Wildflowers of the Sierra Nevada Mountains

I’d heard stories about the glorious wildflower displays in the Sierras, especially this year with all the snow melt, but nothing could prepare me for how many beautiful sights I would discover on the west side of Lake Tahoe last month. As I explored and hiked the forest trails I thought of what it might have been like to be an Native American from the Washoe tribe. How did they use some of these plants and would I find similar species used by our local Ohlone tribes?

I sketched, photographed and identified ( or tried to ) over 49 different wildflowers and admired many more native plants, trees, shrubs. The weather was  perfect for hiking and the sky as blue as the water of the lake.

Lake Tahoe and the land surrounding the lake were once home to the Washoe Indians who wintered in Carson Valley and spent their summers on the shores of the lake hunting, fishing and gathering food for the winter. I’m sure they admired the flower displays as I did.

Red-twig dogwoods bloomed along streambanks. Native Americans used the berries as food, both fresh and dried and cooked. The berries were eaten to treat colds and slow bleeding. The inner bark used as a tobacco either by itself of mixed with manzanita. The bark could also be used as a dye. The wood used for bows and arrows, stakes and other tools.

Pink Sierra currants sported beautiful pink flower clusters and edible blue-black berries. Tribes relished the berries fresh and dried them for later use in the winter. All species in the genus, including our own native canyon gooseberry, have berries high in vitamin C. When dried they were mixed with animal fat and eaten while traveling.

Wood’s roses were in full bloom, their dark pink flowers fragrant in the sun. A variation of the species grows in every western state and throughout Canada. The petals can be eaten raw after the bitter white base is removed. The seed or rose hip contains 24 times as much vitamin C as oranges, vitamin A and E and is also a fairly good source of essential fatty acids, which is unusual for a fruit. A poultice of chewed leaves was used by Native Americans for bee stings. Various parts of the plant were used to treat burns, sores, swelling and wounds and used to make tea-like beverages. All this from a plant that is beautiful, too.

A real looker, the Mariposa Lily caught my eye. Blooming along the trail to McKinney Lake, I thought of how the Washoe would consider these plants a great find, digging up the sweet bulbs to be eaten fresh. We almost missed the Sierra tiger lily mistaking it for the columbines that were nearby. Their orange flowers are much larger but both are stunning to see in the moist meadows.

Other flowers that I encountered were monardella, penstemon, yarrow, lupine, larkspur, arnica, thalictrum, snowberry, giant hyssop, aster, solomon seal, corn lily, mimulus, paintbrush, western burning bush, cow parsnip, wintergreen, phacaela, golden rod, epilobium and sidalcea to name just a few. I was in seventh heaven.

I loved seeing all the rein orchids that were in full bloom. Pine drops emerged from the ground with their urn-shaped downward facing flowers. Plants exist for most of their life as a mass of brittle, but fleshy roots, living in a parasitic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi from which they derive all their carbon. Another unusual plant I saw, pushing up from the ground was the bright scarlet sarcodes or snow flower, a parasitic plant that also derives nutrients from mycorrhizal fungi. Nature has come up with many ways to survive and these are but two good examples.

Native Americans used grasses and pine needles for baskets, willows for household goods, acorns from oaks as a food staple as well as for dyes, medicines, games, toys and construction materials and wild onions for food and flavoring. I’m sure they loved to see the wildflower for their pure beauty as I did.


How to Combat Moles and other Critters in the Garden

There’s a gentle guy among us with a beautiful garden in Scotts Valley who’s a serial killer – a killer of moles, that is. "The first one’s the toughest"  he said while showing me around the other day. Caddyshack has nothing on this determined gardener and from the look of his landscaping he’s definitely winning the battle.

This mild mannered vegetarian started planting trees 20 years ago when he moved to the property but says he became serious about gardening only 5 years ago. He has created lush-looking, low water landscaping in his extremely sandy soil, watering some areas only once per summer. And oh, did I mention, he shares his garden with deer, too?

Many of us battle some of these same issues. How does he win the war while watching his garden grow? He used to have gophers, too, but after using cinch and Macabee traps for the past couple of years there are not too many left on the property. The moles are a different story. They have the ability to learn testing our mental prowess in the process.

He has found that one of the best ways to keep moles from destroying his garden is to install perimeter fencing around the beds. Gardening by exclusion he calls it. Cinch traps are successful, too, and he’s killed 16 so far this year. It’s not that the moles eat the plants but their burrowing dislodges roots and the plants will die the next time it gets hot. He digs down 24" and sinks a gopher wire barrier, one area at a time.  Paths are left bare so he can see if they are encroaching. Moles can tunnel 17 hours a day and ruin an area in just a couple of hours so he has become ever vigilant.

