most of my gardening efforts are devoted to creating and restoring natural habitat, I do also grow lots of plants useful to humans. Tomatoes, beans, and peppers, as well as lots of herbs such as parsley, dill, and basil; many of these plants are providing resources for both humans and native creatures!

Plants for People and Animals

I’m experiencing a love-hate relationship with the rains as they continue, with so few dry days in between for the outdoor activities that are such a big part of my life. I’ve measured more than 30 inches here on our Novato hillside since January first!  

The scarcity of truly dry days in between poses all sorts of frustrations for the dedicated gardener; it’s great to have the rains, and this is the time of year to plant, but it’s not good to work the soil when it’s totally soggy.

Propagating from Seeds

As a plant propagator, I’m also tied into a certain timeline in dealing with seedlings. There is the optimal moment for transplanting; too soon and the roots to shoots aren’t well balanced, but if you wait too long, the roots get congested and the shoots start to suffer. 

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.

Last year the Flycatchers did not breed here, perhaps due to the drought conditions and reduced insect populations. This year is obviously very different, and I’ve already seen dense clouds of insects floating upwards into the air, massing and dispersing, shifting patterns of light and dark as the tiny creatures come together and then move apart again, much like the famous murmurations displayed by large flocks of Starlings.

What is a Weed – and are they of Value in our Environment?

Even if it’s just for an hour or two, I make time to do some work in my garden every single day, and my favorite time to be outside is at dusk when all sorts of creatures are stirring. Since my tasks, like weeding or potting up seedlings, are often simple and somewhat repetitive, I’m in a meditative state and absorbing all that goes on around me.

The last of the bees, usually bumblebees, are still buzzing about; Nuthatches sound like little tin horns as they fly to another tree to forage; and the Goldfinches gather in groups in the redbud, whistling to each other. A Scrub Jay swoops down to retrieve a seed stashed in the mulch months ago, but I pretend not to notice. I hear the sharp click of the male Anna’s Hummingbird downward display drop to proclaim his authority over these resources; and realize that in many ways this is his garden, not mine!

I also notice all the shadows of creatures flying by; the gigantic shadow of a Turkey Vulture coming to the snag tree to roost; the distinctive flap, flap, glide of a California Sister butterfly patrolling the canopies of the oaks; and the more casual flitting about of the Painted Ladies.

A number of animals store acorns for later consumption; notably the Acorn Woodpeckers with their ‘granary trees’. They place each acorn just so, packed tightly into a hole, and then tend to their store regularly, moving the acorns to smaller holes when they start to dry up and shrink.

Western Scrub Jays also store acorns, but they do it individually in holes in the ground. They prefer the long, skinny acorns of the Coast Live Oak – these fit perfectly in their bills! They are very sneaky about hiding their acorns; if another Jay is looking, or if there is a person close by, they will find another spot to hide it. Most they remember to retrieve, but those which they don’t have a chance to grow; many of the oaks that grow uphill from the parent tree were most likely planted by Jays! 

I was lucky enough to be outside at just the right time about a week ago when I noticed a lot of activity around a Toyon - the most spectacular Toyon I’ve ever seen, and it lives on the top side of the meadow next to my house and garden. This Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) is a tree, about 30 feet tall, with a trunk that looks to be about 7 to 9 inches in diameter. Several smaller Toyons that are more shrub-sized also grow close by.

The large clusters of bright red berries were the beacon that attracted a flock of Robins and Cedar Waxwings to come in for a feast! Many fruit-eating birds will join large multi-species flocks to better search out patchy resources like fruit-bearing plants. Robins are noisy and active feeders, while the Cedar Waxwings are more reserved; they forage and then they rest. While taking a break from berry-eating the flock of Waxwings were a beautiful sight, perched in a bare Blue Oak, pale yellow bellies a soft golden glow as they all faced directly into the morning sun.

At the end of the dry season my garden is just that; at a glance many of the native plants look dry, and dead; but once you look more closely there’s always a bit of green within the brown. Plants are dormant, but definitely not dead; seeds are abundant, as are all the creatures coming to the garden to partake in this abundance.

Goldfinches come for the tarweed seeds, each plant with a flock of five or six birds taking the small flat seeds from each spent flower. Bushtits, most always in a flock of course, make their way from one side of the garden to the other, working over one shrub, then on to the next closest, and so on, carefully inspecting both the top and the bottom of leaves, flowers and seed heads  as they forage for tiny insects. The Golden-crowned Sparrows are back in Marin, busy practicing their songs and doing the sparrow double-scratch, which both brings up seed for them to eat, and helps those they miss get properly planted.

Seeds so clearly represent the end of one cycle of life and the beginning of another: And the start of the Rainy Season also heralds the beginning of a new year for native plant gardeners. Here in California we really have only three seasons; the rainy season, the wildflower season, and the dry season. We’ve had a mere sprinkling at the beginning of October, and it won’t be long before our hills turn green again. I’ve already noticed annual wildflowers germinating in areas where I hand-water. All are species that grew and flowered and set seed in my garden this year; and as much as possible, I will let them grow on exactly where they seed themselves in.

