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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. 

[seeds: picture coming soon]

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

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Fall Native Plant Sales

Fall native plant sale.

It’s fall – time for the many native plant sales around the state.  These are great places to purchase native plants at reasonable prices.   Here are some links for a few of the local sales.

California Native Plant Society (links to local chapter sites: many have sales): http://www.cnps.org/cnps/chapters/list.php

CNPS – South Coast Chapter: http://sccnps.org/

UC Riverside Botanic Garden: http://gardens.ucr.edu/events/fallsale.html

El Dorado Nature Center

7550 E Spring Street
Long Beach, CA 90815

 Sat., Oct 14, 2017, 9:30am – 2pm.  Friends of El Dorado Nature Center Native Plant Sale. 

9:00 – 9:30 Preview time for Members of Friends of El Dorado Nature Center.  Memberships available at the door.

California Native plants suitable for our area, including many drought-tolerant plants, will be for sale along with a wide variety of unusual drought-tolerant succulents from around the globe.  All proceeds support the Friends of El Dorado Nature Center habitat enhancement programs.  

For more information contact Donnie Haigh at  (562) 570-1745 or 570-4885.

If you live outside our area, check with your local native plant society or college/university to see if they have a native plant sale.

Friday, September 15, 2017

California Gourmet: Homemade Applesauce – Yum!

Apples from an 'Anna' apple tree: home garden, Redondo Beach CA

If you follow our blog, you know that our garden specializes in native plants suitable for S. California gardens. So this topic may surprise you, particularly if you haven’t actually visited Mother Nature’s Backyard garden.  The one non-native plant we grow is an ‘Anna’ apple (Malus domestica), trained as an espalier along our cinderblock wall.  The apple tree demonstrates how native and non-native woody plants can be grown in very narrow spaces.   Since ‘Anna’ is a low-chill apple, it grows well – and produces apples – even in S. California.

'Anna' apple (Malus domestica): Mother Nature's Backyard

Our ‘Anna’ is relative young (6th year) and most of our apples thus far have been picked by others (human or animal).  Fortunately, one of our members has a mature ‘Anna’ in her backyard – and a bumper crop of apples this year.  So this is a good time to talk about making homemade applesauce.  It’s easy, fun and we think the product is superior to the store-bought version, both in taste and nutrition.

Making applesauce is really simple.  Back in the day (1950’s and 60’s), girls learned to make applesauce in home economics class (too bad for the guys – they had to take wood shop!).  I suspect that many older readers learned to make this treat in school.  And if 7th grade girls in the Pomona Unified School District managed to make applesauce, then you can too!  It’s a great way to use a bumper crop (or less-than-perfect) apples.  And applesauce that’s been properly preserved can be safely stored at room temperature for 1-2 years – another benefit.

Applesauce can be made from any type of apple.  You can purchase your favorite type – or use whatever apples you have available (you can even mix varieties).   You can also make your applesauce as sweet as you like, by adding the appropriate amount of sugar or other sweetener.  You can also add spices (cinnamon; ginger; etc.) or other fruits, if desired.  In short, you can tailor your applesauce to the needs and tastes of the applesauce eaters.  

Homemade applesauce is delish!
Here’s our homemade applesauce recipe, with some notes and tips below.


Apples (any amount, but at least 6-8 apples)

Water (to cover apples in pot)

Sugar or other sweetener (to taste)

Spices or other fruits (berries) – optional, to taste


1.   Thoroughly wash apples.  Cut out any damaged areas.   Quarter and remove stem and seeds (we leave the skins on for better flavor).  Slice the quarters into ¼ inch slices; place slices in heavy pot or saucepan (large enough to fit all the apple slices with about 2 inches to spare)*.

2.   Fill pot with water to barely cover the apple slices.

3.   Heat pot on medium-high heat on stove until water starts to boil.  Stir occasionally.  Turn down the heat and simmer until the apples are cooked (mushy texture)*.   Stir as needed to keep mixture from burning on the bottom.

4.   Remove from heat.  Mash the hot apple mixture through a sieve (use a spoon and be careful – it’s hot!).   An easier way is to process the apple mixture using a food mill.*    The texture will now be smooth and ‘applesauce-like’ (but a bit runny).

5.   Return the apple mixture to the pot.  Add sweetener and spices (and/or berries) to taste.  

6.   Heat over low heat, stirring regularly, until mixture is the consistency you like. Be sure that the mixture comes to a boil (to kill any microbes).

7.   If preserving, ladle hot mixture into sterilized jars, cap with two-part canning lids and process in boiling water bath (10 minutes for elevations below 1000 ft.; add 1 additional minute for each 1000 ft. above 1000 ft.)*.   Store preserved applesauce in a cool, dark place (room temperature) for up to 2 years.

