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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Solar Dyeing with Native Plant Trimmings



Fall is pruning time for many Southern California native plants.  You can put your garden trimmings to use as mulch or compost;  or you can use them  to color yarn or fabric.   The easiest material to dye is wool yarn.  The physical/chemical structures of wool fibers allow them to bind natural dyes readily.  We’d like to introduce you to an easy way to dye wool/wool blend yarn using your garden trimmings.  But first, a little background that will help you dye with confidence.


Plant pigments & natural dyes    Plants make a number of colorful compounds called pigments.  People have used these pigments to dye fibers, yarn and cloth for thousands of years.   There are well known natural dye plants; for example, most people know that indigo dye comes from the ‘Indigo Plant’.  The dye potential of other plants – like some California native species – has not yet been fully explored.

Natural dyes can be made from most plant parts.  That being said, some native plants (and some plant parts) make more effective dyes than others.   Commonly used plant parts are leaves, branch tips (leaves and small stems), flowers, roots, bark and wood.  At this time of year, your garden may still have flowers from fall-blooming Sunflowers (Annual Sunflower; Goldenrod; Goldenbushes; Rabbitbush).  These flowers – and those of other yellow and orange ‘sunflowers’  like marigolds and Encelia – make wonderful yellow dyes.  But at this time of year, your best source of dye materials is leaf/stem trimmings.   

With a few exceptions, it’s difficult to predict the color of a dye from the color of the plant or flower.  At least two reasons explain this: 1) most plants make several pigments (only one of which may be obvious to the eye); 2) some pigments change color as they are heated, aged, or are exposed to other chemicals.   This unpredictability actually makes natural dyes more interesting – you are often surprised by the results!

In general, plants/flowers in the Sunflower family produce reliable green, yellow and gold dyes.  Flowers and fruits that are pink, purple or blue usually don’t make good, lasting dyes (the colors are weak and don’t hold up to washing and sun exposure).  Dyes made from yellow or orange flowers – or from leaves and stems/branches – tend to be more permanent.   In general, natural dyes produce softer, less intense colors than those produced by chemical (aniline) dyes.  They have a pretty, old-fashioned appearance that’s easy on the eye and complements human skin tones nicely.
 

Amount of plant material needed     Generally, the more plant material you use, the more intense the dye color.   A good rule of thumb for solar dyeing is about 1-2 gallon-size bags worth of trimmings per 3-4 oz (100 gram) of yarn.  If you are using dried material, you’ll need to use about 2-3 gallons of material to get a good color.   You may need to crush the dried plant material to get it to fit in your pot/jar.
 

Heat & dye release    Plant pigments are mostly contained within plant cells.  The cell walls must be broken down to release the pigment into the dye bath.  The easiest way to do this is to heat the plant material.   Another way is to let the plant material decompose a bit.  Both processes are at work in solar dyeing.  

Wool and wool-blend yarns do not like to be ‘shocked’ by sudden temperature changes.  So always put wool yarn into liquids of a similar temperature (e.g. cool wool into cool water; warm wool into warm dye bath).  When heating wool yarn, use medium heat (or heat from the sun) and simmer – don’t boil – the yarn.
 


A - Red Heart 'Shimmer' - color: Snow - 100% acrylic
B - Lion Brand 'Wool-ease' - color: Natural Healther-98 - 20% wool/80% acrylic
C - Loops & Threads 'Luxury Wool' - color: White - 50% wool/50% acrylic
D - Paton's 'Classic Wool' - color: Aran-00202 - 100% wool
E - KnitPicks 'Bare' - color: bare - 100% wool
E' - same as E, but not mordanted
 
Type of yarn    The type of yarn used greatly affects solar dye projects.  The photo above shows  a dye experiment using five different types of yarn.   Note that the brightest, truest colors come from the yarns with 100% wool content.   The dye uptake generally decreases as the proportion of wool in the yarn decreases.  The 100% acrylic yarn shows only a subtle effect of the dye. 

