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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

California Gourmet: Sweet and Savory Treats from the Theodore Payne Garden Tour

Theodore Payne Tour - 2018

The Theodore Payne Native Plant Garden Tour celebrates the use of California native plants in gardens.  We’ve been honored to participate in this tour several times – including this year. 

One of the ways we like to share native plants is through food.  We offered several new ‘California Gourmet’ treats at this year’s garden tour.  Visitors seemed to enjoy these native plant inspired/flavored foods.   We’d like to share several of the recipes with you.

Minty Melting Moments Cookies


1 ½ cups + 1 Tbsp.  all-purpose flour
½ cup cornstarch
¼ tsp. salt
½ cup powdered sugar
1 cup butter (unsalted is best), softened to room temperature (substitute margarine for part of the butter, if desired)
½ tsp. vanilla extract
3 Tbsp. native mint kitchen extract*
1-2 drops green food coloring (if desired)


Sift together flour, cornstarch and salt.  In another bowl (or in bowl of mixer) cream butter and sugar until smooth.  Add in extracts and food coloring (if desired) and mix well.   Gradually add the flour mixture and mix until well blended.
Chill dough for 30 minutes.  Preheat oven to 350° F (175° C).  Line baking sheets with parchment paper (or lightly grease).  Roll dough into 1-inch balls with your hands.  Place about 1 inch apart on cookie sheets.  Press down on the top of each cookie with the tines of a fork to give it a nice pattern (cookies should be about ¼ to 1/3 inch thick).  Bake 12-15 minutes, or until just beginning to show some golden color.  Remove from oven, let cool on cookie sheet for 2-3 minutes, then remove from cookie sheet and let cool all the way on a cooling rack.

When cookies are completely cool, frost with a thin icing made by combining powdered sugar and 1-2 Tbsp. native mint extract. Frosting should be thin; brush on with a pastry brush.  Let icing dry completely, then store in airtight tins or cookie jar.   They probably will be gobbled up pretty quickly!
* Native mint extracts are made by extracting the flavor from a native mint using vodka.  They can be made from any of the California native mints: Mentha, Monardella, Pycnanthemum or Clinopodium and Hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea) are what we use most.    For more on making native plant extracts see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2016/04/california-gourmet-making-flavored.html

Chickpea Flatbread with Herbed Drizzling Oil [Gluten-Free]

1 cup chickpea flour1 cup water
2-4 tablespoons chives, minced (can also use edible native onion like Allium haematochiton)
1 tsp. dried, ground California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica) or Salvia (your choice)
1/2 teaspoon salt


Preheat oven to 400°F.
In a large bowl, mix the water and chickpea flour until well combined. It will be a wetter batter but don’t worry, it’ll firm up in the oven. Stir in the chives, parsley/native herbs and salt.

Let mixture sit at room temperature 1-2 hours.   Skim off foam.

Line a baking sheet (with sides) or jellyroll pan with parchment paper.   Pour the batter onto the parchment paper and spread out evenly.

Bake for 15-20 minutes until the sides begin to brown.

Let cool and cut into squares.   Drizzle with California Gourmet Drizzling Oil just before eating.


California Gourmet Drizzling Oil
Place chopped fresh* California native herbs (Salvia; Artemisia; Mints; your choice) in a glass jar.  Cover herbs with olive oil.  Cover tightly and let site for 2-3 days to develop flavor.  Strain out the larger plant parts.  Drizzle over Chickpea Flatbread or use as a dipping sauce or salad dressing.   Refrigerate to store (up to 2 months).


For more cookie recipes see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2015/03/california-gourmet-berry-dream-bar.html and http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2016/04/california-gourmet-three-cookies.html



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


Thursday, April 5, 2018

Plant of the Month (April) : Meadow onion – Allium unifolium

Meadow onion (Allium unifolium): about to bloom
Mother Nature's Backyard

It’s April and California native bulbs are beginning to bloom in local gardens.  The Meadow onions in Mother Nature’s Backyard have flower buds – about ready to burst into bloom.  So we feature this lovely true bulb as our Plant of the Month.  The scientific name is pronounced: AL-ee-um  yu-nee-FOE-lee-um.

