Saturday, November 27, 2004

Secret Life of a Blond Bee

May 1, 2004, San Francisco Chronicle
"Uncovering the secret life of a blond bee"
by Ron Sullivan

List of plants in the garden described in the article

Two years ago, Cynthia Typaldos sent a slightly off-topic note to our native plants e-mail list: "I saw an enormous orange bee yesterday in a grape vine. Twice as big as my resident bumble bees. All orange, and very furry. As orange as the California poppy. Very loud buzzing. Just the one, have never seen a bee like this before. Anyone know what it is?"

One answer she got was from Royce B. Riggan Jr.: "You have written a perfect description of the male carpenter bee. They are very different from the females that constitute the bulk of the individuals. I'm uncertain of Web site illustrations, but there are excellent photographs in Hogue, 1993, Insects of the Los Angeles Basin, p. 349. You are probably looking at the valley carpenter bee, Xylocopa varipuncta."

However, says Typaldos, most of the people she talked to doubted that identification, as her Saratoga garden is far from Southern California. The bee disappeared eventually, and she was left with a mostly unsupported conviction about her blond visitor.

Then he came back, same place, same habits, the next year. By this time some of us had nicknamed her blond beau BOB, for Big Orange Bee. This year he was back yet again -- and this time, Cynthia was ready with a camera. By the canny stratagem of watching the bee's routes and waiting with her camera focused on a spot he'd been to, and where she thought he would return, she got a splendid shot of an elusive target.

She posted the portrait to the list, and agreement was fast this time: She was hosting a male valley carpenter bee. He looks like a flying teddy bear.

BOB's at the edge of his range here, it seems. Most of his species live in what the guides call "the deserts of the Southwest"; in the United States, that includes Central and Southern California and Arizona, at least. That would explain why it was outside our experience -- that and the fact that males are a distinct minority in his species.

Females are big, too, and solid black. They could pass as just another kind of bumblebee, though in fact they're not closely related.

He was being conspicuous on purpose. He was looking for a date, and rather than hanging out in bee singles' bars or hogging some choice nectar source that females would use, he was showing off his golden gorgeousness, and buzzing up a symphony and wafting a bee perfume onto the air.

This sweet scent, which he's producing in a pair of glands on his thorax and rubbing over his body as he flies, is strong enough that humans can smell it, though at last report Typaldos hadn't managed to. If a female bee does show up and act interested, he'll daub some of it onto an inviting spot and wait for her to land and mate.

In spite of being such a show-off, BOB was hard to photograph because he never seemed to sit down. Typaldos never saw him visit a flower to feed, no matter how long she watched him. He just buzzed around the ceanothus and the lemon and the grapevine, by turns.

So what was BOB eating? His mother feeds him. His sisters might, too. The whole family stays at its original nest, and the girls provision their genetic missionary with lots of nectar (which he carries in a crop, bird-style except that it's in his abdomen) before they go out to forage and look for their own mates.

BOB is lucky; other xylocopa species' females stop feeding their sons and brothers as soon as the latter can fly. But typically he will die in winter, while his sisters will hibernate and make their own nests in spring. So this year's hunk is most likely BOB III.

Those nests are what got the carpenter bees their name. A female excavates a small hole, usually in dead wood, and she rolls up a yummy ball of pollen and nectar, stuffs it into the hole, lays an egg on it, and walls it off with homemade wood pulp. Then she repeats, for maybe eight eggs a year in her gallery.

They have to wait their turn to leave after hatching. Since this is a small, single-family house rather than a colonial hive like honeybees', and since they're not all that plentiful even in the desert, they do negligible or no damage and aren't dangerous to our own homes.

They aren't even dangerous to Typaldos as she gets her close-ups and sniffs for bee perfume, as males have no stingers and females, who do have them, don't like to sting. All that scary buzzing is just bee song.

So how does Cynthia rate, that she gets to entertain this unusual visitor? She's done several things right, without actually looking for carpenter bees.

She hired Jeffrey Caldwell to design and help plant a garden that's varied -- mostly California natives along with a few edibles and plants she just plain likes, all going in gradually and thoughtfully.

She has flowers that attract bees, including the female carpenter bees that BOB is eager to meet. And she left a snag standing in her yard; when a Douglas fir died, she had it trimmed down to maybe 20 feet and most of the limbs lopped off. It's surprisingly inconspicuous, as it's being embraced by a second Doug fir behind it.

