Gusty winds and cold nights faded quickly to calmer breeze and warmer days. Now, the grass bolts quickly and everything goes to bloom. Lushness seems on the edge of fading, we don’t know how long the green will last. Already, the thinnest soils are turning tawny in the coastal facing prairies.
Fading Mud, To Dust
After the ground’s gushiness fades, the farmers work the ground. The fields are getting tilled. Cover crops are almost all gone, mowed and integrated into the soil. With the farm roads dry, in comes a compost delivery: fine organic crumbly brown piles getting distributed into some important places, including the orchards.
Orchard blossoms burst forth. The earliest flowers are past, cherry petals falling like snow, the first fruit seems to be setting…same with the plums, prunes, and apricots. Now, the apple trees start blossoming. Our one old gravenstein apple tree, with the earliest apples to ripen, is aglow in full bloom. Other apple trees are coming along, a diversity of flower colors, shapes, and sizes. Meanwhile, the vines…
Recently, our Two Dog Farm Wine endeavor has started returning deliciousness. The Bartles opened a bottle of their very own Chardonnay at a recent gathering and oh! the praise rang high! The promise of a larger harvest looms for this fall. The neatly pruned and tied vines are flushing leaves and flower clusters.
Elusive Wild Things
Scat is easier to see than the furries. Coyotes, bobcats, and weasels talking sh**, carefully placed to make inter- and intra-species statements, scatting. A small weasel spotted in the orchard, chicken owners worried. No bobcats for so long. Deer tracks but no deer. Skunk digging but no skunk.
And now suddenly a hundred types of flies buzzing about. Flies on poop, flies on flowers, flies frolicking in pairs tumbling on the ground. No face flies, yet, luckily. Clouds of midges, clouds of gnats. Different flies in the forest, different flies on the road.
The purple martin colony returned from way down south. This is one of two colonies in Santa Cruz County. They have the most distinctive, amazing throaty deep chirps. Goodness, they make a lot of noise. Glad to be back, I guess.
And the stranger noises are coming from the ravens. Maw and Caw are greeting friends passing through with their cluck-clicking patterns, rolling upside down, dipping and turning playfully. Perhaps a bit of this greeting is the kids coming back to say hello. Just the pair, mostly, but then there are brief visitations. The pair stand watch in the freshly tilled fields looking for the lost or injured rodents for lunch.
Two flickers poke and explore something in the ground. The thrasher sings a most refined and eloquent soliloquy.
Flap flap flap! 40 band tailed pigeons wheel across the sky and settle back into the walnut trees. Catkin feasts! It is a good time for the flock, bigger than in recent years.
Walnut leaves unfurl with the droopy elongation of the catkins that survive by sheer number the feasting of the pigeons. Poppy displays wash orange across the south-facing slopes across Molino Creek and brighten the grassy balds along the highway. Whorled lupines poke up from the sea of grasses in patches around the farm.
The Harvest One Gwen avocado reminds us about the fruit that this portion of the harvest season will one day bring. One Gwen tree does not enough avocados make. Ironically, the fructification of Spring is the hungriest time of year. Pre seed. Pre fruit.
– also simultaneously published at Molino Creek Farm’s website
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This past week, screaming gusts and roaring big waves transformed the North Coast into a less-than-hospitable world replete with flying tree debris, whirling eye-stinging chunks, and ocean spray whipped a mile inland. The wind carried frigid air from the north with sleet and snow even down to the beaches. This morning, thousands of our neighbors along the coast woke to the rare sight of white-covered ground. Inches of snow above 1200’ and, at the Farm, a thin and gravelly crunching of rice sized hail. As the day progressed, massively tall patches of billowy clouds, dangerously dark gray at their bases, peeled across the sky dumping big wet drops mixed with sleet and hail. Patches of blue sky allowed roving beams of bright sun to briefly illuminate vibrantly green meadow terraces and silver hillsides of moist sage scrub.
There had been enough dry weather for vehicles to start making dust again along the roads. The last two years the rain stopped early and everything got dry and brown in the middle of what would normally be our rainy season. So, the return of some rain, however cold, has been especially welcome. If the wind dies, we’ll be able to burn some more brush. Meanwhile, the recent dry weather allowed for big machinery to take care of some of the fuel problem another way.
