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Tiger Swallowtail nectaring on Purple Sage ( Salvia leucophylla ) Butterflies are among the most attractive visitors to any garden.   ...

Friday, July 13, 2018

Gray Hairstreak butterfly – Strymon melinus

Gray Hairstreak butterfly (Strymon melinus): perched on Ashyleaf buckwheat.

July is a great month for butterflies, with many species at their peak numbers. Gardeners who have chosen plants to attract butterflies are justly rewarded this month.  Due to our continuing Western drought, gardens are becoming ever more important for beneficial insects (like butterflies).  To learn more about gardening for butterflies see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2012/06/butterfly-gardens.html

Among the first butterflies noticed by many gardeners are the big, showy species like the Monarchs, Gulf Fritillaries and Swallowtails.  But equally interesting – and important to the garden ecosystem – are the smaller butterflies.  One of our favorites is the Gray Hairstreak - Strymon melinus. 

The Gray Hairstreak is a common species in most parts of the continental U.S. and south to Venezuela. It’s the most common Hairstreak seen in many gardens; you may have noticed it in your own garden, particularly if you grow flowering plants.  Strymon melinus is one of our smaller butterflies, with a wingspan of 7/8 - 1 3/8 inches (2.2 - 3.5 cm).  Like the Swallowtails, the Gray Hairstreak has a single ‘tail’ on the hindwing.

Gray Hairstreak butterfly (Strymon melinus):
feeding on Ashyleaf buckwheat (Eriogonum cinereum)
When perched or feeding, a Hairstreak’s wings are usually closed, making the underside of the wing more commonly visible.  The underside is mostly gray, with spring and fall flying adults a darker gray than those of summer.  On close observation, the wings have a thin, pale fringe and thin rather straight black and white band near the edges of both the fore (front) and dorsal wings.  More conspicuous is a darker, more irregular band of blotches that are white, black and orange (see below).  Gray Hairstreaks also have two large orange and black splotches on the hindwing.
Gray Hairstreak butterfly (Strymon melinus):
close-up of underside of wings
The Gray Hairstreaks we’ve seen have dark eyes and light-and-dark banded antennae with an orange tip.  The heads often have a patch of orange on the back of the head.  The abdomen of females may have a red or orange tinge.  The upper-side is blue-gray with a large orange-red spot near the ‘tail’.  For more good photographs see refs. 1-5, below.

The larvae (caterpillars) have the typical form of Hairstreak larvae.  They are rather flattened, with distinct segments and a slightly tapering abdomen.    Color can range from almost gray through tan, green and even rosy pink or purple.  Earlier chrysalids hatch 7-10 days after pupating (forming a cocoon); fall ones hibernate over winter.     Unfortunately, we don’t have any photos of the larvae or chrysalids.  For excellent photographs – plus advice on raising Strymon melinus – see reference 6.

Gray Hairstreaks can be seen much of the year in warm climates.  They have two flights (sets of hatchlings) per year in colder climates and at higher elevations (May to September).  They often have 3-4 flights (February-November) in warm climates like the lower elevations of S. California.  Males can be seen perched on warm afternoons, waiting for receptive females.   Eggs are laid on the flowers of a variety of host plants – most often in the Pea (Fabaceae) or Mallow (Malvaceae) families.  The young larvae eat mostly flowers and fruits; later stages may eat leaves as well.  In agricultural areas, this species may become a minor pest on bean and cotton crops. [5]

Gray Hairstreak butterfly (Strymon melinus):
 on Eriogonum parvifolium
In our gardens, we most often see males perched on upright stems or leaves - or individuals feeding on a wide range of flowers.  Perched individuals often rub their wings together – a behavior commonly seen in Blues, Coppers and Hairstreak butterflies.  The reason for this behavior is unknown; it may be a defensive mechanism, drawing attention to the abdomen rather than the head.  But whatever the purpose, it’s an interesting behavior to observe.
Gray Hairstreak butterfly (Strymon melinus): nectaring on
 Ashyleaf buckwheat. Note long, thin proboscis.
Gray Hairstreaks inhabit a wide range of sites, in large part due to their relatively unspecific food requirements.  Adults obtain nectar from many plant species.  In our gardens, the most popular seem to be the native Buckwheats (Eriogonum species), the Mints (including Salvias), the many-flowered Sunflowers (Goldenrods,  Goldenbushes and Telegraph plant), Milkweeds and clovers.  We’ve also seen them on Globe Gilia (below) and they are known to frequent other native and non-native garden flowers.