The bees might be nesting there, and it seems to be attracting the woodpeckers she wanted it for: There's at least one Nuttall's in the neighborhood. She has another big tree, a handsome locust that blooms profusely and, since she's had a few low limbs removed, keeps its considerable bee traffic safely above human head level. She doesn't use insecticides because with natives, one rarely has to. And she has variety, not a monoculture; this also reduces the need for pesticides.

All this is happening in a little yard in a suburban neighborhood that's mostly lawns and borders and bun-shaped shrubs. Cynthia told me that when she walks down her street, most yards are silent while hers is abuzz with chirps and whistles -- the birds and the bees, and the frogs too. She got interested, and she's observant, and she rented expert imagination and left herself open to surprises. And here she is with her bee soap opera, yearly, playing at her front door.

Ron Sullivan is associate editor at Terrain (, where she writes A Sense of Humus, and garden editor of Faultline magazine ( Beginning June 9, the Dirt column will appear on the second Wednesday of each month.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Habitat for Hummingbirds

I’m wary of artificial bird feeding, which can easily lead to an unnatural concentration of birds and the transmission of diseases. The nutritional values of almost all store-bought foods are inferior to that of the natural diet of birds, often markedly so. If you must feed birds, learn how to do it without creating disease hazards for them! Do it only if you have the discipline and dedication to do it right!

As superior I advocate creating a rich food-producing habitat for birds, so that they can find their own food in their traditional way! My philosophy is to not make them beggars, but instead to create an opportunity-rich environment for them!

Mold grows easily grows in hummingbird feeders, with dire results for the birds. As Louise Blakey’s Our Hummingbirds points out, to avoid unhealthy conditions syrup feeders must be kept scrupulously clean – cleaned extremely carefully every time the syrup is changed, which should be quite regularly!

Some of California’s native plants that serve well for nectar and insect foraging in local gardens are:

Epilobium canum, hummingbird fuchsia – this and other related species formerly known as Zauschneria, especially the upright varieties – some spread invasively, but others not: inquire and know what you’re getting.

Gooseberries and currants: Ribes speciosum, fuchsia-flowered gooseberry, Ribes californica, California Gooseberry, Ribes sanguineum var. glutinosum, pink-flowering currant, Ribes malvaceum, chaparral currant, Ribes aureum var. gracillimum, golden currant – and others.

Trichostema lanatum, woolly bluecurls – beautiful but requires good drainage and resents summer water.

Lavatera assurgentiflora, tree mallow – grows fast and blooms nearly constantly – gophers may kill it.

Penstemon species – tall ones or red ones; Penstemon spectabilis is an easy one, consider others.

Lonicera involucrata var. ledebourii, twinberry honeysuckle – will grow well in the watered garden.

Mimulus aurantiacus, bush monkeyflower – this and related species draw hummingbirds.

Galvezia speciosa, bush snapdragon – various forms, easily grown natives of the California islands.

Isomeris arborea, bladderpod – a desert shrub that is appropriate for planting in a hot dry spot.

Arctostaphylos species – manzanitas. ‘Howard McMinn’ is practically a cast-iron plant locally.

Silene laciniata, Indian pink – snail bait but great as a hanging plant.

Lobelia cardinalis, cardinal flower – likes it wet, maybe for a pond margin.

Satureja mimuloides, wild savory, a little known but easy-to-grow native perennial of somewhat moist places.

Monardella macrantha, choice red-flowering perennial.

Aquilegia and Delphinium and Lilium species – native columbines, delphiniums and lilies.

Salvia spathacea, hummingbird sage – a staple of the wildlife habitat garden.

Aesculus californica, California buckeye, and Arbutus menziesii, Pacific madrone – the best trees!

A bare twig for a perch for the hummingbirds to hawk insects from is a useful habitat feature – placed where you easily watch them!

Habitat for Butterflies

Butterflies are far less commonly seen in local gardens these days than in decades past – in many neighborhoods they’re entirely absent! We even get reports of “butterfly gardens” sans butterflies!

Why? In technical biological terms: limiting factors!

Vast areas of our developed landscape are marked by a dearth of essential butterfly larval host plants -- the plants butterfly caterpillars feed upon! No caterpillar food = No caterpillars = No butterflies!

Thus the prime directive for our butterfly gardening success is nurture butterfly larval host plants!

