Category Archives: plant profiles

miner’s lettuce season

Claytonia in veggie gardenThe veggie garden is ankle- to calf-deep in miner’s lettuce this time of year. It began with a single generous packet of seed a few years ago, and now it comes back reliably–if by “reliably” you mean “with a vengeance.”

Miner's lettuce seedlings coming up in a crack next to the house...
Miner’s lettuce seedlings coming up in a crack next to the house…
It’s spread onto walkways, in cracks of concrete next to the house, even in the scrappy little patch of green that’s left of the much larger lawn. But hey, it’s a California native. It’s edible. It’s pretty.

Miner's Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) with mature leaves surround the flowering stems
Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) with mature leaves surround the flowering stems
It has perfoliate leaves–leaves that when mature can completely encircle the stem, making it appear as if the stem pierced the leaf. And it pulls up easily enough from where you don’t want it. Definitely easy to like.

Profile of the tiny white flowers on miner's lettuce
Profile of the tiny white flowers on miner’s lettuce
If you don’t want it to re-seed, just pull (and eat) the greens by the time they begin to flower. But if you want to encourage the plant’s spread, let a few of the plants bloom, set seed, dry and then crumble the dried plants wherever you want plants next year. It’s not a super-meticulous method of propagation, but it works as long as you don’t cultivate the soil too intensely.

Calflora shows Claytonia perfoliata to inhabit many coastal valley to foothill locations statewide. And there’s a herbarium sample that was collected just down the block from me. It can get by with no added water, but will give you a nice kitchen crop when kept just-moist. Sun exposure: full sun to dappled shade. It’s pretty adaptable and just about the easiest thing to grow.
Claytonia tangle in veggie garden

Edit, March 15, 2023: In the 5 years since I wrote this appreciation the colonial name of “miner’s lettuce” is being retired for the less colonial name of “indian lettuce,” or, probably better, “rooreh,” its name in the language of the Ohlone people, one of the peoples to have used (and to currently use) this plant. “Rooreh” is now the common name you’ll find listed in many sites, including the Jepson e-flora.

the random veggie garden

What kind of vegetable gardener are you? Do you spend winter charting out rows and developing timetables for when things needs to go into the ground? Or does chance play a big part in what’s in your veggie garden?

Veggie garden corner with chard

Here’s a photo of one corner of my small veggie garden, proof that I’m definitely of the second school. I do a little tiny bit of planning. And I drool a little over veggie catalogs just like most of us do. But the garden that develops has a lot to do with what the garden wants to be this year, as much as what I want it to be.

Garden chard

I like chard. Chard likes me. For me it’s easy from seed. And if I buy a sixpack of something and let half of it go to seed, there’s usually enough chard plants coming back from seed for two or three years. In my near-coastal San Diego garden chard produces almost year-round, so it’s one of the backbones of the veggie garden. Russian red kale can do the same for me, though looking around the garden it’s time to get another generation going… Soil nematodes will eventually find both of these plants, so I like to give the plants a break and rotate what I’m growing.

Miners lettuce seedlings in walkway

Another staple that returns reliably is miner’s lettuce, Claytonia perfoliata. Once the weather cools and the rains start up it comes back all over the garden. You can find this fairly common California native state-wide when you’re out on the trail, and you’ll also find occasionally find it on the menus of adventurous restaurants.

One of the Claytonia species growing trail-side. This has the same perfoliate leaves as the common miner's lettuce.
One of the Claytonia species growing trail-side. This has the same perfoliate leaves as the common miner’s lettuce.

The crisp-to-slightly succulent foliage has a mild flavor, something like spinach, but what makes it really cool are the rounded leaves that grow all around the stem (perfoliate leaves) when the plant begins to bloom mid-spring. Be sure not to pull out the youngest plants, which have long, strappy leaves. And don’t lose patience when you only get heart-shaped leaves for a while. (Call them “lover’s lettuce” and use them for a Valentine’s Day salad!) The anticipated round leaves will come, along with starry little white flowers on a short stem in the center of the round leaf. Very cool, and definitely worth the wait.