Gray Hairstreak butterfly (Strymon melinus):
 on Globe gilia (Gilia capitata), Mother nature's Backyard.
The larvae are also less selective in their food requirements than many native butterflies.  The host plants are mostly herbaceous annuals and perennials, commonly in the Pea or Mallow families.  Recorded local host species include garden beans (Phaseolus), native Lotus species, clovers (Trifolium species), Amorpha (false indigo), mallows (including hibiscus), Humulus (hops), Polygonum species, Eriogonum (Buckwheats), Salvia (Sage) species and cotton.  There likely are other host plants, yet to be discovered.  Grow any of these to provide an incentive for Gray Hairstreaks to live in your garden.

So what role do Gray Hairstreaks play in the open woodlands, prairies, parks and gardens in which they reside?  First, they act as minor pollinators for the flowering plants they visit.  They are not the most important – that role goes to bees and pollinator flies. But they do their part by increasing the diversity of pollinator species, helping to insure the livelihoods of insect pollinated plants.  In addition, the larvae of all butterflies and moths are an important source of protein for birds and even some insects. 

Gray Hairstreaks also contribute to the beauty and interest of local gardens.  They are fun to watch and observation can be done close to home.  You may want to record your observations – and send your photos to iNaturalist (https://www.inaturalist.org/). You may even discover a new host plant for Strymon melinus – right in your own backyard!





We encourage your comments below.   If you have questions about garden butterflies or other gardening topics you can e-mail us at :  mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com


Thursday, July 5, 2018

Plant of the Month (July) : Cleveland Sage – Salvia clevelandii

Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii): Mother Nature's Backyard garden

Most of our native Salvias are spring bloomers.  Excluding a few blossoms on the Purple sage (Salvia leucophylla), most are done for the year – at least in our water-wise gardens.  The exception is our Plant of the Month - the Cleveland sage, Salvia clevelandii.  This species adds a welcome touch of blue-purple among the summer pink buckwheats dominating our summer gardens.  Its scientific name is pronounced SAL-vee-uh  cleve-LAND-ee-eye.

Like all Salvias, Salvia clevelandii belongs to the Mint family, known for square stems and aromatic foliage. In fact, another common name for Salvia clevelandii is ‘Fragrant Sage’. Seventeen Salvia species are native to California. [1]  Many are common, while a few are quite rare.  We grow seven of the common S. California species (Salvia apiana; S. clevelandii; S. dorii; S. leucophylla; S. mellifera; S. munzii; S. spathacea) in Mother Nature’s Backyard and Garden of Health.   They are key species in our gardens, providing color, scent, habitat and a source of cuttings for seasonings and potpourri.

Cleveland sage is named for Daniel Cleveland, an early collector of the species. Cleveland (1838-1929), was an authority on ferns, a lawyer and botanical collector in the San Diego area.  He was one of the founding members of the San Diego Natural History Society and started the herbarium of the San Diego Natural History Museum.  A number of native plants are named in his honor. [2]   Cleveland sage was also collected in the 1800’s by the Parish brothers and Leroy Abrams.  For more stories on early S. California plant collectors see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2018/05/californias-fascinating-native-plants.html.

Cleveland sage grows in the chaparral and coastal sage scrub, primarily in Riverside and San Diego counties, south into Baja California, Mexico.   It grows on dry slopes and common plant associates include the Canyon silktassel (Garrya veatchii), Coyote bush (Baccharis pilularis), Chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum), Laurel sumac (Malosma laurina), California encelia and Chaparral mallow (Malacothamnus fasciculatus).

Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii): plant growth form

Salvia clevelandii is a part-woody sub-shrub, growing 2-5+ ft. (0.5-1.5 m.) tall and about as wide.  Its form may be rounded or sprawling; we suspect the form is influenced by the amount of pruning, as well as light. Cleveland sage is the most evergreen of our local Salvias; while most have switched to their small, dry summer leaves, Cleveland sage remains pleasantly evergreen through most of the summer. 

Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii): foliage

The leaves are small (to about 1.25 inches; 3 cm.), pronouncedly veined and wrinkled. The aroma of the leaves is heavenly; the sweetly fresh scent is prized by many gardeners.  The new stems are often tinged with red or purple.   The entire plant is more delicate appearing than most of our other local Salvias.  The refined appearance is another reason this species is widely used in gardens.

Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii): flowers

Cleveland sage blooms for about a month, in late spring/early summer.  In our gardens it can start as early as April, but more commonly blooms from June into July.  The flowers of this species are a more vivid blue-purple than any of the other Salvias we grow.  They’re an ‘electric blue’ – photographs don’t do the flower color justice!   The tiny, mint-shaped flowers grow in ball-like clusters around the stems.   The individual flowers extend from the darker colored bracts, producing a particularly  attractive appearance.  A mature plant will be covered in floral clusters.

Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii): flowering plant

The flowers attract hummingbirds (they may fight over the flowers), butterflies and other pollinators.   Seed-eating birds like the Goldfinches pluck seeds from the stems in late summer and fall.  And the shrubby habit makes great shelter for ground-dwelling birds and lizards.   So Cleveland sage makes a good all-round habitat shrub.

Cleveland sage prefers a light to medium, well-drained soil with pH from 6.0 to 8.5.  It’s doing fine in clay-loams and clays in Gardena and Carson gardens.  It does best in either full sun or with some afternoon shade (hot, inland gardens – even Phoenix, AZ).   In all gardens, Cleveland sage is fine with a moderate layer of organic mulch.

In much of S. California, Salvia clevelandii looks best with occasional summer water – perhaps several waterings a summer.  It grows in areas prone to summer monsoons – look to the weather reports from the San Diego foothills for a clue for when to water.   In hot desert gardens, and in very sandy soils, deep weekly irrigation will keep it looking good. [3]

Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii): pruned plant

Like most native Salvias, Cleveland sage looks best with regular late fall pruning. Pruning should begin the first fall, even though the plant will be small.  Each branch should be pruned back, leaving 3-4 branching nodes.  Don’t cut back into the older, non-budding wood, which cannot re-sprout.  Fall pruning – similar to browsing of deer in the wilds – promotes a dense, rounded shape.   Deadheading the flowers, if desired, may promote a second round of blooming.

'Winnifred Gilman' sage (Salvia clevelandii 'Winnifred Gilman')

Cleveland sage is widely planted in Southwestern gardens, often alongside other Salvias.  So it’s not surprising that a number of attractive hybrids and other cultivars have resulted.   Some of these appear to be all (or mostly) true Salvia clevelandii types, though they may be found to have other salvia genes. The most common and popular in our area is S. clevelandii  ‘Winnifred Gilman’, a nicely shaped cultivar with loads of intensely blue flowers.  The other ‘true’ Cleveland sage cultivar is S. clevelandii  ‘Betsy Clebsch’ (recommended for desert gardeners).

Cleveland sage cultivar (Salvia clevelandii x S. leucophylla)

There are several good hybrid cultivars that share the good features of Salvia clevelandii.   The most common are the Salvia clevelandii x S. leucophylla hybrids, including ‘Allen Chickering’, ‘Ponzo Blue’ and ‘Whirly Blue’.  These cultivars have slightly lighter purple flowers, with more flower clusters per stalk (see above).  Like Purple sage,   they are very drought tolerant and may be longer lived than straight Cleveland Sage.

