See, You Know This!

You’ll soon be familiar with one of this area’s most important native shrubs and its ecological interactions. The best poets, writers, and film makers have intimate familiarity with plants and ecosystems, enabling them to transmit their hearts and imaginations realistically. To be part of this place, to appreciate the nature around us, you might consider doing the same. Most start with the dominant trees – those are easy…aim for 10 species, and you’ll have a great start! The next step is to name and know the stories of the top 10 dominant shrubs. In this case, you’ll certainly include a shrub with a confusing array of common names: California lilac, blue blossom, wood tick bush, soap blossom, or (in yesteryear) blue myrtle (Ceanothus thyrsiflorus).

Whatever you call it, this shrub is starting to blossom right now with long fat clusters of tiny pale blue flowers, shaking with pollinators, and filling the air with incredible perfume.

Syringia vulgaris, common lilac, a denizen of gardens and native to Eastern Europe

Wild Lilac?

California lilac isn’t even closely related to the ‘normal’ lilac, but it is easily as commonly found in gardens. The European lilac is related to olives, has medium-sized leaves, and 4-petaled flowers with heady, sweet perfume. Our native wild lilac has a dusty-sweet scent, but you’ll have to squint or use a magnifying glass to see that the tiny flowers have 5 petals.

Garden Plants

There are many relatives of blue blossom, and you can even find some side-by-side in our area. My favorite is warty leaved Ceanothus, Ceanothus papillosus, which likes to grow in chaparral. This warty-leaved type has sapphire-blue flowers and a very memorable, sweet-resinous smell emanating from its leaves, especially when it is hot out. This diversity of Ceanothus types and their stunning beauty have made them very popular as garden plants. If you have well-drained soil and some space in your garden, you might consider adding one not only for their flower beauty, but for their evergreen beautiful leaves, as well as their attractiveness to wildlife. You can find forms from tight ground covers to tall and treelike with flowers from white to deep, dark blue. The flower scents are that variable, too- from very sweet to very musky.

Twenty Years Ago

Twenty years ago, it was a much more unusual treat to encounter California lilac in the natural landscape around Santa Cruz. The same can still be said of the areas that haven’t burned in anyone’s memory. Big, burly blue blossom could hardly be called a shrub back then; they seemed more like small trees, with 1’ thick, gnarly trunks and barely organized canopies festooned thickly with pale blue flowers. Those powder blue puffs stood out singly or in small groves, poking up through old manzanitas or coyotebrush, visible a half mile away for their brief flowering period and then disappearing for the remainder of the year, blending in perfectly.

And Then There Was Fire

California lilac is a pyrophile. How can life love fire, such a destructive force, cooking and searing plants and animals alike as the wind-fanned flames race across hill and valley, crackling and hissing, turning everything to smoking char? For blue blossom, there is naturally no next generation without fire and adults are lucky to live 50 years. These shrubs make a lot of seeds, which sit in the soil waiting for the winter after fire to germinate. Sleeping seeds awaken when they feel the sun and the sun-warmed soil, then seeds that have accumulated in the soil for years germinate. Carpets of blue blossom seedlings spring up, and 3 years after the fire are 6’ tall and blooming, soon raining seeds in preparation for the next fire birthing.

Getting Around

Blue blossom seeds don’t appear adapted to dispersing far from their parent shrubs. The seeds don’t have maple seed wings or dandelion fluff to disperse on the wind. And, the seeds don’t have obviously attractive fruit like acorns or avocados. But, when the seed pods explode on hot days, cracking and popping seeds loose from the mother plants, wildlife become alert to the new availability of food. Quail have been known to gobble them up, as they scratch and peck in the shrubland understory. But quail and other birds don’t digest the seeds completely: the result, perfectly viable seeds being spread across the landscape, far from mother plants.

Not Just Fire

California lilac doesn’t require fire. Any disturbance that churns up the soil and shines new sunlight onto the seeds will work just fine. So, you can find new shrubs germinating in the wake of road or trail building, logging, and even suburban gardening. There are many other sneaky species like this: ones that appear abundant after fire, almost as if they require fire to germinate. There are many fewer species that do actually require fire to germinate- many of those are triggered to sprout by chemicals leached out of charcoal in the winter rains following wildfire.

Such nice flowers on that California lilac: I wish you could smell them!

California Lilac Uses

What good is this shrub? The vigor of this species in germinating after wildfire may be important for a few reasons. First, the shrubs might help to cover and then hold soil in place after fire. Second, the species has special roots that allow it to capture atmospheric Nitrogen and make it available as a plant nutrient. Adding this fertilizer to the ecosystem may help adjacent plants to grow and recover after wildfire. Blue blossom tends to grow especially well on poor soils, so it may be assisting many other species to make it in this soil-inhospitable situation.

Moths, Butterflies and Other Insects

Besides being good bird seed, moths and butterflies depend on California lilac. Ceanothus silk moth feeds on this species (its cocoons were used ceremonially by tribal peoples); many other species of butterfly and moths likewise raise their young on blue blossom. Tortoiseshell butterflies migrate from the Sierra Nevada to raise their young on blue blossom here along the coast. Somehow, the young know how to get back to those mountains to raise their children, which in turn fly higher in the Sierra and that high-mountain-raised generation is the one that comes to the coast.