Miner's lettuce leaf comparisons, from young leaves on the left to more mature ones on the right, moving gradually towards the leaf entirely surrounding the flowering stems.
Miner’s lettuce leaf comparisons, from young leaves on the left to more mature ones on the right, moving gradually towards the leaf entirely surrounding the flowering stems.

New pea shoots, with fingers crossed for the raccoons to leave them alone
New pea shoots, with fingers crossed for the raccoons to leave them alone

A little planning went into some of the other things in the garden. Pod peas are great this time of year, so I planned ahead to get some seeds into the ground in late October. Super Sugar Snap did well for me last season so I planted more of that variety. Unfortunately the raccoons dug up and dined on most of the seedlings, so I’ll be running a comparison with another pea variety, Oregon Sugar Pod II–racoons willing.

And what else? There’s some leftover dinosaur kale from two seasons ago, still alive, worth a salad every few months. And leeks. I’ve never had much luck with them, probably something to do with not watering them enough and not mounding soil around the developing stems. But the raccoons don’t seem to like them so far.

Strawberry patch

And strawberries, used in the garden more for groundcover and attractive green foliage than for berries. When they bear, it’s a great snack for the gardener pulling weeds. The berries almost never make it into the house.

Tangerine in garden

And in the middle of all this randomness is a young tangerine tree, covered with delicious orange ornaments right now. Part of my veggie garden slacker-ness I blame on the tree. The plant is developing its root structure in the same place I have many of the veggies. The frequent cultivating and digging that goes with a traditional veggies garden would hurt the tangerine’s roots. So…more reason to only occasionally disturb the soil to plant things or pull them out. As the tree matures it’ll create more shade, as well as having a larger root system. By then it’ll be time to find a new spot for the veggies.

Miners lettuce saladUntil then, there’ll be a nice supply of ingredients for nice lunches like this one, with miner’s lettuce from the garden and crunchy kohlrabi from the store.

Not Sunset magazineAnd no, I do not live inside Sunset Magazine. The rest of the table looks something like this, complete with reading glasses for the morning paper and fluorescent pink string to amuse the cat…

the gloriously messy coyote bush

The coyote bush (Baccharis pilularis) that I grew from wild-collected seed a few years ago is now a pretty major heap of greenery, something on the order of ten feet tall and even wider. The plant is a reliable, bright green, informal background shrub that asks for almost no water. Insects appreciate its late-season flowers for nectar when few other natives offer nectar on the menu.

Coyote bush seed litter, floating
Coyote bush seed litter, floating

Coyote bush seed litter--stuck on doormat. It can get everywhere...
Coyote bush seed litter–stuck on a doormat. It can get everywhere…

Coyote bushes are either male or female, though almost all cultivars sold in nurseries are male plants, for reasons about to become obvious. Also, the most commonly-grown versions of this plant around here are the low-mounding groundcover forms like ‘Pigeon Point.’ My plant is a female, and beginning in November or so it also puts out an enormous quantity of seeds that are attached to a fluffy white structure called a pappus. The plant makes so many of these seed structures that the branches look like they’re covered with snow. And when the wind blows, these seeds float poetically on the breezes the way dandelion seeds do. (Both the dandelion and coyote bush hail from the ginormous daisy family of plants.) But the poetry stops and the cursing begins when the seeds land and you have coyote seedlings everywhere in the garden. I kid you not when I say that I pulled well over a thousand of these seedlings from around the garden just this past spring. These things are prolific.

Snow- (and endless maintenance-) on-a-stick
Snow- (and Maintenance-) on-a-stick

The last couple of years I’ve been giving the plant a good trimming before the seed production gets too out of hand. I didn’t get to the task this year until a week ago, after the plant had already begun broadcasting its seed. Doing it in early to mid-November would have been ideal. The plant doesn’t mind the haircut, and by the beginning of spring you can hardly tell the plant has been pruned.