There are these agile caged tractors with brush eating drums which are designed to make chips from standing biomass. It’s a a good time to chew up brush- no nesting birds and its wet enough not to start fires if the machinery makes sparks. This past week, one such piece of machinery made a lot of brush on the Farm into tiny chips, even somewhat mixed into the soil in a few spots. The person artfully managing such transitions is Kenny Robinson, a welcome new operator in fuels management. Much of that stuff he was chipping was dead from the 2020 fire, so it was very dangerous fuel for the next wildfire. Thanks a ton, Kenny!
Year by year, we are transforming the Molino landscape back into the grasslands we see in photos prior to the 1980’s. This also makes it less dangerous for wildfire. A broad swath downhill from the barn has been our main focus. There, the forest is turning more park like- redwoods and oaks limbed up high with a carpet of sorrel and brambles 6” tall. New chip-scapes make it possible to drive around and pick up firewood and new camping spots are becoming possible.
The orange-tipped small adult coyote snuffles and scoots between patches of weeds approaching its own height. Nose not far from the soil, it mixes nonchalance with intensity but is always on the move. We don’t have a name for this newish resident, but it has become a consistent neighbor.
The vole fiefdoms are spreading. Each week, new areas get converted from gopher strewn barrens to vole trailed fiefdoms. I pity the sleeping gophers, cuddling in their carefully crafted dens when the bug-eyed ear-nipping marauders zip in and evict them. They must squeak and complain, retreat to a less dry and comfy tunnel, shiver, starve, and perhaps die with these cold nights. Voles have been multiplying quickly but the next gopher breeding season is a bit further off. The population war is on.
Forest and Fields: Flowers
As we steward roadside oak shade, oak understory herbs are moving in. Drive through hounds tongue patches are coloring the entry. Milkmaids are also in full bloom. Deeper in the redwood forest, redwood sorrel is increasingly flowering. On the trail to the creek…checkerlily and false solomon’s seal are swelling in bud. In the meadows, the earliest poppies are blossoming alongside wild cucumber. We even have a patch of footsteps of spring- splashes of bright yellow like spilled paint signaling that the floriferous season has begun. The first buttercup blossoms have burst open. Leafy whorls of rosettes of only a few lupines suggest that this won’t be such a great lupine year. In the orchard, more plum flowers are emerging and the hazelnut catkins are waving in the wind.
-this is from Molino Creek Farm’s website, my weekly blog posted there first and then here
When I mention the California nutmeg tree to local people, I find most folks aren’t familiar with it, so this article might serve as an introduction to one of our least-known evergreen tree neighbors.
Needles to Say
California nutmeg has needles for leaves, and those needles hurt. Pines have needles in bundles, cypresses leaves are scales, and the local firs and redwoods look more like nutmeg in having single, short needles emanating along stems. Douglas fir stems have needles facing up and down and all around. Redwood and nutmeg trees have neater looking needles that just stick out the sides, along one horizontal plane. You can tell redwood and nutmeg needles apart because the latter have very sharp points. Because of the size and sharpness of the spines, nutmeg needles rival the painful jabs of blackberries and thistles.
I was taught that redwood trees were the only conifer that could have more than half of the needles singed off a tree and still survive. I was taught wrong. The 2020 CZU Lightning Complex Fire scorched through many acres with California nutmeg- I haven’t found one that died from the blaze. Instead, just like coast redwood, the trees are either sprouting from their bases (if severely scorched) or sprouting new leaves and branches from their trunks and limbs. As an aside, I also had a Norfolk Island pine that also burned entirely but is resprouting…so, there appear to be more fire-sprouting conifers than once was thought.
The wood of this tree is prized, but the tree is so uncommon that harvest is strictly non-commercial. The tree is not generally quick growing so it has close growth rings. And, the wood is quite different than any other wood around: it is a rich yellow-brown. I’ve heard lore that the native peoples used the wood for bows; people have mentioned to me seeing ‘bow wood trees’ where the tip of nutmeg trees have been bent over and weighted down to create a naturally curved trunk.
