Featured Post

Maintaining Your New California Garden: Life-friendly Fall Pruning

  Mother Nature's Backyard in November: illustrating life-friendly fall pruning. Late fall and early winter are important prun...

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Plant of the Month (December) : California Scrub Oak – Quercus berberidifolia

California scrub oak (Quercus berberidifolia): Mother Nature's Garden of Health,
Gardena, California

Limited gardening space requires thoughtful plant choices.  Good plants for smaller gardens combine beauty, usefulness and habitat value; what we like to think of as ‘value added’ plants.  Some of the best evergreen habitat plants are the native live oaks. They are also attractive and provide food (for those willing to process the acorns). And fortunately, several local live oaks are small enough to be considered for suburban gardens.  One of our favorites is Quercus berberidifolia.  The scientific name is pronounced: KWER-kus   ber-ber-id-i-FO-lee-uh.
California is blessed with twenty-one species of native oaks.  Of these, sixteen are native to Los Angeles County – a remarkable amount of oak biodiversity.  The Southern California oaks are mostly evergreen (thirteen of sixteen species).  And of the evergreens, only five (Quercus agrifolia; Q. chrysolepis; Q. engelmannii; Q. tomentella; Q. wislizeni) are large trees.   The rest are large shrubs or small trees, of a size suitable for smaller landscapes. 

California scrub oak (Quercus berberidifolia) vs. Nattall's scrub oak Quercus dumosa)

Among the smaller S. California live oaks, Quercus berberidifolia and Quercus dumosa (Nuttall’s scrub oak) are most widely available in the nursery trade. Like most oaks, the scrub oaks of California are prone to hybridization, producing a number of hybrid forms.  It’s likely that some plants available for purchase are actually hybrids.  And there’s still considerable debate about the range and characteristic morphology of these two species.  The interested reader is directed to references 1-6, below, for more on this evolving topic.  

Quercus berberidifolia is known by several common names: Inland Scrub Oak; California scrub oak; Scrub oak.  It belongs to the Family Fagaceae (the Beech Family) and is a member of the White Oak section of the genus Quercus. Its range extends from the Northern California coastal foothills to Baja California, Mexico. In Los Angeles County, it can be found in the Santa Monica and Verdugo Mountains and the foothills of the San Gabriel Range, below about 5000 ft. elevation.  It is most commonly associated with the chaparral plant community.

California scrub oak (Quercus berberidifolia):
 3 years in ground

California scrub oak (Quercus berberidifolia):
 4 years in ground

The California scrub oak is a small, evergreen or semi-evergreen shrubby oak.  When young, it has a somewhat scraggly appearance (above). With age, it develops its characteristic mounded form.  It typically grows no taller than about 9-10 ft. (to 3 meters), but may grow 15+ ft. in prime locations.  It often is slightly wider than tall: usually 15-20+ ft. wide.  It has light green-gray to gray, smooth bark.  The foliage is dense, making this a good screening shrub.  The reader is directed to references 7-9, below, for more photos.

Quercus berberidifolia is a slow growing plant, adding 1-2 ft. of new growth each year.  It’s also long-lived in the wilds – likely several hundred years.  It’s often difficult to tell the precise age of oaks that grow in fire-prone areas.  Like many local oaks, Quercus berberidifolia re-sprouts after a fire. So the age of individual stems may be significantly less than the actual age of the plant.  For more on the fire-relations of this species, see reference 10.

California scrub oak (Quercus berberidifolia): foliage

Quercus berberidifolia has small, often holly-like leaves – hence the scientific name.  The leaves are thick, stiff and shiny to dull above.  The undersides of the leaves have sparse hairs (trichomes).  The shape of leaves can vary tremendously, even on a single plant (see references 9 and 11 for examples).

Like all oaks, Quercus berberidifolia is wind pollinated.  The separate male and female flowers occur on the same tree.  Plants bloom in winter or early spring – usually February or March at lower elevations.  The male flowers, with their yellow pollen, grow on dangling, one-inch catkins. The pollen is not usually a problem for human allergy sufferers. The female flowers are often hidden by leaves.   The acorns, which develop from the female flowers, are broad and chunky.  They look distinctively different from the longer, tapered acorns of the Coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) and Quercus dumosa. Acorns ripen 6-8 months after pollination.  New seedlings can be started quite easily from fresh acorns in the fall.

