Native Look-a-Likes


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.  

As it turned out  two species were intermingled; the Eastern redbud and the Western redbud (C. occidentalis); and over time I’ve noticed differences in their growth habits also. The Eastern redbud has developed a single substantial trunk, whereas the Western grows in a more shrubby form, and much more slowly. The Eastern is also a prolific bloomer; the first flowers appeared when the tree was about twelve years old. Western Redbuds do not bloom as reliably here in Marin; mine never have. They seem to want more cold nights than I get on my virtually frost-free hill in order to set flower buds.

I find it immensely satisfying to have nurtured "my" beautiful Redbud along since it was nothing more that a single root and a set of cotyledons! I grew it on in containers of ever-increasing sizes for about five years, knowing that I would soon have a permanent garden in which to plant it. We planted it out in 2006 and protected it with a cage from the deer browsing for a few years.

The first blooms came in 2012, when my tree was a pre-teen and the show each year thereafter has been more and more spectacular. The trunk is now substantial, about six inches in diameter, and there’s also a healthy colony of lichens on the northeast facing side. Several years ago I removed drip irrigation from the tree; it gets nothing but incidental water from plants close by. The redbud has no disease or pest problems; it gets a top-dressing of compost or mulch every year, and it's pruned while dormant to preserve its beautiful form.

There’s so much to love and appreciate about this tree; I love the beauty of its blossoms, the graceful growth pattern, the delicate shade it provides when fully leafed out, the bit of fall color as leaves begin to drop, and that the leaves are also a good addition to any of my compost piles.

Bumble bee on Redbud

A number of creatures get resources from redbuds: deer browse the young leaves if they can reach them, bumblebees seek nectar from the flowers, and a great number of birds find good perches within its canopy -- or just find it a great place to sing from! When I collect seeds from redbuds I often find that beetles – usually a weevil of some sort - have got to them first.

Bewick's Wren singing from the perch in the Redbud

Western redbud was an important basketry plant for California’s native peoples, and they carefully managed the shrubs to get exactly the type of growth they needed. Redbud shrubs were coppiced in winter or very early spring to induce the growth of pliant, straight new stems. They used these stems to make cradleboards, sifters, and winnowing baskets. They also made coiled cooking baskets from the redbud stems, baskets so tight that they held water! For one basket like this, seventy-five stems of about two and a half foot in length were needed. In managed stands, just six shrubs could provide it all; in un-managed stands, about one hundred and fifty shrubs had to be visited in order to get enough supplies for one basket.

Goldfinch on Redbud

Poison Oak and its Relatives

A native plant that we all know (or certainly should!) is Poison Oak (Toxicodendron diversilobium) because it is so widespread in the Bay Area. Many people get a very uncomfortable rash if they touch any part of the plant; so knowing how to identify it and avoid contact with the plant is pretty important. Poison oak is a plant, as the specific name denotes, of extremely variable forms; it can grow as a shrub, as a climbing vine, or a groundcover. It is also poisonous in the dormant state, and touching the bare branches can result in a rash for people especially susceptible. 

Poison Oak
Poison Oak

Even so, it is a beautiful plant, and provides valuable habitat resources for a number of creatures. Deer browse the new leaves early in spring, and when the drooping clusters of white flowers are in full bloom they are also mildly fragrant! White to yellowish berries form by the fall, and are eaten by lots of birds. The leaves go through spectacular color changes; from pink to maroon to bright red as they begin to drop. The shrubs often grow in dense stands which provide cover for small birds and ground dwellers. It grows all over our two acre property, especially in the wildish woodland understory: I have it pulled only where it grows too close to pathways for comfort.   

Poison Oak is a member of the Sumac family (Anacardiaceae), as is the common cashew nut. Another genera included in this family is Rhus; and there are three species native to California. Two grow in the wilds in the southern part of the state (R. integrifolia, Lemonade Berry, and R. ovata, Sugar Bush) but are very good garden plants here in the northern parts.

Rhus trilobata

None of the Rhus species, including R. trilobata, or Sourberry, which is native to the northern parts of the state, are poisonous. Sourberry is a plant that was important to the native peoples, for the fruits, but especially for basketry materials. Stands of these plants were managed by coppicing or burning in early fall every other year to induce the growth of the long straight canes needed to make a variety of  baskets. For one basket more than a thousand one or two year old canes were gathered; and by managing the stands of this shrub that job was made much easier. Instead of visiting hundreds of unmanaged plants, about a dozen stands of managed plants could provide the needed materials. The fruits were also collected to make a refreshing and nourishing sweet-sour drink.

