Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Ceanothus - California's Native Version of Lilac

Ceanothus, commonly called wild lilac, is a chaparral plant that takes the form of a shrub. The clumps of small flowers arranged on the tips of its branches create inflorescences similar to lilacs, but that's where the similarity ends. True lilacs are deciduous and thirsty, while ceanothus are evergreen and drought tolerant.

Ceanothus can also take a variety of shapes: ground-hugging prostrate subspecies, like the popular 'Carmel Creeper', or  shrubs like 'Yankee Point'. Their blooms can range from white (like the 'Snow Flurry' pictured above) to a deep blue-purple ('Julia Phelps').

The ceanothus hybrid 'Ray Hartman' can be shaped into a small tree and this one spent a December indoors in a pot as our decorated holiday tree before it was planted in the yard. In three years, it has nearly tripled in size and is helping provide a natural screen between yards. A prolific bloomer, it attracts a range of bees and butterflies and as it branches out it's creating more shelter for birds.

 The 'Ray Hartman' has become one of my favorite ceanothus and a dependable spring bloomer.

Friday, March 08, 2024

Early Spring Flowers in Southern California


Throughout the yard, winter rains are promoting early California flowers. The Mexican redbud (Cercis canadensis var. mexicana) showcases lush magenta blooms on naked branches.


Inflorescences of tiny bright blue flowers tip the spreading arms of the 'Ray Hartman' ceanothus.

These are the shapes and colors of the kinds of flowers we typically find beautiful, but they aren't the only flowers. 

The California coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica) unveils clouds of rusty-brown star-shaped flowers. They aren't the flowers of bouquets, but they will attract pollinators and hopefully produce fruit for birds and other wildlife. If you look closely you'll see specks of pollen spilled across the coffeeberry's leaves. 

This large mushroom is a fungi flower–the fruiting body of an underground web of life. 


Identifying mushrooms is challenging, but I think this is a giant leucopax (Leucopaxillus giganteus).

Since the beginning of the rainy season, we've had just under 28 inches of rain. Generally, in the Los Angeles area we hope for 12–18 inches over the course of a year. The abundant moisture has promoted the growth of pincushion moss (Leucobryum glaucum). Our north-facing garden walls look more like England than dry Southern California.

Mosses reproduce via spores rather than seeds. The fringe of tiny stems rising up from the moss are the sporangium, the pods holding the spores. They aren't your typical flowers, but these too will bring new growth.   

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

A Fresh Bumblebee

An unexpected creature sat warming itself in the sun on the patio this morning: a yellow-faced bumble bee (Bombus vosnesenskii)


Its long yellow "hairs" and textured black body appeared fresh and new, as if it had just emerged into adulthood. No pollen clung to its body. Every wing and limb shone iridescent black in the sunlight. Where did it come from? 

Bumble bees typically nest in a cavity in the ground. Waxy cells, each packed with food resources, house the eggs and then developing larva. Once, 14 years ago western bumble bees nested in a birdhouse.

Where did this yellow-faced bumble bee emerge from? This area of the patio is edged with a concrete brick wall along one side and the house on the other. The cold bee was not able to fly; it would've had to walk a distance of 10 or more feet to find this dappled place in the sun.

The large bumble bee sat basking for a good 10 minutes before its body was warmed up enough to fly. Then off it went.

Identifiable by its fuzzy yellow head and a black abdomen with a narrow yellow band on the fourth section (nearly the tip), the yellow-faced bumble bee is a valuable pollinator. Like all bumble bees, however, they struggle to find suitable habitat. The mother of this bumble bee must have appreciated the native plants and undisturbed areas of soil that could provide for her offspring.

On this cool February morning, it seems early for bumble bees to be leaving the safety of their nests. Yet, the morning also brings the spring's first western swallowtail, fiery skipper, and California sister butterflies down into the yard. I wish the bumble bee well and hope we will see it among the sage and coffeeberry.