Salvia ‘Vicki Romo’ is an interesting hybrid between Salvia clevelandii and S. apiana (White sage).   This plant is smaller than White sage, has more gray-green leaves than Cleveland sage, and is also very drought tolerant. ‘Celestial Blue’ (Salvia clevelandii x pachyphylla x ?leucophylla) features the blue-and-magenta flowers of Salvia pachyphylla and gray-green foliage.  Other (likely complex) hybrids include ‘Aromas’ (looks like Purple sage but with strong aroma) and Salvia ‘Carl Nielson’ (possibly Salvia clevelandii × mohavensis), a smaller cultivar that does well with monthly water in desert gardens. [4]

Cleveland sage hybrid cultivar: Garden of Dreams
 Discovery Garden, CSU Dominguez Hills

Whether you choose the straight species or a cultivar, Cleveland sage is a delight for the garden designer.  Because the growth habit, foliage and flower color, bloom season, size and fragrance are quite different among the cultivars, we recommend seeing a plant in person before purchasing.
Whichever you choose, Cleveland sage adds a splash of blue-purple to the late spring and early summer garden.  It contrasts beautifully with the creamy pastels of the native buckwheat flowers or the yellows of the summer sunflowers.  It is also dramatic when massed.   In the San Diego area it can be used to naturalize large gardens.   It can be used as a foundation plant, at the back of water-wise flower beds or as an accent plant.   While short-lived in some gardens, Cleveland sage is worth replanting every 5 years or so, if necessary.

Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii): contrasts with
 Giant buckwheat (Eriogonum giganteum)

An aroma garden would not be complete without Cleveland Sage; it smells like no other sage and is delightful beside a seating area in summer.  The flowers – even the dried stems – make great cut flowers.  The leaves can also be dried for use as a flavoring, incense or potpourri.  The scent lasts for at least 6-8 months after drying.  Place a sachet of dried Cleveland sage in a clothing drawer for a reminder of summer.  Or use the dried leaves to create a refreshing bath or shower.

Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii): young plant,
 Mother Nature's Backyard, Gardena CA


In summary, Cleveland sage is beloved by gardeners for its graceful shape, bright flowers and wonderful aroma.  It is a native habitat plant, with many practical uses. So search out Salvia clevelandii (or its cultivars) next time you visit a native plant garden or nursery.  You may be convinced to find a place for it in your own garden.

Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii): Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, Claremont CA

For a gardening information sheet see: http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/salvia-clevelandii

For information on other native Salvias:

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=Salvia
  2. http://www.calflora.net/bloomingplants/clevelandsage.html
  3. http://www.public.asu.edu/~camartin/plants/Plant%20html%20files/salviaclevelandii.html
  4. https://www.desertmuseum.org/visit/sheets/Salcarnie.pdf




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


Tuesday, June 19, 2018

California Gourmet: Gluten-free Oatmeal-Rice Elderberry Muffins

Gluten-free Oatmeal-Rice Elderberry Muffins

We’re great fans of muffins – for eating at home or bringing to social gatherings.  And we’re always looking for new ways to bring California’s unique native flavors to local cuisine.  Dried fruits are a great way to feature California flavors.  This recipe uses dried elderberries – an easy way of preserving elderberries (and other native fruits) and a handy staple to have on hand.   For more on preserving native fruits see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2016/08/california-gourmet-preserving-summer.html  

Dried elderberries make a delicious and healthful tea.   But you can also reconstitute them for use in many recipes, from desserts to baked goods.  And while this recipe was developed using elderberries, the muffins are equally scrumptious if dried currants, gooseberries or raisins are used.   In fact, any of the dried fruits/berries available in markets would work as well.  Just substitute ¾ cup of dried berries in place of the elderberries.   Note: you don’t need to reconstitute purchased dried fruits or home-dried currants/gooseberries.

We’re also trying to develop a repertoire of gluten-free recipes for garden food events.  This recipe uses a combination of oatmeal (rolled oats) and rice flour. The resulting muffins are light in texture and have the chewy goodness of oatmeal (use the old-fashioned oatmeal for more texture).  The muffins smell wonderful baking; like oatmeal-raisin cookies.   We think they will please most foodies, including the gluten-free gourmets among us. 

