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Maintaining Your New California Garden: Life-friendly Fall Pruning

  Mother Nature's Backyard in November: illustrating life-friendly fall pruning. Late fall and early winter are important prun...

Saturday, November 18, 2017

California Gourmet: Buckwheat Roll-ups with Citrus-Sage Cream Cheese

Appetizers made from native California buckwheat seeds.

The winter holidays are almost here.  If you’re planning a holiday party, you’re probably already thinking about food.  And if you’ve dried native buckwheat seeds - and the leaves from your favorite native sage - now’s the time to use them. 

Flatbreads are found in most cultures around the world. Some common flatbreads are: pita, tortilla, roti, naan, fatir, lefse, chapati, fry bread and many others.  They may be made from local cereal grains and seasoned with regional seasonings.  So traditional flatbreads can reflect the unique flavors of their native region. 

Flatbreads are often unleavened: they contain no yeast, baking powder or other agents to make them rise. They are rolled out or patted with the hands to make them thin and flat.   They are usually cooked on a hot griddle, although traditional baking methods vary around the world.  They are fairly easy to make and can be used to create a make-ahead appetizer for your holiday parties.

Giant Buckwheat (St. Catherine's Lace)
Eriogonum giganteum

The native S. California Buckwheats (genus Eriogonum) are mostly shrubby plants that bloom in summer and produce numerous seeds in fall.  The seed heads add a notes of rust and dark brown to the fall garden.   One of the showiest Eriogonums is the Giant buckwheat (Eriogonum giganteum) from the Channel Islands.  For more on this plant see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2013/08/plant-of-month-august-st-catherines.html

Seed heads: Giant buckwheat
Most gardeners aren’t aware that native buckwheats are edible. You can collect the seeds heads (chaff and all), remove the stems, dry them and use them in baked goods.  The Giant buckwheat is particularly simple to use, with its large, easy to collect seed heads.   We routinely collect the seed heads when we do our fall pruning.  We store the dried ‘seeds’ in an airtight glass jar until we use them.

We like to grind the dried seed heads and substitute them for part of the flour in flatbreads, muffins, scones and bread. We use a coffee/spice grinder, which grinds the seed heads to a ‘flour’.  The dark color and slightly sweet flavor of the ground buckwheat adds interest to pedestrian baked goods.  Buckwheat edibles are always a source of curiosity.  And they are one more reason to use the native buckwheats in your garden.

Below is just one recipe that uses native buckwheat ‘seeds’.

Flat bread made with native California buckwheat seeds

Flatbread Rolls with Flavored Cream Cheese

Flavored Cream Cheese Filling


  • 8 oz carton of whipped cream cheese
  • 1 tsp to 2 Tbsp dried, finely ground dried native spices or dried greens (sage, sagebrush, mint, stinging nettle, fresh or dried citrus zest, rose petals, kitchen spices).  You can use a single seasoning or combine


  1. Combine ingredients thoroughly
  2. Refrigerate overnight; stir and taste to check if more flavorings are needed


Home-made Flatbread


  • 1 ¾  cups / 300g plain flour (all purpose flour) (level cups, unsifted, not packed), + 1/4 cup extra for dusting & adjusting dough*
  • ¼ cup ground buckwheat seedheads (seed and chaff)
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 3 1/2 Tbsp / 50g butter (1.75 oz) : note: you can substitute margarine
  • 3/4 cup / 185 ml milk
  • 1/2 Tbsp oil (for cooking; we prefer olive oil)


  1. Combine butter and milk and heat until butter is just melted - on stove or in microwave.
  2. Combine 1 ¾  cups flour, ground buckwheat, salt, butter and milk.
  3. Sprinkle work surface with flour then knead for a few minutes until it is smooth - it doesn't need much kneading. Add extra flour if the dough is too sticky.
  4. Wrap with cling wrap and rest at room temperature for 30 minutes or so.
  5. Dust bench top with flour, cut dough into 4 pieces, roll into balls, then roll out into about 1/8" / 0.3cm thick rounds.
  6. Heat 1 tsp olive oil in a non-stick griddle over medium-high heat - lower if you have a heavy skillet.
  7. Place one flatbread on the griddle, cook for around 1- 1 1/2 minutes - it should bubble up - then flip and cook the other side, pressing down if it puffs up. There should be a golden brown spots on both sides.
  8. Stack the cooked bread and keep wrapped with a tea towel - the moisture helps soften the surface, making them even more pliable.
  9. Continue to cook the remaining pieces.  Cool.