While 100% wool yarns produce the most predictable results, any yarn with at least 20% wool content will take up some dye.   Results using wool blends can, in fact, be spectacular!  So you may want to experiment with different yarns, including the ‘washable wools’.   

All yarns used in the dye experiment shown above (except yarn ‘E’) are available in local craft/yarn stores.   If you desire, you can order yarn specifically formulated for dying – at very reasonable prices – from KnitPicks (http://www.knitpicks.com/yarns/Dye_Your_Own_Knitting_Yarn__L300110.html.  KnitPicks ‘Bare’ yarns range from very thin (fingering weight) to bulky weight.   In addition to wool, KnitPicks also offers a limited selection of wool/silk blend yarns, wool ‘roving’ (prepared, unspun wool) and washable wool yarns.  The KnitPicks washable wool yarns produce nice bright colors with native plant dyes (see picture below).


Washable yarn: left dyed with Rabbitbush, right dyed with Toyon

 
Mordants   Traditional dyers discovered long ago that treating wool/yarn with certain substances increased the intensity and staying power of natural dyes.  These substances – called mordants – change the wool in subtle ways that make it hold the dye more strongly.   A common mordant used with wool is alum (potassium aluminum sulfate; ‘potassium alum’) or pickling/spice alum (ammonium aluminum sulfate). 

Potassium alum is available from chemical supply companies and on-line from natural dye supply companies like the Woolery (http://www.woolery.com/store/pc/Mordants-Surfactant-Soda-c501.htm).   Pickling alum (ammonium aluminum sulfate) is widely used in foods and other products.  You can sometimes find it in the spice aisle in local grocery stores (sometimes in the Mexican food spice section).   You can also order it on-line quite cheaply (just google ‘pickling alum’ or ‘alum’).   Alum is usually used with another readily available substance – cream of tartar (tartaric acid).  We get ours in a big container at Smart & Final.

Mordants are dissolved in water and then applied to the yarn or cloth.   There are many ways to do this.   We recommend mordanting your yarn before you dye it, to give good, even dye results with solar dyeing.   You can let the sun supply most of the energy and work of mordanting (see instructions below).  

Even though alum is a relatively safe mordant, you’ll want to handle mordants,  mordanted yarns/cloth  and dye materials/dye baths with rubber gloves.   You’ll also need to thoroughly wash all equipment used in the dye process after you’re finished.  If you continue do more than a little natural dyeing you will need a  dedicated set of pots/spoons, etc.  used just for dyeing.   Dye supplies and equipment should be stored away from cooking supplies/equipment.
 

Free movement insures even dye color    When using natural dyes it’s important that the yarn is able to float freely in the dye bath.  This allows all parts of the yarn to come in contact with the dye.   If necessary, add a little extra water to the dye bath to ensure that the yarn floats freely.
 

Disposal of used mordant, dye, rinse water and plant materials   All the spent (used) materials from this project are safe for disposal.  We recommend using the plant materials for mulch or compost.  The spent liquids are mostly water.  You can use them to water your garden plants (best option) or pour them down the drain.
 

Solar Dye Method  The solar dye method is a simple technique that uses a minimum of equipment and energy - and is fun to do.  You can try it with most  native plants commonly grown in local gardens.   You can even use non-native plants, garden vegetable plants and weeds.   Whatever plant you use, be sure to check (on-line is best) that the plant is non-toxic before you use it in solar dye projects.   One of the nice things about plants in the Sunflower family is that they not only are good dye plants but they also are safe to use.