It’s also true that many butterflies are pickier about preferred nectar plants than commonly estimated. Success as a butterfly gardener deep in most urbanized areas requires careful study, planning and execution. If there are no butterflies in your neighborhood now, filling your garden with them will be a challenging task, requiring research to guide your efforts. Butterflies are in need of gardeners inclined to research and experiment, because there’s still much we don’t know about how to best foster their existence among us. There remains much to learn about exactly which plants serve best as caterpillar hosts and nectar sources. In the pursuit of butterfly gardening, brains count more than brawn!

For those interested in butterfly gardening I commend the County Checklist section of the “Butterflies of North America” Web site as a gold mine of useful information – there you can learn what butterflies you have or may expect to attract and something about their limiting factors. Butterfly Gardening: Creating Summer Magic in Your Garden by the Xerces Society gives considerable guidance on exactly what larval host plants and nectar plants are known to be favorites of your target butterflies. Please realize, there is yet much to learn about these things! The Audubon Society Handbook for Butterfly Watchers, by Robert Michael Pyle, is helpful and entertaining

Weeds are an urban butterfly gardener’s best friend! Weedy neighborhoods produce butterflies because some weeds are butterfly caterpillar food. In affluent neighborhoods without weeds there often are few or no native or cultivated caterpillar food plants as well, and thus, no butterflies. Weedy areas nearby are a boon for the butterfly gardener! Laziness and a tolerance for untidiness are not required, but they are likely to be more helpful than hurtful to butterflies! To create a truly beautiful butterfly garden is a unique challenge for the aspiring wise and noble.

The most favorable place for an exciting butterfly garden is adjacent to a creek which retains natural vegetation. The caterpillars of some large and beautiful butterflies develop on willows, stinging nettles, yellow monkeyflower and other creekside plants. Some of the most highly favored nectar plants for adult butterflies, such as western goldenrod, common California aster, and salt heliotrope, grow along creeks.

Weeds that support butterfly caterpillars include bermudagrass, fennel, cheeseweeds, cudweeds, plantains and docks. Pellitory (Parietaria judaica) is a weed prevalent in San Francisco which feeds caterpillars of the red admiral, one of the city’s more attractive common butterflies.

Non-native butterflies supported by non-native garden plants include the cabbage white, which develops on nasturtiums and cabbage family plants, and the gulf fritillary, which develops on passion vines.

The ideal aspect for a butterfly garden is a sunny, sheltered, southeast facing “bay” bordered by woody plants and/or buildings. Near or at the top of a hill may be ideal since many butterflies engage in “hill-topping”! Most butterflies sun themselves on large rocks and like mud.

Some top native larval hosts are willows, angelicas, docks, plantains, monkeyflowers, tree mallow and narrowleaf milkweed. Top native nectar plants include California buckeye, blueblossum, gumplants, asters, cobweb thistle, salt heliotrope, globe gilia, fiddlenecks, frogfruit, flat-top buckwheat and broad-leaved buckwheat, coyote bush, coyote mint, Indian hemp, golden-fleece and goldenrods. “Exotic” nectar plants include butterfly bush, Mexican sunflower, Verbena bonariensis, red valerian and radishes.

Oak Mortality Syndrome, an early report

A report from the Santa Cruz Mountains Bioregional Council meeting, Sept. 28, 2000

Map showing known infestations of "Sudden Oak Death" in 2000.

Dear friends,

Oak Mortality Syndrome is the new name for what has been called "sudden oak death".

Today the Santa Cruz Mountains Bioregional Council hosted a panel presentation and discussion: "Sudden Oak Death -- Dealing With a Potentially Devastating Forest Disease, and Lessons Learned from Pine Pitch Canker". The panelists were David Rizzo, the plant pathologist who recently identified the water mold causing the disease, Steve Tjosvold who conducts local field research on it, and Rick Hawley who studied the effectiveness of control methods for the unrelated Pine Pitch Canker disease.

There are about 60 known species of Pytophthora, and the one causing the disease had not previously been described. As recent news stories tell us, it seems to be related to Phytophthora lateralis, which has caused losses of many Port Orford Cedars in recent decades. The common name for Phytophthora is "water mold" and it is related to the brown algae, but basically acts like what is commonly known as fungus, so everybody calls it a fungus. It is believed to be either exotic [possibly from the Orient] or a new hybrid.

Exactly how it spreads is not known, though the organism has a waterborne stage, and mud is a major suspect. It seems somewhat like other species in the Pytophthora genus that may be vectored by blowing in the wind in a dormant stage. If that proves to be so, it is very bad news, impossible to contain it.

It seems to grow best at temperatures of about 50 to 60 degrees, hardly at all over 80 to 90 degrees.