The Meadow onion is not native to Los Angeles County.  It grows along the Central and Northern coast of California, from San Luis Obispo County into Oregon.  It grows in moist, often grassy areas on coastal cliffs in the coastal pine and mixed evergreen forests.  It likes moist soils and is most comfortable in clay.  These two preferences make it a good choice for many gardens.

Meadow onion (Allium unifolium): bulb

Allium unifolium is an onion (genus Allium), a cousin to our culinary onions and garlic.  The onions were formerly included in a large bulb-forming family, the Lilliaceae.  Some taxonomists now recommend placing the onions in their own family, the Alliaceae. Others place the onions in the Amaryllis Family (Amaryllidaceae), along with such garden genera as Agapanthus, Amaryllis, Clivia, Narcissis and Zephyranthes.   Only time will tell where the Alliums will end up.

California has over 45 different species of native onions.  The vast majority grow in Northern California or the Sierra Nevada Range.   Only 11 are native to Los Angeles County, and only four (Allium dichlamydium, A. haematochiton, A. peninsulare and A. praecox) are to western Los Angeles County or the Southern Channel Islands.  Fortunately for S. California gardeners, even the northern species can often succeed in local gardens – if only you can find a source for the bulbs!

Meadow onion (Allium unifolium): foliage


Like most Alliums, Meadow onion is a fairly simple perennial.  Its leaves emerge from the bulb with the winter rains.  We often see them start to emerge in February in our garden.  The leaves are the simple, strap-like leaves of the onions.  The genus name unifolium mean ‘single-leaf’; in fact, another name for this plant is the One-leaf onion.  As seen above, plants are indeed sparsely leaved (one to four leaves is typical).

Meadow onion (Allium unifolium): flower bud


The leaves often start to wither from the tips (and sometimes wither altogether) before the flowers emerge.  Meadow onion blooms in spring or early summer: usually April or May locally, but a bit later in colder climates.   The flowers grow in dense clusters (umbels) on 1-2 foot (30-45 cm) flowering stalks. If you live in a dry place like S. California, the flowering stalks may be a little shorter.  The buds are tightly packed in a membranous sheath (see above) at the tip of the growing flower stalk.   The stalks grow very quickly to their full height.

Meadow onion (Allium unifolium): flowers


Meadow onion has the star- or bell-shaped flowers typical of the onions.  The six veined ‘petals’ are actually tepals (petals and sepals look alike).  The flowers are individually small (about ½ an inch across), but with 15 or more flowers per umbel, this onion is a showy bloomer.  The flower color is most often a pale lavender or pale pink, though white-flowering forms are known. 

Meadow onion (Allium unifolium): flower, lebelled


The flowers contain both male and female parts (‘perfect’ flowers).  The pollen in this species is either gray or yellow.  The plants produce seeds in our garden, so they do attract some insect pollinators with their mildly sweet aroma.  While the literature specifies bees as pollinators, we more often see the flower flies (below).

Meadow onion (Allium unifolium): pollinator
(Syrphid (Flower) fly.


Allium unifolium is easy to grow.  It can be grown in just about any soil, although it prefers the moisture-retaining clays.  It needs a neutral to alkali soil (pH 7.0-9.0). While it grows in full sun up north, Southern California gardeners should plant this species in part shade (afternoon shade to fairly shady).  This plant does need good winter/early spring rains.  We had to supplement ours this dry winter.  Unlike some native bulbs, this species can take occasional summer water.

We let our plants go to seed, then let them self-seed naturally (or spread them where we want to start a new patch).   Patches increase both by seed and by offsets (new little bulbs).  A modest investment in bulbs will increase to a nice grouping within 4-5 years.  We like to start out by planting 8-10 bulbs within a 2 square foot area.   Don’t worry about critters digging up the bulbs – they tend to leave onions alone.

Meadow onion (Allium unifolium)


We love the flowers of this onion.  The color contrasts nicely with native grasses and wildflowers.  It’s great for brightening shady areas of the garden, for example, under trees.  The plants naturalize nicely, and can help ‘tie together’ parts of the garden with their pastel leaves and flowers. 

Bulbs are a perfect choice for bordering pathways, as an accent plant in a rock garden or along a garden wall. Meadow onion’s flowers have a light, sweet fragrance, making them a good choice for containers near seating areas and as cut flowers.  This bulb would do well around the drier edges of a vegetable garden or in an herb garden.  There is some debate about whether this species is edible.  Native Californians did not eat it; however, at least one blogger uses the stems as a flavoring agent [ref. 1, below].