California scrub oak (Quercus berberidifolia): sunny site

California scrub oak likes a site with full sun to part-shade.  It grows in most well-drained local soils except those with high salinity (no recycled water).  It can succeed in clays and clay-loams, as long as summer water is kept to a minimum.  In soils with reasonable drainage, it can be deeply watered every 4-6 weeks during the dry season.  The first 4-5 years, when plants are establishing, they require monthly water in most locales. Then plants are quite drought tolerant.  This species has deep roots that require a few years to develop. 

It’s best to let oak trees self-mulch, and Quercus berberidifolia is no exception. Oak leaves help with soil moisture retention.  They also contain plant chemicals that likely provide protection from pests and diseases. The leaves also repel slugs, snails and grubs.  So, leave the leaves in place when they fall.

California scrub oak is generally easy to grow. It is susceptible to several oak pests, including several types of borers, and to soil and other fungal diseases.  For an excellent guide to the pests and diseases of California oaks see reference 12.

Scrub jays and others love acorns!

The California scrub oak is an excellent habitat plant.  The dense foliage provides cover and nesting sites for birds. The shade and cover are utilized by smaller, ground dwelling animals from rabbits to lizards and doves.  The acorns are a favorite food of Jays, woodpeckers, squirrels and other animals.  In the wilds, young foliage is sometimes browsed by larger animals (deer, sheep, bears).

Oaks in general provide important habitat for a wide range of beneficial insects. These, in turn, attract the insect-eating birds.  Butterflies for which this oak provides larval food include the California Sister, Propertius Duskywing, Mournful Duskywing, Golden Hairstreak, and Gold-Hunter's Hairstreak.

California scrub oak (Quercus berberidifolia): habitat
 for Duskywing butterflies

The acorns of Quercus berberidifolia are edible, though not as tasty as those of other native oaks, particularly the Black oaks.  Acorns must be leached of their bitter tannins – an involved process – before being useful as acorn meal.  The galls that grow on oak trees are strongly astringent and were traditionally used in the treatment of bleeding and chronic diarrhea. 

California scrub oak (Quercus berberidifolia)

In summary, native scrub oaks can be useful evergreen shrubs or small trees in suburban landscapes.  They can be used as background shrubs, for large hedges/hedgerows or pruned up as small shade trees.  They grow well on slopes, with a minimum of care once established.   They can be planted in dry parking strips and can even be used as bonsai or container plants.  They can be shaped or left to develop their own natural form.  They are resilient and water-wise.

Oaks also have much to recommend them as representatives of our California heritage. They bring many types of wildlife to the garden and even provide a source of human food. They recall a time when oaks were key to human survival.  They are among our most important native plants and their habitat is disappearing in some areas.  That’s why Los Angeles County oaks are protected by The Los Angeles County Oak Tree Ordinance.  And these are just a few reasons to plant Quercus berberidifolia in your own garden.

California scrub oak (Quercus berberidifolia): part of mixed hedgerow,
 Mother Nature's Garden of Health

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


  1. http://tchester.org/plants/analysis/quercus/scrub_oaks.html
  2. https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Distribution-of-nine-White-Oak-species-in-California-a-Quercus-berberidifolia-b_fig1_308632217
  3. https://www2.palomar.edu/users/warmstrong/hybrids2.htm
  4. http://sandiego.sierraclub.org/rareplants/203.html
  5. http://danr.ucop.edu/ihrmp/proceed/nixon.pdf
  6. http://www.biosbcc.net/b100plant/htm/qberberidifolia.htm
  7. http://plantid.net/Gallery.aspx?Taxon=Quercus%20berberidifolia
  8. https://calphotos.berkeley.edu/cgi/img_query?where-genre=Plant&where-taxon=Quercus+berberidifolia
  9. http://nathistoc.bio.uci.edu/plants/Fagaceae/Quercus%20berberidifolia.htm
  10. https://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/shrub/quespp2/all.html
  11. https://www.smmflowers.org/mobile/species/Quercus_berberidifolia.htm
  12. http://www.suddenoakdeath.org/pdf/psw_gtr197.pdf

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


Friday, October 5, 2018

Plant of the Month (October) : Laurel Sumac – Malosma laurina

Laurel sumac (Malosma laurina): Mother Nature's Pollinator Garden

Southern California is home to an array of remarkable native shrubs. Many are more drought-tolerant than the non-natives commonly used in local landscapes.  In addition, the natives have interesting and useful attributes that make them welcome additions to the garden.  One such shrub – if one has the space – is our plant of the month, Laurel sumac.  The scientific name is pronounced mal-OZ-muh   low-RINE-uh.