This species is in the yew family. Some of you know yews, whose uses you wouldn’t guess include ewes. And, you would be right (as far as I know).
Yews are common shrubs in landscapes with bright red berry-looking fruit. Nutmegs do not make bright fruit, but their fruits are substantially odd. Perhaps the term ‘California nutmeg’ comes from examining the seed: peel off the thick rind and extract the hard nut, carve it in half and you might be looking at a nutmeg nut. California nutmeg nuts are solid and resinous like the foreign nutmeg, but our local one isn’t obviously useful as food, though some suggest the nuts may have once been used as food. Don’t eat the nut, though, it is poisonous if you don’t know how to prepare it correctly.
The coating on the nut is very interesting- watery and yet resinous and quite pungent. Squeeze the nuts and you get juicy with juice that doesn’t quite want to come off of your hand.
Some of us recall the controversy of the cancer fighting medicine “Taxol” and the scare about losing the California nutmeg’s pacific northwest cousin the Pacific yew tree, Taxus brevifolia. Taxol keeps some types of cancer from spreading and was discovered in these yew-family trees. However, scientists figured out how to synthesize Taxol so we don’t have to rely on trees to make it, anymore.
When contemplating how to convince people that it is important to save species, I am advised to use examples like this where we have discovered life-saving drugs from wild plants. So, use this as an example.
Where to Find Native Nutmeg
I perused the herbarium records to let readers know where the public can go to see California nutmeg. It seems that the best places are in the Waddell Creek drainage from Rancho del Oso on up. One notable tree used to live near a waterfall in Big Basin- I wonder if is still there?
-this post originally published as part of my ongoing journalism in Bruce Bratton’s amazing weekly blog BrattonOnline.com
Across the farm, people are awake before dawn, lights winking on while the stars still shine. We pull on our clothes, make coffee, eat a snack, and prepare to head out as soon as there is any light at all. I mosey across the farm, turning on water valves…that freak early rain was so far in the past that it is time for the once-a-week soil soak again beneath the orchard trees. I pace back and forth down each row of trees examining the micro sprinklers and irrigation tubing to check for any leaks. Mice, rabbits and gophers sometimes chew the lines: I mostly listen for gushing leaks, but sometimes I see them before I hear that awful sound. Leaks repaired, water on, I head to my paying, indoor job. Other farmers keep going as farming is their mainstay.
We still pull our sun hats from the peg next to the door before heading out to work the farm when the sun is up. Sun heat prickles bare skin though the air temperature is perfectly moderate. It is harvest time. Crews pick apples twice a week for markets: we navigate ladders high into trees after the ground picking crew has finished what is reachable. Shoulder-slung bags full of fruit get dumped into sorting bins and the sorters go to work: bad apples to the compost, barely okay apples to the cider press, almost perfect apples gifted to the Pacific School food program, perfect apples to 4 different farmers markets.
Apples off to Market
Farmers load, haul, and set up displays of boxes of beautiful, community-grown apples where people gather for produce at local farmers markets: Saturdays at Palo Alto and via 2 Dog in San Francisco at Alemany the “People’s Farmer’s Market” and then again on Wednesdays via 2 Dog at Heart of the City (SF) as well as Molino Creek Farm’s stand at the Wednesday market in downtown Santa Cruz. We are selling 400+ pounds a week, more than twice what we ever sold before- post fire resilience and the fruits of many people’s labor.
As the sun sets, we begrudgingly wind down. There are not enough hours of light to deal with the harvest, so we often have to make lists of work to be deferred until the next morning. Harvest bags get packed into mouse proof bins, I check that gates are closed against the evening’s marauding deer, I give a final twist to shut off irrigation valves and update the watering log book, and then I clean and put away the tools. Brushing off the dust and dirt from my work pants and stomping off my boots, I head home as darkness sets in. The first crickets are singing, and an owl begins its nighttime hoots. Cold clean-smelling air settles into the low points on the farm, the higher points are still warm and smell resiny from the last sun warming the coyote brush.