  1. Spread ¼ of the filling on each flatbread, smoothing the filling to the edges.
  2. Roll the flatbread into a tight roll.
  3. Refrigerate the rolls for about an hour to make it easier to slice.
  4. Slice the rolls into 1 inch pieces.
  5. Refrigerate the completed appetizers until ready to serve.  You can make them up to 2 days in advance. 


*If you don’t want to use the buckwheat, just use 2 cups regular flour

Rolling up flat bread spread with flavored cream cheese



We encourage you to send us your questions, comments and recipes (either comment below or e-mail to us at : mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com




Thursday, November 9, 2017

Plant of the Month (November) : California wild rose – Rosa californica

California wild rose (Rosa californica) - Mother Nature's Garden of Health

No, wild roses aren’t blooming in November.  Our weather’s been crazy, but roses are still a summer treat.  But the Rosa californica in Mother Nature’s Garden of Health has colorful fruits (hips) right now.  That why we’re featuring it as our Plant of the Month.  The scientific name is easy to pronounce: ROSE-uh  cal-ih-FOR-nih-cuh.

The California wild rose is the common rose of much of California, from Oregon to Baja California, Mexico.  It grows throughout the California Floristic Province (West of the Sierra Nevada Range) except in the high mountains.  There are nine or ten species of rose native to California.  Most grow in the Sierras or in Northern California – areas that get more precipitation than we do.  In the San Gabriel Mountains of Los Angeles County, the Woods’ rose (Rosa woodsii) is still fairly common.  But throughout much of S. California, Rosa californica reigns supreme.

California wild rose (Rosa californica) -
 Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve

The California rose is commonly encountered in moist places below about 6000 ft. (1800 m.) elevation.   It can still be seen along rivers and streams, in canyons and in shady woodlands throughout S. California.  It once was common on Santa Catalina Island, in the Santa Monica Mountains, and in the foothills of the San Gabriel and Liebre Mountain ranges.  It also grew along the local rivers, including the Los Angeles River. You can see nice patches of this rose in the Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve.  There’s even an early voucher specimen from Redondo Beach!

California wild rose (Rosa californica) - growth habit

Like many wild roses, Rosa californica is a clumping woody shrub. It has long (3-9 ft.; 1-3 m.) woody stems that are often many-branched.  It’s a rose, so the stems are prickly – not the big thorns of domesticated roses, but still requiring gloves to handle.  Like most roses, California rose is winter deciduous, losing all its leaves with the colder days of December or January.  And like other roses, this species is best pruned when dormant (more on this below).

California wild rose (Rosa californica) - foliage

The foliage of California wild rose is typical for roses.  The leaves are compound, with 5-7 simple leaflets.  The leaflet edges are serrated.  The color is yellow-green on emergence, becoming medium- to dark green.  If conditions are right, the leaves turn a lovely soft yellow in late fall/early winter.  The fall leaf color can be quite attractive.

California wild rose (Rosa californica) - thicket
 in Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve
Like many wild roses, Rosa californica is a spreader.  It sends up new stems by root suckering and can form dense thickets in favorable locations. Plants that get minimal water spread more slowly than those with regular water. But the nature of this species is to spread when conditions are right.   The gardener should seriously consider location when planting the California wild rose. You may want to place it where the spread is limited, or even grow this rose in a large container.  A thicket of thorny roses may not be part of your vision for the perfect garden!

California wild rose (Rosa californica) - blooming shrub

The California rose blooms during warm weather.  The actual blooming may be off and on from May through October, depending on whether the plant gets water.  A blooming Rosa californica is truly a thing of beauty.  In a good year, a bush can be literally covered in blooms. 

