Thursday, March 19, 2015

California Gourmet: Berry Dream Bar Cookies

Berry Dream Bar Cookies

Spring is a busy time for native plant enthusiasts.  In addition to garden activities, there are the garden tours, plant sales, Earth Day activities – the list goes on and on!   Many of the events call for California Gourmet treats – appetizers or desserts that feature California native plant flavors.   Needed are crowd pleasing tidbits that are easy to make and serve; and here’s where native fruit syrups are real a time-saver. Flavored syrups can be used to create a number of treats – including bar cookies. For more on making flavored syrups see:  

It’s hard to beat bar cookies for simple.  They are often made from a limited number of common ingredients.  The ingredients are assembled and baked in a baking pan.  The cooled cookies are cut into bars (whatever size is needed) and they’re ready to go.  Because they are flat and rectangular, bar cookies also pack and travel well.  Bar cookies are perfect for spring garden events and family desserts.

Brown Sugar Berry Dream Bars

We’ve modified several classic bar cookie recipes to feature fruit syrups as their key ingredient.  The Brown Sugar Berry Dream Bars are made with brown sugar and have a hint of caramel flavor.  Syrups with a more robust flavor – elderberry, blackberry, blueberry, grape, etc. – combine well with the other flavors.  The cookies are golden brown and contrast nicely with sugar cookies or the White Berry Dream Bars.   These are delicious cookies – everyone who’s tried them loves them!

White Berry Dream Bar Cookies

The White Berry Dream Bars are lighter in color and flavor.  They are reminiscent of tea parties and garden socials.  These cookies are a wonderful way to feature the more delicately flavored syrups: wild hawthorn; rose hip; current/gooseberry; wild mint or other leaf flavors; elderflower; etc.    We like to dust our White Berry Dream Bars with powdered sugar to make them even more festive.  Once again, these are not just pretty – they are truly scrumptious cookies. 

Preparing Brown Sugar Berry Dream Bar Cookies


Brown Sugar Berry Dream Bars
2/3 cup butter or margarine
1 cup brown sugar (packed)
2 cups white flour (+ additional 3-6 Tbsp for filling)
1 ¼ cup berry syrup* 

Oven temperature: 375° F 

Cream butter/margarine and brown sugar until well blended.  Using a pastry blender or two forks, blend in the flour until mixture is homogeneous and crumbly.   Spread 2/3 of the crust mixture into a greased  9 x 13 inch baking pan.  Press down firmly to make an even crust.  Bake at 375° F for 10 minutes or until lightly browned.  Remove from oven and let cool slightly.

Combine berry syrup with enough white flour to form a thick syrup (like a very thick pancake syrup).  Usually 3-6 Tbsp. of flour are needed; stir until well-blended.   Spread the syrup mixture over the warm crust.   Crumble the remaining crust mixture evenly over the top.  Return to the oven and bake about 10-12 minutes (or until top crust is a light golden brown).  Don’t worry if the surface bubbles up – bubbles will deflate as the cookies cool.   Let cool to room temperature.   Cut in 1” x 2” rectangles (or whatever size suits your needs).   Store in an airtight container (if they don’t get eat right away).                                                         Makes about 24-30

*berry syrup is a simple syrup made with either prepared juice or a ‘tea’ made by infusing flavorful leaves.  For more on making berry syrups see:



Preparing White Berry Dream Bar Cookies

White Berry Dream Bars
1 cup butter or margarine
½ cup granulated sugar
2 cups flour (+ additional 3-6 Tbsp for filling)
1 ¼ cup prepared berry syrup*
Powdered sugar (optional) 

Oven temperature: 375° F 

Cream butter/margarine and sugar until well blended.  Using a pastry blender or two forks, blend in the 2 cups of flour until mixture is homogeneous and crumbly.   Spread  crust mixture into a greased  9 x 13 inch baking pan.  Press down firmly to make an even crust.   Bake crust at 350° F for 15-20 minutes (or until lightly browned).  Remove from oven and let cool slightly. 