Meadow onion (Allium unifolium): in garden

So why include Meadow onion in your garden?  First, it’s easy to grow and available from bulb dealers.  Second, it’s a little charmer that’s adaptable to garden challenges like clay soil and a bit of shade.  Thirdly, it provides an economical solution to providing masses of spring color – or to naturalize. 

And finally, Meadow onion has all the magic of a native perennial bulb.  It gives you something to look forward to, without much care, year after year.  It’s a seasonal treat, anticipated and enjoyed, that ties us to the land and its seasons.  We echo many previous garden mavens, in singing the praises of garden bulbs.



For a gardening information sheet see: http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/allium-unifolium

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


  1. http://lilliehouse.blogspot.com/2015/06/permaculture-plants-allium-unifolium.html


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


Thursday, March 29, 2018

Gardening for Health: 2. The Magic of Scent

California wild rose (Rosa californica) has lovely scented flowers

There’s something magical about a scented plant.  The heady fragrance of a wild rose, the musky-sweet scent of four-o-clocks at dusk; or the spicy aroma of a native sage on a warm summer day.  The list goes on and on.  Californians are  blessed with many native scented plants; these make our gardens both unique and interesting.  But the scented plants may also be good for our health!

Plants produce fragrant chemicals for a variety of reasons (most having little to do with human beings).  The sweet fragrances of flowers are released to attract  pollinators.  Some are quite specific – like a perfume designed to attract the right admirer.  Others attract all capable of detecting their sweet scent (native bees, butterflies, moths - even humans).

Likewise, the sweet aromas of ripe fruit attract creatures that can disperse a plant’s seeds.   Unripe fruits are usually unscented – or have a repellant odor.   But ripe fruits can be irresistible, due in part to their attractive fragrance.  Plants have methods of seducing animals to do their bidding, and fragrance is a key weapon in their arsenal.

The scent of native Salvias is related to protection.

The pungent and minty scents produced by some plant’s foliage have a different function: protection.  Dry mediterranean climates support a number of plants with fragrant foliage.  These include some of our favorite cooking and potpourri herbs: rosemary, sage, thyme, lavender, sagebrush and the mints.  To the human nose, these scents are interesting, exciting and attractive.   That’s why we use them extensively in foods, perfumes and other products.

But many of the fragrant herbs have a repellant odor to herbivores.  From larger herbivores like deer and rabbits to the herbivorous insects, the pungent scents provide a cue that this plant is ‘not fit to eat’.  In some cases, the plant just tastes bad; in others, the plants are actually toxic to the herbivores.   It’s not surprising that scented foliage releases its flavors when crushed.  That’s another example of plant thrift – using expensive chemical resources only when needed. 

Wooly bluecurls (Trichostema lanatum) has a complex
 aroma that's hard to describe

But what actually produces the scents? Whether released automatically or when crushed, plant scents are due to small, aroma chemicals (odorants) that interact with the sense organs of an animal.   Because they are carried by the air, most aroma chemicals are relatively small.   And the plant-produced odorants have a limited number of basic structures (most are esters, turpenes, aromatics and amines).   But the variants of these basic structures – and their combinations in individual plant species – can produce aromas as varied as the sweet scent of a rose or the putrid odor of the Voodoo lily (smells like rotting meat – attractive only to fly pollinators).

Aroma chemicals interact directly with an animal’s olfactory receptors. In vertebrates, these receptors are located in the nasal passages (the human nose and throat); in insects, the receptors may be located in antennae or other sense organs. But in all cases, odorants bind to and activate the olfactory receptors, resulting in a signal being sent to the brain via olfactory neurons (see below; ref 1).


And here’s where things get interesting.  In humans, the olfactory neurons (nerve cells) converge at the olfactory bulb, an area of the brain rich in interconnecting neurons.  Signals from the olfactory bulb are sent to at least five different areas of the brain.   Some of these areas are responsible for decoding the scent: does it smell like any other scent?  Is it a known scent?      But there are also close, direct connections between the olfactory bulb and brain structures important for memories and emotions: what is often called the limbic system.