It took so long to discover it because the usual methods of taking samples and submitting them for analysis were too slow, and the organism died before an attempt was made to culture it. Dr. Rizzo figured out what it was when he went out, collected a fresh sample and immediately drove back to his lab to culture it. The ususal method of taking a sample, keeping it a day, putting it in the mail, etc. resulted in the organism responsible for the disease dying before the culture was attempted.

It is not believed to be spread by the beetles; they come after the disease develops. The mystery is that it attacks always above ground, low on the trunk of the tree. Can't figure out how it gets there. One theory is animals rubbing the bark. It was noted, if so, feral pigs are really bad news!

Worst case scenario is that it could spread to all the black and red oaks thoughout North America.

Best case scenario is that some freak event infected all the trees now dying several years ago. The "sudden death" is noted when the foliage begins to turn color. But I saw coast live oaks in China Camp State Park that were cracked with the black domes of the Hypoxlyon thouarsianum fungus [one of the secondary attackers typical of the syndrome, which involves a number of native diseases and pests going after the weakened trees] well up their trunks which still had green foliage. It may be that the coast live oaks can hold off the Phytophthora longer than the tanbark oaks; that has proven to be the case in greenhouse studies where young trees were deliberately infected.

The Port Orford Cedars are being protected in part by preventing access to them in the rainy season, particularly keeping vehicles on dirt roads from getting near them, which seems to be preventing new infections, though it is difficult to get full cooperation from the public; some people crash through the barriers.

It is now believed that any infected wood should be allowed to dry out and shouldn't be moved any further than necessary. The previous recommendation to tarp it with clear plastic is considered possibly a bad idea that would favor the disease more than hurt it. A new term that came up is "waste shed" -- infected wood probably shouldn't be allowed to leave a watershed. The infection is almost entirely in the bark and cambium, and only in the aboveground parts. It may sometimes enter the wood just a little, never more than an inch.

The discussion was largely about what we don't know. The causitive organism was only discovered in June, and never seen before. The disease is basically only really active in cool, wet weather, so we will begin to learn much more as we get into the rainy season.

What we don't know:

  • Is is native or exotic? [though it certainly seems to be exotic]
  • How is it dispersed? How far?
  • Does it survive in soil or litter?
  • Does the pathogen survive in dead wood?
  • Does the pathogen survive in chipped wood?
  • How long does it actually take to kill a tree?
  • How does it interact with other diseases and pests to kill a tree?
  • Will fungicides control the pathogen?
  • What will the ultimate mortality be and what species will it spread to?

So far the disease has only been seen in wildlands, not in street trees or in yards [where it appears near homes it has always been in trees that are functionally part of adjacent open space]. There are other diseases that also occasionally kill trees, particularly those that have been stressed through injury, compacted soils, overwatering, air pollution, etc, but the causitive organism for the oak mortality syndrome has not been identified as occurring except in wildlands so far. Wildlands with much human use, like China Camp State Park on the shore of the Bay in Marin County, do seem to be a possible correlation, however.

It is difficult to make any recommendations yet. The main ones are: don't move infected wood to new areas, and don't move mud from the vicinity of infected trees to new areas. Dead wood should be allowed to dry out.

It has been shown that the disease comes first, then the insects, so insecticides are not considered promising for control.

New understandings are expected to be coming along in the coming weeks and months, since we now have a much better idea what we are dealing with and it is being studied intensively by many people.

Some arborists present at the meeting said they are seeing a marked increase also in wetwood infections -- another disease, caused by bacteria. Part of the problem is that we have so many very old oaks, not so many middle-aged or young ones. Old oaks seem to be more vulnerable to disease.

I thought it was a great idea to bring in an expert on the pine pitch canker disease containment problem, Richard Hawley of Greenspace The Cambria Land Trust, though it is caused by a totally different organism in different ways, the lessons learned are worthwhile. He brought a great publication "Programs for Capturing, Handling, Utilizing, and Disposing of Infected Pine Material in San Luis Obispo County". One little tidbit I picked up from his discussion is the problem of pallets. Packing materials are typically built crudely of unfinished wood, and sometimes still have the bark on them -- and thus are a probable vector for spreading disease from continent to continent, sort of the botanical equivalent of ballast water, which has brought so many foreign organisms to San Francisco Bay that an estimated 80%+ of the biomass of the Bay consists of introduced organisms.