The leaves, at a glance, look like Poison Oak; there are the ‘leaves of three’, but a close look reveals a difference. In Poison Oak the two lower leaflets have no petiole, only the third one, at the tip, has an extended and obvious petiole. The Sourberry leaflets are all without petioles; the ‘leaves of three’ are all held closely together. The fruits that develop in summer easily distinguish Sourberry as a different plant than Poison Oak; they are drupes, with bright orange flesh surrounding one flat stoney seed. It does not grow natively in Marin County, but I am growing a few shrubs in my Novato garden, where they are establishing nicely.

Sourberry does grow in Lake County, and at the forest edges around the  mountain meadow at Lake Pillsbury in the Mendocino National Forest. We have camped there for more than twenty years, and I first noticed the shrub because of the bright orange drupes that form in summer. When the weather gets hot – it’s often ninety degrees or more on a typical summer day – the drupes start to exude a white crystalline sugary substance. I would pick them to suck on for the sweetness; and of course I brought some seeds home to try to grow it!

The shrubs grow in dense stands at the edges of the tree canopies; and there are particularly good stands of it facing the edges of the Gravely Airstrip at Pillsbury. This airplane runway was developed in order to bring planes, men and equipment in when fighting forest fires. Lots of private planes also use the airstrip; including the guys from Liberty Field Fliers in Petaluma, a group my husband belongs to. The guys would all fly in, many of them in experimental light sport planes which they have built themselves; but my husband and I would drive in so that we could bring all the camping gear and supplies needed for a dinner feast for the club members.

The pilots all prefer to sleep right under the wings of their planes, all parked at the edges of the airstrip, and getting very close to these stands of shrubs. They all thought it was Poison Oak, of course, so they were very impressed with my botanical knowledge when I showed no hesitation in handling the leaves, and even ate the fruits!

Native Sunflowers

A plant that is definitely not easy in garden culture is Mule’s Ears (Wyethia species) and there are several look-a-likes, all native California sunflowers. I recognized a very large patch of Mule’s Ears growing on a south facing slope in the open space east of my house. At first I was confused about exactly which species it was because I noticed that some of the flowering stalks could be eighteen to twenty inches in height, and therefore seemed much more like Helianthella californica, another native sunflower which I had just become familiar with from my camping expeditions in Sonoma and Lake Counties.

Narrow-leaf Mule's Ears
Narrow-leaf Mule's Ears

Eventually, through a simple process of elimination, I was able to identify the plants growing on my hill as Narrow-Leaf Mule’s Ears (W. angustifolia). It could not be Helianthella, a well-respected botanist told me, because it is simply not known to grow here in Marin! To distinguish it from Narrow-leaf Mule’s Ears, one has to compare the length of the leaf petioles, the width of the involucre and the length of the bracts; all elements that I did not have from both plants at the same time! Gray Mule’s Ears (W. glabra) is not hard to distinguish from the narrow-leaf, because the leaf is broad and rounded at the ends, and the outer bracts of the involucre extend beyond the petals of the flower. The bracts of the narrow-leaf do not extend beyond the petals, and the leaves are much more linear, and end in a pointed tip.

Narrow-leaf Mule’s Ears is by far the most common in Marin, and so, over the years I have collected seeds and tried various methods to get them to germinate. The seeds responded when I pre-soaked them in warmish water for twelve hours, and used a soil mix with a Chamise charate mixed in. Germination occurred within a couple of weeks; but even so, it was sparse, and the seedlings were not very vigorous, and so many did not survive the transplanting process. When I was able to grow them on to a good size in a container they would wither away in the garden. I tried getting them to grow in various places over the years, thinking that is was the micro-habitat that was the crucial element. 

So, try and try again, and finally, even with some delays along the way: Success! As I was weeding an area just a week ago, I discovered a very nicely established Narrow-leaf Mule’s Ear growing on a sloping, slightly shaded area in the back garden. I will monitor it closely, and with more practice, hope to perfect my propagation and transplanting techniques with this species.