 

Equipment/supplies
 

·         Large, clear glass/plastic jar (at least 24 oz ; gallon size is better) with a lid* - you may need a second, smaller (at least 16 oz.)  clear jar with lid for mordanting

·         Old cooking pot (equivalent or larger volume than the large jar; enamel or stainless steel is best – aluminum is fine)**

·         Old spoon or stick (sturdy; wood or stainless steel best)**

·         Sieve/colander

·         Plastic dishwashing tub or plastic bucket (for rinsing dyed yarn)

·         Kitchen scale or measuring spoons

·         Hot pads

·         Heat source (stove or burner); optional – see Instructions

·         Rubber household gloves

·         Small mesh lingerie washing bag or mesh paint straining cloth (optional); helpful for containing plant materials /straining the dye bath)


·         Wool or wool-blend yarn (natural color/white/un-dyed; at least 20% wool content– 50% or more is best) -  one or two 100-gram (3-4 oz) skeins/hanks).  


·         Native plant clippings (see below for suggestions***); enough to fill your jar about 2/3 full; woody stems  should be cut into 2-3 inch long pieces
 

·         Alum mordant (10% of the weight of the yarn;  for example, if dyeing a 4 oz skein of yarn, you’ll need 10% of the yarn’s weight (0.4 oz) of alum); or use a skimpy Tablespoon of alum per skein.
 

·         Cream of tartar (5% of the weight of the yarn; in the example, you’d need 0.2 oz of Cream of Tartar to mordant the skein of yarn);  or one level teaspoon of cream of tartar per skein.


 

* try Smart & Final                  ** try thrift stores as a good source if you don’t have these 

*** Anything in the Sunflower family (Encelia; Annual Sunflower; Rabbitbush; Coyote Bush; Mule Fat; Goldenbush; CA Sagebrush; Goldenrod; Telegraph Plant; Yarrow);
Black Sage; Toyon; Ceanothus

 

Instructions
 

Preparing the yarn  (can be done ahead of time or several days before the dye bath is ready). 
 

 
Most yarns purchased locally come in 3-4 oz (100 gm) balls.  You’ll need to rewind the yarn into loose skeins/hanks to insure even dyeing.   We find it’s easiest to wind skeins using the back of a chair (see above). 

Once the skein is created, tie the yarn ends together and then tie the skein loosely in three places.  We suggest using natural/white cotton string or crochet cotton - or short pieces of the yarn itself.  Place the tied skein in the plastic wash tub/bucket; soak it in lukewarm tap water while you prepare the mordant.  Be sure to squeeze the yarn to get out the air bubbles – yarn should be thoroughly soaked before it goes into the mordant solution or dye bath.  Most yarns should be soaked at least 30 minutes.

Next, dissolve the alum and cream of tartar in 1 1/2 cups of very hot water (from the tap or heated).  Remember to wear gloves when handling mordant. Stir to completely dissolve, then cool to lukewarm.  Place solution in the either the cooking pot or the smaller jar.   Add the wet yarn and additional tap water (as needed) to cover the yarn.  Swirl yarn gently in the solution.   Cover the pan with plastic wrap (or put the cover on the jar).  Place in a hot, sunny spot for 2-3 days.

Remove the yarn and rinse well in tap water. Gently squeeze the skein to remove the rinse water.  Dry the yarn for later use or put it directly into the prepared dye bath.  You can dry the yarn over a plastic hanger in the bathtub.  Or hang it from a clothes line outside to complete the drying.   The dry, pre-mordanted yarn is good for up to a year; store in a labeled plastic bag until ready to use.

 
Preparing the dye bath


 
The plant material must be small enough to fit through the mouth of the jar.  If needed, cut branches/twigs into 2-3 inch pieces with your pruners.  You can either place the plant material directly into the water or place it first into a mesh lingerie washing bag.   It’s easier to remove the plant materials if you use the mesh bag – but the choice is yours.  The heat won’t affect most laundry bags – if unsure, test the bag in boiling water before using it.

After the plant materials are cut to size, you can proceed in one of two ways: 1) put the plant material in the jar, add tap water to cover and place  in a sunny place for dye extraction, or ; 2) heat the plant material for a short time on the stove/heat source prior to putting it in the jar.  Note: if you are preparing dye from Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) , Laurel Sumac (Malosma laurina), Elderberry (Sambucus nigra), Sugarbush (Rhus ovata) or Lemonadeberry (Rhus integrifolia) you should use method 1 or heat the dye bath outdoors.   At high temperatures these plants produce cyanide fumes (smell like bitter almond) which are toxic.  