All three panelists gave us some historical perspective on other tree declines, of which there have been many in the last 100 years, most notably the loss of the American Chestnut, which began in 1904 and was complete by the 1950s. The first slide was a very old photograph of American Chestnuts -- so big their trunks looked like old growth redwoods -- the trees grew to 10' in diameter and over 100' tall, and over about 45 years all were at least top-killed in their extensive native range, where they were once a dominant tree, with huge ecological effects. In North America in this century there have been significant declines of oaks, maples, birches, ashes, sweetgums, beeches ... also in trouble in recent decades the Monterey pines, some Colorado pines, aspens and dogwoods. Western Australia suffered a particularly serious decline of Eucalyptus, involving many species with very high mortality, turning some forested areas into grassland.

Snakes in the Garden

(Originally posted to San Francisco Fauna, a Yahoo discussion group.)

A few weeks ago I spent a few hours pruning and "editing" a two-year-old garden of California native plants in south-central San Francisco. The owner was delighted to tell me that she has three garter snakes in her garden. Her latest prize was an absolutely perfect snake skin, 27 inches long! With the greatest of care she had teased it out of her grasses. One piece, perfect. It even includes the spectacle scales over the snake's eyes. She asked me what to do to preserve it, because she is keeping it! From what she said and what I saw, I gathered that her snakes are the land-dwelling form of the western garter snake.

Her garden also has slender salamanders, a very sedentary species that may provide some food for the snakes. An interesting thing about these salamanders is that they can feed predators without losing their lives because they have highly detachable tails which grow back. She says she has very few slugs or snails, and wonders if the snakes might be eating them. (Slugs, earthworms, and land-dwelling salamanders are the first three items listed in the garter snake's diet in Reptiles and Amphibians of the San Francisco Bay Region by Robert C. Stebbins.)

Her delightful garden consists almost entirely of species native to California, with a few trees predating the recent plantings - a fairly large redwood, a deodar cedar, a European birch, and another I don't recall, perhaps another redwood. She plans to remove the deodar and the birch as their native replacements mature.

Plants present in her garden that I recall that are listed as native in A Flora of San Francisco, California by John Thomas Howell, Peter H. Raven, and Peter Rubtzoff include western sword fern, western chain fern, red fescue, foothill sedge, Ithuriel's spear, Douglas iris, Pacific wax myrtle, California pipe vine, western columbine, meadowrue, California poppy, Pacific stonecrop, pink flowering currant, toyon, hollyleaf cherry, a wild rose, checkerbloom, huckleberry, seep-spring monkeyflower, twinberry, yarrow, and coyote brush. There are probably others I don't recall or that weren't evident, since a meadow is central to the design.

Natives from elsewhere in California employed in the garden included Santa Lucia fir, California nutmeg, Catalina perfume, yellow currant (grown as an espalier), redbud, Ceanothus 'Dark Star,' bush anemone, wild grape, mock orange, Santa Cruz Island buckwheat, island alumroot, wild ginger, mountain garland (Clarkia unguiculata), Calystegia sp., and Eriogonum grande var. rubescens. A former denizen of the garden which was removed was the large spiny rush, Juncus acutus. This is an attractive species (native to southern California but increasingly used elsewhere), but beware working around it. She wasn't careful enough, and it injured her eye, subsequently to be banished from the garden! So if you have to weed around one, use protective goggles! There are rushes native to San Francisco that are smaller, and thus in better scale with most gardens, that do not pose such a hazard. (Since originally writing this I found that there is an early record of Juncus acutus from San Francisco, a disjunct occurrence, since none has been found between San Francisco and southern California.)

The garden reflects five plant communities, with a meadow planting central to it all. It was designed and installed by Alrie Middlebrook of Middlebrook Gardens, San Jose, who is working on a book with Glenn Keator about garden design with California natives. Inspired in part by trips to England, Alrie is using some of our natives as the English do in small gardens, as espaliers.

One reason garter snakes thrive in the garden is because the owner leaves little piles of debris (prunings and such) under or behind the shrubbery. Rocks are also part of the design. The yard is actually rather small, and the meadow is cut by hand rather than power tools, which also helps to spare the snakes. One of my worst moments working was killing a large gopher snake with a Bachtold weed mower. It didn't get out of the way. I was delighted to work for a garden owner who loves her snakes!

For those interested in reptiles and amphibians in the landscape, there is some discussion in Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest by Russell Link. I was delighted to find he includes plans for herptile hibernation mounds, a good use for waste chunks of concrete. Beware, though. In the first edition the captions for the mild winter and cold winter designs were switched, an unfortunate error.

