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Book Review: When Plants Took Over the Planet

Botanist and author, Chris Throgoods takes readers on a journey through the history of plants from algae to flowering plants, to show how plants slowly changed from tiny organisms composed of one cell to large plants with roots, stems, leaves and flowers. After introducing the concepts of geologic time and the family tree of plants, he describes the unique characteristics of each major group of plants: algae, bryophytes (mosses, liverworts, horned worts), lycopods (first vascular plants), ferns, horsetails, Ginkgo and its relative, cycads, conifers, and several different groups of flowering plants. He gives fascinating details about both extinct and extant species in each group, along with a pronunciation guide for the name, time when the plant was alive, and the size. For example, the entry for Nepenthes (Nep-enth-eez), tells us that the plant is alive today, and has leafy pitchers about 8″ long where bats hide from predators and poop in the pitchers. The bat manure provides nutrients that help the plant survival in poor soil. Interesting plant!

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Also known as chaparral yucca, foothill yucca, Spanish bayonet, and Quixote yucca, this evergreen shrub is native to Southern California and Baja California where it grows in chaparral, coastal sage scrub, and oak woodlands. It is a member of the asparagus family, Asparagaceae, that also includes snake plant, spider plant, and agave. The plants forms a 3-4′ tall rosette of rigid, silver-gray leaves with finely saw-toothed margins and very sharp tips. When the plant reaches maturity in 5-10 years, a densely branched spike of flowers 10-15′ tall appears in the course of about 2 weeks in mid spring to summer. The spike bears hundreds of scented, creamy white to purplish, bell-shaped flowers that are pollinated by the California yucca moth (Tegeticula maculata), an exclusive relationship that is considered a classic example of symbiosis. The fertilized flowers produce a dry winged capsule that splits open at maturity to release its seeds. After blooming the plant dies but is replaced by offsets. Our Lords candle is very tolerant of drought, heat and frost, does well in a xeriscape, and is attractive even when not in bloom but may not do well outside its native range. The genus name, Hesperoyucca, comes from the Greek word hesperos meaning western, and the native name, yucca, for the unrelated Manihot. The specific epithet, whipple, honors  Amiel Weeks Whipple (1818–1863), a surveyor who oversaw the Pacific Railroad Survey to Los Angeles in 1853.

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Somebody thought this shrub or small tree had a connection with the ear of a rhinocerous, or so the common name and specific epithet suggest. The specific epithet, rhinocerotis, comes from the Greek words ῥῑ́ς  meaning snout, κέρας  meaning horn, and οὖς meaning ear but you have to use your imagination to determine the relationship between the plant and the animal. Whatever the relationship is, however, the plant is very unusual looking and is bound to catch the eye. The stems grow up to 6.5′ tall, and carry numerous thin twigs bearing tiny, triangular leaves tightly pressed to the twig, and fine white hairs that produce a gray woolly appearance. In early winter, tiny, inconspicuous, brown flowerheads appear at the tips of the twigs and give way to seed heads with numerous seeds, each with a with feathery pappus that facilitates wind dispersal. The bush is soft and fluffy looking as the seeds are shed in late winter. The plants are valued for their medicinal and ornamental characteristics but are unpalatable to livestock and can become weedy. Endemic to South Africa, rhinocerous bush is a member of the aster family, Asteraceae, that also includes daisy, yarrow, and lettuce.

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Elymus condensatus

This evergreen perennial grass is native to eastern Oregon, California, and northern Mexico, where it grows in coastal sage scrub, chaparral, southern oak woodland, foothill woodland, and Joshua tree woodlands. It is a member of the grass family, Poaceae, that also includes rice, corn and bamboo. The plants grow in clumps or bunches with sword-shaped, gray-green leaves that are 3-4′ in length and flowering stalks that are 8′ or more. Dense clusters of spikelets up to 17″ long and composed of 1-7 small, light green flowers appear in the summer and give way light brown seed pods. The seeds are attractive to birds and small mammals while the leaves provide larval food for several moths. Giant wild rye is very drought tolerant so a good choice for xeriscaping but is probably too large for most gardens. The cultivar ‘Canyon Prince’, although usually seedless, might be more suitable and would be useful in seaside, desert, and rock gardens. The genus name, Elymus, is from Ancient Greek ἔλυμος (élumos), and means millet. The specific epithet, condensatus, comes from the Latin, con, meaning with and densus, meaning dense, compact, probably referring to the compact dense spike.

