Category Archives: wildflowers

A Wildflower Quest on the Central Coast of California

Tidy tips – all photos by Tom Trower

A wildflower is a flower growing freely without human intervention. They grow in the wild and are not intentionally seeded or planted. Even when we humans create our own wildflower meadow from a seed packet the selected seed is neither a hybrid nor a selected cultivar different from the way it appears in the wild as a native plant. We are naturally drawn to fields of flowers and I didn’t want to miss out on this year’s spectacular wildflower display.

Fields of Gold wildflowers

With well spaced precipitation we received this rainy season I knew there would be good wildflower displays where ever I decided to go. Because I lived in the Pismo Beach area for many years, the central coast of California got the nod and off we went with our dog Sherman along for company.

Sherman and the author on Shell Creek Road

When I used to live in San Luis Obispo county there were more cows than vineyards. Not so anymore. So after a bit of wine tasting near Paso Robles we headed out towards Shandon and parts south to check out an area noted for it’s flowers in springtime.

Our first wildflower stop was Shell Creek Road which is abut 20 miles outside Santa Margarita near Highway 58. Named for the many fossilized shells that are found in the exposed strata of the bordering hills, this area is famous for it’s wildflower displays. The central coast has not received as much rainfall this El Nino year as southern and northern California. Still the wildflowers were pretty spectacular.

Goldfields closeup
lupine and owl’s clover

The weather was warm and soft late afternoon light accentuated the golden hills covered by wildflowers aptly named goldfields. Also in the mix lupine, tidy tips and owl’s clover splashed the hills and pastures with color while the grasses swayed in gentle breezes as we walked among the wildflowers. The drive itself is beautiful at this time of year but it’s when you get out of the car and walk among the flowers that you really get to appreciate them. The cattle were the only other observers of these green hills splashed with flowers planted only by mother nature.

lupine and California poppies

Next stop was the Lopez Lake area. Wildflowers are ephemeral by nature and depending on the weather they may bloom, peak and fade in a very short time. Hiding beneath showy displays of color covering a hillside are dozens of little beauties that require you to get up close and personal to enjoy their tiny fragile features. it’s easy to take in the orange colored hillsides of poppies and goldfields but also take the time to marvel at the small jewels hiding among them.

lupine closeup

I’ve also lived in the Antelope Valley are where California poppy fields go on for miles. And in 2005 I walked in the previous super bloom in Death Valley. Theodore Payne Foundation has an online wildflower hotline with weekly wildflower reports for all of California with their peak blooming times. February was dry in our state and some of the smaller wildflowers have already faded after setting seed. After our March rains and light April showers larger wildflowers might pink_unk_wildflowerget another bloom this spring in some locations so check the site for what’s blooming and where. Next year be sure to check out this source of wildflower sightings early and often in the season to get the very best wildflower viewing time for where ever you might want to visit.

An Adventure in Wildflower Country

Hwy25_wildflowers.1920Being that it’s nearly spring I decided to check on the progress of this year’s wildflowers. I figured the back of a motorcycle was a good way to get up close and personal with the backroads of our rolling hills. Outfitted in my riding suit I looked more like a storm trooper out of Star Wars than a gentle gardener but safety comes first. So off I rode heading down Hwy I recently on a beautiful sunny day.

Outside Watsonville I rode past strawberries so ripe and red you could see them from the road, then over towards San Juan Bautista where the apricot and walnut trees are getting ready to blossom. After lunch on the plant-filled iris_bearded-blue.1920patio at Jardines de San Juan I rode out of town. The real treat came while riding Hwy 25 which is the gateway to The Pinnacles National Monument. Although the rains have not been nearly enough for the year they have been generous enough to carpet the hillsides with wildflowers. Vast fields of rich blue annual lupine bloomed below patches of golden poppies covering the hills. Large expanses of acid yellow wild mustard swayed in the breeze. Coreopsis, fiddlenecks and thousands of small, ground hugging wildflowers completed the scene. The weather was warm and perfect for a wildflower outing and two female elk crossing the road could not have agreed more.

Strohn_Ranch.1600But there was more adventure to come. On I rode down to Priest Valley on Hwy 198. Arriving at sunset at Strohn Rocking 7 Ranch I first observed a flowering cherry besieged with small moths. Interesting in itself, it was the bats that came out to swoop up the moths for dinner that fascinated me. This historic 160 acre property is nestled in the Diablo Mountain Range of Southeast Monterey County and was one of the original homesteads that operated as a pump station when the oil fields of Coalinga were first established and the pipeline extended to the coast along this route.