Deer, No Bobcats
The male deer are sparring, and one has cracked one of the points on its antler. Three male deer, one larger, are strutting around, following the four or so does that frequent the farm nowadays. The larger buck and the larger doe are frequently at the cull apple pile in the evening: that will help them bulk up for the cold, rainy winter!
Where is bobcat, coyote, and fox? The plethora of gophers fills us with consternation. Nearly every square foot of ground has been tossed and turned. I find fresh moist subsoil piles at 100’ intervals every day. The hawks scream and reel, crisscrossing the fields. A kestrel eviscerated a gopher on top of a stump next to my office window midday the other day…he plucked its fur off as much as he could before getting to work tearing apart and swallowing the better food.
The raptors are not enough, and the snakes and lizards are slowing down. We need the mesopredators! Two foxes traipsed along the road down from the farm the other day. I haven’t seen a bobcat in a year. A wave of canine distemper is reportedly still raging across our region, which might explain why there aren’t many fox or coyote, but feline distemper hasn’t been a big issue…so why aren’t there more bobcats? They would be so well fed!
Green or Freshly Tilled Fields
The rain two weeks ago germinated millions of seeds and now seedlings are greening the landscape. Where we didn’t get to raking the last harvest in the hayfields, the grass is the tallest, growing through the thick mulch. We took advantage of that early germination to weed the fallow farm fields- disking the crop of weeds into the soil, preparing for planting the cover crop. The farm has beautiful contrasting patches of brown and green.
Late Season Flowers
Amazingly, the bees have forage. It is ironic that it is harvest time for the humans and the bees might be hungry. Fall and early winter are starkest times for pollinators. Hummingbirds and bees flock to irrigated salvias in our gardens. But still, the coyote bush is in full bloom- but there are only a few old enough to flower- the fire spared ones are abuzz with diverse flying pollinators: flies, bees, and wasps. Evening brings the hawk moths to the jimson weed aka Datura and evening primrose, wildflowers that are also taking advantage of the garden irrigation for late season blossoming.
Fall Color Commences
Each year, the obvious harbingers of fall are our many black walnut trees. Descendants of the Mother Tree in the Yard, the younger walnut trees turn lemon yellow starting from the highest, driest trees and ending with the Mother Tree. It is a count down clock to winter. The last trees to show fall color are at the very lowest elevation- in the north apple orchard, on the steep north facing slope of Molino Creek Canyon. Those apple trees turn yellow in late December and early January…slowly dropping leaves into February.
We hope you are getting out to the fall colors of our area, in the shadier canyons where the big leaf maples, roses and hazelnuts are starting to show.
There’s an important plant showing off right now. Cast your eyes across our hillsides or hike deep in the ravines, and you may catch a glimpse of large multi-trunked treelike shrubs festooned with bright white blossoms. In December, these plants will be weighted with bright red berries, just in time for the holidays. Branches with berries were so popular as wild gleaned holiday décor that Californians had to pass laws to prohibit harvesting in the early 1900’s. This big shrub or at times small tree is called “toyon,” Hollywood, or Christmas berry.
Madrone-like Different Apple
The plant’s genus name “Heteromeles” means ‘different apple’ (“hetero” translates as ‘different’ and “meles” references the apple genus ‘Malus’), which makes sense because this super shrub is related to apples, which are also in the rose family. You can see why it is a rose relative if you examine the small flowers and find that they are five-petaled, like wild roses. I captured a photo of a honeybee visiting Toyon flowers (note the attractive red leaves in the background). Like roses (and apples!) the flowers have an alluring scent…some say like Hawthorn – but, does anyone know how to describe hawthorn smell?? Oh, so much to learn…in Nature, there’s always more to learn.
More plant name etymology…as we already covered the secrets behind the genus name. Botanists often play most playfully with “plant nomenclature.” As a profession, they might be the punniest. This shrub-tree’s species name is “arbutifolia” referring to the shape of the leaves, which are like leaves in the genus Arbutus, which includes our native madrones. I recognize that the overall leaf shape fits and that the leaves are extremely waxy like madrone leaves. But, Toyon leaves are a darker green and have little teeth on their margins, unlike madrones. Nevertheless, if you cut branches of this plant for the holidays, you’ll get both a dark green ‘holly-like’ leaf color as well as the bright red distinctly holly-like berries- a fine combination.
