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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 fruits to me, and when I took a small bite from the bottom side of  a fresh green bay fruit, I noticed that it also tasted like an under-ripe avocado. Not tasty enough to do anything with, but then I’d been reading that the native peoples harvested the bay fruits to get to the ‘nut’ inside. They also used the bay leaves to treat headaches, toothaches, and earaches, as well as making an infusion with the leaves to use as an antiseptic wash for sores. 

  • Male house finch at the feeder

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 Cornell University’s "Feeder Watcher Program", which engages citizen scientists all across America to help compile statistics on songbirds. One year, the observations of individual watchers was used to help monitor and track the spread of an eye infection amongst house finches.


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 class at the College of Marin and our instructor always had plant propagules to share with his students. One day he took a bag of moist perlite full of stratified, and germinating redbud seeds from the refrigerator to share with the class. I took a dozen or so to grow on; but it wasn’t until several years later that I noticed some minor differences in the leaves of certain specimens: some were fully rounded, or with a slightly indented notch, others showed a delicate little tip to the rounded form; making the leaf almost a heart shape.  

  • Juncos spend much of their time on the ground

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 down through the twiggy stuff to the ground and decompose over time.

Brush piles like this are wonderful cover for a lot of the ground feeding birds, and also benefit the raptors – both hawks and owls – because of the great cover for the rodent populations. Brushy areas also create nesting sites for the Juncos. These little sparrow relatives are very successful breeders, even with nests right on the ground! The lovely brown, tan and grayish tones of their plumage are perfect camouflage.

  • Cobweb Thistle in a sunny border
    Cobweb Thistle in a sunny border

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! 

  • Monarch butterfly nectaring on Tropical Milkweed

Milkweeds and Monarchs 

Late summer in Marin is when we’re all on the lookout for the Monarchs; these regal butterflies are making their way back to traditional over-wintering sites along the California coast, and the real miracle of this migration is that it is not the same individual returning to the site! There are two distinct populations of Monarch butterflies in the United States, and the Rocky Mountains are the dividing line between the Eastern and Western populations. The monarchs we see in the West are over-wintering along the California coast, and during much of the rainy season, thousands of Monarchs are simply hanging in large groups in these special groves of trees. On warm days they may fly a bit, but mostly they are in a torpor. They are also in a reproductive diapause, waiting for days to lengthen and warm up.  

  • A mature Blue Elderberry shrub growing in the understory of Oaks.
    A mature Blue Elderberry growing in the understory of Oaks.
  • Blue Elderberry flower umbels are flat, not domed.
    Blue Elderberry flower umbels are flat, not domed.
  • Blue Elderberries ripen towards the end of summer.
    Blue Elderberries ripen towards the end of summer.
  • The extra large umbel of berries in my right hand is the result of abundant rains.
    The extra large umbel of berries in my right hand are the result of abundant rains.

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.

  • Anise Swallowtail larvae photo by Bob Stewart
    Anise Swallowtail larvae photo by Bob Stewart
  • Anise Swallowtail on thistle
    Anise Swallowtail on thistle

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

  • Snowberry Clearwing Moth (Hemaris diffinis)
    Snowberry Clearwing Moth (Hemaris diffinis)
  • Snowberry flowers
    Snowberry flowers

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. 

  • Mylitta Crescent
    Mylitta Crescent
  • Mylitta Crescent larvae
    Mylitta Crescent larvae

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?

  • Milkmaids

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.

  • Acorn Woodpecker
    Acorn Woodpecker
  • An Acorn Woodpecker's cache
    An Acorn Woodpecker's cache
  • Scrub Jay
    Scrub Jay

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! 

  • Cedar Waxwing eating Toyon berries
    Cedar Waxwing eating Toyon berries
  • Toyon flowers
    Toyon flowers
  • Toyon flowers
    Toyon flowers
  • Toyon berries
    Toyon berries

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.

  • Foothill Penstemon in Mendocino National Forest.
    Foothill Penstemon in Mendocino National Forest.
  • Showy Milkweed
    Showy Milkweed
  • Narrowleaf Milkweed growing in a meadow by Lake Pillsbury.
    Narrowleaf Milkweed growing in a meadow by Lake Pillsbury.

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.

  • Yellow Hayfield Tarweed keeps blooming, sometimes until November.
    Yellow Hayfield Tarweed keeps blooming, sometimes until November.
  • Early in the rainy season the natural meadow next to my garden is all green.
    Early in the rainy season the natural meadow next to my garden is all green.
  • By late summer the meadow is golden brown, but still full of life.
    By late summer the meadow is golden brown, but still full of life.

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.