Prepare topping by combining berry syrup with enough white flour to form a thick syrup (like a very thick pancake syrup).  Usually 3-6 Tbsp. of flour are needed; stir until well-blended.   Spread the syrup mixture over the crust.   Bake an additional 15-20 minutes (or until topping is bubbly).  Remove from oven and let cool to room temperature.  Sprinkle powdered sugar over cooled cookies if desired.    Cut into 1” x 2” rectangles (or whatever size suits your needs).   Store in an airtight container.                                                                                     Makes about 24-30 

*berry syrup is a simple syrup made with either prepared juice or a ‘tea’ made by infusing flavorful leaves.  For more on making berry syrups see:




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


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Plant of the Month (March) : Dotseed plantain – Plantago erecta

Dotseed plantain (Plantago erecta) in Mother Nature's Backyard

Spring has definitely arrived in local gardens.  Precipitation has been below average and the rains erratic; but some annual wildflowers are more than happy with the intense bouts of rain and subsequent heat.  Among them is a sweet little annual  known as Dotseed plantain.  It’s blooming profusely in gardens throughout the South Bay, including Mother Nature’s Backyard.

Dotseed plantain, also known as California plantain, Foothill plantain, Dwarf plantain and Annual plantain, is native to the California Floristic Province (the area of California west of the Sierra Nevada mountain range) into Oregon and south into Baja California, Mexico.  It was once very common in lower elevation parts of Los Angeles County from the coastal bluffs and prairies to the desert.  It can sometimes still be found on grassy beaches, coastal dunes, in vernal pools and other places that are wet in winter and dry out in spring.  It also occurs on grassy, open slopes in coastal sage scrub, valley grassland and chaparral plant communities.

Dotseed plantain is a member of the genus Plantago (the Plantains), a genus with about 200 species world-wide.  Most are small herbaceous plants of moist places; some (like the Common plantain, Plantago major and English plantain, Plantago lanceolata) are common roadside weeds.  But many are used as larval food for certain species of butterfly (more on that below) and as medicinal plants.

Southern California is home to four other native plantains: the Coastal plantain (Plantago elongata) which occurs in Orange and San Diego counties; the Desert (Wooly) plantain (Plantago ovata) which once grew near the Los Angeles county coast as well as in the desert; Patagonia plantain (Plantago patagonica) primarily in the San Bernardino and desert mountains; and the Mexican plantain (Plantago subnuda) mostly from the Orange county and Northern California coasts.  According to the USDA PLANTS database, the following are synonyms for Plantago erecta: Plantago erecta Morris ssp. rigidior Pilg.; Plantago hookeriana Fisch. & C.A. Mey. var. californica (Greene) Poe; and Plantago patagonica Jacq. var. californica Greene.

Dotseed plantain (Plantago erecta) : plant
Dotseed plantain is a small herbaceous annual, less than 12 inches (30 cm) tall and slender.  It has narrow, sometimes needle-like, leaves growing from a basal rosette.   The height of individual plants depends on light and soil conditions, at least one of which is soil moisture.  In fact you sometimes see marked variation in height within a patch, with shorter (sometimes only 2-3 inch) plants along the drier margins.  The entire plant is pale green and sparsely hairy with long, silky hairs visible with the naked eye.    When growing densely, the plants look like a patch of small soft grass (see below).

A patch of Dotseed plantain (Plantago erecta)

Like other annual wildflowers, Plantago erecta germinates with the winter rains.  In our experience, seeds don’t germinate until the ground is well-saturated, often in January. Don’t count on lots of plants every year. Like other wildflowers, some years are better suited than others.  New seedlings look like small, soft grass seedlings – in fact they may be difficult to tell apart.  If you grow Dotseed plantain, refrain from pulling those ‘grass seedlings’ in winter until you’re certain they aren’t young Plantago.

Plantago erecta (Dotseed plantain) seedlings
Dotseed plantain has interesting flowers, but you’ll have to look closely.  The flowers themselves are very small – less than 5 mm (1/4 inch) across – and not particularly colorful.   The flowers are closely spaced along flowering stalks slightly longer than the leaves; these stalks give the plants their characteristic appearance this time of year.  There may be as few as 5-6 to as many as 50+ flowers on each stem (see below).   The flowering portion covers less than 1/5 of the flowering stalk in this species.