Gluten-free Oatmeal-Rice Elderberry Muffins

    1½ cups quick or old-fashioned rolled oats (old-fashioned for texture)
    1 cup rice flour
¾ cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon or cardamom
½ teaspoon salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup milk (can substitute soy or other nut milk)
¼ cup oil (we use light olive oil)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/3 cup dried elderberries (reconstituted) or ¾ cup raisins or dried *currants
1.   Place dried elderberries in a heat-proof glass bowl; barely cover with boiling water. Let berries sit for 30 minutes (they will take up water and become softer).
2.   Preheat oven to 350°F. (175° C.). Spray a 12-cup standard muffin tin with cooking spray (or line with paper liners).
3.   In a large bowl, mix together oats, flour, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt.
4.   In a separate bowl, whisk together egg, milk, oil, and vanilla. Add to oats mixture, stirring until just combined. Gently fold in elderberries (with juice) or raisins/currants.
5.   Spoon batter into prepared muffin tin. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove to a wire rack.  Let muffins sit in tin for 5 minutes; then remove from tin and let cool completely.
Yields: 12 muffins
*You can use dried native currants or gooseberries, or purchased dried berry fruits from the market. You can mix several fruits; or split the batter and make two kinds of muffins.  You don’t need to reconstitute purchased dried fruits or home-dried currants/gooseberries.
We encourage you to send us your questions, comments and recipes (either comment below or e-mail to us at : mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com


Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Celebrate National Pollinator Week

National Pollinator Week (the 3rd week in June each year) celebrates the importance of pollinators for all life on earth. Eighty percent of food crops, as well as many ornamental plants, require insect pollinators.    Life without living pollinators would be very different, indeed.

Here are some things you can do to celebrate National Pollinator Week:

Participate in National Pollinator Week activities:  http://pollinator.org/pollinator-week

Learn more about specific S. California pollinators:


Register your garden as part of the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge (MPGC):  http://pollinator.org/MPGC.htm




Monday, June 4, 2018

Plant of the Month (June) : Evergreen Cherry / Islay – Prunus ilicifolia

Catalina island cherry (Prunus ilicifolia ssp. lyonii): Mother Nature's Garden of Health 

By far the largest plant in our Garden of Health is the Catalina island cherry (Prunus ilicifolia ssp. lyonii).  We’ve planted several trees and large shrubs to block the view of our garden cart area while providing medicinals and habitat.  The scrub oak and Catalina cherry are finally getting large enough to fulfill that function.  Because it’s grown – and because it’s blooming and fruiting right now – we’re featuring Prunus ilicifolia as our plant of the month.  The scientific name is pronounced PROO-nus  ill-ih-sih-FOE-lee-uh  ly-OWN-ee-eye.

Prunus ilicifolia is truly the native cherry of western Southern California.  Four of the nine California Prunus are native to Los Angeles County. Prunus emarginata  (Bitter cherry), P. fasciculata  (Desert almond) and P. virginiana (Chokecherry) are all native to the San Gabriel Mountains; only Prunus ilicifolia is native to western Los Angeles County as well.

Hollyleaf cherry (Prunus ilicifolia ssp. ilicifolia)

 Prunus ilicifolia has two recognized subspecies.  The more extensive Prunus ilicifolia ssp. ilicifolia – commonly known as Hollyleaf cherry - is primarily a coastal mainland species, growing from Napa and Marin Counties to Baja California, Mexico.  The shrubbier of the two, this subspecies is native to the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountain foothills of Los Angeles County.

Catalina island cherry (Prunus ilicifolia ssp. lyonii)

Prunus ilicifolia ssp. lyonii (sometimes called Prunus lyonii), the more tree-like subspecies, is native to the Channel Islands: it grows naturally on Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Barbara, Santa Catalina and San Clemente Islands. It reportedly also grows on the mainland in Baja California.  First collected on Catalina Island by William Scrugham Lyon in 1884 [1], the Catalina cherry has been extensively planted as a horticultural plant on the mainland, at least since the 1950’s.  Thus this sub-species – as well as hybrids between the two sub-species – are not uncommon now on the mainland. 

Both subspecies grow in moister areas in the drier foothill woodland, chaparral, and coastal scrub communities.  They are most often found in canyons, on north-facing slopes or at the base of slopes at elevations up to about 5000 ft. (1600 m.).   In general, plants are smaller in drier locations; plants only become tree-like in the moister environs.   In the wilds, one can sometimes see the effects of soil moisture differences down a single slope.