Cutting back the coyote bush trimmings--One way to reduce the amount of seed litter
Coyote Bush trimmings–One way to reduce the amount of seed litter

We can let wild plants into our gardens, but we often exert at least some level of control to make “nature” conform to the needs of a city garden. Now that I’ve lived with the mess and maintenance the last few years, I think that it’s time to pot up a half dozen or so seedlings and select for a male plant to replace this gloriously messy female. I’ll miss the late-autumn “snowfall,” but not the pruning and weeding. Sometimes what works really well in nature doesn’t transition so well into our little cultivated plots of land.

it’s a girl

Maybe three years ago I started some coyote bush from local seed. This species, Baccharis pilularis is a pretty easy plant to reproduce this way, pretty close to “just add water.” It produces plants that are either entirely male or entirely female in the kinds of flowers they produce, or “dioecious” in botany-speak. When you grow them out from seed you have a pretty even chance that a single plant will be male or female.

Each gender has its uses in the garden. The males are great if you want a fast-growing reliably green mound of foliage that keeps requires close to zero added water in a garden situation. Virtually all coyote cultivars are boys.

The females are also fast-growing reliably green mounds of foliage that keeps require close to zero added water in a garden situation. But unlike the males produce thick foliage-obscuring quantities of white seed heads in the late fall and early winter when most other plants aren’t quite so glamorous. They’re spectacular, but come with the down-side that the seeds can flit about and land all over, populating your garden with little coyote bushes. This is why most named cultivars in the nursery trade are males. The sole exception, which was pointed out to me by Barbara of Wild Suburbia, is Centennial, a believed hybrid of this species and B. sarothroides.

Some closeups of the seed heads…

I’ve waxed poetic about the hillsides shot with flashes of white like this one that you see at this time of year.

Now I guess I’m putting my money where my mouth is. How bad is it having a female coyote bush in the garden? I’m about to find out, and I’ll report back here. But I doubt it’ll be any worse than a few other plants in the garden that spread themselves about. And if a few plants find their way into the bleak rental next door where the only things the renters are growing in their dirt-patch of a garden are mastiffs and bulldogs, how can it be a bad thing?

october coffeeberries

October can be the cruelest month. The first couple of days saw a return visit from Satan’s HVAC guy. Freaking hot. And same goes for Wednesday of this week. October was the month of the big wildfires in 2003 and 2007.

This October also brought the first measurable rain since May, when the month saw 0.02 inches of rain. According to San Diego weather enthusiast John S. Stokes III, “[t]his is the 19th time in the last 163 years June, July, August and September have been zero/trace.” But after a dry summer we got some rain, and change is in the air.

One of the California native plants that weathers the dry spell best is the coffeeberry, Frangula california or more commonly known and sold by its old name of Rhamnus californica. With only occasional supplemental water the plants stay looking green. Give them a little more water and they can look absolutely lush.

You can buy different clones of coffeeberry, and they do do slightly different things. The most “normal” looking plant, from a non-native horticultural standpoint might be the clone Tranquil Margerita that’s sold by Las Pilitas. If you read any British garden writing you’ll encounter the word “gardenesque,” and this clone could be used to define the word. Neat, dense and well-behaved, with long, somewhat glossy leaves, it would fit seamlessly into cottage garden landscape.

Eve Case is a clone that goes back to its introduction in 1975 by the Saratoga Horticultural Research Foundation, a group that was founded in 1952 through the vision of horticulturalist Ray Hartman to give Californians more climate-appropriate choices for their gardens. Compared to Margarita, Eve is a wild woman. This clone’s leaves are coarser, a little reflexed, and come fewer to the stem than with Tranquil Margarita. If Margarita was gardenesque, Eve might be called “woodsy.” Here’s one of my plants of it–probably not the best examples of what this clone can look like. But it’s a real-life example of what gophers can do in a garden to retard the growth of plants, with this plant going into the ground after the previous one.