Flowering stalks, Dotseed plantain (Plantago erecta)
The flowers are mostly bisexual and in parts of four (see below). Petals are rounded with pointed tips and are almost transparent except at their base. The petals are spread back (reflexed) from the sexual organs.   The stamens (male sexual organs) are difficult to see without magnification; they are relatively short compared to some plantain species.   The plantains with showy, extended stamens are wind pollinated (similar to grasses); Dotseed plantain is pollinated by small insects.

Close-up of Dotseed plantain flower
Dotseed plantain is an annual, and an early one at that.  It usually blooms in March in our area.  The flowering season lasts only a few weeks in most years, and the plants themselves die back – or are masked by the later-blooming annuals – by mid-April.  The dried flower stalks remain on the plant until the seeds mature and are released – often not until early summer.  The dried stalks are pretty in their own right, but are often hidden by other plants.   The small dry seed capsules open from the top, releasing several seeds.
Dried flower stalks, Dotseed plantain (Plantago erecta)
Like many native wildflowers, Dotseed plantain is easy to grow.  It likes full sun but may appreciate afternoon shade in inland gardens.  It’s not particular about soil type.  All it really needs is moist soil from January through March.  After flowering ceases, plants should be allowed to dry out, completing the seed development process.  Once Plantago erecta is established it will re-seed on bare ground (or thin mulch) and will even expand its original range if happy. 

Dotseed plantain (foreground) with taller Purple Clarkia  (not yet in bloom);
 Madrona Nature Center garden - Torrance  CA

Dotseed plantain is a perfect annual to fill in around shrubs.  It does brilliantly along walkways and mixes well with native grasses and other annual wildflowers, California poppies and perennials.   It gives an early touch of green in winter – a first hint of spring.  Many of us look forward to seeing it each year.

Dotseed plantain has greater importance in the wilds than one might expect.  Further North it is host to the larvae of two endangered sub-species of Checkerspot butterfly, the Bay checkerspot, Euphydryas editha bayensis and the Quino checkerspot, Euphydryas editha quino.     Plantago species are eaten by larvae of the Common Buckeye butterfly, Junonia coenia, and Dotseed plantain is sometimes planted for this butterfly. 

Dotseed plantain with Carex (left) and Linum lewisii;
  home garden, Redondo Beach  CA
Seeds of Plantago erecta were formerly harvested in great quantities by Native Californians.  It fact, it was considered an important grain plant.   It's not clear whether this species was used in traditional medicine, as introduced plantains were in later years.   But whether you eat the seeds or not, Dotseed plantain is a charming little plant; it deserves a place in more home gardens.





For plant information sheets on other native plants see:




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


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Plant of the Month (February) : Vine Hill manzanita – Arctostaphylos densiflora

Three year old Ceanothus densiflora 'Howard McMinn' - Mother Nature's Backyard

February is often rainy, though 2015 is thus far the exception.   One of the more pleasant activities this time of year is admiring the early-blooming trees and shrubs.   Our ‘Ray Hartman’ Ceanothus is usually glorious in February.  And our Arctostaphylos densiflora ‘Howard McMinn’ is a perennial favorite with humans and pollinators alike. 

Vine Hill manzanita is endemic to a relatively small area of Sonoma County, 13 miles from the Northern California coast.  It grows in the Vine Hill area, between the towns of Forestville and Sebastopol, in a part of Sonoma County best known for its vineyards.  The region is mostly forest, with openings (‘barrens’) featuring unusual sandy clay, acidic soils.  The Vine Hill manzanita grows in these barrens, as do several other endangered plant species: the Vine Hill ceanothus (Ceanothus foliosus var. vineatus) and Vine Hill clarkia (Clarkia imbricata).

