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Knowing Our California Natives

By Carolee James

It may seem early to think of fall planting, but as summer winds down, I take stock of my garden and start to envision where new plants are needed. Native plants are my first choice with drought tolerant non-natives a close second. The following two native plants would be good choices to add to any large garden this fall.

“A plant for all seasons,” is the way I would describe California buckeye. It´s one of our more interesting shrubs—most often talked about because of its characteristic ‘dead´ look in the summer. Aesculus californica is a deciduous thicket-forming shrub or small tree growing to a height of twenty-five feet. Its short trunk is often enlarged at the base. The common name ‘buckeye´ comes from the seed pod, which was said to resemble a buck´s (deer) eye.

Let´s walk through the seasons with this plant. Toward the end of winter, the swelling leaf buds can be seen. As soon as those light green leaves unfurl, spring is just around the corner.

Around the end of April and into May, the flowers begin their show. The bloom begins with a thin stalk standing erect at the end of a branch. As they mature, the flowers fill out like a fluffy, white, tall ‘candle.´

When summer sun brings heat to our days, the flowers turn from white to beige and leaves begin to dry and turn a rusty brown. By the first of August, green-covered seed pods can be seen emerging from flower stalks which are beginning to bend over from their erect position…almost as if the ‘candles´ are melting from the sun´s heat!

In late summer/early fall, leaves will start to drop. Only leathery brown seed pods with glossy brown seeds like chestnuts will remain on now-bare branches.

By winter even seed pods will be gone from my buckeyes. I have watched resident gray squirrels going ‘out on a limb´ to harvest seeds.

Throughout winter, enjoy the remarkable structure of this shrub´s silvery gray branches. If we are lucky and it snows, one more fascinating picture of this beautiful native emerges.

As beautiful as the buckeye is, according to the Jepson Manual all parts of the plant are toxic to humans and some animals. Even the nectar and pollen are toxic to honeybees. The flowers are considered to be insect pollinated. The Miwok people and other Native Californians use to catch fish by mashing the fresh seeds, then placing them in small creeks and pools to stun the fish.

However, if the acorn crop was poor, Indians would harvest the buckeye. Seeds were collected and roasted to remove the husks. After mashing, the meal had to be soaked in water until the bitterness was removed.

Grow buckeyes from cuttings or seed. They can be used as a focal point, a hedge, or a foundation planting. They can also be grown tall enough to use as a shade tree. (This would not be a suitable plant where small children play, due to the toxicity of the fallen leaves and seeds.)

Look for buckeyes as you travel on Highway 120 to Oakdale. They are immediately recognizable now as all their leaves are a rich brown color, making a striking contrast to the green leaves of the native oaks.

If you prefer the look of an evergreen shrub, consider toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia, a bushy shrub that grows five to fifteen feet tall and produces red-orange berries in the fall. Also known as ‘Christmas Berry´ or ‘California Holly,´ this ornamental shrub is a must if you enjoy decorating for the holidays. Leaves are a shiny dark green and contrast well with the berries. Small white flowers appear in clusters at the end of stems in June and July.

The toyon that is part of my landscape is just now covered with tiny green berries. By this fall, sometime in November, sprigs of leaves and berries will be ready to use for Thanksgiving and Christmas decorating. Unless, that is, the birds get there first. Toyon berries are a wonderful treat for all the birds that come to our feeders in the winter.

Toyons grow well at elevations up to 3500-4000 feet. Look for this plant growing along Big Hill Road to get a sense of what it might look like in your garden. Caution must be taken with this plant, as the leaves and the kernel (inside the berry) are considered poisonous. Like the buckeye, Native Americans made use of toyon berries, leaves and wood through many types of processing.

Getting to know native plants and how they can be used in your setting is a rewarding experience. Attend a Native Plant Society meeting or plan to be at the next Native Plant sale on October 15th to learn more about the exceptional plants around us. For gardening and landscaping questions, call Master Gardeners at 533-5696.

See you in the garden.

Carolee James is a Master Gardener who believes that gardening with natives is more fun when you can identify what you already have. Why buy a native plant and then find out you already have that plant growing on your land!!