8.   If not preserving, cool the applesauce, then store in a closed container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks (if not gobbled up long before).  



1.   Here’s what the sliced apples should look like.  They cook quickly if sliced.

3.   Here’s what the cooked apple ‘mush’ looks like at this point

Cooked apples ready to puree
4.   The food mill is a great piece of equipment if you do a lot of puree work. It’s a simple, old-fashioned tool and uses no electricity.  Food mills are made by a number of manufacturers and available in stores and online.  We use the Foley mill; it’s sturdy and lasts a lifetime.  Here’s what ours looks like.

A food mill makes quick work of the puree step



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

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Plant of the Month (September) : California Mountain (Sierra) Mint – Pycnanthemum californicum

California mountain mint (Pycnanthemum californicum): Mother Nature's Garden of Health

Perennial mints are choice summer plants.  In addition to attracting pollinators, native mints provide wonderful flavors for herbal teas, beverages and desserts.  Blooming in a shady spot in the Garden of Health is one of our favorites, the Mountain mint or Pycnanthemum californicum.   The scientific name is pronounced pick-NAN-the-mum  kal-ee-FOR-nee-kum.

California mountain mint is the only Pycnanthemum native to California. While limited to N. America, most Pycnanthemums grow in places with more summer precipitation than S. California (we’re lucky to have even one species).  The genus is classed in the mint family (Lamiaceae), which includes the California native Lepechinias, Menthas, Monardellas and Salvias.  Like many mints, Mountain mint has pleasantly-scented foliage, traditionally used as both a flavoring and medicinal agent.

Pycnanthemum californicum is commonly known as Mountain mint, Sierra mint, California mint or California mountain mint.  Several other native mints are known as ‘Mountain mint’, so be sure to use the scientific name when purchasing this species.  California mountain mint is endemic to the mountains and foothills of California, including the central and northern Sierras, the Klamath, Modoc and Coastal Ranges of northern California, and southern California’s Transverse and Peninsular Ranges.

In Los Angeles County, it grows in the San Gabriel Mountains and foothills, and is common in the San Antonio Canyon above Claremont and in Lytle Creek Canyon (San Bernardino County).   It always grows in relatively moist sites, in chaparral, oak woodland or pine forest communities, between 1500 and 5500 ft. (500-1500 m.) elevation.

California mountain mint (Pycnanthemum californicum):
 emerging stems in spring
California mountain mint is a true perennial.  In our garden it dies back to the ground in fall, emerging again in late winter or early spring.   The emerging stems have the typical appearance of winter-dormant perennial mints (small, compressed leaves on multiple, emerging stems – see above photo).

In many ways, Pycnanthemum californicum is a fairly typical mint. It has square stems, opposite leaves, and flowers in ball-shaped clusters.  The stems are slender and may be upright or draping/sprawling.  Plants add more stems each year and mature plants may become almost shrub-like in appearance.  The stalks can be up to 3 ft. (1 m.) tall, but are rarely more than 12-18 inches in our garden.

California mountain mint (Pycnanthemum californicum):
young foliage (note fine hairs).
The leaves are simple, lance-shaped to oval, and up to 1 ½ inches (2-3 cm.) long (or perhaps a little larger in shady conditions). Young leaves are a pale mint green, with mature leaves becoming medium green.  Some leaves – including those with more sun exposure and the younger leaves – are covered with clear, velvet-like hairs.  In the Garden of Health, leaves are slightly shiny and almost hairless at maturity (see below).

California mountain mint (Pycnanthemum californicum):
 mature foliage
Unlike the herbaceous Mentha species, the stems of Pycnanthemum californicum are partly woody and wand-like.  The stems are a pale red-brown.  The overall appearance, at least in part-shade, is that of a low perennial groundcover.   The foliage is aromatic, with a unique minty aroma.  The scent is released by touch – a good plant for along walkways, under garden benches or in shadier areas of an herb garden.   It even takes some foot traffic.

California mountain mint (Pycnanthemum californicum):
Like all mints, the flowers grow in ball-like clusters around the stems. In California mountain mint, the floral masses grow immediately above clusters of small leaves (see above).  The word Pycnanthemum means ‘densely flowered’, a good description for the flowering habit of this genus.  Each flower cluster has 40-50 or more small flowers.  The overall impression is ‘white’, but the flowers merit closer inspection. 

California mountain mint (Pycnanthemum californicum):
close-up of flowers
The individual flowers are small (less than 5 mm across), with the characteristic modified flowers of the Mint Family.  The top two petals form a top ‘lip’, which is white and extends forward in this species.  The bottom three petals are fused to form the bottom lip, which may have small purple dots or blotches (see above).  The bottom lobes are fairly elongated in Pycnanthemum californicum and they curve backward at their tips. 