California wild rose (Rosa californica) - flower

The flowers are fairly typical of the wild roses. The flowers are simple – not the many-petal extravaganzas we expect from modern horticultural roses. The flowers are about 1 ½ inches (4 cm.) wide and have five pink petals, usually a medium pink, but sometimes paler or darker. Like all roses, the flowers have numerous stamens and pistils (male and female sexual organs). 

California wild rose (Rosa californica) - inflorescence
Not surprisingly, the flowers are insect pollinated (mostly by bees) and plants are self-fertile. The inflorescence (floral cluster) may have up to 20 flowers; a bouquet in a single inflorescence!  The flowers give off the heavenly scent of wild roses.  There’s really nothing quite like a wild rose on a warm summer’s day.

The fruits of all roses are fleshy, ovoid structures containing many seeds.  The hip (also called a hep) is actually an accessory fruit; it’s not formed from the ovary of the flower, but instead from other tissues.  Apples, pears, strawberries, figs and pineapples are also accessory fruits.

California wild rose (Rosa californica) - fruits (hips)
The hips of Rosa californica are up to ¾ inch (8-20 mm.) across and are a dark red when fully ripe.  The hip begins forming soon after a flower is pollinated.  The immature hips begin small and green, then progress through a firm orange stage (late summer) and finally ripen to a somewhat soft, dark red in fall.  If you live in an area with fall/winter frosts, the best time to pick the fruits is after the first frost (if the birds haven’t eaten them all before then).

California wild rose (Rosa californica) - sunny,
 dry position
Wild roses are less finicky than their horticultural cousins.  They can be grown in most local soils (except slow-draining clays) and tolerate full sun to part shade.  Plants are more shrub-like in sun; more vine-like in fairly shady conditions.  The flower color is often a bit brighter in plants that get afternoon shade.  But plants in places that are too shady won’t flower as much. 

While Rosa californica is more drought tolerant than many roses, it does best with some summer water.  Occasional deep watering – once or twice a month depending on soil drainage – is enough.  If grown in pots, water whenever the potting medium is dry at a depth of about 4 inches.  We sometimes water our pot-grown rose several times a week in hot, dry and windy weather.

Rosa californica is much less susceptible to the fungal diseases and pests that plague garden roses.  Limiting summer water to the recommended levels is also helpful. And California wild rose won’t need much fertilizer unless grown in a container.  Container-grown plants should be given several doses of ½ strength fertilizer (or half a recommended dose of time-released fertilizer) in late winter/early spring.

California wild rose (Rosa californica) - pruned
Pruning of wild roses is best done when plants are dormant.  We like to prune our pot-grown plant as we would a garden variety.  This insures healthy, new growth – and mimics the natural ‘pruning’ of grazing animals in the wilds. It also helps to tame the ‘wild’ appearance somewhat.   Some gardeners prefer to just prune out the oldest canes (and those that have sprouted in unwanted places).   Either approach is acceptable.

So why plant a California wild rose instead of a floribunda?  First, there’s the shear enjoyment of planting a species native to our area. Gardeners living near open spaces can make the environmentally sound decision of planting a native rather than a non-native rose.   All native plants, in addition to being well adapted to our climate, give us a sense of place and a link to the past.  In the case of Rosa californica, they also perfume our gardens with the scent of Old California.

California wild rose (Rosa californica) - excellent
habitat plant
California wild rose is an excellent habitat plant.  It attracts bee pollinators, including some native species.  Many rose cultivars attract few, if any, pollinators.  The plants provide armed cover for ground dwelling creatures like lizards and ground-foraging birds like White-crowned sparrows, Doves and Towhees.  And the fruits are prized food for the fruit eating birds (bluebirds, grosbeaks, robins, mockingbirds, and sparrows).

California wild rose – and other roses – have long been used as perfumes and for potpourri.   The stems are sometimes used as rims in twined basketry. And, of course, the wild roses have long been prized for their edible and medicinal uses.