Reptiles and amphibians benefit from having an abundance of native plants that support insects, leaf litter and coarse woody debris on the ground, rock piles or wood piles or brush piles, and ground-level water. Paving that consists of individual stones set in sand is beneficial also; oak salamanders are found in burrows under the sand-placed pavers outside my sister's back door in Cupertino. Another sister on the Peninsula has a large, untidy wood pile-boards jutting out in various directions, lots of chinks-in her neglected urban backyard, surrounded by weeds that are rarely cut. Despite numerous cats roaming about, western fence lizards thrive in the pile, because it is an impregnable fortress for them. Cover, I think, is a major limiting factor for herptiles in urban areas. Low-growing shrubs and areas of groundcovers or low perennials allow them to move around more safely, while also producing food for them.

A few weeks ago I was pruning some low-growing manzanitas in another native garden in Cupertino that also included Carmel creeper ceanothus and redwood trees. I saw two fence lizards and an alligator lizard while I was there. The southern alligator lizard crawled straight up the trunk of a redwood, mature enough to have deep furrows in the bark. It was a typical suburban neighborhood, but not far from open spaces with native vegetation, a creek line, and some remnant oak woodland.
The western garter snake photograph is from Wildlife Habitat Piles in the Garden by Mark Heath, a Gardening article on the Web site of the Yerba Buena Chapter of the California Native Plant Society.

Local Native Trees to Plant at Your School or Home

With the possible exception of the coast redwood and white alder, most of our locally native trees deserve to be cultivated more often in the San Francisco Bay area. Many are beautiful and easy to grow--they are well adapted to our climate and soils. Native trees offer special values for wildlife as well.

Big-leaf maple is a very attractive species, and also fast growing--it deserves a place in more landscapes.

The gray pine is a quite ornamental tree in cultivation and more drought tolerant and more resistant to air pollution than most pines.

Contrary to general opinion, the valley oak and coast live oak, two beautiful heritage species, grow fairly quickly and are easy to cultivate. While ancient trees which grew to maturity under summer dry conditions may resent irrigation, young oaks adapt to garden watering. Indeed, under garden conditions seedling oaks may reach 25 feet in ten years--they actually grow faster than many commonly planted trees! Our native oaks deserve to be planted far more often than they are; happily, they are becoming more popular.

The California nutmeg is an unusual conifer and not difficult to grow, though a bit slow. Its needles are extremely sharp, so it should not be planted near a path.

Our California laurel becomes a stately tree. It is slow growing, but well-situated specimens are a fine gift to future generations.

The coast redwood is met with often enough in cultivation locally, some say too often. It would be refreshing to see it mixed more often in man-made landscapes with its proven companions in the natural landscape, especially Douglas fir, tanbark oak and California laurel. Other possible redwood companions include big-leaf maple, white alder, coast live oak, interior live oak, California nutmeg, black cottonwood, and madrone.

Many people long to grow the madrone, one of the world's most beautiful broadleaf evergreen trees. It has not proven easy to cultivate, but if you like a gardening challenge, try this treasure!

The California buckeye has a lovely muscular structure, interesting fruits, spectacular flowers, exquisite earliest spring foliage--but a decided off-season as the deciduous leaves turn brown in the summer; it is the first to drop its leaves. Its flowers are despised by some because their pollen is somewhat toxic to the non-native honeybee, but no flowers have more value to butterflies. In bloom this tree may be festooned with butterflies; we have seen seven species nectaring on one tree simultaneously! The tiger swallowtail, mourning cloak, California sister, California tortoiseshell, spring azure and many others visit this tree. It is easy to grow.

The blue elderberry is considered too coarse and "common" by many gardeners, but the summer fruits attract a wider range of birds than any other tree. Songbirds favor it highly for food and nesting. It is easy to grow and very fast. A stump-sprouter, it is amenable to pruning, which may help keep it presentable.

Native Trees of San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties

Aceraceae (Maple Family)
Acer macrophyllum -- big-leaf maple
Acer negundo var. californicum -- box elder

Betulaceae (Birch Family)
Alnus rhombifolia -- white alder

Caprifoliaceae (Honeysuckle Family)
Sambucus mexicana -- blue elderberry

Ericaceae (Heath Family)
Arbutus menziesii -- Pacific madrone

Fagaceae (Oak Family)
Lithocarpus densiflorus -- tanbark oak
Quercus agrifolia -- coast live oak
Quercus chrysolepis -- canyon live oak
Quercus douglasii -- blue oak
Quercus garryana -- Oregon white oak
Quercus kelloggii -- California black oak
Quercus lobata -- valley oak
Quercus wislizeni -- interior live oak