Several pairs of anthers (male sexual organs) extend beyond the lips (also typical for the Mints).  The result is a charming little flower that’s perfectly suited for butterflies, hummingbirds and other native pollinators (including pollinator flies and moths).  Like other Mints, the Pycnanthemums are often planted as shade-tolerant pollinator plants.   They are a good choice, providing nectar in late summer/early fall, when other resources may be limited.

California mountain mint (Pycnanthemum californicum):
works well with native ferns and California bee plant.
Pycnanthemum californicum likes some shade, at least in our hot S. California gardens.  We grow ours on the north side of a tall wall, but any place with afternoon shade, bright shade or dappled sun will do.  It can be grown in most soils; it certainly is happy in the clay-loam in our garden.  The only conditions that might not be suited are salty or alkali (pH greater than 8.0) soils.  Mints often do well in somewhat compacted soils, making them useful agents to loosen urban soils.

The California mountain mint does need more water than many local native species.  It can take regular water and will probably be lusher with moister soils.  We give ours a deep soak every other week in hot weather, so the ground dries out between waterings.   It seems to do fine with this regimen, in a clay soil with afternoon shade.  We grow ours with water-loving native ferns, California bee plant (Scrophularia californica), the Heucheras and other perennials with similar shade and water requirements (see above).

California mountain mint (Pycnanthemum californicum):
 shady groundcover with Hoita orbiculata
Pycnanthemum californicum is the perfect choice for naturally moist areas of the garden: under splashing fountains, around ponds, near an avian water dripper or mister, etc. It even tolerates seasonal flooding – so an irrigated rain garden or swale is another easy spot.  It would be right at home along the edges of a watered lawn or in a flower bed that gets regular irrigation. 

Mints also do well in containers and Pycnanthemum californicum would be charming in a shady porch pot.  We like it as a filler in a narrow, partly-shady bed between a wall and walkway.  Or grow it as a seasonal ground cover in the shade of a Blue elderberry or other tree.  You might even consider creating some ‘mint beds’ in your herb or vegetable garden.   True foodies can’t have too much mint in a garden!

California mountain mint (Pycnanthemum californicum):
 makes a pleasant tea
Which brings us to the useful nature of this charming little mint.  Its unique and lovely flavor has traditionally been used for tea and to flavor beverages, desserts – even meats. The leaves and flowers can be used fresh or dried.  For more on using mints for tea see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2012/06/making-tea-from-california-native-mint.html.     If you like the flavor, you might want to preserve some for use all year long.  Here are some tips: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2016/04/california-gourmet-making-flavored.html.   

The scent of dried leaves is a lovely addition to potpourri sachets.  The dried leaves even help to deter moths!   To learn about making potpourri from native plants see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2013/11/garden-crafts-making-potpourri-from.html.  To sooth dry skin, use fresh or dried leaves and flowers as a bath sachet (place in cloth bag; let steep in warm bath water).  You can also use a sachet of dried leaves to freshen laundry (use a sachet bag in the dryer) or to deter moths in closets or linen drawers.

California mountain mint (Pycnanthemum californicum):
 potpourri from dried leaves can be used in many ways.
But California mountain mint is more than just a flavoring/aromatic agent. Like most mints, it has a long history of use as a medicinal plant.  The plant makes an astonishing number of plant chemicals, some with known antimicrobial, antifungal and other medicinal properties.  So it’s not surprising to learn that medicinal teas (decoctions) made from Pycnanthemum californicum are used in a number of ways. Because of the many chemicals, mints should not be used by women who are pregnant.

Pycnanthemum tea is a good ‘pick-me-upper’ – a tonic for when you’re feeling a little tired or run down.  The tea is also used for coughs, colds, fever and indigestion.  The combination of antimicrobial, analgesic (pain relieving) and other chemicals probably explain its affects.  A strong decoction was traditionally used as an antiseptic wash for skin wounds, mouth sores and gum disease.  Crushed flowers were placed on a tooth to relieve toothache.   For more on the medicinal uses of this plant see references 1-2, below.

California mountain mint (Pycnanthemum californicum): much to recommend it!
In summary, California mountain mint is a summer-fall blooming plant with many useful properties.  It provides nectar and seeds at a time when many natives have gone dormant.  It can be used in places that are shady and which get a little extra water, and can be combined with plants with similar needs (native or not).  And it provides scents, flavors and helpful chemicals – what a bargain in a single plant!  It’s not a showy plant, but it’s a garden star none-the-less.

For a gardening information sheet see: http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/pycnanthemum-californicum

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