Deer control comes from plant selection and a product he gets on the internet that contains a bittering agent found in antifreeze, anti-nail biting and cleaning products among other household items.  Having used other taste and smell repellents containing rotten eggs, garlic, blood meal, citrus, ammonia, hot pepper and coyote urine, he swears by this product. His garden contains many plants he considers "bullet proof" like lambs ears, lions tail, hot lips salvia, breath of heaven, tagetes, armeria, asteriscus, carnations, dietes, Little John callistemon, mimulus, westringea and society garlic to name just a few. He plants "what works".

What hasn’t worked with his deer population is vinca that used to grow under the oaks. Wandering jew has successfully taken over and he’s OK with that. "Why fight it?" is his mantra. Plants he protects with Bitrex are daylily flowers, star jasmine, correa, penstemon, some sedums and the flowers on the aloe. He grows lots of different aloes, yucca and agaves, rescuing many from garbage piles and propagating others. He has 4 acres to cover.  There’s also a huge Angel’s trumpet under the oaks that he started from a cutting 4 years ago.

In one garden a huge Breath of Heaven has grown 9 ft tall. Nearby is a handsome small tree from So. Africa, Podocarpus henkelii or Long-leafed Yellow-wood. Eventually it will grow to 25 ft but is only half that size now. The foliage is distinctive and dense with heavy, shiny, dark green drooping leaves, giving it a weeping look. It is truly a specimen tree. His euphorbia collection includes a variety that looks like an azalea with chartreuse flowers. A very large stand of crocosmia was started from a 4" pot. Fortunately it’s planted in the right spot.

So much to see, so little time. Everywhere I looked was another beautiful vignette- accenting a dry river bed in one area, a fire pit with log seating in another. I learned so much from this gentle, determined gardener.

The Origin of The Mountain Gardener & Other Stories

Which came first, the gardener or the writer?  I think a writer who gardens can’t help but put their thoughts down on paper. Think ‘The $64 Tomato’ or ‘Green Thoughts’ by Eleanor Perenyi. Actually it was my father who started me on this path. I remember his tomatoes- red, orange, yellow, lavender. I loved them all. And he gave me my own patch in the garden where I grew those giant pansies with faces.

My father always wanted me to be a writer and researcher for National Geographic, encouraging me to take writing and science classes. My interest in nature and photography was the easy part. It was the 60’s, though, and if you grew up then you know that one didn’t always do what was expected of you. I did study science at Humboldt State and Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo acing plant taxonomy class.

After I moved here, I started working at The Plantworks Nursery which really wasn’t work at all. Then one day several years ago I had an idea. I typed up a sample column and marched into the editor’s office for The Press Banner. Little did I know that he had taken horticulture classes himself and so had a soft spot for my idea to write a weekly gardening column. Next thing I know he’s saying he wants 5 columns, 400 words each, excluding prepositions, on his desk by Friday and the column would be called ‘The Mountain Gardener’ and not ‘Ask Jan’ which I had suggested. I knew my father would be proud. I was a newspaper columnist.

So on this anniversary of my 300th column I want to share with you some interesting gardening lore and a story about  one of my own gardening faux pas. 

I confess, I’m not one who talks to plants. Although I have a huge hosta seboldiana named Bob as well as an offset that I cleverly named Bob the Second, I don’t address them personally. Maybe that’s going to change. I was very intrigued reading a recent article in Audubon magazine by Nathan Ehrlich.  Scientists have discovered that plants give off electrical impulses in response to threats. Polygraph expert and former CIA interrogation specialist Cleve Backster confirmed this when, on an impulse, he hooked up a tropical dracaena to a polygraph and threatened the plant with a flame. The dracaena displayed the same electrical signals that people do when they lie. From lettuce to bananas, the results were similar.

Biologists Baldwin and Schultz have published work suggesting that some plants can communicate through the air. When the researchers threatened poplars and maples they found that nearby trees with no physical contact released defensive chemicals than inhibit digestion, thus hindering predators’ ability to consume the trees leaves or bark. Now I know what my hosta Bob’s doing when Bambi comes calling and why he’s never so much as been nibbled.

File this story under "what was I thinking?"  You understand if you’re a gardener that nothing will deter you from planting something you really want. Lack or space or sun or time- nothing will get in your way.  So it is with me and tomatoes. I dream about biting into those luscious gems right off the vine, juice dripping down my hand. One year I had what I thought was a great idea. I’d let the vine grow out into more sun off the side of the deck. Well, as summer progressed I marveled at how many tomatoes I was getting. This was going to be a banner year.

Then came the the day to start the harvest. I reached out to pull in the vine like it was Rapunzel’s hair. As you know, tomato vines aren’t like hair or rubber bands. Even a 5th grader would have seen the flaw with my plan. Guess my little gray cells needed some rest. I spent the rest of the season harvesting only the part of the plant I could reach and had to wait until fall to get the ones that were remaining.

Live and learn Hope springs eternal in gardening as it is in life.  I hope you have enjoyed reading the last 300 columns as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them.