Evergreen cherry (Prunus ilicifolia): growth habit

The Hollyleaf cherry (Prunus ilicifolia ssp. ilicifolia) was planted in the Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve (where our gardens are located) 15-20 years ago, so some nice specimens can be observed there.   In our experience (both in garden and preserves), the Hollyleaf cherry is a slow grower, reaching 6-10 feet in perhaps 15-20 years and an ultimate height of as much as 25 or 30 ft. under optimal circumstances.  The growth form is dense, rounded and shrub-like, with plants becoming about as wide as they are tall.   The plant in the photo about is about 18 years old.

In contrast, the Catalina cherry (Prunus ilicifolia ssp. lyonii) grows more quickly to 15-20 ft. tall, gradually becoming broader with age.  Mature plants are large shrubs or small trees to as much as 25-40 ft. tall and 25-35 ft. wide.  The tree in the photo above is just slightly older than the Hollyleaf cherry pictured for comparison.   In the photo below, you can see the growth of the tree in our Garden of Health, which is 9-10 ft. tall in 2018 (planted as a 1 gallon plant in 2014).   Both sub-species can live to over 100 years in the wild.  We know of Catalina cherries that were planted in a garden in the 1950’s and are still going strong.

Catalina island cherry (Prunus ilicifolia ssp. lyonii): four years growth

Evergreen cherry (Prunus ilicifolia):leaf form

The leaves of the two subspecies are quite different.  As the common name suggests, Hollyleaf cherry has smaller, evergreen leaves with wavy, prickly edges reminiscent of holly.  The color of mature leaves is dark green, with a waxy coating on the upper surface.  The leaves are oval or nearly so.   In contrast, the leaves of the Catalina cherry are slightly larger, more elongated (particularly the tip) and have no (or very few small) prickles on their margins (see above).

Catalina island cherry (Prunus ilicifolia ssp. lyonii): new leaves

Many plants sold as Catalina cherry in the nursery trade (and some naturally occurring plants) are likely hybrids between the Catalina and Hollyleaf subspecies. In fact, our plant (see leaves, above) may actually have some Hollyleaf genes – though it behaves and looks almost like a pure Catalina cherry.

Evergreen cherry (Prunus ilicifolia): flowers

Catalina island cherry (Prunus ilicifolia ssp. lyonii):
 close-up of flowers

The flowers of both subspecies are typical for Prunus:  small, open flowers clustered along drooping flowering stalks. Plants bloom in spring, March to June in western Los Angeles County, and mature plants are covered in blooms.   The flowers are white to crème colored, rather simple and open (see above).   In our experience, the flowering stalk of the Catalina cherry is slightly longer and has more densely-packed flowers compared to the Hollyleaf subspecies (but that may just be the plants we’ve observed).  The flowers have a sweet fragrance and attract numerous bees and butterflies.

Evergreen cherry (Prunus ilicifolia): fruits

 As far as we can tell, the fruits of both subspecies are similar.  The fruits begin as small green globes, eventually growing and becoming bright red and then a dark purple red in summer.  That’s when they are ready to harvest (see more below).  The fruits have a thin, cherry-flavored pulp and a large, hard pit.  In our experience, birds love the fruits and can pick an entire tree bare within a few days, leaving only some drying seeds.  Fallen fruits will stain concrete – a consideration when situating this plant in a garden.

Prunus ilicifolia is a wonderful habitat plant.  Starting with the pollinators and ending with the fruit-eating birds, spring and summer are busy times.  The plants also attract other insects – and with them, the insect-eating birds.   Mature plants provide cover, nest sites and welcome shade for birds.  Small creatures hide and rest beneath the foliage.   There’s lots to recommend this species as a garden habitat plant.

Catalina island cherry (Prunus ilicifolia ssp. lyonii): in garden

Prunus ilicifolia grows fine in full sun, but really thrives in afternoon shade.  It’s not particular about soil texture or pH; just about any local soil is fine.  In most settings, monthly deep watering will keep an Evergreen cherry happy.  They can get by on less, but will look a bit scruffy over time (most roots are fairly shallow). An established tree may ‘borrow’ water from a neighbor’s well-watered yard.  And it can even take regular garden water, if that’s what’s available.