We recommend method 2 for most plant materials.  Although it uses a little energy, the dyes are more intense.  To pre-heat, put plant materials in the pot and cover them with tap water.   Bring the pot to a boil on high, then turn down the heat and simmer for 20 minutes or until the water shows some color.  Let the dye bath cool to lukewarm/cold and transfer it to the jar.  Cover with the lid (or plastic wrap).
 

 
For both methods,  place the covered jar in a warm/hot sunny place (a sunny window or patio works well).  Let the dye bath develop for 5 to 10 days.  Swirl the water every other day.  You’ll know the dye bath is ready when there’s no more change in color and the plant materials appear tan or pale.

Remove plant materials from the dye bath, then strain out small pieces using a strainer/colander or paint straining cloth.   You now have a prepared dye bath.

 
Dyeing the yarn


Pour the dye bath back into the jar.  If dry, soak the pre-mordanted yarn in lukewarm water for at least ½ hour.   Place wet yarn into the jar and check the liquid level.  If needed, add more water (so the yarn floats freely).  Place the capped jar back in the sun and let the sun’s rays work their magic!  Be sure to swirl the contents of the jar gently every other day.
 

 

In our experience it takes 5-14 days to complete the dye process.  In general, dye uptake is fastest in warm, sunny weather.  But some dyes just take longer.  You’ll know that dyeing is complete when the yarn remains the same color for several days.

Remove the yarn and gently rinse in cool tap water.  Grasp the yarn and rinse using an up-and-down motion.  This rinses and straightens the yarn.  Rinsing is complete when the rinse water remains clear.  Use the rinse water to water your plants.

Hang the dyed yarn up to dry in a dry, shaded place.  Fluff the yarn occasionally as it dries.   Re-wind the yarn into a nice ball.  And now you’re ready to use your newly dyed yarn for knitting, crochet or other craft projects.



 
 

You can access our brief instruction guide at:   http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/solar-dyeing-using-native-plant-trimmings-27255522

Learn more about native plants that can be used for dyes at: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2013/10/garden-crafts-colors-of-california-dyes.html



We hope you’ll enjoy solar dyeing as much as we do.  Feel free to send your  dyeing questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com .

Monday, October 15, 2012

Getting to Know Your Garden’s Soil: Simple Soil Tests


Soil is literally the bedrock on which a garden grows.  It can determine the types of plants that succeed and the best irrigation practices to use. Because soil is so important, it pays to take a little time to get to know your soil’s characteristics.   Fortunately, there are several easy, inexpensive soil tests that can tell you a lot about your soil.

Two key characteristics that effect plant health are soil drainage and soil fertility.  Interestingly, both characteristics are influenced by the types/sizes of the particles that make up a soil – the physical characteristics of the soil.  You may suspect that you have a sandy or clay soil, since both are common in our area.  In general, the following are true:
 
  • ·         Sandy soils - have larger soil particles that allow them to drain well.  They also dry out more quickly and tend to leach out their nutrients.  If your soil is sandy, you’ll need to water more frequently in summer.
  •  ·         Clay soils - have smaller soil particles that retain water and soil nutrients better.  They also tend to drain more slowly, which can create problems for some water-wise plants.  If your soil is clay, you’ll need to water less frequently to avoid over-watering.
  • ·         Loam soils – have a balance of sand, clay and intermediate size (silt) particles.   They are best for retaining water and nutrients – in fact, they are ideal soils.  Loam soils are more common than you think in our area.

