Friday, January 31, 2014

Staghorn fern and Sago palm

While I'm trying to restore native plants to our yard, two of my non-natives are doing extremely well. An Australian plant–a staghorn fern (Platycerium bifurcatum)–and a plant from a Japanese island–the cycad commonly called a sago palm (Cycas revoluta). The funny thing, neither plant is what it's name suggests.

The staghorn fern was a wedding gift over twenty years ago. I nearly killed it twice. Finally it is thriving because I stopped forcing it to live in the shade. The staghorn isn't really a fern at all and it was a revelation to see these epyphite plants growing in the wild in the Australian rainforest. While we might think of these plants as delicate forest dwellers, the staghorn is a sturdy plant that likes to live high in the forest canopy reaching for the sun.

The staghorn fern lives on other plants, usually trees. It settles into crevasses where water and nutrient rich plant debris collect. It doesn't have much in the way of roots and survives on the branches of others. You can see the leaves of a staghorn fern on the left side of this photo from Morris Gorge, north of Cairns, Queensland Australia.

Once I moved my staghorn onto a deciduous tree, where shade was provided in the heat of summer and sunlight was available in the winter, it begun to look like its rainforest relatives. The Australian rainforest has dry periods and seasons of rain, just like we do in California. Temperatures can dip into the 40s. While the staghorn would probably be more robust along the coast where the higher humidity would be more to its liking, it seems to feel somewhat at home on a slope where the evening breeze stirs the air.

The sago palm is not a palm at all, but a cycad. Cycads are amazing plants with an ancient heritage. Their relatives lived alongside some of the earliest land animals. This cycad's palm-like appearance often makes people think it belongs in a tropical rainforest. When I planted two in the yard several years ago I worried that hot dry summers might take a toll on these exotic plants. However the sago palm thrives in our Mediterranean climate as long as its roots are well-drained. 

Our plants receive little water other than rainfall. Even with this year's drought, they are robust.

While neither of these plants contribute food or habitat to our native creatures, they do provide visual beauty in the garden. Neither is invasive in our environment, so they offer an opportunity for something different in the yard.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Bird Nesting Time in California

Here in California where winter rains have eluded us and the days have been spring-time warm, it is hard to believe the rest of the country is shivering through ice storms and record low temperatures.

Allen's hummingbird nest 1/27/14
The birds are gauging that the warm weather means spring. The Bewick's wren is singing to attract a mate. The oak titmouse has found a mate and the pair have been checking out bird houses.

Amazingly, we already have an Allen's hummingbird sitting on two tiny eggs. I'm not sure when they were laid, but I do know that this little architect lined the inside of her nest with natural cotton fiber that I put out. The cotton fiber is the cream colored material on the inside of the nest.

January should be the depth of winter. We should have wet weather that puts a damper on nesting for another month or so. Unfortunately, that isn't the case. The birds are breeding and nesting, so it is time to put out quality materials to supplement what they can find naturally.

I make a knotted holder out of natural wool yarn that is too rough for making garments. Then I fill these holders with natural raw cotton fiber. 

Hummingbirds, bushtits and lesser goldfinches are just a few birds that prefer to use soft plant fibers to line their nests. Nature's Nest.
Anna's hummingbird with Nature's Nest.

Placement is important too. Nesting fiber needs to be located where birds can find it, sit beside it on adjacent branches to gather fiber, and the location should be far enough from feeders that small birds are not intimidated by larger birds eating.

I have to make sure that nesting material is on small branches to avoid tree squirrels stealing the nesting material for their own use.

The continuing drought means plant fibers are not as abundant as they should be. Man-made fibers are easy to find around human homes, but those fibers can be problematic, even dangerous, to bird hatchlings. Materials that cause nest failure.

Bird houses should be cleaned out too, so new occupants can move in. Mosaic bird house.

It's January, but this year in California, birds are already starting to nest.