The animals were penned up to protect them from bobcats, coyote, alpacas.1600mountain lions and other predators at night but come morning they are fed and most get to free range for the day. All except the peacock and guinea fowl who won’t come in for their own good. The rest of the menagerie including 2 alpacas, several wild turkey, chickens, a herd of African Pygmy goats, a dozen Indian Runner Pygmy_goats.1600ducks and two French geese enjoy the grasses growing around the ranch. A wild pheasant comes and goes as he pleases but roosts at sunset in the tall trees. Cottontail rabbits scurried everywhere along with some baby bunnies looking longingly at the garden and ornamental plants that were protected by chicken wire.French_geese.1600

I was sorry to leave the ranch and all it’s inhabitants but had heard that Jolon Road west of King City had good wildflower potential. Bisecting Fort Hunter Liggett the area has been mostly protected from ranch and farming activity and still boasts oak tree forests. Either it was too early for a good wildflower display or winter rains have not been adequate so I headed on Nacimiento-Ferguson Road up and over the Santa Lucia Hwy1_from_Nacimiento-Ferguson_Rd.1600range to the coast. This is one of the most gorgeous drives on the Central Coast as the roller coaster road passes Nacimiento River and ends with breathtaking views of the Pacific. Lots of California poppies decorated the roadside.

I’m looking forward to more wildflower adventures next month. We live in such an awesome and gentle place.

Fall Wildflowers & October to-do’s

Above the clear turquoise water of the Big Sur coastline, wildflowers still bloom in October. Bright orange Sticky Monkeyflower meander among a carpet of rosy blooming California Buckwheat. Deep orange California fuchsia flower on hillsides alongside the bright white flower heads of yarrow. They make a striking combination. Under the partial shade of pine trees lavender Seaside Daisy explode with color. Even poison oak contributes deep rusty-red tones to the landscape making it easier to identify and avoid. This wild land offers lessons and ideas to make our own gardens more beautiful.

Big Sur has areas of chaparral, oak and pine woodlands, riparian or streamside woodlands and redwood-tanbark-oak woodlands. Nearly half of all the flora of California grows here and many northern and southern California plants mix in this unique location. . Only in Big Sur will redwoods and yuccas thrive together. The look is startling. Certainly not a combination you would think of for your own garden.

Near McWay Falls on Hwy 1, fragments of an elaborate stone house still remain along with some of the landscaping. Christopher McWay and his wife Rachel settled the area in the late 19th century.The land passed through several owners until former U.S. House of Representative Lathrop Brown and his wife Helen acquired it and built a beautiful stone structure overlooking McWay Cove. The house was torn down 50 years ago but many of the landscape plants still thrive after all these years.  Hardy pittosporum eugenoides have survived without any supplemental watering. A huge stand of blooming Naked Ladies covers the rocky slope. We all know what survivors these bulbs are. Tall Mexican palms and ornamental trees surround the fragments of stone staircases and walls reminding us that nature will endure.

What allows all plants to thrive in their environment is the simple set of conditions that they like. It's nearly impossible to grow ferns in the hot sun around here and don't even think about trying a California fuchsia in the shade. Soil is important, too. Rich, moist soil is perfect for wild ginger but gravelly, well drained soil works best for Five-fingered ferns. Match the right plant with the right spot and you'll have success every time. Big Sur is a chock full of success stories.

Here are more tips for early fall in the garden.

Fall is not a good time for major pruning.  Wounds heal slowly, leaving them more susceptible to disease.  As a general rule, don't prune when leaves are falling or forming.  Wait to prune most trees until late in the dormant season or in late spring after leaves and needles form.  To avoid sap flow on birches and maples, prune after leaves mature.  

Do refresh perennials, such as butterfly bush, salvia and yarrow by cutting a third to half of their growth.

Rake leaves– compost or put in your green can. If large leaves are left in place they will mat down and set up fungal problems come spring.

Lake Tahoe vs Santa Cruz Mts

Boy are we spoiled living here like we do. Our climate is just cold enough in the winter to grow delicious fruit that likes a bit of chill but not so cold that we're forced inside during those months. Our summers are warm and long allowing vegetable gardens to thrive as well as people.