California wild rose (Rosa californica) - freshly
 picked hips
Ripe rose hips have a sweet taste that’s hard to describe.  They can be eaten raw (in moderation), made into fruit leather or dried and ground to make a flavoring.  Their flavor can be extracted in vodka to make a ‘kitchen extract’ used to flavor cookies, cakes, candy, etc.  And the cooked fruits make delicious syrup, jelly, or fruit soup.  Dried or fresh fruits, as well as the petals and leaves, can also be used to make flavorful and healthy herbal teas.  For more ideas on preserving the fruits of summer see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2016/08/california-gourmet-preserving-summer.html

California wild rose (Rosa californica) - making jelly
Most parts of the plant have a history of use as medicinals.  Dried petals were formerly ground and used as baby powder to help prevent diaper rash.  An infusion (tea) from the petals was also used to treat pain and fevers in infants and children. Rose hip tea is still taken for fevers, colds and sore throats.  The high vitamin C content of the hips partially accounts for its efficacy.  But rose hip infusions have also been used as a wash for skin sores, so the hips may have additional antibiotic properties.

In summary, California wild rose is a unique, useful and lovely part of our Southern California natural heritage.  It can be used as a barrier hedge or planted on hard-to-maintain canyon slopes.  It can also be planted in contained areas – even in large pots.  We hope you’ll look for - and possible use – this wonderful native rose.

California wild rose (Rosa californica)

For plant information sheets on other native plants see: http://nativeplantscsudh.blogspot.com/p/gallery-of-native-plants_17.html



We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com


Saturday, October 14, 2017

Heat Waves, Shade and Your Health

We’ve experienced some dramatic heat waves this summer.  Temperature records continue to be broken, particularly in the far West.  And heat is not just uncomfortable, it can actually affect your health.  That’s why it’s time for Western gardeners to start taking the subject of shade seriously.
The Southern and Eastern coasts have their hurricanes and floods; the Midwest it’s tornadoes (and floods).  In the West we have our droughts, wildfires – and heat.  Each region experiences extreme weather that can make life miserable, destroy property and yes, kill.  So, we need to prepare for extreme weather.
And the situation isn’t likely to get any better.  In fact, we can expect to experience weather extremes more often in the future. We are already seeing these effects of climate change in every part of the globe, including California.   That’s why planning for extreme heat is important for gardeners throughout the West.  And the time to plan – and act – is NOW.

Native live oaks provide cool, dry shade
California’s natural areas can teach us valuable lessons about surviving heat. Visit a  nature preserve or forest on a hot, dry day to directly experience the dramatic difference between sunny areas and nearby shade under trees.  The temperature difference can be as great as 10-15 degrees Fahrenheit (5.5 to 8.3 degrees C.) between the two.  The shade beneath trees is often at least 5 degrees cooler than even the shade produced by man-made structures (porches; canopies).

Why is it cooler in the shade beneath trees? There are several processes at work.  First, the leaves in the tree canopy capture (and use) some of the energy arriving from the sun. Less of the energy is released as heat; and the heat is released from many leaves, some of which are high above the ground.  So less heat reaches the ground.

A porch provides shady seating.
In contrast, most man-made structures reflect some of the energy (particularly if coated with a reflective coating), but mostly absorb it and release it as heat.   You can often feel the heat radiating from a roof or wall on a hot day.  So a shady back porch, while cooler than in the sun, is less efficient at releasing heat than is a tree. 
Trees provide cooling shade in the Gardena Willows
 Wetland Preserve
A second, and more important reason involves a process known as evaporative cooling. On a hot day, plants release water (water vapor) into the surrounding air.  This increases the humidity around the plant, cooling the surrounding air on hot, dry days. Think of plants as Mother Nature’s mist machines – it’s the same principle.   Evaporative cooling is the main reason why you feel cool when sitting under a tree on a hot day.  Of course evaporative cooling works best when the air is dry.  On hot humid days, the effects (alas) are less.