Laurel sumac is a member of the Anacardiaceae (Cashew) Family, which includes such well-known S. California species as Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica [Rhus trilobata]), Lemonadeberry (Rhus integrifolia), Sugarbush (Rhus ovata), and Poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum).  The family also includes Pistachios, Cashews and the non-native Pepper Trees often used in S. California landscapes. For more on this interesting family see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2014/12/plant-of-month-december-lemonadeberry.html.

Malosma laurina grows from Fresno and San Luis Obispo Counties south to Baja California, Mexico.  In Los Angeles County, it can still be seen growing wild on Santa Catalina and San Clemente Islands, in the Santa Monica Mountains, San Gabriel foothills, Verdugo Mountains, on the Palos Verdes peninsula and in other undisturbed places.  Laurel sumac’s distribution is limited primarily by its frost-sensitivity.  In past times, orchardists used this plant as an indicator of frost-free zones – places to plant crops such as citrus and avocados. [1]

Laurel sumac (Malosma laurina): Palos Verdes Peninsula

Laurel sumac usually grows on dry ridges and canyons below 3000' in chaparral and coastal sage scrub.  It’s occasionally found in S. Oak Woodlands, but only where frosts are rare.  Common associates are Black, White and Purple sages, California sagebrush, Toyon, Lemonadeberry, Sugarbush, Bigberry manzanita, California encelia and the Goldenbushes (among many others).

Laurel sumac was first collected in San Diego County in the 1870’s by Daniel Cleveland and Edward Palmer.  It was more widely collected in the 1880’s and 1890’s by such notable California plantspersons as the Parish brothers, the Brandegees, Blanche Trask and J.H. Barber.  The species was first introduced into cultivation by Theodore Payne. [2]   For more on these early collectors see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2018/05/californias-fascinating-native-plants.html

Laurel sumac (Malosma laurina): growth habit

Laurel sumac is a large shrub or multi-trunked small tree.  At maturity, it reaches heights of 10-15 ft. (3 to 4.5 meters) and diameters of about the same.   In favorable locations, a plant can be as much as 20 ft. tall and wide.  The overall shape is rounded to slightly sprawling.  In the wilds, Laurel sumac can create thickets in favorable sites.  This is likely due to seeds falling near parent plants.

Laurel sumac (Malosma laurina): branches


The trunks and branches are substantial, and like Toyon and Lemonadeberry, the wood is moist and rather fibrous.  The bark on young stems is red-brown; it becomes an attractive pale gray-brown on older branches.  The shape and bark color make this a good alternative to Oleander, Photinia, Pittosporum and Xylosma. 

Laurel sumac (Malosma laurina): young leaves


One of the best reasons to plant Malosma laurina is its year-round interest and color.  Laurel sumac is evergreen, a characteristic prized in and of itself.  But  ‘evergreen’ scarcely does justice to the variations in leaf color typical of this species.  Young leaves and branch tips are a brilliant red/orange (above), due to anthocyanin pigments that protect from herbivory and sun-scald. This red color is often retained on the edges of mature leaves.  New leaves are produced year-round, even in summer/fall.   

Laurel sumac (Malosma laurina): mature leaves

Mature leaves are somewhat leathery, medium to dark green and folded along the midrib like a taco shell (see above). The leaves are medium to large – four to six inches in length.  The leaf shape is simple and reminiscent of the leaves of the Laurel – hence both the common and scientific names.  Senescent leaves turn yellow (below) adding to the colorful foliage in this species.

Laurel sumac (Malosma laurina): senescent leaves

All parts of Laurel sumac are pleasantly scented. The flowers and sap are aromatic, and the leaves release scented, volatile chemicals into the air.  On a warm or wet day, the characteristic aroma can be smelled at a distance. Even fallen leaves release the aroma when walked upon.  For more on gardening with scent see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2018/03/gardening-for-health-2-magic-of-scent.html

The scent is a unique blend: bitter and somewhat fruity.  It’s been described as the scent of bitter almonds, unripe apples or citrus.   It’s an aroma unique to the plant, and for many, it’s the ‘scent of the California chaparral’.   As a note of caution, some people have nasal allergies to the plant chemicals and/or pollen.   In addition, the sap can cause contact dermatitis (short-term skin allergy) in sensitive individuals.  Gloves should be worn when pruning or handing the plant.