Do We Eat Them?
Yes, we do eat them. The original people of this land made delicious food out of Toyon berries. The name Toyon is a Spanish-era mispronunciation of the native peoples’ name “totcon.” There is a problem, though…when ripe, the seeds are full of cyanide, so one must process the berries to get rid of that poison. I don’t know anyone who has done that work, and I leave the berries for the birds.
What Else Do We Do with Toyon?
Toyon wood is epically useful but little known these days. Know anyone with a toyon wood anything? Native peoples used the wood for poles, arrows, bows, pegs, pestles, frames for furniture, bowls, etc.
Nowadays we use the plant in restoration and habitat management. The birds, pollinators, and mammals like it a lot- a prime candidate for restoration in many ecosystems.
Wildlife worship at the Toyon many times a year. Now, when the shrubtrees are in bloom, they vibrate with pollinator noises in all octaves. Being one of the only early summer abundant sources of pollen and nectar, Toyon is the go-to nectar bar for a wide variety of buzzing floral resource collectors. The distinct drone of European honeybees emanates from the flowering canopy, joined by the high whine of numerous flies and the deeper tones of larger native bees. And then there are fruit…
The fruit take a long time to mature, a long wait until berries are ripe and delicious, but as with the good fortune of early summer flowers, the fruit arrives at a time when few other such foods are available. One of my favorite wintertime visitors, flocks of noisy cedar waxwings descend on a toyon and feast joyously on the berries. The amazing photo above is copyright by Creative Commons and is by Flickr user Becky Matsubara. Robins, too, regular fruit eaters, gulp them down. I’m not sure how coyotes reach the Toyon fruit around here, often too high to reach. If there were bears still around, they would feast on Toyon berries, probably tearing off limbs that bore berries too high for their reach. All of these critters disperse Toyon seeds with their poop. If you aren’t lucky enough to have a waxwing-dispersed toyon sprouting up in your home’s vicinity…or, if an open space near you doesn’t sport crowns of Hollywood stars…there’s always a chance to plant them!
Landscaping with Toyon
Toyon is a great landscape and restoration plant when you want a large, resilient, and wildlife friendly shrub. The species isn’t the fastest growing, but it is quick enough! After 10 years, you can count on a 12’ tall, 10’ diameter plant with a full round crown chock full of flowers. What you can’t count on is a full canopy of leaves…or red berries…it seems that those only occur on the driest of sites – mine get mildewy leaves that fall off readily and the berries turn moldy black in many years. The flowers, though, consistently appear in larger and larger bee-covered masses. Count on multiple trunks with smooth grayish bark that are easily pruned up to be more fire safe. If there is a fire, you can count on Toyon to bound back with new sprouts so perhaps once established a shrub can live a very long time. Another bonus- although Toyon is ostensibly evergreen, it does shed its leaves a few at a time…and as those leaves get ready to shed they turn a bright and beautiful red.
I took this photo of a 10 year old toyon just today, high above Davenport- in bloom and very lush looking.
Your homework, should you decide to take my advice, is to spot the Toyon. There really aren’t that many trees or near tree shrubs to learn in our area, and this one is a great one to add to your repertoire of local knowledge. Where will you go to find this species???
Sunshine rakes across exposed skin, prickly hot. A cooling light breeze helps, but the shade offers a more pleasing comfort. We smile entering the cool understories of lush walnut trees or beneath the canopies of perky well-watered apples. It is nice to have both the summer warmth and the cool shade in proximity. Our creature brains welcome the return to normal weather patterns with this typical July weather at Molino Creek Farm. The past week’s temperatures were precisely what the dry farmed tomatoes, winter squash, peppers, avocados, apples, and sunflowers crave: highs in the mid 70’s and lows in the upper 50’s. The cool breezes emanate from the tops of the billowing fog racing down the coast 200’ below the farm, obscuring our view of the wind-swept waves.