The only species that I’m still collecting seeds from is the lovely little yellow flowered tarweed (Hemizonia congesta ssp. lutescens). As long as the weather is dry, I’ll be collecting seeds almost daily from various plants in various areas; that’s the best way to insure genetic diversity. Once the weather is cool and consistently moist, it’s no longer a good idea to gather seed.

Now that fall is soon upon us, and hopefully the rainy season as well, the time is perfect to plant California natives.  Many gardeners have issues and great frustration with the deer interfering with their planting plans. I happen to love and respect these animals, and from personal experience know that it is possible to create a beautiful native garden despite the presence of deer. You can have it all; a wonderful habitat rich in natural resources, complete with the native wildlife; your own zoological parkland !

I've summarized some simple steps for success below; if you care to know a lot more about the Columbian Black-tailed deer that live throughout the Bay Area, read my "Gardening in Deer Country' essays in Home Ground's resources pages.


1 –Familiarize yourself with native plants that grow wild in areas close to your home by participating in naturalist’s led hikes.

2 – Go to http://Calscape.CNPS.org, where visitors can enter their street address to get a list of native plants that are most appropriate for your locale.

The days are still warm, and we’re all still hoping that this will be an ‘El Nino’ year with ample rainfall, and a good snow pack in the Sierras. The days are noticeably shorter, and the evenings are much cooler. The shorter day-length is a cue to many native plants and seeds that the season of growth in California is arriving; now we just need the rains!

I’ve already noticed annual wildflowers germinating in areas where I hand-water. All are species that grew and flowered and set seed in my garden last year; and as much as possible, I will let them grow on this year exactly where they seed themselves in. Wildflowers often seed into my gravel pathways; this seems to be an ideal situation for them; but since I still need to be able to walk the pathways, I let them grow at the edges, and just thin them out a bit. In thinning delicate seedlings it’s often best to just cut the stem at the ground level, rather than pulling out the seedlings, which also disturbs the root systems of neighboring seedlings.

The term Ecology is a relatively new field of study in the world of Biology; it was coined in 1866 by the German scientist, Ernst Haeckel (1834 – 1919). There are now two major subdivisions; animal ecology or plant ecology; and as many as twenty-one different specialty areas of study. One of the broadest specialty areas is Bioecology, when plants and animals are given equal emphasis; Autecology is the study of a single species of organism; and Synecology is the study of ecological inter-relationships among communities of organisms. I quickly realized that this is exactly what inspires me! I’m a Synecologist! I think about inter-relationships when I’m out walking in the wilds, and when I’m working in my garden. I’ll use one of my favorite native plants, Elegant Madia (Madia elegans) as an example.

This year my Nevin Barberry (Berberis nevinii) truly made that leap and ‘came into its own’! Lovely, fragrant yellow flowers smothered the plant in early spring, right about the same time as many Ceanothus start to bloom; and then abundant, small red berries followed, maturing in June.

Nevin Barberry is a rare endemic shrub, now extirpated from most of its rather restricted original range from Los Angeles south to San Diego; so it’s an especially good thing that the shrub is quite easy and adapatable to garden culture. It’s just that it is really slow at first, so the adage often quoted for California natives really applies here; the first year they sleep, the second year they creep, the third year they leap! With this plant it’s actually several years of ‘sleepiness’ but very much worth the wait!

In the garden it needs full sun and good drainage, and does best with regular, low water. It is totally deer-proof; the leaves are quite leathery, and equipped with sharp spines; this plant doesn’t even need protection from the deer when it’s first planted out!

Several other smaller groups of butterflies are included in the larger family commonly known as the Gossamer-winged butterflies; there are the Blues, the Coppers, Metalmarks and Hairstreaks. Most of these small butterflies are uncommon in Marin gardens; many of them have associations with just one or two species of native plants in specific habitats. There is just one butterfly within the sub-family of Hairstreaks that is often seen in Marin gardens, and that’s the Common, or Gray Hairstreak.

The Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus) is easy to spot, even amongst lots of other butterflies because of a distinctive behavior; its wings are folded while it’s sipping nectar, and it rubs its hind wings together steadily as it feeds. On both surfaces of the hind wing, close to the abdomen, is a large black-pupiled red spot, and delicate, highly mobile ‘tails’. The spots are vaguely like eyes, the tails like antennae, and the rubbing sets it all in motion; constituting a ‘false head’ which diverts predators away from the real body. It’s another wonderful example of ‘back to front’ mimicry!

Acmon Blue – Plebejus (Icaricia) acmon

This little butterfly is fairly common, and more widespread than some of the other ‘Gossamer Wings’ (Lycaenidae); the Acmon Blue has a much longer flight period than many other ‘blues’ and it visits gardens, and can be seen in open fields, and even along roadsides.

Basically, as with so many butterfly species; the butterflies are where their host plants are! The Amon Blue larvae usually feed on plants in the Pea (Fabaceae) family, but also on some plants within the Knotweed (Polygonaceae) family, primarily various native Buckwheats. The Acmon Blue, which often produces multiple generations each year feeds interchangeably on plants in these two families; giving scientists a hint that there must be a chemical commonality between the two plant families.