Monday, January 11, 2016

Plant of the Month (January) : Bicolor (Miniature) Lupine – Lupinus bicolor

Miniature (Bicolor) lupine (Lupinus bicolor) - in bloom

Very little is blooming in Mother Nature’s Gardens right now.  But the recent rains have coaxed a number of annual wildflower seeds to germinate. We’ve chosen one of these, the Bicolor or Miniature lupine, as our Plant of the Month.

Like many native species, Lupinus bicolor is the subject of current taxonomic debate.  The species shows morphologic variability within its range, and variants have been categorized as several separate species, as well as varieties and subspecies of Lupinus bicolor.  For simplicity, we’ll just discuss the species as a whole.  Former species which now are included in Lupinus bicolor are: Lupinus congdonii; Lupinus polycarpus; Lupinus rostratus; Lupinus sabulosus; Lupinus umbellatus and possibly others. 

The geographic range of Bicolor lupine stretches from British Columbia, Canada to Baja California, Mexico.  The species grows throughout the California Floristic Province (West of the Sierras) and in the western Mojave Desert.  In Western Los Angeles County, it can be found in the Santa Monica Mountains, on the Southern Channel Islands and in the Los Angeles Basin from the Transverse Ranges to the Pacific Ocean.  It is a common in open or disturbed areas from sea level to about 5000 ft. (1500 m.).  Like many annual wildflowers, it can be found in a number of California plant communities including the coastal strand, southern coastal prairie, valley grasslands, joshua tree woodland, yellow pine and mixed evergreen forest, and foothill woodland communities.

Bicolor lupine is one of about 75 species of Lupine native to California.  About one-third of them – including Lupinus bicolor – are annuals; the rest are perennials, sub-shrubs and shrubs.  All are members of the Pea Family, the Fabaceae. Like many in this family, Lupines have a unique relationship with special soil bacteria.  These bacteria live within nodules in the roots and convert nitrogen to a form that can be used by plants, through a process known as nitrogen fixation.  When the root dies, the converted nitrogen is released into the soil, improving soil fertility.

Miniature (Bicolor) lupine (Lupinus bicolor) - leaf

Miniature (Bicolor) lupine (Lupinus bicolor) - plants
Bicolor lupine is a small annual, usually less than one foot tall locally, with medium- to gray-green foliage clustered at the base of the plant.  The palmately compound leaves, which look like an open hand, have 5 to 7 leaflets and are covered in short, transparent hairs.  The leaf shape is typical for Lupines.  As can be seen in the photograph above, the hairs trap mist and fog quite effectively.

Miniature (Bicolor) lupine (Lupinus bicolor
 flowers & seed pods
The flowers of Lupinus bicolor are petite and charming, making them a favorite small wildflower.  This is a fairly early bloomer – often February or March in Western Los Angeles County, later in colder climates.  The flowers, which are usually less than ½ inch across (1/4 to 1 inch; < 2.5 cm.) are arranged in a spiral pattern (whorl) around short flowering stalks. The flowering stalks, often not much taller than the foliage, usually have 4-10 flowers per stalk (see above).

Miniature (Bicolor) lupine (Lupinus bicolor) - flower details
The individual flowers have a shape typical for the Pea Family, with petals modified into a ‘banner’, well-defined ‘wings’ and ‘keel’ (mostly hidden).  The flowers are two-toned: the banner is white with blue-purple spots or blotches, while the wings are blue-purple. Like other local lupines, the flower color changes from blue-purple to red-purple after a flower is pollinated, sending a cue to insect pollinators that no more nectar is being produced (see photo, above).

Miniature lupine is insect pollinated, primarily by bees.  The insect lands on the wing petals, causing them to move and reveal the sexual organs located in the keel.  The pollinating insect brushes against the stamens and stigma while retrieving nectar, thereby pollinating the flower.   The seeds develop in small ‘pea pods’ that burst open explosively when dry (mid- to late-Spring), spreading the seeds.

