Category Archives: Good for gardens

Spectacular salmonberry

Flamboyant pink blossoms decorate the berry canes growing alongside a shady creek. This is salmonberry–a plant graced with both tasty fruit and beautiful flowers. The open-faced blooms have five delicately crinkled petals surrounding a pale cluster of stamens and pistils.

The berries ripen in the fall, and can be eaten raw or in pies or jellies (they are considered too seedy for jam). These attractive plants are nice in a garden, though should be placed carefully as they can get spindly and are also favored by deer.

While researching this plant I was delighted to learn that there are ailments brought on specifically by excess salmon consumption! I don’t know what these ailments are, but indigenous tribes considered the bark of salmonberry to be an excellent treatment for them. The bark was also used to disinfect wounds and (brewed, powdered or poulticed) to relieve pain, headaches, burns, toothaches, labor pain, and sores. The Kwakiutl tribe also encouraged childrens’ growth by applying chewed salmonberry sprouts to the top of the kids heads.

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Plant of the day: buck brush

Ceanothus_cuneatus1A small spray of purple flowers reaches across the trail beside Carson Falls, startling for being out so early in the year. This is buck brush (Ceanothus cuneatus, or wedgeleaf ceanothus), an early blooming shrub of the chaparral. It can sometimes cover wide swathes of hillside in color, and is charmingly described as “gregarious” in the Marin Flora. I love the thought of a cheerful, sociable hillside of buck brush.

Various indigenous Californian tribes prized the new twigs of this shrub for basket-weaving material. Miwoks would even groom the plants by trimming and training them to guarantee that they would produce plenty of new shoots. Buck brush wood was also used to make arrows, digging sticks, and ear-piercing needles.

It grows quickly and readily, and so is handy as a revegetation species–but be aware that deer love it as well, if you’re using it in an ornamental or garden setting. Buck brush has nitrogen-fixing nodules in its roots, so it naturally improves poor soils and makes them more suitable for other plants to thrive on. In a given year, an acre of ceanothus can fix approximately 54 pounds of nitrogen.

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Plant of the day: fetid adder’s tongue

After a month of keeping my eyes peeled, I finally found a patch of this little brown-striped lily. Fetid adder’s tongue (Scoliopus bigelovii) is easy to miss–it grows low to the ground, with flowers that blend in with the duff. But up close, it is spectacular! The three showy petal-like sepals are delicately striped with brown and white; they arch backward away from the three actual petals that rise upward like slim prongs. At the center of this confection is the three-pointed star of the pistil, and three purplish nubs of stamens which are nestled closely above each sepal.

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I don’t actually think fetid adder’s tongue smells all that bad–but it certainly has a reputation for being stinky. Its fragrance is musty, like old mushrooms and forest floor. Which is exactly suited to the purpose of attracting the fungus gnats that are its pollinators. Each gnat rummages toward the smell, covering its head in pollen in the process. You can easily watch these little flies as they doze and flit among the flowers.

This plant is also sometimes called slink pod, because as the seeds develop the weight of the pod causes the stem to droop. Eventually it touches the ground, and often will root there–giving rise to a new plant.

The two leaves of fetid adder’s tongue also are distinctive–these pointed green ovals rise from the duff as the flower is blooming, often unfurling after it is past its peak. Once they emerge you can recognize them even without the flower present, since they are blotched all over with purple bruise-colored spots.

Scoliopus with pollen-decked fungus gnat

Scoliopus with pollen-decked fungus gnat

 

Thanks to Amelia and Doreen for giving me tips on where to find these!

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Plant of the day: hound’s tongue

Blue-purple blossoms are scattered among velvety leaves that rise from the ground like the perked ears of some alert subterranean beast. Right now, the young leaves are a beautiful palette of color–pale red veins spread across soft greenish purple. As they mature, the leaves deepen into pure emerald.

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This is hound’s tongue, or Cynoglossum grande, a distinctive forest companion in the spring–often seen growing in oak woodlands, sometimes alongside yesterday’s plant, Indian warrior. Once you learn to recognize them, even the leaves are hard to mistake for anything else. Hound’s tongue flowers are simple yet pretty, ranging in color from rich blue to pink to (very occasionally) white. Each petal buckles up along the inner rim, forming a raised ring of humped white bumps around the pistil and stamens.

Indigenous Californians roasted the root as food, and grated it as medicine to treat stomach aches, burns, and venereal disease.

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Plant of the day: scouring-rush horsetail

A tangle of plants like tall, green soda straws stick out of the ground on the same stream bank where yesterday’s wild ginger grows. This is scouring rush horsetail, Equisetum hyemale. It’s a cousin of the more common giant horsetail, which looks like an oversized bottle brush with wiry arms that stick straight out from a slim central stalk. But instead of looking brushlike, scouring-rush horsetail is unbranched; it consists solely of a tall, single, hollow stalk. It can grow up to nearly 7 feet tall, always in a dense cluster, spreading throughout the area by slim black rhizome.