You may already think you know your soil. But until you test, you won’t really know.  In fact, you may be surprised to find that your soil is less sandy – or clay-like – than you think.   Two simple tests can help you better understand the physical characteristics of your soil.   The Simple Sedimentation Test will tell you the percent of different sized particles – the soil texture. That will tell you whether you really have a clay soil – or actually have a loam.  The Percolation Test  will tell you whether your soil drains quickly, slowly – or somewhere in between.  If you are having problems with soil drainage, you may also want to test your Soil Depth.   If you are having trouble getting plants to grow – or if you want to grow plants with special requirements – you may want to test your Soil pH and the Basic Soil Nutrient Levels in your soil.

In our last posting on soils (September, 2012) we discussed urban soils.  Many local gardens contain a combination of native soils and ‘fill’.  The ‘fill dirt’ may be quite different from your native soil. If your garden appears to have several different types of soil, you should conduct at least the Sedimentation and Percolation tests for each soil type. 
 

Conducting a Simple Soil Sedimentation Test – to determine soil texture



 
Fill a large clear glass/plastic jar (1 quart or larger) 1/3 full with soil. Fill the jar almost to the top with water.  Cap securely and shake well; then let the layers settle out.  Mark the line of sediment that settles at 2 minutes (sand particles); 2 hours (silt particles) and 24 hours (clay particles).  The picture below shows a sedimentation test from Mother Nature’s Backyard compared to results from two other local gardens.


 
You may also see some darker brown material on top of the clay layer (or still floating on the water).  This is the organic (or humus) material, made up of old, partially decayed leaves, roots and mulch.   The darker the water color, the more organic material in the soil (in our area). Note that the soil from Mother Nature’s Backyard has less organic material than the Amended Soil sample.   A close-up picture of the sedimentation test for Mother Nature’s Backyard is shown below. 

 
Once you’ve conducted the test, measure the depth of each layer and convert it to a percent of the total.   In the soil test above, the total soil depth was 5 cm.  The sand depth was 2.5 cm. (2.5/5 = 0.5 or 50%), the silt depth was 2 cm. (40%) and the clay was ½ cm. (10%).   Now you can look at the picture below to see whether your soil is roughly classified as sandy, loam or clay.


 

You may want to go one step further and classify your soil using the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) Soil Texture Triangle, below.  
 

 
The Soil Texture Triangle is easy to use.  The percent sand, silt and clay make up the three side of the triangle.  Each side has a set of arrows to tell you which direction to draw your line.  For example, the ‘sand arrows’ (along the bottom of the triangle) point up on a diagonal to the left, while the ‘clay arrows’ are horizontal.

  
In the picture above we’ve determined the soil texture for Mother Nature’s Backyard using the Soil Texture Triangle.  Start with the percent sand (50%) at the bottom of the triangle.  Then draw a line parallel to the ‘sand arrows’ through 50%.  Now we have our ‘sand line’.   Then draw the ‘silt line’ through 40% silt and parallel to the ‘silt arrows’.  Finally, draw in your ‘clay line’.   The intersection of the three lines (circled in the example above) is your soil type.   You can see that we have ‘loam soil’ in Mother Nature’s Backyard.  This was a surprise to us – we thought we had a clay soil!  

In general, loam soils (including sandy loams & clay loams) are good for growing just about anything.  Very sandy soils may require plants that are specifically noted to be ‘for sandy soils’.  Fortunately, many local native plants like sandy soils. We’ll talk more about gardening in sandy soils in another posting.

Clays and clay loams are often excellent garden soils, as long as they have adequate drainage. You’ll want to conduct a percolation test to check your soil’s drainage, especially if you have either loam or clay soils.   And you may need to use a few tricks to increase your soil’s drainage.

For more about soil texture testing see:
 


 

Conducting a Percolation (perc) Testto test soil drainage


http://www.learn2grow.com/gardeningguides/lawns/planting/PercolationTestForYourLawn.aspx
 
Dig a hole 1 ft deep by 1 foot across. The photo above shows a perc test hole.  Fill with water – let it drain until there’s no more water.  Fill with water again (up to the top) and note how long it takes to drain completely. 