Besides the post-fire explosion of tortoiseshell butterflies, one of my favorite phenomena are the annual gatherings of what I call blue blossom dancers. Thousands of tiny beetles fly in clouds above the blossoming shrubs at sunset, their silver-shining silhouettes are fascinating to watch pulsing and undulating in their fantastic annual ritual dance. Throughout the day, you can see those dancers feasting on pollen in the flower clusters, preparing for their energetic sunset display.

Where to See Blue Blossom….and a Cleaning Trick

Head for the post-fire ecological footprint! I hear that some Big Basin trails are open as are the trails in the Fall Creek Unit of Henry Cowell State Park. Both areas have huge rafts of California lilac just starting to flower. It is worth going before the winds on a warm day to immerse yourself in the scent. Do yourself a favor and get close to the flower clusters to see the awesome diversity of pollinators. If there is water nearby, grab a big hank of flowers and get to the water. Holding the mass of flowers between your wet hands, rub them together and you can experience the sudsy nature of soap blossom. Like apricot scrub, it has just the right amount of abrasiveness to help the nicely scented suds help clean your hands.

See, you know this! Ceanothus. You are on your way.

-this post originally made available via Bruce Bratton at his BrattonOnline.com blog; check it out…weekly updates…the BEST local news source in the Monterey Bay area.

Warm Spring Days

From blustery and cool to only slightly breezy and hot. Today might have been 80F and tomorrow will be, too, but the nights will cool down so we can open the windows and cool the houses. Big big waves blown in from some massive storm way way out there; the beaches were swarming with daring surfers this evening at sundown.

Farm Critters

The crickets have been chirping for the last week or so. As usual, the black field cricket is the first to sing. Their brethren the grasshoppers have an early start with fat large adults flying around already.

On the land at Swanton Pacific Ranch today, just over the hill from Molino, I saw a 18” terrestrial garter snake, a 2’ gopher snake, and a 15” yellow bellied racer as well as fence lizards galore. Alligator lizards are around, too. April is always reptile month- and this time around is no exception. Time to see snakes! The gopher snake’s body was bulging in three locations- well fed and recently shed- very shiny new skin.

Real, honest to gosh birders are surveying the Farm these days. Storey La Montagne and Martha Brown were roaming around this morning when I woke up. They reported yellow rumped warblers (“getting ready to leave”) and had good words to say about the numbers of western blue birds. Storey’s been owling here and confirmed our regular farm friend the pygmy owl. When they were here this morning, there were just barn swallows. And then, when I went down to Swanton the day saw increasing numbers of violet green and maybe other types of swallows- from 5 to 50 over the course of the morning. Welcome back swallows, almost goodbye yellow rumped warblers and golden crowned sparrows! I neglected to discuss with them Maw and Caw who curiously had one of last year’s offspring visit them this evening: and then there were three, all friendly as can be.

Little to no predator poop- few bobcats, coyotes, or fox. Only very rare sightings of deer. A bunny here, a bunny there- not many. Dead woodrat in my yard- neck strangled, dropped…gone to the turkey vultures a couple (stinky) days later. Mowing is revealing a plethora of mice, including many of those most tiny and cute harvest mice- must be having a good year. Field mice are probably having a particularly good year for all of the gophers that erupted through the last year, after the population crash of voles. The voles are coming back- beware gophers! The first vole trails are getting mowed and populations are on the rise again.

Apple orchard in full bloom; still recovering from 2020 wildfire…how will they do?

Forage and Fruit

The apples are in peak bloom right now, as of the last 2 days- there’s a few more days of peak bloom left, including this Saturday’s gathering. Pink! White! And, if you get there early or late in the day, you can be tricked into thinking the apple blossoms smell like lupine as that scent settles through the orchard from not far away. Limes are getting ripe and the Orchard Collective members are up to their eyeballs in lime-i-ness: lime juice frozen in ice cube trays…limes peeled and sucked on by Milo…lime drinks…what more?? And, we’re eating pea shoots from the cover crop, but nothing really much more coming in from the fields just yet. In the eternal irony of farm life, the Spring is the time of food shortage, the longest time since the last meaningful harvest of Most Things. And so, we eat the canned things and forage on Spring Greens like miner’s lettuce and baby this and that volunteering from last year’s greens seed crops. Oh, and arugula.

Its not your eyes…the flowers are blurry and the foliage in focus! Sticky monkeyflower. Trippy monkeyflower

It All Happens At Once

On the hillsides around the tilled fields, the normally staggered blossoms of shrubs are all happening right now. Bush lupines, California lilac, sticky monkeyflower, lizard tail, oso berry…all blooming now. There’re not many lilacs of blooming age, just yet- most burned- but, the few missed by fire are weighted down with big wads of blue flower clusters that are quite magnificent. The bush lupines, too- what magnificent lavender displays! It would be delightful to be a bee right now- food everywhere.

California lilac aka Ceanothus thrysiflorus in bloom right now, if you can find a mature bush left by the wildfire

The Work

Farm work means mowing and irrigating right now. All the fields are shorn except the orchard areas, which we are hitting post haste most days. In the vein of ‘it all happens at once’ we had to fix up irrigation a month early and just finished our first full pass of watering trees. It takes ~7 hours of microsprinklers to rehydrate the soil this year…it dried down too much before we started the watering. The solar pump is running constantly for the first time since last October. Soon, the farmers will put hoe to ground and start planting seedlings…

-this post copied from the original location at my blog on Molino Creek Farm’s website