Hippocastanaceae (Buckeye Family)
Aesculus californica -- California buckeye

Lauraceae (Laurel Family)
Umbellularia californica -- California laurel

Oleaceae (Olive Family)
Fraxinus dipetala -- flowering ash
Fraxinus latifolia -- Oregon ash

Pinaceae (Pine Family)
Pinus attenuata -- knobcone pine
Pinus ponderosa -- Pacific ponderosa pine
Pinus sabiniana -- gray pine
Pseudotsuga menziesii -- douglas fir

Platanaceae (Sycamore Family)

Platanus racemosa -- Western sycamore

Salicaceae (Willow Family)

Populus fremontii ssp. fremontii -- Fremont cottonwood
Populus balsamifera ssp. trichocarpa -- black cottonwood
Salix laevigata -- red willow
Salix lasiolepis -- arroyo willow
Salix lucida ssp. lasiandra -- shining willow

Taxaceae (Yew Family)
Torreya californica -- California nutmeg

Taxodiaceae (Bald Cypress Family)

Sequoia sempervirens -- coast redwood


Ferris, Roxana S. 1968. Native Shrubs of the San Francisco Bay Region. University of California Press.
Hickman, James C. (ed.). 1993. The Jepson Manual Higher Plants of California. University of California Press.
Metcalf, Woodbridge. 1959. Native Trees of the San Francisco Bay Region. University of California Press.
Sharsmith, Helen K. 1982. Flora of the Mount Hamilton Range of California. California Native Plant Society.
Thomas, John Hunter. 1961. Flora of the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. Stanford University Press.

Wildlife Garden Tips

  • Choose species that flower and fruit at different times; with carefully chosen plantings, pollen, nectar, seeds and fruits of one sort or another will always be available.
  • Be sure to include a goodly number of deciduous plants; their yearly abundance of tender new growth and decaying plant parts provide sustenance for many creatures. Many fast growers and abundant fruit-bearers fit in this class.
  • Think insects. Many interesting backyard wildlife species rely heavily or exclusively on insects for food. Begin taking more careful note of them and you will find that insects and other invertebrates themselves can be among the chief delights in the garden. Their beauty and diversity is a never-ending source of wonder and amusement; one Eastern entomologist recorded over 1400 species of insects in his suburban yard! Try using a magnifier.
  • For deeper satisfaction and fewer problems I recommend keeping artificial feeding of wildlife to a minimum; instead, concentrate on working to improve the "carrying capacity" of your domain.
  • Water features are invaluable in wildlife gardens. Also needed are "pioneers" to work with aquatic habitat-gardening. Many fascinating semi-aquatic and aquatic native plants and animals are becoming locally extinct; little is known about them or their culture.
  • Taking notes and making species lists may add to your pleasure and facilitate the sharing of your observations.

Species in each category below are listed in approximate order of flowering:


sun: California poppy, bird's-eye gilia, goldfields, miniature lupine, owl's clover, tidy tips, succulent lupine, grand linanthus, globe gilia

semi-sun: miner's lettuce, Chinese houses, elegant clarkia


sun: Douglas wallflower, purple needlegrass, Ithuriel's spear, coyote mint, dwarf woolly sunflower, naked eriogonum, narrowleaf milkweed, Kellogg's yampah, Chilean aster, California fuchsia, California goldenrod, golden aster

semi-sun: hound's tongue, California toothwort, California strawberry, hummingbird sage, California fescue, Van Houtte's columbine, tiger lily, western columbine

marsh: spikerush, bur-marigold

Shrubs and vines

chaparral currant, California gooseberry, osoberry, California barberry, buckbrush, blue witch, twinberry, pink-flowering currant, brown dogwood, chaparral clematis, sticky monkeyflower, golden currant, California dogwood, California wild rose, California coffeeberry, toyon, western virgin's bower, California blackberry, thimbleberry, coyote brush, hollyleaf cherry, creambush.


arroyo willow, coast live oak, California buckeye, blue elderberry.

Berries for the Birds

One of the best ways to watch birds is to find native plants laden with ripe fruits of the sorts they love to eat. They often come out in the open to feed, and when there is plenty of good food they seem more at ease with human presence, or at least much less likely to fly far away. About two weeks ago I was gathering ripe coffeeberry fruits and was astonished at what a good look I was able to get of the western bluebirds which continued to feed on them, or retreated but a very short distance, eyeing me as I eyed them! Yellow-rumped warblers were with them.