The limbic system is a series of evolutionarily old structures located deep within the human brain. The limbic system supports a variety of functions including emotion, behavior, motivation, long-term memory and olfaction. [2] It is connected to the more modern, cerebral areas of the brain via the hippocampus. There’s still much to learn about how the limbic system works – or even if the concept of a limbic system is obsolete. But the ‘limbic system’ is involved in some of the more interesting aspects of human interactions with aroma chemicals: scent memories and the associations of particular scents with moods and emotions.

Dr Bryan Raudenbush, Professor of Psychology at Wheeling Jesuit University, notes: ‘Of our five senses, scent is the only one with a direct pathway to three important areas of the brain: the orbito-frontal cortex, which presents you with an awareness of scent, the hippocampus, which is associated with memory, and the amygdala, which is associated with mood and emotions.’ [3]

Common wisdom has long associated certain scents with human emotions or physiologic reactions.  For example, the scent of lavender has long been used for relaxation and inducing sleep.   In aromatherapy, the scent of citrus is thought to be a ‘mood brightener’, along with that of rose, heliotrope and peppermint.   But is there any scientific evidence for the efficacy of these scents to alter moods?

Alas, olfaction is the least-researched of the senses.  But there’s good reason to think that scents do affect our moods and physiology.  The ‘limbic system’ can directly activate the hypothalamus, an important hormonal control center in the brain.   The hypothalamus is responsible for the production of growth hormones, sex hormones, thyroid hormones, and neurotransmitters such as serotonin. These hormones affect energy levels and many other physiologic responses.  So it’s reasonable to hypothesize a physiologic role for hormones in the human response to scents.  And scientific studies are beginning to provide the evidence. [4]

Each Salvia has a slightly different scent

But there’s even more theoretical reason to suspect a direct role for scent and mood. When we smell something nice, receptors in the amygdala release  dopamine and serotonin. [3, 4]  These are powerful neurotransmitters; the former is linked with the high you feel when taking drugs such as cocoaine, the latter with mood. ‘In a nutshell,’ says Dr Raudenbush, ‘You smell something ‘good’, and those scent chemicals stimulate the amygdala, which in turn prompts the release of dopamine and serotonin, and we feel ‘good’.’ [3]

So scents may directly modulate our moods, via the effects of neurotransmitter and/or hormone levels.  But the picture is further complicated by the close relationship between the olfactory neurons and the hippocampus, which is associated with memory.  This part of the brain helps us ‘remember’ a scent – and its likely consequences (for example: ‘this is the scent of White sage’; or ‘smoke = fire’).   

The ability to identify scents correctly was key to survival in our evolutionary past.  It helped us find food and avoid harm.  Pleasant plant scents may also have played a role in the human-plant interactions leading ultimately to agriculture.  It should come as no surprise that a good sense of smell developed early in our ancestral past.   And that scent memories are different from other types of memories.

Scent memories are among the most vivid, and are often associated with a person or place.  We’ve all smelled a particular brand of perfume and been instantly reminded of a person who used to wear it.  Or smelled a scent and been transported back to the chaparral or woods where we played as children.  Such scent memories are often vivid, specific and long-lasting (even into advanced old age).    And the most vivid scent memories seem to be those associated either with novel scents or with intensely positive or negative feelings coupled with a particular scent.  There’s a reason why the scent of pancakes brings us back to our grandmother’s kitchen!

So, the effect of specific scents on our moods may in part be due to their associations with ‘vivid’ people and events – good and bad – in the past.  And it’s very difficult to tease out the direct effects of scents on human physiology from the indirect effects on moods and emotions tied to scent memories.  In fact, this is an area of active research and current debate. [see ref. 5 & 6, below, for more]

But it really doesn’t matter how scents affect our moods.   In fact, one way or another, they do. The makers of perfumes and the aromatherapy industry have known this all along.  There’s a reason that scented plants have been used to enhance bodies and abodes, in most cultures, for as far back as we know.   Plant fragrances can be used to disguise body odors and other unpleasant smells.  But fragrance also plays a role in human moods, emotions and even social interactions.  The fact that science is beginning to back up these claims is just icing on the cake.