Soils that drain within ½ hour are very well-drained.  Native plants needing sandy soils will thrive in very well-drained soils.  Soils that drain in less than 3 hours are well-drained.  Well-drained soils are ideal for most water-wise plants, vegetables, trees and shrubs. You are very lucky if you have a well-drained soil.  Soils that take more than 6 hours have poor drainage.  You will need to monitor your soil’s moisture carefully so you don’t over-water.  If you want to grow plants that need good drainage, you may want to create berms or raised beds (see December 2012 blog posting) to improve drainage.  You’ll also want to check your soil depth to be sure you don’t have a dense layer that prevents drainage.
 

Soil depth – some poorly drained soils have a dense layer that keeps water from draining.  This may be a true ‘hardpan’ clay layer, a rock layer or just a compacted zone.  You can often detect a dense layer by digging down until you cannot dig further.  A depth of less than 20 inches means you have a shallow soil.  You may want to break up the impervious layer (or drill holes through it) to improve drainage (see December 2012 posting).
 

Soil pH – influences the availability of soil nutrients to your plants.  Most local garden soils have a pH from about 6.5 to 8.0.  An ideal soil for many plants (including vegetables) is around 7.0. But there are many native plants that like a soil pH between 7.5 and 8.0 (‘basic’ soils).  If you’re having difficulty getting plants to grow – or if you want to plant ‘acid-loving’ plants - you can test your soil pH with a simple test kit (available at most garden centers and plant nurseries).
 

Soil basic nutrients – Many California native plants have low fertilizer needs; other plants (including vegetables and some non-native plants) have higher nutrient needs.  Simple test kits that indicate levels of the basic nutrients (nitrogen; potassium; phosphorus) are available at most garden centers.  These kits are inexpensive and easy to use - just follow the directions on the kit. Most kits indicate whether the levels of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus are low, adequate or high.  That’s usually good enough for most gardens.  We’ll talk about soil amendments and fertilizers next month (November, 2012).

If you want to learn more about your soil’s nutrients you can send a soil sample to a soil testing lab.  These labs can measure additional nutrients - and with greater precision than simple test kits.  One of the most reasonably priced labs is at the University of Massachusetts Center for Agriculture (http://soiltest.umass.edu/).   Visit their website to learn more about the tests available, prices, etc.

 

In summary, the key to successful gardening is knowing and working with the conditions in your yard.   A well-drained, loamy soil supports most water-wise plants, including those that need a ‘well-drained soil’.  If your soil is more sandy or clay, you can use some tricks we’lll discuss in the next few months (November-December, 2012) to increase the range of plants you can grow. Whatever your soil’s characteristics, don’t despair - there are likely plants that will thrive in it!
 

Learn more about soils and soil testing at:




 
You can e-mail your Garden Soil questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com 

 

 

 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Plant of the Month (October) : California Fuschia - Epilobium canum




October is often a dry month in local gardens. Many native plants have finished their growth and look like they’ve reached the end of the yearly season. Fortunately, a few native plants bloom – and spectacularly so – in fall. Among these is the native California Fuschia, Epilobium canum, which blooms anytime from July to November.
 
California Fuschia is a member of the Onagraceae (Willow-herb) family that includes such garden favorites as the common garden fuschia, evening primroses, Clarkias, and native Camassonia species. The genus Epilobium includes the lovely native Fireweeds as well as California Fuschia. The taxonomy (classification) of the Willow-herb family is still being sorted out – so we may need to update this post in the future. Long-time native plant enthusiasts still sometimes call California Fuschia by its older – but more interesting – name: Zauschneria californica. The name Zauschneria honored the 18th century German botanist Johann Baptista Josef Zauschner. The name Epilobium refers to the fact that flower and seedpod occur together and the species name canum refers to the ‘hairy’ aspect of this species.

California Fuschia is a plant of the west, growing from Oregon and Wyoming to Baja California. Our local sub-species grow in Coastal Sage Scrub, Chaparral and Oak Woodlands at elevations of up to 10,000 ft. You can still see California Fuschia growing wild on the Palos Verdes peninsula. In general, you’ll find local sub-species growing in dry areas, often on rocky slopes and cliffs, from San Diego Co. to Oregon.