Don’t all you folks way East of us slather at our weather, it comes with a cost…the potential for FIRE! (I shouldn’t have said that). Do non-human critters worry about fire?
How would we know if our critter friends fret about wildfire? The turkey mothers seem to worry less about their young than the quail, judging from their skittishness. Bigger birds might have less worry and these turkeys look proud and bold. The turkey ‘chicks’ which we encounter along the road out from the farm are mostly pretty big, half the size of the adults and not so many as the quail. The quail are raising their second flush of teeny-tiny young fluffballs, stumbling along the roadsides. Their big brothers and sisters are nearly the size of adults- they grew so very fast. A 30-strong covey isn’t unusual to see on the Farm- we might have 4 of those calling their territories here and there. The coveys of quail have mostly orchestrated their flushing formations, launching and landing in unison.
A high flock of 50+ smallish swallows (species TBD) gathers at the top of the Salix Stream’s highest burnt Douglas firs, alarm calling and scattering when our resident red-shouldered hawk flies by. The above-door barn swallows have either just fledged (neighbors) or are feeding their second clutch (my house). A large flock of Brewer’s blackbirds has settled back on the farm after their off-farm nesting; they are accompanied by at least one adolescent bicolored blackbird. The pair of band tailed pigeons who are robbing chicken feed bravely from the coop are still at it.
No new news on the gophers and voles. The gopher population still as the upper hand as the vole population rebounds, crowded into thick-thatched corners of the farm, here and there. I predict the gophers will start losing ground to voles later this year…
Mark Jones is still the rock star behind the mowing- weed eating and mowing to get the grass down to a fire-safe, dirt-touching mulch. Adan made a pass through the tomatoes with the tractor, tilling in the summer weeds. The Two Dog crew has been assiduously hoe-hoe-hoeing the row crops which had an unusual flush of weedy amaranth this year, so lots of work! Free the peppers!
As I type, Molino Creek Farm has made its debut at the Downtown Santa Cruz Farmer’s Market. Judy took many beautiful sunflowers, zucchini and various other goodies to say our first hellos to new friends and old.
Tomato bushes are 18” across and a little taller with the first green, shiny fruit plumping up half way up their stems. Two Dog winter squash is bounding- tendrils stretching and long stems bounding from vibrant plants whose bases are adorned by big yellow blossoms. The orchard mulch project is gaining ground- we’re almost through with raking, delivering, and placing the first mulch field, aka “Squash Field”- an acre of ground just past the Old Apple Orchard. We’ve got much more to do with the 1-acre “Habitat Field” near Cherry Hill. And then, we have more patches to gather as our hunger for hay mulch has grown with the new plantings the past few years. Our 3 acres of orchards seem to want to be fed 3 acres of hay, easy math.
There are very few flowers alive on the landscape. The row crops are too small to make many flowers, yet and the wild plants are too far from rain to be making many flowers. The exception is toyon – a rose-family shrub that we’ve planted here and there for habitat and pollinators. Toyon is aglow with big bouquets of small white flowers, abuzz with bees and even attracting Allen’s hummingbirds. And so, things are drawn to our home landscape gardens. An old Molino tradition is cultivation of the sacred columnar San Pedro cactus, a native of the west slope of the Andes. Twice a year, San Pedro goes to bloom, opening its massive white fragrant trumpets at dusk. The flowers are full of drunk and dazed honeybees and you can smell the divine smell many yards away. And…what a show! Otherwise, we keep a few salvias and petunias and things flowering for color near our homes and those must serve as nectar and pollen respite while the pollinators await the Great Flowering – thousands of coyote bush: those are while out.
-from my weekly blog on Molino Creek Farm’s web page blog.
Succulent carpets sporting pale yellow, rich magenta, or light purple flowers blanket the bluffs and hang over the cliffs along the coast of California. Joining oleander and cotoneaster as historic roadside plants, ice plant has been dropped by public works landscapers for many good reasons. Several species of ice plants are quite invasive in parts of California, spreading 3’ a year, wiping out rich assemblages of native plants and changing wildlife communities.
Native Ice Plant??!