So how do we apply all this to our gardens?   First, we should remember that the most interest gardens are those that engage all of our five senses.  Most of us think a lot about color and form – the visual elements - when designing our gardens.   And gardens that sooth and heal should be pleasant to the eye.  But the sense of smell is at least as important.   So we should think about scent when choosing plants for our gardens.

Each person experiences a given scent uniquely.  This is due both to physiologic differences and differences in scent memories.  When choosing scent plants, choose ones that make you feel good.  Visit a native plant nursery and ‘try out’ the different fragrances of the native sages (Salvias).  Each cultivar and species is a bit different, so be sure to plant one you like.  Visit Mother Nature’s Backyard.  We have a number of scented plants, and encourage you to experience them fully.  For a list of fragrant native flowers see: https://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/california-plants-with-fragrant-flowers.   For a list of scented native foliage plants: https://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/califoria-plants-with-fragrant-foliage.

Mother Nature's Backyard & Garden of Health: a great
 place to 'try out' plant scents

Place scented plants where you can best enjoy them: near a window, along a path or near an outdoor seating area.   Grow scented herbs in your kitchen garden, in pots on your porch or near the back door.

Fragrant pitchersage (Lepechinia fragrans) has fragrant foliage

Take time to really enjoy the fragrances in your garden.  Remember to ‘stop and smell the roses’.    Leave your electronic devices inside, close your eyes, and truly experience the fragrance of a rose.  Crush the leaves of a mint, inhale its aroma and be aware of its effect on your breathing, heart rate and mood.   Do you feel relaxed?  Invigorated?  Does your mind feel clearer?

Share your scent garden with others.  Invite your friends to enjoy your garden.  The scents will enhance your interactions like nothing else.   Dry your scented flowers and foliage for use in cooking and potpourri. Be sure to share some of your scented wealth.  For more ideas see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2016/04/california-gourmet-making-flavored.html and http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2013/11/garden-crafts-making-potpourri-from.html.


These are challenging times!  It’s no wonder we’re feeling a little stressed!   In fact, we’re in serious need of stress relievers – and the scents of our gardens can play an important role.   So resolve to add some scented plants to your garden this year. You’ll be amazed at the results!

For several talks on the use of native scented plants, see:


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



Thursday, March 15, 2018

Love 'Mother Nature's Backyard'? Here's your Chance to Participate.

Help maintain Mother Nature's Backyard through our Gardenista Program

Volunteer at Mother Nature’s Backyard & Gardens
Mother Nature’s Gardenistas

Overview:  Mother Nature’s Gardenistas are volunteers who help maintain Mother Nature’s Backyard gardens, blog and programs.  The gardens are located in the Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve (Gardena, CA).  For information on the gardens see: https://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/

Benefits of being a Mother Nature’s Gardenista

·         Learn about California native plants, their uses and management

·         Meet/network with others interested in water-wise,  life-friendly,  sustainable gardening, and in the local ecosystem

·         Experience regular doses of Nature in a preserve and gardens (good for your health)

·         Share your knowledge and experience with others

·         Give back to the local community, while exercising your mind and body

·         Use your skills and talents, including writing, photography, the arts, teaching, fund-raising and more.


·         Interest in gardening with California native plants

·         Gardening experience (particularly with native plants) - useful, but not required

·         Commitment of at least one 3-hour block each month (weekday and weekend times available) for a period of at least 6 months

·         Willingness to learn and contribute as part of an active team

·         Curiosity about - and enthusiasm for - the natural world and for gardening


What you may do as a Gardenista: 

You will be working under the guidance of an experienced Head Gardener, who will coordinate the volunteer program.  Tasks will vary depending on the season and the skills and talents of the volunteer.  We’ll try our best to match your skills and interests with our needs.  You may be asked to: 

·         Assist with monthly gardening tasks, including: planting, watering, pruning, weeding, etc.

·         Help make decisions on future directions for the gardens & educational programs

·         Serve as a docent during times when the gardens are regularly open

·         Assist with special events like garden tours, workshops, classes

·         Teach classes and workshops in the gardens (depending on knowledge and skills)

·         Write columns for Mother Nature’s Backyard blog and/or serve as blog master

·         Help develop educational brochures and other garden teaching materials

·         Photograph the garden and garden events

·         Give outreach talks to local garden clubs and other groups


For more information: contact us at mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com