Mound San Bruno is somewhere between the previous two clones. The leaves tend to be a little smaller, and not so recurved like in Eve Case. My plant of it is a really bad example. I put in the ground and assumed that the little drip emitter would keep it happy. But some evil critter–gophers again–buried the emitter so that the plant got next to no water for several months. If the plant had a chance to get established it would have weather the dry spell just fine, but this plant didn’t fare so well. But as soon as I fixed the emitter it came back, and should look terrific after it gets a moist winter to get it established.

People grow coffeeberries for the reliable green foliage. But they also grow this plant for its berries. True to its name the berries mature to a dark shade like dark-roast espresso beans. I mentioned change earlier, and this seems to be the month when you see the berries making their transition in a big way.

Some plants have a multicolor mix of fruits at this point in the season.

For me Eve Case is just starting the transition, showing colorful spots on the original green berries.

Next in the coffeeberry spectrum are warm oranges…

…quickly followed by pink-inspired reds.

The final color stage is this namesake coffee bean color. The birds are sure to show up once they find out coffeeberry is served…

not for sale to minors (november bloom day)

Things have slowed down. It’s November for godsakes. But stuff keeps happening in the garden.

Probably the most remarkable thing blooming is this, a variegated mutation of Salvia divinorum.

I noticed the variegation a few months ago and will try to propagate the part of the plant with speckled leaves. A sport partially lacking chlorophyll would be at an evolutionary disadvantage out in the wilds, but gardeners–We’re weird–we’ll propagate these runts just because they’re pretty-like.

This is probably the most dramatic of the alligatored leaves. Even though many leaves are variegated, you can see that it hasn’t stopped those parts of the plant from flowering.

Enough of the leaves, this being Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day. (Thanks as usual to Carol of May Dreams Gardens for hosting this monthly meme on every fifteenth of the month.) Let’s take a look at the flowers.

The blooms are fuzzy up-close, like some other salvias, including the Mexican bush sage, Salvia leucantha, a dependable low-water plant that’s common in Southern California and beyond. This blossom looks very friendly in a lisping, come-hither, snaggletoothed sort of way.

Unfortunately if you’re a gardener under the age of 18 in California you can’t purchase this plant. In some other states owning a plant can buy you three years in prison. I’m sorry but all this sounds ridiculous. People sometimes complain about a government being a “nanny-state,” but many of the states where you hear that claim being made loudest are ones that are likely to ban this plant. Hey, look at the cool flowers! Look at the the cool leaves! This is obviously a plant with ornamental value, just like Gramma Olive’s opium poppies.

Flowers are scarce all around, but if you look deep enough into many plants you’ll see a few hardy holdouts still in bloom. And with winter on the way, there are a precocious winter bloomers starting to do their thing. This one’s germander sage, Salvia chamaedryoides. As far as I know, this plant the rest of those featured here are perfectly legal to grow everywhere.

Another salvia, the common but cool "Hot Lips"


Gaillardia pulchella with an appreciative honeybee

Oxalis purpurea, white form

Paperwhite narcissus

Galvezia speciosa 'Firecracker'

Galvezia juncea, a species from near-by in Mexico, a member of the snapdragon family.


And here's another local with a name change pending. Was: Isomeris arborea; Now is: Peritoma arborea. Gack.

A rare local native, something I've known as Coreopsis maritima. But in the new Jepson manual all the California species we knew as coreopsis have been moved to the genus Leptosyne. Leptosyne maritima--that one's going take a while getting used to. (Sorry for the ragged half-flower. That is all that survived the weekend rains.)

Sphaeralcea ambigua, the first blooms in a while

An orange epidendrum. I think you saw this last month

Gutierrezia californica--a wispy plant with almost no leaves and a delicate cloud of yellow flowers

San Miguel Island buckwheat, Eriogonum grande var. rubescens, definitely not peaking...

Euphorbia Diamond Frost--This hit just a few years ago and everyone was talking about it. Now...almost nothing. Interesting. Gardeners aren't fickle, are they?

Desperate, flower-starved times call for desparate measures, in this case the macro lens for these tiny creeping thyme flowers...