Specimen of Vine Hill manzanita (Arctostaphylos densiflora)
Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, Claremont   CA
Vine Hill manzanita was first described by Milo Baker (Santa Rosa Junior College) in 1932, from specimens growing in what was later to become the Vine Hill Preserve.  To learn more about the Preserve see:   A Pacific Horticulture article by Philip Van Soelen provides a fascinating history of the Preserve, the rare manzanitas associated with it, and the hybrid cultivars arising from Arctostaphylos densiflora ( 

The species Arctostaphylos densiflora is now limited to a small number of individuals growing in or near the Vine Hill Preserve.  It is listed on the California Native Plant Societies Inventory of Rare and Endangered Plants as a category 1B.1 species (rare, threatened, or endangered in CA and elsewhere).   But several cultivars of this amazing manzanita are alive and thriving in gardens throughout California.  In fact, they are some of the best known – and garden-proven – of the California manzanitas.  We are fortunate to have one in Mother Nature’s Backyard.

The ‘Arctostaphylos densiflora cultivars’ are likely actually hybrids between the Vine Hill manzanita and other California Arctostaphylos species.  As discussed in the Van Soelen article, the parentage of several common cultivars, including ‘Harmony’, ‘Howard McMinn’ and ‘Sentinel’, is hidden in history.  These cultivars arose in the wilds or in gardens which either contained (or were within pollinator’s flight distance) of other manzanita species.  Since manzanitas hybridize given the opportunity, our garden favorites are likely hybrids.  Only DNA studies may someday reveal their true parentage; as far as we know, such studies have not yet been done.

Interestingly, the common Arctostaphylos densiflora cultivars’ share several  distinctive characteristics of their Vine Hill parent.   All have rather small (for manzanita) pinkish flowers in dense clusters (truly ‘densiflora’).  Their leaves are almost perpendicular to the ground, giving the plants a neat, dense appearance compared to other manzanitas.   Most tend to grow wider than tall – at least in the first several decades.   And they tolerate a wide range of soil textures from quite sandy to clay. 

‘Harmony’ manzanita grows 2-4 ft tall and 4-6 ft wide in its first decade or so; it is often used as a woody groundcover or low foundation plant in soils ranging from sandy to clay.  But it has the potential to grow to 6-7 ft. tall and about as wide; it can be pruned up over time to reveal its attractive trunk structure and bark.  ‘Harmony’ is said to most resemble A. densiflora; it has larger leaves and a more open habit than the other ‘densiflora’ cultivars.  It can take very wet soils in winter and very dry ones in summer.

'Sentinel' manzanita - Theodore Payne Foundation, Sunland  CA

Arctostaphylos ‘Sentinel’, another popular cultivar, is taller (to 8-10 ft with time) and more upright (4-6 ft wide) than the other A. densiflora cultivars.  It also grows more quickly than the rest.   A natural hybrid (most likely) from the Vine Hill area, it is more drought and sun tolerant than the other cultivars, though not as frost hardy. It is often pruned up as a small, multi-trunk ‘tree’ to exhibit its red-brown bark.  This cultivar has slightly grayer leaves and looks wonderful combined with greener manzanitas, including ‘Howard McMinn’. 

Arctostaphylos 'Sentinel' ('Sentinel manzanita) flowers

‘White Lanterns’ manzanita is a very dense shrub growing eventually to 5-7 ft tall by 8-12 ft wide.  Similar in appearance to ‘Howard McMinn’, it has smaller leaves giving it more fine appearing texture and denser foliage.  It was introduced by the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden from a volunteer seedling selected by Dara Emery.  It makes a lovely specimen, foundation plant or informal hedge.   Like all Vine Hill cultivars, it is literally covered in white flowers in late winter/early spring.

Arctostaphylos  ‘Howard McMinn’ is probably the best-known and most widely available of the A. densiflora cultivars.  It was selected by Howard McMinn, botany professor at Mills College, from the college garden (Oakland), where he raised manzanitas from seed collected at Vine Hill and other sites. It is speculated to be a hybrid between Arctostaphylos densiflora and perhaps A. stanfordiana.  