Established trees provide maximum shade and cool.
The wisdom of shade trees was well known in past generations.  Native inhabitants took advantage of shady groves and forests during the hot months of summer and fall.  Early settlers and suburban ‘settlers’ planted shade trees among their first improvements.  Before the era of air conditioning, all Westerners knew the value of a good shade tree.  But in some neighborhoods, that wisdom seems to have been lost.

The take home message is clear: if you live in an area that experiences hot, dry conditions you need to invest in large plants, particularly shade trees.  Choose those that are water wise – you have lots to choose from, and many large trees require less water than you think. You might get some ideas here: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2015/09/sustainable-gardening-trees-for.html

Blue elderberry provide shady seating.
Choose a tree that gives you something to eat: a citrus tree, another garden fruit tree or a Blue elderberry or native cherry.  Or choose a tree/large shrub with other characteristics you like.  A tree can provide food, habitat and beauty in addition to shade.   Make the most of your space by choosing wisely.

Plant the tree next winter, when the ground is moist and a tree has the best chance of getting off to a good start.  Plant it where it will shade your house or provide shady outdoor seating; in our hemisphere, shade is to the north and east of trees.  Give your tree some extra water the first 3-4 years after planting.  It needs to grow and establish a good root system.   

Shade trees help cool a local home.
And then, in 4-5 years or perhaps a little more, you will experience the joys of shade in your own yard.  You’ll be thankful when you sit outside – or when the electricity goes out during a heat wave.  You have planned ahead for the inevitable – more hot days, in pretty much every month of the year, in S. California.


For further reading



We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Plant of the Month (October) : Shrubby Butterweed (Bush Senecio) – Senecio flaccidus var. douglasii

Very young Shrubby butterweed (Senecio flaccidus var. douglasii)
Mother Nature's Garden of Health

It’s early fall and - fortunately for the pollinators - some of the fall-blooming sunflowers are still in full glory.  We’ve already featured several of them.  But one of the more unusual garden species, the Shrubby butterweed, can still be viewed in our Garden of Health.  The scientific name is pronounced sen-EE-see-oh  FLASS-i-dus  DUG-las-ee-eye.  This plant goes by many common names including Douglas’ groundsel, Threadleaf senecio, Threadleaf groundsel, Creek groundsel, Threadleaf ragwort, Douglas’ ragwort, Douglas' shrubby ragwort and Bush senecio.

The Senecios, commonly called Ragworts or Groundsels are a mixed bag of plants in the Sunflower family (Asteraceae).  The genus Senecio is currently under revision, based on increasing DNA evidence.  It currently contains over a thousand species worldwide. Some are succulent; others are drought tolerant, but not succulent.  Some produce chemicals that are toxic and/or medicinal.  And all have yellow ‘sunflower’ type flowers.

In California, there are currently 19 native Senecio species, as well as a number of non-native, invasive species. [1]  Of the natives, the vast majority grow in the Sierra Nevada Range.  But six species are native to Los Angeles County, with three native to western Los Angeles County.  Of the local species, California butterweed (Senecio californica), Island senecio (S. lyonii) and especially Senecio flaccidus are the most common.

In fact, Senecio flaccidus has an interestingly wide geographic range.  The species is native to Southwestern U.S. and Northwestern Mexico, including Baja California.  It currently has three named varieties.  Senecio flaccidus var. flaccidus is native to the Southwest, including the Four Corners states, TX, OK and KS.  Variety monoensis is native to the drier mountains and desert washes of Southern and Central California, including the north side of the San Gabriels.  And Senecio flaccidus var. douglasii (sometimes still known as Senecio douglasii), which is widespread from the Northern California coast and western Sierra foothills to the Los Angeles basin and foothills.  The southern extent of its range is Northern Baja CA, Mexico.

In S. California, Senecio flaccidus var. douglasii usually grows along creeks and in seasonal stream beds in Foothill Woodland, Coastal Sage Scrub, Chaparral, Valley Grassland, Creosote Bush Scrub and Pinyon-Juniper Woodland plant communities. The soil is well-drained and often rocky.  Plants often get some summer moisture in the wilds.