When my mentors taught me the native flora, they wanted me to recognize the difference between the ‘native’ and non-native ice plant species. However, the ‘native’ ice plant turned out not to be native, proven by a clever scientist who sleuthed for a pollen record in pond sediment from an ancient pond in Marina, California on the Monterey Bay. The trick is to find an old pond, drill into the sediment with a hollow tube, and pull out a long plug of mud: deeper muck is older. Scientists can reference ash layers from volcanoes in the sediment and use carbon dating of bits of organic matter to index the history in the sediment core. In that pond sediment, they discovered ice plant pollen beginning in the 1800’s and occurring steadily in the pond sediment ever since. That was the age of lots of Old World species’ arrival…a time when invasive grasses and herbs spread rapidly across the landscape. Some species spread faster than the invading people so that the first Old World botanists didn’t know whether something was native or not. How did ice plant get there?
South Africa: Iceplant Home
South Africa is home to many ice plant relatives. That Mediterranean region is a biodiversity hot spot for many interesting plants, including plants in the ice plant family. Many ice plant relatives have stunningly bright colors and thin, reflective petals. There might still be a patch of ice plant relatives in the South African collection at the UCSC Arboretum. When I worked there, I came across that patch on a sunny spring day and was mesmerized by the color, gazing at first one intensely bright color and then the next. Peeling my eyes away from those flowers, I was shocked to find a world of temporarily muted color (a world of gray!). Something in my eyes had been overloaded and it took a while to get normal colors back. Only a few of the South African ice plant relatives have become weedy in California- not to say that more won’t in the future, should they find their way via the nursery trade.
Scurvy is a horrible disease of malnourishment caused by too little Vitamin C. Part of the ‘success’ of the Imperialist British Navy is due to the recognition of the need to pack limes on board ships, earning those sailors the name ‘limeys.’ Some sailors might have been better called ‘iceys’ but that term doesn’t appear in the history books. The term for ice plant seed pods was “Sea Fig,” and the fruit was packed aboard ships to combat scurvy the same way limes did.
Ice plant fruit is ripe when the pods are wrinkly and shriveled, having narrowed from their once plump shiny tautness just after the flower fades. If you try eating one too early, it is very disappointing. Wait a while and you get to enjoy sweet, tart, and salty fruit loop flavor. Like figs, ice plant seeds are on the inside of the fruit, suspended in a sticky, stretchy slightly slimy gelatinous goo- that’s the tasty stuff to harvest out of the pods. I am pretty picky about where to harvest the fruits because of what I’ve seen dogs do on ice plant carpets. The biggest flowering of ice plant is under way now, so you have to wait a while for the pods to ripen.
Us bipeds aren’t the only ones who like the ice plant fruit- they are favored food for all sorts of small mammals. The moisture in the fruit might be attractive, but the protein-rich seeds are nutritious – so much so that all that food elevates small mammal populations above what might normally occur. Ground squirrel, rat, and rabbit numbers increase, and herds of these animals scurry into areas surrounding the ice plant patches and graze down native vegetation, making way for still more ice plant with seeds dispersed in the critters’ poop. Sit on some of the large cliff-erosion combating rock piles near West Cliff’s ice plant carpets some evening and watch the cracks between the rocks. You will probably get to see part of that ice-plant fed thriving rat population.
Salting the Earth
Feeding the ice plant gardening small animals is one way that the plant is clever, but there’s an even more genius method of invasion: salt. Ice plant is very salt tolerant. As it grows it concentrates salts in the soil under it, creating more saline conditions than much of the native ocean bluff flora can tolerate.
As I mentioned above, there once was a fondness for ice plant for stabilizing soil along roads and railroads. Many older readers probably recall ice plant lined roads; CalTrans maintained at least 6,000 acres of ice plant in the 1970s. Native plant enthusiasts never really liked that ice plant landscaping, long recognizing the species’ invasibility, and so they rejoiced when an iceplant pest made it to the New World and started killing ice plant patches. The scale insect was taking a serious toll on highway and railroad plantings, and native plant conservationists were transporting sick ice plant to new areas to spread the pest. Others regarded the pest with disdain, and they ended up winning. Cal Trans funded and UC Berkeley launched a biological control program to fight the ice plant pest. UC researchers found a few species of wasps that controlled the scale insects and released those wasps in masses. The wasps established and now control the ice plant destroying pest.