A very satisfying way to enjoy birds is to plant native plants which provide food for them. Many berrying plants attract birds. Some people plant non-native species such as pyracantha or cotoneaster for the birds, but native berries attract a greater diversity of songbirds and often greater numbers as well. The flowers, foliage, leaf litter, etc., of native species also supports a greater diversity and abundance of invertebrates upon which the birds will feed year round.

Some of the more useful berrying species are:

Mexican elderberry (Sambucus mexicana)

This is a common riparian species, sometimes found at the base of hills or in ravines. The fruits in early summer attract an extremely wide range of birds, such as quail, thrashers, grosbeaks, woodpeckers, orioles, house finches, and orange-crowned warblers. It is very easy to cultivate. It does tend to get large and can be rangy, but responds well to pruning. It can be cut to the ground every year (or whenever it gets too big) in its winter dormant season, and it will still grow up to flower and set fruit.

Hollyleaf cherry (Prunus ilicifolia)

This popular landscaping subject provides good bird food. The seeds may be planted where the plants are wanted. They are often planted as screens along property lines. They can be severely hedged, but it is best to allow them to grow at least 6 feet tall, or better yet, give them plenty of room to develop as specimens. For maximum value to birds allow them to be branched to the ground and allow leaf litter to accumulate.

California coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica)

This shrub is particularly useful because it provides succulent berries in early fall. Many birds visit it year round for insects. It is an attractive foliage plant, easy to cultivate and grows quickly.

Brown dogwood (Cornus glabrata)

This riparian species grows very fast with some water. It features lush foliage, bright blue berries in late summer loved by many songbirds, and some fall color as well. Small birds like to nest in it. To observe it with its associated birds in the wild check out the stands found along Old Page Mill Road in Palo Alto.

Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia)

The bright red berries are the favorite food of robins and waxwings in winter, with more than 20 species of birds utilizing them for food. The seeds contain a small percentage of cyanide compounds, but nevertheless purple finches (seed predators) rip open the fruits to eat great numbers of them. In its season no berry is more attractive. The birds do not get "drunk" on toyon as they do with the non-native pyracantha which often results in tragedy if a busy street is adjacent. Toyon is very easy to grow. Give it enough room so that little or no pruning will be required. Very interesting insects, many bees in some cases, visit its early summer white flower panicles.

Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) and Shinyleaf barberry (Mahonia pinnata)

These are easy to grow and quite decorative. I will never forget how close I was able to approach Phainopeplas feeding on Mahonia pinnata fruits at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont. They were most reluctant to leave such a delicious feast.

Poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum)

In the cashew family, the fruits are attractive to birds that normally eat mast or insects, such as jays, woodpeckers, titmice, and wrentits. Poison oak is an important food for many birds, especially wrentits and hermit thrushes. Poison oak is not as hard to live with as some people think. Obviously it may be wise to clear it away from trails or heavily used areas; nuisance seedlings can be dealt with conveniently and safely with a mini weed wrench (a product of the New Tribe company).

There are many other fine berries for birds, such as thimbleberry, hairy honeysuckle, wild grape, blue witch -- any berry species is worth trying. Flocks of yellow warblers will come for Pacific wax myrtle.

This article can also be found on the CNPS Santa Clara Valley Chapter website.

My Brushpiles

Last fall I had occasion to do some drastic pruning of a large blue elderberry (Sambucus mexicana) and a coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) which had been planted for backyard wildlife habitat over twenty years ago. I didn't have any handy means of carting away such a large volume of prunings, so it became a good opportunity for me to personally test the wildlife value of properly constructed brushpiles.

I made a few large brushpiles in a weedy area of the yard which is only mowed occasionally. They were built on foundations of the largest logs and branches, with some attention to arrange them to create lots of hiding places. At each successive level, branches which were progressively smaller in diameter were used, and they were topped with leafy twigs.

Over the winter I was pleased to note flocks of small birds flying in or out of the piles, which provided good cover and a good place for them to find insects and spiders. In spring the piles were moved to a wildlife study area. At least five southern alligator lizards and more than twenty California slender salamanders were found under the piles, along with many worms, insects, isopods, millipedes, etc. Not bad for a suburban backyard!

If native vegetation must be pruned or cleared it can still provide great habitat value in the form of brush piles. Note that properly constructed piles are built exactly the opposite of the way one would build a bonfire; they should not present a fire hazard.

This article can also be found on the CNPS Santa Clara Valley Chapter website atBrushpiles