In the garden, California Fuschia adds a spot of bright color at a time when the foliage of many native species has turned a golden brown. This species really begins growing in earnest in late spring/summer. In colder climates, the plant dies back significantly – and is also eaten by hungry critters - in winter. In our mild winter gardens, we cut the stems back after blooming to achieve the same ends. The plants start sending up new stems in spring – and really achieve their full growth in summer.


California Fuschia is a spreader, so don’t be surprised if a clump of Epilobium increases in size over the years. The stems of Epilobium canum are slender, part-woody and wand-like to almost vine-like. They usually form a mounded clump, but may fill in around other plants. The leaves are long and narrow or lance-shaped. The foliage color varies from a medium green, through pale blue-green to silvery. In fact, the natural variation in foliage color is the source of several common horticultural cultivars (see below).


California Fuschia’s flowers are spectacular. They are 1-2 inches long and up to an inch wide. They range in color from orange to almost scarlet red and are tubular or funnel-shaped. The anthers (male flower parts that produce the pollen) as well as the female parts extend well beyond the fused petals. The flower color, shape and location of the sexual organs are all good clues that California Fuschia is pollinated by hummingbirds. Hummingbirds are attracted like a magnet to these glorious flowers. Locate Epilobium near a seating area and you can observe hummingbirds from a distance of only a few feet!

You may wonder why we’ve included the decidedly orange-flowered Epilobium in our pink-and-purple themed garden. The answer is – for a sense of seasonality. Our pink/purple theme is most evident in spring and summer. By fall, the seeds of our buckwheat species are turning a rusty brown. Grasses and other plants are golden brown and the entire garden is decorated for autumn. Epilobium, with its bright orange flowers, adds the final touch of fall to Mother Nature’s Backyard.


California Fuschia used as ground cover - Ranch Santa Ana Botanic Garden

Epilobium canum
is easy to grow in local gardens. It can take just about any local soil – even those with pH around 8.0. It does well in full sun or part-shade. In full sun the form will often be a 2-ft. mound; in part-shade the stems create a low ground-cover (see above). As with common garden fuschias, you can pinch the tips of growing stems to form a fuller plant.



California Fuschia can be used in many ways in the garden. It makes a nice fall accent plant in mixed California native beds. We like it mixed with other native shrubs, where it fills in the bare spaces over time. California Fuschia can be used as a groundcover – alone or with other native groundcover plants. It will even do spectacularly in a large container.

California Fuschia adapts to garden conditions well. It is quite drought tolerant, but looks better with occasional summer water (Water Zone 2 or 1-2; see April, 2012 post on Water Zone Gardening). It can take winter flooding, which is useful for those of us who garden in clay soils. And in our experience, Epilobium is quite disease- and pest-free.

Seeds with fluffy 'wings' emerging from seed pod

Yearly maintenance is minimal. Cut the branches back to 1-2 inches after flowering to keep the plant looking tidy and healthy. You can use your cuttings to produce new plants if desired. You can also let the plants naturalize by seed. The seeds have fluffy wings (see above) that float on the wind and re-seed throughout the garden. The natural look is lovely – but the choice is yours.

There are several horticultural cultivars (types selected for garden use) that are readily available at native plant nurseries and sales. ‘Catalina’ has light blue-green foliage, large flowers and a long flowering season. ‘Wayne’s Silver’ has fuzzy, silver-white leaves, is more cold-hardy and needs more summer water. ‘Route 66’ is taller (2-3 ft) and more upright. ‘Silver Select’ is a low-growing form with silvery foliage. ‘Cloverdale’ has olive-colored foliage and orange flowers. New cultivars are being introduced all the time. We suggest that you purchase cultivars in the fall, when you can observe the flowers and foliage colors at their best.

Comment on you own experiences with California Fuschia below.