Miniature (Bicolor) lupine (Lupinus bicolor) - young seedlings
Bicolor lupine is fairly easy to grow from seed.  Like all lupines, the seeds have a hard seed coat; germination is enhanced by soaking them in hot tap water overnight before planting.  Seeds can then be planted in prepared seed beds or in pots for later transplanting.  Lupines tend to have long roots – in our area they are often easier to seed directly into the garden rather than transplant.   Be sure to plant seeds on bare ground or under a thin gravel mulch.   Plant just before a good rainstorm in late fall or winter, then rake in lightly; seedlings will appear in several weeks.

Lupines are an excellent source of nectar for bees, particularly the larger, early-flying species.  The foliage is a larval food source for Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme) and several species of Blue butterflies.   The seeds, which are toxic if eaten in large quantities, are eaten by ground-foraging birds, particularly Doves.   They are an important food from summer through fall.

In summary, Lupinus bicolor is an annual wildflower that does well in California gardens and wildlands.  It likes sun, but is not particular about soil type.  If winter rains are adequate, Bicolor lupine needs no supplemental water, completing its life cycle before the summer dry season.

Miniature (Bicolor) lupine (Lupinus bicolor)
 Madrona Marsh Preserve, Torrance CA
We like to use Lupinus bicolor along pathways or in containers, where its small size can be adequately appreciated.  It is often grown, as in nature, with other local annual wildflowers, California poppies and cool season native grasses.  It is a charming seasonal groundcover on banks and around rain gardens and infiltration swales. 

A mass of Bicolor lupine, blooming in spring, is a sight for sore eyes.  If happy, it will re-seed in local gardens, returning whenever we have a rainy winter.  Lupinus bicolor is part of our unique natural heritage and a welcome reminder of the climate cycles that so characterize S. California.

Miniature (Bicolor) lupine (Lupinus bicolor) - mass planting

For plant information sheets on other native plants see:


We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to:

Monday, December 14, 2015

Plant of the Month (December) : Pale Spikerush – Eleocharis macrostachya

Pale spikerush (Eleocharis macrostachya) in Mother Nature's Backyard 

After four years of drought – and spotty summer rain – our plants are blooming at unusual times.   As we’ve already featured many of our December-blooming plants, we’ve chosen a species that often begins growing in December for our Plant of the Month.

The Spikerushes (genus Eleocharis) are a common component of wetlands throughout the world.  These grass-like plants, members of the Sedge family (Cyperaceae), have rudimentary leaves and understated flowers at the tips of upright stalks.   Nearly all are wetland species and some – like our own Pale spikerush – can even begin growing in shallow water.

Pale spikerush (Eleocharis macrostachya): new growth
 after winter rains.
The taxonomy of the Spikerushes presents challenges not uncommon in plants with relatively few relevant characteristics and cosmopolitan (widespread) geographic distributions.    Eleocharis macrostachya grows from Alaska and Northern Canada, as far East as the Great Plains states, and South to Mexico and South America (Argentina, Colombia and Uruguay). 

In California, it’s a common and widespread member of wetland communities from sea level to about 8,000 ft. (2500 m.)  It grows in a variety of wet places including marshes, roadside ditches, and along streambanks, lakeshores and rivers.  It also can be seen in seasonal wetlands, including mountain meadows, vernal pools/marshes and other seasonally flooded areas.

Pale spikerush (Eleocharis macrostachya) in vernal marsh
 (Madrona Marsh Preserve).  Taller plants in back are Tules
 and Cattails.  Note how the spikerush grows around the
 edges of the marsh.
Known by the common names of Pale spikerush, Common spikerush,  Creeping spike rush and Wire grass, Eleocharis macrostachya shares many characteristics with Eleocharis palustris; some specimens have been included in this and several other Eleocharis species in the past.   There is widespread morphologic variability within Eleocharis macrostachya, even in California, so future taxonomic revisions shouldn’t surprise us.