Gaura lindheimeri

Camellia Cleopatra, yes it was in bloom in October for that month's Bloom Day

And, finally, a few shots of everyone’s favorite this time of year, Protea Pink Ice. Happy Bloomday!

petals and parasites

The garden is turning decidedly brown as the temperatures warm and the dry summer gets underway–Sounds like a perfect time to revisit high spring in the local foothills. Or maybe that’s just a ruse to get an excuse to show some photos I didn’t get to posting yet. Pick whatever motivation sounds good to you…

When I visited Crestridge Ecological Preserve last May the rock roses (Helianthemum scoparium) were announcing themselves assertively. The little low plants were at their peak and vibrated with dozens to hundreds of brilliant yellow five-petaled flowers on each plant.

And anywhere that you saw rock roses you’d see hundreds of rock rose petals beneath the plants. I was trying to decide what I liked better, the flowering plants, or the red earth beneath them, dusted gold with fallen petals.

Rock rose. Cool plant.

“Cool plant” might not be your first reaction to the dodder (Cuscuta californica) that was everywhere. Lacking chlorophyll, its only way of surviving is to latch on to a host plant and suck on its vital plant juices, depleting the host while growing extravagantly all over it.

Hillside with chaparral mallow, chamise, pearly everlastings, deerweed and...dodder (the gold, twiny stuff)

Someone on the trip pointed out that DNA work has established this as a member of the Convolvulaceae, the same family that includes Calystegia, the genus of native morning glories, as well as Convolvulus, the genus that contains the common garden morning glories. The new draft Jepson manual follows this classification.

Dodder doing its thing, with chamies, golden yarrow and Lakeside ceanothis in the background. Ooh, pretty...

If you’ve planted the garden morning glories, only to recoil in horror at how they coil over absolutely everything in their path, you’ll recognize the growth pattern that dodder adopts. Like morning glories, it twines like crazy. And, it’s parasitic! Extra bonus!! Dodder is an annual, so that even though it feeds off its host, it does so for only part of the year, mainly during the growing season when the host stands the best hope of keeping up with the dodder’s demands.

All that ickiness aside I happen to love how the stuff looks, twiny and golden, working its way through the landscape. Visually, it does what nothing else in the landscape does. I’m not the only person struck by its forms. There’s a fairly abstract, very modernist photo of dodder in Laguna Beach that was taken by Edward Weston way back in 1937. [ Check out the image at the Center for Creative Photography, in Tucson. ]

So, as far as I’m concerned: Dodder. Cool plant.

About the time I took this trip I happened to open up the Sunday comics to see the week’s Bizarro single-panel. I won’t stomp all over copyright and lift the image for here, but you can view it on Dan Piraro’s blog [ here ]. But let me try to describe it:

Night. Suburbia. Exterior of a house with a lawn and low, mounding foundation plantings. A sidewalk leads away from the front door. Tight shot of a couple who are leaving the house.

The woman, smiling, says to the man, “What terrific hosts.”

Behind them, in the doorway of their home, stands the host couple. Light spills out from indoors and onto the stoop. The man wears a pair of round black glasses, “Harry Potter glasses” you might say, though you sense that he was wearing them long before Harry Potter existed. He waves a weak farewell.

Next to him the hosting woman stands, her hands clasped. She does not look happy. She speaks.

“What incredible parasites.”

Who’d ever think that the host/parasite relationship would ever be material for the funny pages? Talk about timing, talk about coincidence, the trip to Crestridge, the dodder, the Sunday comic…

mutant primrose

I’m almost ready to blame this freaky mutant on fallout from the Fukushima Daiichi reactor disaster.

On my way to the office, several times a week, I walk past a cultivated patch of Hooker’s evening primrose, Oenothera elata. A few days ago I noticed this mutant crested growth on the central growing point on one of the plants. I’ve noticed this crested growth pattern in the garden a few times, most recently on a euphorbia. But this is the first time I’ve noticed it on a primrose–or any other local native plant for that matter.