‘Howard McMinn’ manzanita was introduced into the nursery trade by the Saratoga Horticultural Foundation in 1955; it received the ‘Award of Merit’ from the California Horticultural Society in 1956.  So it is relatively old by California native cultivar standards.   There are garden specimens more than 50 years old - still growing strong!   We hope our plant at Mother Nature’s Backyard will do as well.

'Howard McMinn' manzanita
 Madrona Marsh native plant garden, Torrance  CA

‘Howard McMinn’ manzanita is a slow-growing, bushy shrub.  It was originally described as a smaller manzanita, suitable as a groundcover; garden experience has shown it can become rather large with time, ultimately attaining heights of 6-10 ft and widths of 6-12 feet.  But its slow growth will keep it a medium shrub (4-5 ft tall; 5-6 wide) for many years.

 ‘Howard McMinn’ has a dense, medium-green appearance due to its erect leaves (see below).   Gardeners often choose manzanitas for their evergreen leaves and red-brown bark.  This cultivar displays both from an early age.  In fact, from a foliage standpoint, ‘Howard McMinn’ has to be one of the prettiest manzanitas available. 

Foliage - 'Howard McMinn' manzanita

Like most manzanitas, ‘Howard McMinn’ has a nice natural shape: mounded and dense when young, more open at the base with age.  Some gardeners like to thin out lower branches to encourage a tree-like shape.  But little pruning is required – just removing dead branches is all that’s really needed.   We like to let manzanitas take their own shape over time.

Flowers and foliage: 'Howard McMinn' manzanita

Of course the main attraction this time of year is the flowers.  True to its parentage, ‘Howard McMinn’ manzanita puts on quite a show!  This year the flowers were only around for several weeks, probably due to the hot weather.  In a usual year in western Los Angeles County, this cultivar is covered with flowers for 3-4 weeks from as early as late January until well into February.  

The flowers are small and urn-shaped – typical for manzanita – and range from pink to almost white.  They are held in rather dense clusters, mostly on the sunny exterior of the foliage.   The flowers are noticeably smaller than those of our Bigberry manzanita (see: making them accessible to European honey bees as well as the longer-tongued native bees and hummingbirds.  On a sunny day, plants are literally buzzing with pollinators.

Flowers - 'Howard McMinn' manzanita
The fruits of ‘Howard McMinn’ manzanita are the ‘little apples’ of manzanita fame.  They usually ripen to red-brown in late spring/early summer in our area.  The fruits are edible and can be made into a refreshing cider-like drink (more on that this summer).  They can be used to make tasty jellies or syrups; they can also be dried, crushed and used for a pleasant tea.  Of course the fruit-eating birds like Northern Mockingbirds, Scrub Jays and Cedar Waxwings will happily devour any left-over fruits.   Birds are also known to nest in mature manzanitas.

Manzanita (Arctostaphylos) fruits

 ‘Howard McMinn’ is more forgiving than most manzanitas when it comes to garden conditions.  It can take full sun near the coast, but does better with some afternoon shade in most local gardens.  It loves well-drained sandy soils, but does fine in clay loams and clays (especially if planted on a low berm).  Quite drought tolerant once established, ‘Howard McMinn’ is more tolerant than most manzanitas of a little summer water.   But don’t over-water – once a month should be plenty.
Eight year old 'Howard McMinn' manzanita
 Madrona Marsh native plant garden, Torrance   CA 


Use ‘Howard McMinn’ as a specimen shrub in the front or backyard.  It’s pretty enough to stand muster in the most manicured of neighborhoods.   It also makes a nice hedge or hedgerow plant.  Its size is perfect for hiding a block wall (as we are doing in Mother Nature’s Backyard).    ‘Howard McMinn’  is often used with  manzanitas/cultivars that have different growth or foliage characteristics.  The year-round green contrasts are soothing, and the yearly show of flowers and fruits is magical.   It does well on slopes, making an easy-care slope cover.   Some even advocate it as a candidate for a large container.

Flowering 'Howard McMinn' manzanita on small berm -
Madrona Marsh native plant garden, Torrance  CA

However you use it, Arctostaphylos ‘Howard McMinn’ (and the other Arctostaphylos densiflora cultivars) make great additions to the garden.  They are time proven and should last a lifetime with proper care.