Pale spikerush (Eleocharis macrostachya) in vernal pool:
 Madrona Marsh Preserve, Torrance CA.
Pale spikerush is a rush-like perennial that spreads via rhizomes to form dense mats.  In lowland S. California, seeds germinate – and plants begin to grow – with the winter rains. The under-water stems are hollow; stems become pith-filled on land, giving them added stiffness.   The plants can grow either in shallow standing water or in moist soils, making them useful for seasonally moist areas like rain gardens and infiltration swales.  The plants continue to grow until the dry days of summer, when they become dormant and turn a lovely glossy tan.

Pale spikerush (Eleocharis macrostachya): note stems
 with rudimentary leaves at base.
Pale spikerush is 12-18 inches (30-45 cm.) tall.  It can grow as a single stem, as a tuft-like cluster of stems or as a mat-like ‘sod’.  The stems have very rudimentary leaves (thin, red-brown sheaths at the base of the stems) and are smooth and upright (see above).  Stems are pale yellow-green under water, medium green on land.  This is a simple, but pretty wetland perennial.

Pale spikerush (Eleocharis macrostachya) blooming in June:
 Madrona Marsh Preserve, Torrance CA.
The flowers of Eleocharis macrostachya grow in purple-brown spikelets at the ends of the stems.  As seen in the photo above, flowering plants are showy, even though individual flowers are rudimentary.  The spikelets are slender and cylindrical, somewhat like a flame on a candle, and contain many small flowers, each encased in a floral scale.  Since the flowers are wind-pollinated, there’s no need for fancy petals to attract animal pollinators.  Instead, the sexual parts are well-situated to ensure pollination (see below).  The seeds are enclosed in a gold-brown achene (capsule with one seed) that drops from the plant when ripe.

Pale spikerush (Eleocharis macrostachya): close-up of spikelet.
Pale spikerush is a very adaptable plant.  It will grow in just about any soil, including clays and the sandy, alkali soils along our coast.  It tolerates full sun to fairly shady conditions, with flowering more reliable in full sun.  It does need moist soils in winter/spring and can even tolerate seasonal flooding or shallow standing water, particularly if water levels are allowed to fluctuate through the year (becoming shallower or dry in summer/fall). 

Rain garden at Mother Nature's Backyard.  Pale spikerush
(Eleocharis macrostachya) is indicated by arrow.
Pale spikerush is most commonly used as a pond/pool plant or in rain gardens, vegetated (infiltration) swales or bog gardens.  We grow it in our rain garden and as a grass substitute under our Elderberry tree at Mother Nature’s Backyard. It does fine with occasional (monthly or twice-monthly) summer water. When grown in mass (like a turf) it becomes a lovely ‘straw’ groundcover in late summer/fall.  In fact, spikerush straw is harvested in some parts of the world.

Alkali heliotrope (Heliotropium curassavicum)  growing through
mulch of Pale spikerush (Eleocharis macrostachya)
Several points should be emphasized regarding Eleocharis macrostachya.  First, it is a wetland plant that spreads via rhizomes.  In our personal experience, it’s not particularly aggressive in a fairly dry garden.  But if you water frequently – and want to limit its spread – then plant it in a container.  The second issue involves plant-plant interactions.  Some sources note that Pale spikerush may inhibit the growth of other plants.   We’ve not noticed this ourselves and suspect it may be most important when dense Eleocharis ‘turf’ is allowed to dry, uncut, and release chemicals into the soil.

Pale spikerush (Eleocharis macrostachya) straw in summer.
That being said, Eleocharis macrostachya is a wonderful native for seasonally moist areas.  It’s great for rain gardens and ponds, stabilizing the soil on banks and slopes.  It is easy care, requiring only the removal of dead stalks in fall.  It provides food and cover, as well as nesting materials, for birds and smaller animals.  In days of old, the stems were used for weaving and dried stems for stuffing pillows and bedding.  Some Native American tribes used the plant as a medicine to induce vomiting. 