Senecio flaccidus var. douglasii: young plants
Shrubby butterweed is a short-lived (4-6 years) part-woody sub-shrub that loses its leaves after blooming (or when drought stressed).   It rarely grows to more than about 2-4 ft. (less than 1.5 m.) tall and wide.  It creates additional branches each year, ultimately, becoming a mounded, rather open, shrub.  Our plants, raised from seed, are young and have only a few branches (photo above).  For a better idea of mature plants, see references 2 and 3, below. 

Senecio flaccidus var. douglasii: foliage
Senecio flaccidus var. douglasii has blue-green to medium green foliage.  The color becomes almost gray in full sun in hot locations.  The branches are slender and wand-like. The leaves are deeply divided into narrow, linear lobes, so the foliage is very open, giving plants a lacey appearance.  This is the most open of the native bush sunflowers we grow.  The foliage has little to no aroma.   Ranchers dislike this plant because the foliage is toxic, particularly for cows and horses.   The foliage and seeds are also toxic for humans and pets if eaten – a consideration for planting this species.

Senecio flaccidus var. douglasii: flowers at different stages
Shrubby butterweed is a summer/fall bloomer.  It can bloom off and on, with available water, from June through October (or even all year long).  We tend to think of it as a September-October bloomer in our gardens.  The flowers are a bright golden yellow, arranged in typical sunflower heads.  Both the ray and the disk flowers are yellow in this species.  Like many Senecios, the number of ray flowers is relatively few (8-14) and there is usually space between them (see below).  The flowers are showy and cheery – a welcome sight among the oranges and browns of the fall buckwheats.

Senecio flaccidus var. douglasii: close-up of flowers

The flowers attract a wide range of insects including butterflies, native bees and other pollinators. We’ve also seen Praying mantis and other carnivorous insects on this plant.  The seeds are small and dry, with a fluffy tail.  Seed eating birds, most notably the finches, eat them in the fall. 

Senecio flaccidus var. douglasii: seed heads
Senecio flaccidus var. douglasii: seeds
Senecio flaccidus var. douglasii grows in full sun or afternoon shade.  It commonly grows in well-drained soils (sandy or rocky) but ours is doing fine in clay.  This is a very drought tolerant plant, but we like to give it occasional water, particularly in August and early September, mimicking the summer monsoons.  We suspect it would do fine with more water than we give it – and likely flower over a longer season.  This plant is tough, but it needs a little water in summer, at least in the dry areas of western L.A. County.   And it’s easy to grow from seed (see below).  Plant fresh seed in fall/early winter, keep well-watered – that’s all there is to it.

Senecio flaccidus var. douglasii: seedlings
This species was occasionally used as a medicinal plant.  It is most safely used externally, as a poultice for achy muscles or for pimples, boils and skin infections.  Do not take this plant internally, and use externally only occasionally.  All parts of the plant can be toxic to the liver, particularly with prolonged use.  For more on the medical precautions associated with this plant see references 4 and 5, below.

Shrubby butterweed is little used in conventional gardens, even the water-wise ones.  The toxicity of the foliage is an issue; and there are alternative, more benign native sunflowers available.  But the Senecios have a certain look – somewhat like a golden Coreopsis – that is just what’s needed in some fall gardens.  The flowers make great cut flowers and can also be used to make a yellow dye (wash hands after handling).   In short, we like this native Senecio.

For plant information sheets on other native plants see: http://nativeplantscsudh.blogspot.com/p/gallery-of-native-plants_17.html


  1. http://www.calflora.org/cgi-bin/specieslist.cgi?where-genus=Senecio
  2. http://calphotos.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/img_query?rel-taxon=begins+with&where-taxon=Senecio+flaccidus+var.+douglasii
  3. http://www.smmflowers.org/bloom/species/Senecio_flaccidus_douglasii.htm
  4. http://www.eldoradowindyfarm.com/SFBG-ethnogroundselthreadleaf.html
  5. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/278051432_Pyrrolizidine_alkaloids_in_medicinal_plants_from_North_America

We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com