Laurel sumac (Malosma laurina): flower buds

Laurel sumac (Malosma laurina): flowering plant

Malosma laurina blooms most often in late spring or early summer.  In the Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve (where our gardens are located) it commonly blooms in June or July.  This is quite a showy bloomer.  The flower buds are a pleasant pink that contrasts nicely with the spring leaves.  The flowers themselves are creamy white.  The flowers grow in dense clusters at the ends of the branches (above).  The look reminds one of a lilac bush with white flowers.
Laurel sumac (Malosma laurina): close-up of flowers


The flowers themselves are small, simple, with five rounded petals.  The flowers can be either bisexual or unisexual (see photo above); in at least some cases, plants can be functionally either male or female.   The details are currently being studied, so we’ll know more about the reproductive biology of Laurel sumac in the future.  The interested reader is directed to ref. 3 (literature) for more on this fascinating topic.

Laurel sumac (Malosma laurina): ripening fruits


The flowers attract European Honey bees, native bees, pollinator flies and likely other pollinators.  The fruits are small and not particularly showy.  They start off green and are white when ripe.  The dried fruits, which are dark brown, remain on the plant into fall and winter. The dried fruits add fall/winter interest (see below).  The fruits and dried seeds are eaten by a number of seed-eating birds, but are particularly loved by song birds.   In fact, this species provides good bird habitat: food, perches, shade and nesting sites.

Laurel sumac (Malosma laurina): dry fruits


Malosma laurina takes a year or two to establish, then it grows to size fairly quickly thereafter.  In the wilds, plants can live at least 30-45 years.  The actual age limit is difficult to determine.  Plants burn to the ground in a fire.  But an underground sprouting root (lignotuber) remains alive, allowing plants to re-sprout quickly (often the first green seen after a fire).  So, the age of a mature plant may be older than the age of a single trunk.

Laurel sumac needs full sun and prefers well-drained soils, with a pH 6.0-8.0.  It does well on slopes (as it does in the wilds).   It is intolerant of low temperatures and pH much above 8.0.  The plants are relatively insect-resistant and do best when leaf litter is allowed to accumulate (this is true of many chaparral shrub species).   The plant can be pruned up as a small tree, and yearly fall trimming will keep it from getting rangy.   Old shrubs can even be cut back hard (even coppiced) to rejuvenate them.

Once established, Laurel sumac is quite drought resistant. Plants have roots that grow deep – 40 feet or more in some cases.  Mature plants get by on occasional to no summer water (no more than one deep watering a month).  But they do need adequate winter/spring water, so supplement as needed.  

Laurel sumac (Malosma laurina): mature plant,
Heritage Creek Preserve, CSU Dominguez Hills, Carson CA


Future climate change may prove challenging to this species.  Several of us have noted branch die-back in established plants (see above).  Early research suggests that this is due to fungal disease, and some individuals seem to be more susceptible than others. As with many local plant disease/pest problems, drought stress appears to be a contributing factor to susceptibility.  For more on this topic see ref. 4, below.

Laurel sumac (Malosma laurina): at home on the
 Palos Verdes Penninsula


Malosma laurina is a great choice for slopes and for wildland interface areas.  If planted in areas prone to wildfires, it should be planted away from structures, and the lower 1/3 of small branches removed.  Laurel sumac makes a great background plant, with its evergreen leaves and flowers.  It looks particularly good when paired with its natural associates: the plants of the S. California coastal sage scrub.

Like Toyon, Laurel sumac is quite versatile.  It can be pruned up as a small, multi-trunk tree or used as a hedge, screen or hedgerow.  As a hedge, it can be pruned formally or informally.  If space is limited, Laurel sumac can even be espaliered along a wall or free-standing support frame.  We’re in the process of training the plant in our Bie Havn Pollinator Garden as an espalier against the back wall.

Laurel sumac (Malosma laurina): espalier in Mother Nature's
 Bie Havn Pollinator Garden


In terms of practical uses, the dried fruits can be ground into flour.  The young branches can be split and used in making twined baskets.   The plant is a minor medicinal plant among the Chumash and Kumeyaay, who use a root bark tea for dysentery and baths for women’s ceremonies.

In summary, Malosma laurina is a key species of our local coastal sage scrub and chaparral plant communities.  It’s an evergreen shrub with the versatility to function as a tree, hedge or espalier.  It looks right at home with many of the plants used in S. Calilfornia native plant gardens.  And it adds to the ‘fragrance of the wild’ that makes our S. California gardens so captivating.  If you want to bring a bit of native California into your garden, this is a good shrub to consider.