We love Eleocharis macrostachya as a reminder of the seasonal wetlands once common in the South Bay.  Spikerushes tie us to the past, providing a sense of place.  Ironically, our rain gardens and seasonal swales have become our region’s wetlands.  They are places where the plants of old continue to thrive, a remnant of the vibrant ecosystems that were once the heart (and kidneys) of our region.

Mixed groundcover with Pale spikerush (Eleocharis macrostachya), Carex pansa and 
Stachys bullata.

For plant information sheets on other native plants see:



We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to:

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Plant of the Month (November) : Big (Bracted) Gumplant – Grindelia camporum

Big gumplant (Grindelia camporum)

What an unusual year!   Hot and dry – rains in summer; it’s no wonder plants are blooming at unexpected times.  Among the species that keep on flowering are the fall-blooming sunflowers. For example, the Big gumplant (Grindelia camporum) in Mother Nature’s Garden of Health has bloomed off and on from June to now.

Big (Bracted) gumplant has many common names, among them California gum plant, Giant gum plant, Field gumweed, Bracted gumweed, Grindelia, Hardy grindelia, Rosin weed and Scaly grindelia.   To add to the confusion, the local variant (formerly known as var. bracteosa) is also known by several previous scientific names: Grindelia robusta var. bracteosa and Grindelia robusta var. robusta.  At any rate, we’ll leave it at ‘Big gumplant’, since that name describes it so well.

There is even debate about whether Grindelia camporum deserves its own taxon. Some advocate lumping it with several other California gumplants into the broader Grindelia hirsutula  Hook. & Arn.   The Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) lumps; the USDA Plants Database, Jepson Manual and Calflora still accord it species status.  For this posting, we’ll side with the splitters.  We’ve grown both Grindelia camporum and G. hirsutula in the garden.  And while they have their similarities, the two (at least those available in the local horticultural trade) look and behave somewhat differently in the garden.

Big gum plant is native to North, Central and Southern California as well as Baja California, Mexico.  In Southern California it grows along the coast, in the Coastal and Transverse Ranges, and in the Peninsular Ranges of California and Baja California.  Locally, it grows in the Santa Monica Mountains and once did in the seasonal wetlands near Long Beach, the Dominguez Hills and the Palos Verdes Peninsula (including the San Pedro/Los Angeles Harbor area).

Big gum plant grows most often in seasonally moist areas: along roadsides, in arroyos and washes, along seasonal streams/wetlands and other places that get a little extra winter water.  It’s a member of several lower elevation plant communities, including the chaparral and coastal sage scrub, occurring at elevations from near sea level to about 4000 feet (1200 m.).  The local soils are primarily alluvial – either sandy or clay – and may be saline and alkaline along the coast. 

Big gumplant (Grindelia camporum): a robust
Grindelia camporum is a drought-deciduous, herbaceous perennial or part-woody sub-shrub.  It quickly grows to 2-4 feet (about 1 m.) tall and about as wide. It spreads via both rhizomes and seed, and will fill in bare patches in the garden.   It has stout, erect stems that become woody at the base with age.

The entire plant has a robust appearance; if you need a more delicate appearing gumplant, try Grindelia hirsutula.  Young stems are quite erect, but they tend to lean as the season progresses.  The stems are thick – almost succulent – and are smooth and somewhat sticky with resinous secretions.

Big gumplant (Grindelia camporum) - foliage
The leaves are medium green, alternate and clasp the stem.  They are thick, leathery and quite sticky. Foliage and flowers all have a strong, distinctive, resin-like aroma.  You’ll get to know this fragrance well as you handle the plants.  We like the scent, but some probably don’t; smell the plant before purchasing it.   The basal leaves are largest (to 6 or 7 inches), oblong and usually sharply toothed.  Leaves become smaller – and more elongated – further up the stem. 