Not so at Lake Tahoe where I recently spent some time. Here cold winters make snow sports reign supreme and summer brings a short growing season. Locals told me that their lilacs are just now blooming, the peonies are in tight bud and many gardeners don't bother growing vegetables. Late snow often in June and early snow sometimes in late August make gardening in the Sierra so much more difficult.

I visited a beautiful nursery in Tahoe City, the Tahoe Tree Nursery to get a feel for what's popular in these parts. This destination nursery is landscaped for weddings as well as bringing in perennials, trees and shrubs to sell from their growing grounds in Loomis in the central valley. Quaking aspen grew in lovely stands providing shade for ferns, hostas and ligularia.  Favorite perennials are echinacea or cone flower and were offered in all the hot new colors: Hot Papaya, Raspberry Truffle, Marmalade, Primadonna White as well as the beautiful magenta standard, Magnus. Many varieties of coreopsis, stachys, lonicera, rudbeckia, kniphofia and hardy geranium are also popular. Rugosa roses do well in this climate also.

On a hike to Shirley Lake in the Squaw Valley area the wildflowers were in full splendor. Fields of Indian paintbrush, mules ears, penstemon, lupine, phlox and delphinium and Mariposa lily covered the slopes. Early summer starts off this areas growing season and everything was lush with new growth and color.

In our part of the world, our early wildflower season is almost over but perennials and flowering shrubs are at their peak and need a bit of attention about now. Here are some tips of what to do in the garden in July.

Make sure vines have support. Some grow so fast that if you look away for a week they become a tangled mess. A little maintenance goes a long way in this department.

Trim back early flowering perennials to encourage the next flush of blooms.

Turn the compost pile often and keep moist.

Add additional mulch to planting beds to keeps roots cool and preserve moisture.

Check ties on trees to make sure they aren't cutting into the bark.

While your out in the garden, take some cuttings from favorite plants like roses, hydrangeas, geraniums, trumpet vine, blackberries, lavatera and salvia. Softwood cuttings are taken during the growing season from relatively soft flexible growth.  Gather 8-12" cuttings early in the day. Discard flowers, buds and side shoots. Then cut the stem into 3-4" pieces, each with at least 2 nodes. Keep track of which end is the bottom and dip in rooting hormone. Poke holes with a pencil in a rooting medium such as half peat moss or potting soil with half perlite, vermiculite, or sand or use perlite or sand only and insert cuttings. Enclose each container in a plastic bag to maintain humidity, opening the bag for a few minutes each day for ventiliation. Place the containers in bright shade.

Some cuttings take 4-6 weeks to root while others take longer. Once they have taken root and are sending out new leaves, open the bags. When the new plants are acclimated to open air, transplant each to its own pot of light weight potting soil.

Enjoy your garden even more this summer by rooting your own plants for yourself, to give away or trade. This is how early settlers filled their gardens, too.

Fall Gardening Tips

The recent rains will allow weed seeds to sprout which is just what you want if you’re planning a wildflower meadow.  The most common mistake when planting wildflower seeds is not getting rid of the existing weed and grass seeds that are in the soil and will germinate along with the wildflowers. These fast-growing weeds smother the slower growing wildflowers. Take time to eliminate the competition. Get rid of existing weeds when they sprout by cultivating the soil to a depth of not more than 1 inch. Deeper cultivation exposes more weed seeds that will germinate along with the wildflower seeds.

Don’t prune now, you’ll be happy to hear.   Fall is not a good time to prune.  Wounds heal slowly, leaving them more susceptible to disease.  As a general rule, don’t prune when leaves are falling or forming.  Wait to prune most trees until late in the dormant season or in late spring after leaves and needles form.  To avoid sap flow on birches and maples, prune after leaves mature. 

Other to-do’s for early fall-
Rake leaves- compost or put in your green can. If large leaves are left in place they will mat down and set up fungal problems come spring.
If you have a lawn give it a feeding low in nitrogen but higher in phosphorus and potassium ( the last two numbers on the box or bag ).
Clean up spent plant material. The early rain may have caused powdery mildew to take hold on your squash or late blight on the tomatoes. Do not compost these in your own compost pile.
Set out native plants. They’ll love the the winter rains to become established.
Bring in houseplants from outside around Halloween. Check for bugs first.
Cultivate around beds, trees, shrubs so rains can penetrate.  Add chicken manure around fruit trees so they are ready to go next spring. 

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.