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.
We are a not-for-profit, volunteer-powered nursery.
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.
Silvery Blue – Glaucopsyche lygdamus
My home and garden are situated next to an open meadow; and within that meadow grows lots and lots of vetch! The vetch also shows up at the edges of my cultivated areas, but early on, while the plants are still small I pull some of it. There are two species of vetch commonly seen along roadsides, fields and idle lands; Hairy or Winter Vetch (Vicia villosa), and Spring or Common Vetch (Vicia sativa). Both species are native to Europe, and were brought to this country to be used as a rotation crop in fields; but both have since escaped into wild lands.
On my land it’s mostly Winter Vetch that shows up at the wilder edges, and grows so quickly, draping itself over nearby plants, that without some control it can easily obscure established shrubs. It is an annual plant with stems reaching six feet or more. I pull much of it out of garden areas long before flowers set fruit; there can be ten to fifteen flowers per stem; and about four to six seeds per pod; and those seeds have a very hard coat and can persist in the soil in a dormant state for years.
The Lycaenidae; Blues, Hairstreaks, Coppers, and Metalmarks, are usually small, very delicate looking butterflies; many of them brilliantly colored and some with very interesting life cycles. The apparent fragility of these tiny creatures earned the family the common name ‘gossamer-winged’; but the vigor apparent in their life strategies, belies this moniker. This is the largest family of butterflies, with almost 6,000 species worldwide; but named species are often termed ‘complexes’ because there is still so much to be learned about their anatomy and behaviors. New species are still being discovered – and not just in the tropics – a new ‘blue’ was discovered and named right here in California as recently as 1998!
Golden Currant (Ribes aureum) grows in my garden in the partial shade of a big old Coast Live Oak. I established the shrubs several years ago with the aid of DriWater, and now the whole planting exists on rainwater alone. Deer do like to nibble on the small smooth leaves, so to create some protection I planted Hummingbird Sage all around the shrubs. I choose a yellow flowered hybrid of this native Salvia called ‘Avis Keedy’; the pale yellow flowers put on a show about the time that the Currant flowers are fading.
Hummingbird Sage (Salvia spathaceae) is a creeping groundcover which goes dormant in the summer. The leaves are large, very sticky, and strongly scented; and the deer hate this plant. They dislike it so much that they avoid stepping into it, and so now, they no longer get close enough to the Currant to do much browsing.
This lovely little Cabbage White butterfly (Pieris rapae) really stands out against the beautiful flowers of the 'Santa Cruz' Oregano. It might seem unsafe, for a small creature, to be so visible in a habitat garden full of other creatures; but the white color sends a warning to visual predators.
Birds with some experience know that this butterfly is distasteful! That's because the white coloration in the wings comes from a waste product called a pterin; but instead of being excreted, the compound is used to color the wings. Pterin is just one of several types of pteridines which are closely related to uric acid, and chemically very similar to the white paste in bird droppings.
The larvae feed on Cabbage family plants, many of which contain mustard oil glycosides and sulfur compounds; these chemicals are passed on to the adult stage, where they are sequestered in the wings of the butterfly and add to the very disagreeable taste of this little creature!
As a propagator I often try different approaches to germinating seeds of certain species. Sometimes I get such a definitely positive response to one pre-treatment method, that it becomes the one I’ll always use.
Like soaking Toyon seeds for just one hour before sowing; this treatment results in vigorous germination. I won’t bother with a hot coffee soak of these seeds again. We potted up nearly five dozen healthy seedlings in May. We pot native shrub seedlings into tube-style pots which are designed with internal ridges running the length of the tube; this encourages roots to grow long and fairly straight, and helps to prevent roots from circling and eventually strangling themselves. The seedlings stay under shade for several months, and as they get potted up to larger style tubes, and eventually to tree-pots, they also get more and more exposure to direct sunlight.
All through the rainy season many birds rely on fruits as a major part of their diet. These birds often travel in flocks, like the Cedar Waxwings and American Robins. Sometimes the flocks are mixed; several different species will travel together, and all are “on the lookout” for resources.
Bright red berries are easy for birds to spot; and large quantities of fruits in one place make foraging more energy efficient. Red Toyon berries (Heteromeles arbutifolia) certainly attract the attention of hungry birds, but so do other red berries such as Cotoneaster and Pyracantha.
Birds will partake of all the edible fruits they find, and therein lies the problem! The fruits are eaten at one location, say your backyard, but then they fly off, sometimes into open spaces, and a few hours later they excrete the seeds that were contained within the fruits. When I walk through the woods and meadows of Marin's wild lands, I often spot seedlings of Cotoneaster; they can and do grow without cultivation, and over time could displace native shrubs and damage native ecosystems.
Whenever I'm out collecting I always keep it foremost in my mind that seeds are food. Food for all sorts of insects and other invertebrates, food for birds, rodents and other mammals, including humans!
When I gathered Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) berries in December, I took just a handful from each cluster, and went to several different shrubs to collect. I want to make sure there’s still plenty of food for the birds; the red berries are a magnet for Cedar Waxwings, Robins, House Finches, Band-tailed Pigeons and the Mockingbirds. By February there are no more berries on the Toyon.
The native peoples also gathered Toyon berries, which they cooked on hot rocks until the skins bubbled; then the berries were mashed and eaten. I imagine that the seeds contained within each berry were also mashed and eaten. That’s not the case when a bird eats the berry; only the flesh is digested, leaving the seeds to be expelled with the feces.
The only seed I’m still collecting now that the rainy season has begun, is from Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia); I’m picking handfuls of bright red, mature berries, and contained within each berry will be one or more seeds. The berries will be soaked in water, and after a few days, gently macerated, which makes it easier to separate the seed from the flesh of each berry.
By the time the rains start, I’ve finished with most of the seed collecting for the year; in many species seeds mature as the seed ‘pods’ dry, and so collection is done only during dry weather. I collect only from plants with prolific seed set, and then take only small amounts of seed from a number of different plants of the same species. Collecting seeds over a number of days or weeks also increases the genetic variability.
Collected seeds are temporarily stored in open containers, all over my house, until they are thoroughly dry. Then I clean and package the seed in the evenings, or on rainy days, when it’s not possible to work in the garden. Using simple tools and a set of graduated sieves the seeds are separated from their pods, capsules, follicles, siliques, or schizocarps.
I’ve always had a fascination with fecundity; a desire to make more of something, especially when an abundance of possibilities is so obvious. Plants offer so many opportunities to be fruitful. Now, with plenty of space at our new nursery, and access to gardens full of ‘mother plants’, I can indulge my every urge to be prolific and productive!
My two acre habitat garden in Novato is a very fertile place, full of mature specimens, from which we take cuttings, dig divisions, and collect seeds throughout the year. Many of our dedicated volunteers also make their gardens, and mother plants, available for collection of propagules.