Big gumplant (Grindelia camporum): mature and
 immature floral heads
Many gardeners love Big gumplant because of the flowers.  A member of the Sunflower family, Grindelia camporum produces flowers in typical ‘sunflower heads’.  The flower heads are of medium size (one to 1 ½ inches across), with about 25 bright yellow ray flowers (the ‘petals’) and numerous yellow disk flowers in the center.  The flowers are decorative as only sunflowers can be.
Big gumplant (Grindelia camporum): white 'gum' covers
 immature flowers
Several floral characteristics differentiate the Grindelias from other sunflowers.  First, they produce a gummy white substance that likely protects immature flowers from disease/predation. You can see the gum in the picture above; it disappears as the flowers mature.   This ‘gum’ was reportedly chewed by children as a gum substitute in previous eras.  We’ve tried it and concluded it was probably chewed for pleasure only by pretty desperate kids!  It was chewed as a medicinal gum (more on that below).

Big gumplant (Grindelia camporum): note distinctive phyllaries
The second unusual feature of Gumplant flowers are the green bracts surrounding the flower head – the phyllaries.  These are particularly showy in the Gumplants, and can sometimes be used to distinguish between gumplant species.  The phyllaries of Big gumplant are flattened at the base, but cylindrical and hooked at the tip (see photo above).  The phyllaries bend out in this species, forming a distinctive ‘cup’ below the flower head. 

Big gumplant (Grindelia camporum) spreads via rhizomes.
 Here it's re-sprouting after pruning
Big gumplant begins blooming in late spring (May) and can continue well into the fall (October or even November this year).  In drier local gardens – and in the wild – this species often loses its leaves and even dies back entirely in summer.  If rains occur in summer or early fall, the plants may green up and bloom again in fall.  That’s what they did in our garden this year.

The gumplants, like sunflowers in general, are insect pollinated.  They attract a wide range of pollinating insects including native bees, European honeybees, pollinator flies/wasps and butterflies.   In general, gumplants are good all-round insect plants; many gardeners use them for just that reason.   The seeds are small and distributed by wind – if not eaten by hungry birds.  The plants may move around the garden via new seedlings planted by Mother Nature.
Metallic Green Been on Big gumplant (Grindelia camporum)

 In our gardens, Big gumplant looks good for 4-5 years, then either dies out or is ready to be replaced.  Fortunately, it is easy to propagate from seed.  Collect fresh, dry seed in summer; plant in recycled nursery containers in late fall, and you’ll have replacement plants by next spring.  Remember to just barely cover the seeds with potting soil – they need light to germinate.

Seeds of Big gumplant (Grindelia camporum) can be collected
 when dry.
You can also easily propagate from stem cuttings in summer.  Just stick 12 inch, semi-woody cuttings into one-gallon pots (we stick up to 6 per pot; insert about 6 inches deep). Keep the soil moist, then wait for the cuttings to leaf out and produce roots.  Not all will take, but at least several should do well.

Grindelia camporum is a facultative wetland plant in California; it usually grows at wetland margins or other seasonally moist areas.  So, this plant needs good winter/spring rains to establish and succeed.  If Mother Nature doesn’t provide, you’ll have to do the honors.  Once established, Big gumplant plant is quite drought tolerant.  If you don’t mind the summer die-back, water only occasionally (or not at all).  You can get by with watering it once or twice a month in very well-drained soils.  In clays, summer water appears to decrease the plant’s life-span.

Big gumplant tolerates a wide range of soil textures.  We’ve grown it at both extremes; the only difference is the need to limit summer water in the clays.  Plants even tolerate the salty, alkali soils sometimes found right along the coast.  They like full sun and will become leggy otherwise. 

And they look better if cut back to about 12-15 inches when they go dormant.  Some cut them back in summer (they do look a little ratty); others wait to prune in fall.  Those in moister, colder climates (where gumplants are winter-dormant) may want to cut back in early spring.  That’s really all the management these plants need.
Two native Longhorned Bees on Big gumplant
 (Grindelia camporum)
Big gumplant is routinely planted in habitat gardens in western Los Angeles County. It provides nectar/pollen for insects and seeds for the birds.   It looks great with other local water-wise natives including the bunch grasses, sub-shrubs (particularly the native Buckwheats and Salvias) and larger chaparral shrubs.  Just remember, this is a large, robust-appearing plant - place accordingly.  The cheerful yellow flowers and fresh scent make it a nice addition to many gardens.  The flowers contrast beautifully with the spring penstemons and fall asters.  Some gardeners even grow Big gumplant in their herb or medicinal garden.