In a case of crested growth, the growing tip on a stem, the apical meristem, changes from a single growth point to a growth all along a broad line of cells. As the cells along the line grow, the plant forms a fan-shaped growth instead of a slender stem.

In this second photo you can see a normal stem to the right for comparison: slender normal stem, big fat mutant stem.

And here you can see the crested stem from the side and how it widens as it rises.

Pretty weird, huh?

monkeyflower spectrum

Yesterday I went out to Crestridge Ecological Preserve, about a half hour’s drive from coastal San Diego. There will be lots of photos from the trip, but here’s a little panorama to get started, featuring the common sticky monkeyflower, Mimusus aurantiacus.

Around here you can easily find clones of it that are soft apricot-yellow, or ones that are orange, or scarlet. I’d read somewhere that pretty much all the forms west of Interstate 15 were scarlet, and all of those east of it were apricot. It was supposed to have something to do with coastal plants supposedly being pollinated by hummingbirds, while those inland were visited by bees. (EDIT, May 9: Another source I just looked at mentioned that the primary pollinator of the pale form was the hawk moth, which makes sense for an adaptation towards larger, paler flowers.)

Well, what do you make of this? The top composite shows the plants, below are the details of the flowers on the plants. (You’ll definitely have to click to enlarge this photo to make sense of this wide panorama.) On this north slope were five plants that showed the complete range from apricot to scarlet, and the plants were arranged sequentially as if they lines in a spectrum. Crestridge is a couple dozen miles east of I-15, so I think these plants blow the I-15 hypothesis out of the water.

I’d guess the real answer will implicate plant-sex and require a more nuanced understanding of how these different color forms establish themselves in different areas.

survey season

This spring I’ve helped out with a couple plant surveys organized by the local CNPS chapter. There are plenty of plants in the county and relatively few people to survey them, so the chapter picks a plant or group of plants for which there’s a compelling need to inventory them. The theme this year was dune plants. I don’t know this group of plants very well, so it’s been a great learning experience.

Surveys in two locations netted five or six rare List 1B species. (See the CNPS definition of the various listings [ here ].) I was there for four to five of them.

At the first location it was hard to miss the rare form of Juncus acutus, towering over my head. Shown here, it’s surrounded by the common but wonderfully perky yellow beach evening primrose (Camissonia cheiranthifolia) and the exotic sea rocket, Cakile maritima.

(A closeup of the dune evening primrose.)

Also nearby, also yellow, common, and perky: telegraph weed, Heteroteca grandiflora.

But enough of these common plants. We came here looking for rare ones!

Here’s one that was pretty hard to miss: Nuttall’s lotus, Lotus nuttallianus. I hope you like yellow. The bright flowers turn orange-red after they’ve been pollinated, encouraging the pollinators to visit the still-not-deflowered yellow blooms.

This snowy plover and least tern preserve was one of the plants’ favored areas. The word “preserve” promised more than was evident here. It was a patch of sand like any other part of the beach, but with just one piece of white string around it. Any dog or small child or group of teens with a cooler could have stepped inside, squashing the plants, scrambling the eggs and nestlings.

We saw several hundred of these, Brand’s phacelia, Phacelia stellaris. Around the edges of this patch you can see the one of invasive species of Erodium.

Another look at the phacelia… Most were about this size, practically belly flowers. But occasionally–as in the semi-shade beneath a picnic bench–you’d find individuals almost a foot tall.

And the last of the rare plants we surveyed the first day, coast wooly-heads, Nemacaulis denudata var. denudata. There were thousands at the first site. They weren’t flowering yet, but the plants were unmistakable with their long accordion-pleated white leaves. In bloom, they’ll have wiry stems floating little creamy balls of bloom over the leaves.

Here’s a final shot, a closeup of the flowering heads of the Juncus acutus. ssp. leopoldii.

It’s a stunning plant out on the sand. And of all of these, the common form of Juncus acutus is something you’ll see offered in various native plant catalogs. If you need a big, architectural, spiky sedge that likes a certain amount of moisture, this might be just your plant.