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The stems of scouring rush are remarkably tough–if you try to break one off you’ll find it unexpectedly hard to do. Equisetum’s flexible strength is due to silicon dioxide, and native Americans used it to polish wood such as canoes, bone tools, soapstone pipes, arrow shafts, and fingernails, or to make mats and baskets; later, settlers and 49’ers used it to scrub their pots and pans. Kids used it as a whistle, and the strawlike stem was used as a straw, particularly to give medicine to infants and others.

Scouring rush tea had a large number of medicinal uses, including for irregular menses, poison ivy, bleeding, infection, kidney problems, backache, lumbago, gonorrhea, and to treat lice. It’s described by Plants for a Future as “anticancer, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant, febrifuge, haemostatic, hypotensive and styptic…with an appetite-stimulating effect.”

The roots and young spring shoots were sometimes eaten; but large quantities are toxic due to the silica.

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Plant of the day: wild ginger

PAsarum_caudatum2alm-sized, heart-shaped leaves grow in a thick patch under a grove of alders on the river bank. This is wild ginger, or Asarum caudatum. The leaves and root, when crushed, release a sweet spicy smell; to me it’s not quite ginger-like but others disagree. In the old days the root was used as a substitute when ginger couldn’t be found.

Wild ginger root can be harvested year-round, but is supposedly best in the fall. The leaves can be made into a tea. Leaf and root were used both internally and externally  to treat headache, joint pain, indigestion and head colds. It was also used as a laxative, and a poultice of warmed leaves was applied to toothaches and boils.

Though these little plants are low-growing and seem fragile, they are actually an evergreen. They spread by rhizome in moist areas, forming clonal patches that are actually all one plant. This dense growth makes wild ginger a good groundcover for shady, moist native gardens–but it spread slowly, so is only for those with patience.

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Plucked wild ginger leaves showing a chunk of underground stem, or rhizome

There are several other species of wild ginger,  all in this genus, that grow elsewhere in California, but this is the only one in the greater Bay Area. It also goes by the common names of longtail wild ginger and creeping wild ginger. It can be distinguished from its cousins in several ways, such as its small reddish-brown flower whose three petals have a long, dramatic taper like a showman’s waxed moustache.

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Plant of the day: maidenhair fern

Adiantum_jordanii1A cascade of delicate fronds trickles down the side of a hill. This is California maidenhair fern (Adiantum jordanii), one of the most beautiful ferns around. It’s tiny round leaflets are suspended from a black, hair-thin stalk; the overall effect is reminiscent of a mobile designed by Calder.

This native fern can be found growing in damp, shady places throughout most of California and into Oregon.

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Plant of the day: sword fern

The deep green leaves of sword fern (Polystichum munitum) are leathery yet graceful–and they are indeed shaped like swords. The lance-shaped leaves are made of  smaller leaflets also shaped like a pointed blade.  At the base of each of these pinnae, a thumb (or, hilt?) shaped lobe points toward the tip of the leaf.

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Sword fern is a ubiquitous denizen of the woods from Alaska to California. It can grow singly or in dense stands; in forest, brush, or on open hillsides. Historically it had many uses among the western tribes–from food to mattresses to poultices to good luck charms for fishing and childbirth. They were used to line cooking pits, as placemats, and as flooring.

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Plant of the day: goldenback fern

Now that the rains are here, goldenback ferns (Pentagramma triangularis) are starting to emerge. Their lacy green triangle-shaped leaves are emerging from rocky cliffs and stream banks. The leaves alone are quite distinctive-looking, but if you aren’t sure what you’re looking at just flip one over. The entire underside of the surface is covered with tiny spores like a layer of fairy dust. Usually this turns the leaf bottom a startling pale-golden color, but sometimes it can appear more white or mature into a duller brown.

If you want a little forest decoration while out hiking, you can pluck a leaf and carefully place the spore-side down against your clothing (or skin) and give it a quick smack. Often you’ll have a perfect, pale-gold fern print left behind.

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Plant of the day: five finger fern

Adiantum_aleuticum1A lacy fern parasol hangs from the side of an earthen cliff. Each slim stem is topped with a spreading fan of fronds. This is five finger fern (Adiantum aleuticum), found most often in canyons and moist, shaded hillsides.

It’s in the same genus as the striking maidenhair fern, and one of its traditional uses is as a wash to make hair more shiny. Five finger fern tea was also used by Native Americans as a general tonic to treat congestion, sore throats, and other ailments. Chewed leaves were applied to wounds to stop bleeding. One source says it was highly valued as a medicine up through the 1800s.

It is said to grow readily in moist and shaded gardens, and is generally resistant to deer.

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