For a gardening information sheet see:

For plant information sheets on other native plants see:




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


Monday, February 9, 2015

Gallery of Native Plants - Now Even Better

Native Plant Lists for Western L.A. County Gardeners

We've made the Gallery of Native Plants even better by adding links to relevant talks to our popular 'Lists of Native Plants for Western L.A. County Gardens'.  Check it out at:   (or access using the Gallery page (right).

Sunday, January 25, 2015

California Gourmet: Flavored Syrups

Flavored syrups made from California native and garden fruits
You can use them on pancakes or drizzle them on deserts.  They make refreshing beverages and can even be used to make cookies and pies.  One of the handiest uses for California native fruits and berries is flavored syrups. 

But why discuss syrups in January, when fruits mostly ripen in summer or fall?   First, there’s still time to plant native berry and tea plants this year. Perhaps this posting will inspire you.   Second, syrups are particularly useful right now, when fresh fruits – at least those from home gardens – are scarce. 

A third reason is that some syrups can be made right now.   Fruits/berries are the most common flavoring agents; but syrups can be made from anything used to make a natural tea as well.   If you love mint tea – and your mint patch is flourishing – now might be a good time to make mint flavored syrup.

Conditions have been perfect for Hummingbird sage this winter (see  You may be enjoying fresh tea and drying leaves for later use.  You might also make a batch of Hummingbird sage syrup.  It’s easy, cheap and a wonderful treat that can be used in many ways. We’ll post recipes featuring flavored syrups in the next few months.

Flavored syrups are essentially ‘simple syrups’ made with fruit juice or natural tea.  You can make as much or as little as you want; and you can use them immediately or process them (like you would jelly) for future use.   The flavors are unique to your garden – whether you make syrup from plums or nectarines or from the native fruits.  The syrups make unique and wonderful gifts.


Making the juice/tea

The main ingredient is either juice or natural tea.   You can make juice from just about any fruit: berries, grapes, strawberries, stone fruits, citrus, manzanita fruits, etc.  Just wash the fruits, cut and remove the pit (from stone fruits) or slice the citrus thinly.  Place fruit in a saucepan/pot and barely cover with water. 

Heat to a near-boil; then let the mixture simmer for about 20 minutes.  The liquid should be colored and well-flavored; smaller fruits will have burst their skins.  Remove from the heat, let cool slightly, then strain out the pulp/seeds.  Use a jelly bag or line a sieve with several layers of cheese cloth.  The resulting ‘juice’ should be colored but relatively clear, with no visible particles.

If using natural tea, follow the instructions on making tea from our June, 2012 posting ( ).  You might want to make the tea a little stronger than normal if using it for syrup-making.


Flavored Syrup

1 cup prepared juice or tea

1 to 2 cups sugar

Other flavorings (optional): lemon juice; cinnamon (stick); other spices


You can make this syrup in any amount – just use equal amounts of sugar and juice.  A thicker syrup (good on pancakes or desserts) can be made by increasing the sugar up to a 1 to 2 ratio of juice/tea to sugar (e.g., one cup juice to 2 cups sugar).  Experiment to get the consistency and flavor combination you prefer.   You can also combine several types of juice/tea if desired.

Place sugar, juice and spices (optional) in a heavy saucepan.  Simmer over medium heat until mixture boils.  Lower heat and continue to simmer 5 additional minutes.  Remove from heat.  

Process syrup with a boiling water bath* (as for jelly) if you want to store the syrup for up to a year.  Or cool and store in a sealed glass jar in the refrigerator for up to a month.  




* A good way to preserve syrups is by canning them, using the sterilizing effects of heat.  This time honored method allows you to store syrups, in canning jars, at room temperature.   You need to be sure that you follow recommended methods exactly to insure that your food is canned safely. 

If you’re new to preserving using a boiling water bath, we suggest reading a good basic reference on home canning. A classic reference book is the Ball Blue Book Guide To Preserving.   Some good on-line resources are:


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