Monday, April 19, 2021

April Is Native Plant Month!

Did you know that the U.S. Senate has found something to agree on: Native Plants!

On March 25th, U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) introduced a resolution declaring April as "National Native Plant Month." Amazingly, the Senate passed the declaration by unanimous consent. They all agreed!

Wherever you live, native plants are vital to your local wildlife. 

Flowering native plants provide the pollen and nectar vital to native insects. 


This mallow was one of the first native plants we grew successfully. It provides food for native insects, which in-turn provide food for the Bewick's wren and bushtits that regularly nest in our yard. 

A family of western fence lizards live in the protection of its branches and leaves.

The mallow also helps hold our hillside. We know it is in the right location because it has grown from a single plant to patch of plants.


This cultivar of California fuchia (Epilobium canum) feeds our Anna's and Allen's hummingbirds. I love the brilliant red flowers.

Ceanothus has long been some of our favorite native plants. Also known as California lilac, they bloom in a range of purple to white flowers. This new specimen is a 'Ray Hartman'. It will grow to the size of a small tree. We used it as a living Christmas tree in a pot this past December and now it is filling out nicely to become a screening plant between us and our neighbors. 

The purple to blue flowers feed a variety of bee species, including valley carpenter bees. It has grown six inches in the past four months. We are thinking of adding a second plant beside it.

The Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana) (in white and purple) are showstoppers in the spring and their ground cover provides a year-round home for a lovely alligator lizard, another insect eating native species.

Native plants are adapted for their location and native wildlife is adapted to interact with them. Planting native plants can change your yard from sterile landscaping to a wildlife refuge.

Monday, April 12, 2021

The Joys of Providing Wildlife Habitat

This morning some traveling friends stopped in for breakfast. Three migrating black-headed grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus) were at the bird feeder. (A female is sitting on the right side of the tube feeder above.) They have spent the winter in Mexico or Central America and now they are headed north. They may nest somewhere near-by or they may migrate all the way up to British Columbia, Canada.

It's rewarding to know that they can find our oasis of habitat in the sprawling suburbs of Los Angeles. For more than ten years, black-headed grosbeaks have been stopping here for food and water as they pass through in April and then again in late July or August as they head south. I know this because I keep track in a bird journal.

Especially when the California hillsides are dryer than they should be, our yard provides food, water, and shelter for these migrants to stop and rest for a few days. 

The birds who live here year round are nesting. The native plants are providing nectar for at least four nesting Allen's hummingbirds. 

These Allen's hummingbird chicks hatched on April 10th. (The nest wasn't finished when the first egg was laid.) If you look closely you can see the bits of eggshell inside the nest cup just to the left and above the naked chick.

Two full days old and the chicks still have closed eyes, but they raise their little beaks to be fed whenever a shadow falls across the nest. (See the tiny beak raised for food.) This nest is on our patio. 

Another female nesting in a native hollyleaf cherry shrub in the front yard urged her fully feather chicks to fly on April 10th. (She has been successfully nesting in our yard for several years.)

So far in 2021 we've had four Allen's hummingbird nesting attempts. Two were successful - one with one chick and the other with two chicks.

Creating wildlife habitat is vital for migrating and nesting birds. Too much of their native habitat has been developed and changed. We have watched our yard transform from a sterile suburban yard to a small wildlife reserve. Birds in California face a huge loss of habitat due to development and climate change. You can make a difference with native plants and water.

Monday, April 05, 2021

Cymbidium Orchids - Thriving in CA with Sublime Neglect

The cymbidium orchids began to open their blooms yesterday. 

It is amazing how a plant can thrive with sublime neglect if it is in the right place. This yellow cymbidium was cultivated by my husband's grandfather over 40 years ago, before cloning made orchids abundant. It was one of the few orchids in his vast collection that stayed in the family after he passed away. 

We've been lucky to find the right micro-climate in our yard where it flourishes without much attention. Living in the San Fernando Valley, hot summers might wilt or scorch this specimen, but we have an area in the yard we call "the canyon." Part of a natural stream bed, it is the "v" where two north-facing slopes meet. It can become an actual stream in a down pour. 

Here a native elderberry, hollyleaf cherry, and a redwood tree (a previously living Christmas tree) are growing well and providing mottled shade most of the day. The orchid gets just enough sun to burst into bloom each spring.

I don't feed it. I don't bring it in during the winter; other plants protect it from possible frost. It gets rainfall or water once or twice a week. It currently has four flower spikes.

native hollyleaf cherry

When I fail with various native plants, I blame myself. The most common reason for a plant to fail is that it just isn't in the right place. Southern California yards can have a range of micro-climates. The front of our north-facing house has pockets where the plants never have direct sun: cool dry shade. The very top of our hill slope has an area that experiences direct sun most of the year combined with heavy clay soil that repels water: hot dry sun. The hollyleaf cherry can survive in both micro-climates, but most plants can't. 

Even a change in the other plants can alter a micro-climate creating opportunity for plants that weren't thriving before: Cistus begins blooming.

Success can help us repeat success - a second cymbidium has joined the elder honorable bloomer and it too is thriving. If a plant is struggling, don't be afraid to move it. We planted a desert willow in the canyon and it wasn't happy. Out on the front slope it has doubled its size. Maybe we've found the right place for it. 

Native plants are by definition in the right place. They have native pollinators and are accustom to California's weather patterns. Find the right place for them in your yard and they too will thrive with sublime neglect.

 Orchids in the Yard and Upclose