Type: Evergreen perennial grass

Bloom: Dense spikes of small, light green flowers in summer

Size: 3-6′ H x 3-8′ W

Light: Full sun; tolerates part shade

Soil: Sandy, dry, well-drained

Hardiness: Zones 6-10

Care: Low maintenance but probably too large for most home gardens

Pests and Diseases: None of significance

Propagation: Seed, division of clumps

Companion Plants: Hummingbird sage, bush sunflower, coyote brush,

Outstanding Selections:

‘Canyon Prince’ (blue-green foliage; smaller [2-3′ H x3′ W] and more compact than the species)

‘Gaviota Gray’ (larger than ‘Canyon Prince’)

 ‘Lottie’s Choice’ (larger than ‘Canyon Prince’)

Photo Credit: Matt Lavin Wikimedia Commons


Author, John Forti, presents a collection of brief essays on a variety of garden topics that provide survival and coping skills with the aim of inspiring readers to connect with the land and plants, “rebuild community, restore and sustain [the] environment, and renew [the] quality of life…” As a garden historian and herbalist, Forti recognizes the errors of the past and finds hope for the future in the connection many people have to seeds, soil, and place, and the value they harbor for living in harmony with the environment. In Forti’s words, “This book is about building upon a sense of place to promote health, happiness, and common ground, whether it be for your own backyard homestead, farmstead, or community.

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cabbage_white_One of the most widespread and common butterflies, the small cabbage white was accidently introduced from Europe to North American via Quebec in 1860 and has spread all over the US including Hawaii. It can be found in gardens, abandoned fields, cities, plains foothills and almost anywhere except extreme climates. The butterfly is small with a wing span of 1.25 to 2.25 inches and is white with black markings.  The males have one black dot on the fore wing while the females have two. The underside of the wings is yellowish green. [click to continue…]

Native to western US and the northern half of Mexico, this herbaceous perennial is a member of the aster family, Asteraceae, that also includes sunflower, dandelion, and lettuce. With a rhizomatous root system, the plant grows 1-5′ tall and has a basal rosette of gray-green, lanceolate leaves up to 5″ long with toothed margins and 3 prominent veins. Ascending stems have similar but smaller leaves and both leaves and stems may be hairy. Terminal, branched, one-sided clusters of up to 500 yellow flowerheads appear from late summer to fall. Each flowerhead is composed of 6-11 ray flowers surrounding 6-17 disc flowers and provides pollen and nectar for native bees, honey bees, and butterflies, including monarchs. The small fruits/seed (achenes) are eaten by birds. Threenevere goldenrood is valued for its drought tolerance and use for erosion control, but can become invasive. The genus name, Solidago,  comes from the Latin words solidus , meaning whole and ago meaning do, and refers to the wound healing properties of some members of the genus.  The specific epithet, velutina, is from the Latin word, velvetum, meaning velvet and refers to the hairs of various parts of the plant. It also give rise to the alternate common name of the plant, velvet goldenrod.

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Apple and cherry flavors go well together and my paternal grandmother, Helen S. Wright included both in a list of ingredients for cherry cider in her 1909 book, Old Time Recipes for Home Made Wine. The list calls for apple cider and Grandmother provides a recipe earlier in the book but does not specify the kinds of apples to be used. The best apple cider for this recipe would be a blend of sweet, tart, acidic and tannic apples but such a cider would be hard to find and apple juice could be used instead. Grandmother’s ingredient list specifies (dried) black cherries but cherry cider can also be made from sweet or tart red cherries, frozen cherry juice, or even maraschino cherries. Blueberries and elderberries are novel ingredients compared to modern recipes. Photo Credit Wikipedia

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Native to California, southwestern Oregon, Arizona and Baja California, this large evergreen shrub grows in open woodland, brush canyon sides, and chaparral. It is a member of the buckthorn family, Rhamnaceae, that also includes California lilac, jujube tree, and crown of thorns. The plant grows 6-15′ tall and has gray to brown or reddish stems and shiny dark green leaves with a reddish tinge. The leaves are 1-3″ long and curl under on the edges during dry summers to conserve moisture. Axillary clusters of 5-60 small inconspicuous greenish-yellow flowers with 5 petals appear in early summer and give way to a juicy, berry-like drupe about 1/4″ wide, green, black, or red in color, and containing two smooth nut-like seeds that look like a coffee bean, hence the common name of the plant. The fruits are eaten by birds, deer, and bear. The plant provides cover for birds and browse for deer and livestock other than cattle. The flowers provide food for butterflies and bees. Very drought tolerant once established, California coffee berry is valued for xeriscaping and erosion control. In addition, it can be pruned into a hedge. The genus name Frangula comes from the Latin word, frangere meaning to brake in reference to its brittle wood. The specific epithet, californica, is the latinized form of California, an area where the plant is native.

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Book Review: Chile Peppers: A Global History

Food historian and author, Dave DeWitt, presents a history of chili peppers from their origin and domestication to their spread and use around the world. Using a variety of sources such as archaeological evidence, historical botanical observations, and studies of modern cooking methods of the Incas, Mayas, and Aztecs, DeWitt describes the role of chili peppers in the early cultures of South and Central America. Interesting facts include the Inca’s worship of the chili pepper as one of the four brothers of their creation myth, the Mayan use of chilies to produce a spicy beverage, and Columbus’ role in spreading chilies to Europe and beyond.

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