Big gumplant (Grindelia camporum): 'El Rincon' garden,
South Coast Botanic Garden

The Grindelias, and Grindelia camporum in particular, have a long history of use as medicinal plants.  In fact the genus name honors David Hieronymous Grindel (1776-1836), a German pharmacologist, physician and professor of botany at Riga, Estonia.  Native Californians traditionally used Big gumplant both externally (as a poultice or infusion) and internally (as an infusion - or gum chewed as a remedy for sore throat). 

A poultice made from fresh flowers and/or foliage or an infusion of the dried plant is applied to skin rashes, minor burns, eczema, dermatitis and other superficial skin conditions. This external use – along with appropriate antibiotic creams if needed – may provide relief by numbing the nerve ends. We’ll discuss how to make and use poultices later this month. 

Big gumplant has also been used as an infusion (tea) and tincture to treat conditions associated with excess respiratory mucous: bronchitis, coughs and bronchial asthma.  It was used as a homeopathic medicine in the U.S. and Europe until the 1960’s, when the U.S. FDA required such products be formally tested for safety and efficacy.

While Grindelia tinctures can still be purchased on-line, the needed clinical trials have yet to be conducted.  Several smaller studies suggest that this medicinal should be used with caution, and should not be used at all by patients who are pregnant or breast-feeding, or have kidney disease, hypertension or heart conditions.  Those aged 55 and older need be particularly careful, since kidney function decreases with age, and many of the active chemicals are excreted in the urine.

Grindelia camporum produces a wide range of plant chemicals including grindelane diterpenoids, balsamic resin, volatile oils, other terpenoids, saponins and many others.  The exact modes of action for most of these chemicals are currently unknown.  However, Grindelia camporum extracts appear to slow heart rate, decrease mucous production, and decrease inflammation both by blocking nerve endings and possibly acting as an antibiotic.  

Future research may support a role for this plant (or specific chemicals) in the treatment of asthma and other conditions.  But for now, if you choose to take this medicine internally, do so with proper caution.   Some combination of the chemicals is known to interact with common medications for hypertension (high blood pressure), with diuretics, and possibly with other medications.  You should never use this medicine without first consulting your doctor.   To read more about Big gumplant as a medicinal, see references 1-4, below.  For more on making tinctures see:

In addition to its medicinal properties, Grindelia camporum produces other potentially useful chemicals.  The resin (diterpene resin acids) produced by the foliage glands has qualities similar to wood rosin, a product with many manufacturing uses (adhesives, rubber, coatings, textile sizing, dyes and more).  The Grindelic resins are currently being evaluated as cost-effective wood rosin substitutes.  And if you are a natural dyer, the flowers and foliage produce lovely, color-fast yellow and green dyes. For more on natural dyes see:

In summary, Big gumplant is a robust perennial sunflower with excellent habitat value.  It is easy to grow, requiring little care and not much water.  The flowers are lovely and attract a parade of interesting insects. The blooms are particularly attractive when contrasted with the purple flowers of the Salvias.  The plants have useful properties, including use as medicinals and dye plants.  We hope you’ll consider Big gumplant when you need a local sub-shrub.

Big gumplant (Grindelia camporum) in spring garden:
Madrona Marsh Nature Center, Torrance  CA

For plant information sheets on other native plants see:





We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to:


Sunday, November 8, 2015

November 2015 Native Plant Sale - CSU Dominguez Hills

The Fall, 2015 CSUDH Native Plant Sale will be held Friday, November 13th and Saturday, November 14th.  The sale features locally native (and some other CA native) plants, including a large selection of plants for rain gardens, ponds and containers.  The plants are grown on campus, and donations support greenhouse and restoration activities in the South Bay.   Reasonable prices - easy parking.