Native cherries don’t really need fertilizer, but they’ll take it if given a yearly dose.  As to pruning, the choices are many.  If your garden style is natural, you may want to let your Evergreen cherry take its own shape.  Catalina cherries can be pruned up to make a nice shade tree.  Or they can be planted for a natural screen or included in a hedgerow (see below).  Plant roots (and leaves?) produce chemicals that discourage weeds and other plants from growing beneath them.

Catalina island cherry (Prunus ilicifolia ssp. lyonii):
 mature, pruned screen

The dense growth habit of both subspecies makes them candidates for hedge-pruning.  The tall screen of Catalina cherries (above), planted over 60 years ago, has been maintained in a narrow area by twice yearly hedge-shearing.   The Hollyleaf cherry makes a nice hedge and can be kept to 6-8 ft.   Just remember that plants take a few years to establish.  But once they do, you’ll have a long-lasting, elegant native hedge or hedgerow.

Catalina island cherry (Prunus ilicifolia ssp. lyonii): mixed
 hedgerow, Heritage Creek Preserve, CSU Dominguez Hills

Prunus ilicifolia is a tough and adaptable plant.  It can be used along parkways or driveways, as a transition plant between garden and wildlands, and on slopes. It can be maintained with very little care and is usually disease and pest-free (particularly if allowed to dry out between waterings).   This is one of the local native shrub/trees – along with Toyon and Lemonadeberry – that will likely transition well into the gardens of the future.

The fruits of Prunus ilicifolia can be prepared and eaten – but must be prepared properly.  The thin pulp tastes like bitter cherry and can fermented to make an alcoholic beverage. We’d love to try making a liqueur with the pulp.  The pulp can also be combined with lemon juice to make a tart condiment.

Catalina island cherry (Prunus ilicifolia ssp. lyonii): fruit

The kernels of Islay were a dietary staple for some California natives.  The pulp is first removed and the hard pits completely dried.  The pits are then cracked and the kernel removed.  The kernels must then be leached in several changes of warm water to remove the toxic cyanide and other chemicals.   After leaching, traditional cooks either cooked whole kernals until soft or ground them into a paste.  This was either cooked for mush or made into a tortilla-like flatbread that was ‘baked’ on a flat griddle. It was also often parched and used to make pinole. For more on preparing Islay for food see references 2 and 3, below.

Catalina island cherry (Prunus ilicifolia ssp. lyonii):
in medicinal plant garden

Prunus ilicifolia also has a history of use as a medicinal plant.  Once again, caution must be exercised when using any part of this plant as a medicinal.  Prunus species produce many chemicals dangerous to humans – even in small amounts.  All members of the genus contain amygdalin and prunasin, substances which break down in water to form hydrocyanic acid (cyanide).  A tea made from the bark (spring/summer) or roots (winter) was traditionally used to treat coughs and colds.  We suggest that there are safer alternatives to treat such complaints!

Hollyleaf cherry (Prunus ilicifolia ssp. ilicifolia): native plant
 garden, Madrona Marsh Nature Center, Torrance CA

In summary, Prunus ilicifolia is a wonderful native shrub/tree.  There is much to recommend the use of both the Hollyleaf and Catalina island subspecies in local gardens.  The only limitation would be for persons gardening within ¼ mile of native preserves of this species (e.g., within pollinator range).  In this case, the responsible gardener should either plant specimens raised from local natural seeds – or plant an alternative species altogether. 

These days, many gardeners are looking for evergreen shrubs and trees to provide more shade and green foliage in their gardens.  Prunus ilicifolia provides a native alternative that is pretty, easy-to-grow, water-wise and a great habitat plant.   We’ve lived with this species for many years, on many sites, and cannot recommend it too highly!

Catalina island cherry (Prunus ilicifolia ssp. lyonii): in full bloom
Heritage Creek Preserve, CSU Dominguez Hills