Laurel sumac (Malosma laurina): Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve,
 Gardena CA

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Plant of the Month (September) : Desert Mock Verbena – Glandularia gooddingii

Desert mock verbena (Glandularia gooddingii) - Mother Nature's Backyard

As Southern California becomes hotter and drier, local gardeners search for plants that will thrive in our changing climate. Increasingly attractive are species from the Sonoran Desert - plants that do well with heat and low rainfall.  Those that grow in washes and intermittent streams can even tolerate the occasional wet winters of western Southern California.  That’s why we’ve advocated certain Sonoran Desert plants in previous postings: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2015/09/sustainable-gardening-trees-for.html

Desert mock verbena is a good example of a desert plant that can transition to a garden setting. In fact, we’ve planted several in Mother Nature’s Backyard this year. While it normally blooms a bit earlier, it’s such a pretty addition we chose it as our Plant of the Month.  You may want to look for it in the fall native plant sales.

Glandularia gooddingii is native to the eastern Mojave and northern Sonoran Deserts from Southwestern Utah and New Mexico south to northern Mexico.   In California, it’s limited to the desert mountains of eastern San Bernardino County.  The common names for this plant reflect its Southwestern desert origins: Southwestern mock vervain; Southwestern vervain; Goodding's verbena; Mojave verbena.  

The scientific name honors Leslie Newton Goodding (1880-1967), a botanist and educator who collected extensively in the American Southwest, particularly in Arizona. [1]    Another well-known native plant that bears his name is the Goodding’s Black Willow (Salix gooddingii).  The scientific name is pronounced: glan-doo-LAIR-ee-uh    good-DING-ee-eye.

Desert mock verbena (Glandularia gooddingii) - growth habit

Desert mock verbena is an herbaceous perennial.  It grows only 1-2 ft. (30 to 60 cm.) tall and 2-3 ft. wide (1 meter).  The overall form of the plant is mounded to spreading.  In fact, the species is often used as a groundcover in suburban desert gardens.  The stems are slender, square and hairy.

Desert mock verbena (Glandularia gooddingii) - foliage

The leaves of Glandularia gooddingii are medium green and also softly hairy. Their shape is variable, ranging from lobed to coarsely toothed.  As seen in the photo, above, the leaves often have three lobes that are deeply incised or roughly toothed. The overall effect is lacy green foliage from late winter to early summer.  In the wilds, plants become dormant during the hot, dry summer.   Since our plants are young, we’ve given them a little summer water this year to get them established.  So ours remained green a bit longer.

Desert mock verbena (Glandularia gooddingii) - flower stalks

Gardeners like Desert mock verbena for its verbena-like flowers. If you favor the looks of verbena or lantana, this is a native to consider.  In its native setting, Glandularia gooddingii typically blooms from April to June, though it may bloom outside this window depending on summer rains or irrigation.  The flowers are lilac-purple, pale pink or white. Individual flowers are 1/2 inch (1.3 cm) wide, with five petals fused to form a tubular corolla.  Flowers grow in dense clusters on stems above the foliage.  The effect is charming and quite showy; plants will sometimes appear literally covered in blooms.  The flowers attract butterflies and hummingbirds – yet another benefit.

Desert mock verbena (Glandularia gooddingii) - flowers

Glandularia gooddingii can be grown in any well-drained soil.  It thrives in full sun to part-shade and needs no fertilizer unless grown in a container.   We suggest planting this species in fall or winter, then giving it winter water if nature doesn’t provide.  Plants look their best with occasional summer water – perhaps every 2-4 weeks from June to August, depending on soil and temperatures.  It’s important to let the soil dry out between waterings; plants can succumb to root rot in all but sandy soils.

Desert mock verbena is a short-lived perennial; perhaps 3-4 years is common.  But if happy, it will reseed on bare ground, keeping you in plants for years to come.  Some gardeners deadhead flowers immediately to lengthen the flowering period.  We advocate waiting to deadhead flower stalks after seeds have spread (or been eaten by birds).  That’s really about all that’s needed in terms of management.  Like most native perennials, plants will die back naturally in fall.

Desert mock verbena (Glandularia gooddingii) - first year

Glandularia gooddingii is one of those interesting native perennials that give native gardens their special charm.  It can be massed as a flowering groundcover or grown in a large container or rock garden as an accent. It’s a good companion plant for desert species like Baileya, Larrea, Ambrosia, and Penstemon species. [2]    The unique flowers and foliage also combine well with coastal S. California native shrubs and grasses.  We like to place it along walkways and at the front of flowering beds, where it attracts butterflies and birds.  If you’ve been toying with including some desert natives in your garden, this is a great plant to try. 

Desert mock verbena (Glandularia gooddingii) - young plant