Don’t worry: ice plant is controllable! Volunteers for the California Native Plant Society and other groups have embarked on ice plant pulling sprees to protect particularly rich areas of dunes and ocean bluffs. While the plants are quite heavy, they aren’t particularly well rooted, so are easy to yank. Pulled up parts of the plants are piled high and slowly decompose. You have to keep coming back to make sure some of the piled plants don’t re-root, but that follow up work isn’t very hard. And, one typically finds a few plants that were so small they got missed the first time pulling in an area. Ice plant is easy to recognize, so you might get to know it and pull it when it is out of place. Turn a pulled plant upside down, roots in the air, and it will probably die. After a while, the bare patches left from pulling ice plant might grow native plants. Often, old patches of ice plant leave behind a thick carpet of dead leaves and salty soil that takes some time to get back to something that can support native plant species. Hopefully, this essay will help prevent more people from planting ice plant in new places!
HOT (85F), then cold and massively windy (wind damage!) … then drizzle…now gap (cold)…drizzle tomorrow gap…drizzle Saturday (cool): what an odd April! The April showers bring May flowers adage isn’t supposed to work here in California, or at least it hasn’t for a long time…but then again, it Does Work! Way back in March, the prairies were turning brown and the grass was stunted and dying. Ranchers were selling their cattle quickly to get in before the big sales rush later in the spring, when they would make even less money. Now, the grasses are growing again, and the prairies are mostly green where they were brown. Weird. The big lupine year here on the Farm will be prolonged maybe into May if this keeps up. If it keeps up, maybe we’ll have the plump tasty handfuls of native blackberry that we got last year with the late rains….that would be wonderful. Some nearby got an inch of rain this last round, where we were promised only two tenths. Roof runoff rainwater buckets filled entirely, which normally suggests a good soak.
There is very little food on the farm, unless you like to eat lemons and limes or to harvest wild nettles. The cover crop pea shoots have been mowed and/or tilled in. It has been too dry for mushrooms, though the recent rains could promise morels if it warmed up and we looked hard. It is too early to harvest the very few Bacon avocados fattening on the trees. Very little of last season’s kale remains that hasn’t bolted. It’d be a good time to turn to eating bugs if you had to forage just on the farm. Canned food season continues. Oh, how we long for the produce of summer!
I saw as single deer running across the farm this past week, the first for a long time and too far away to know what sex. But it was nice sized and alone, very nervous…kept moving. A few fox barks emanated from the Vandenberg Field area one evening. Not much predator poo around. Gophers, though- very common! And the voles are starting to make a comeback. The Big Winners are the mice – the harvest and deer mouse populations are burgeoning right now. They leap and scurry in front of the mowers and hoes, and if you stand still too long in the grass they run over your shoes- it’s that kind of mouse year.
I spied on one of the bluebird boxes yesterday and watched a momma feed babies which were sticking their hungry maws out of the hole to get the dangly long caterpillar from her mouth. Cheep Cheep! Cheep Cheep!
The band tailed pigeons are the newest entertainment. Our big flock is back eating walnut catkins, an annual ritual. They sure are nervous, flapping noisily away when you approach a walnut tree. I am transported to the tropics when I see them- they trigger past parrot sightings in my memory, being a similar size and shape.
Adan is back on the tractor. So is Mark Bartle, who has been equally energetic with the big machines. The fields are mowed and a subset are getting tilled. Adan has rototilled the first field, so smoothly turned around, a special kind of soil beauty. Mark mowed the vineyard this past week and the vines opened their fresh light green delicate leaves; they are well trellised and starting to look like an established crop for the first time, their third spring of growth.
The orchard folks got caught up on watering and then with the drizzle can take a bit of a break. Soon the Maserati of Mulcharts will be going 185 with big piles of mowed up mulch to feed the trees.
The blue, blue-blue native bulbs have burst into their small tight globes of flowers on the road into the farm, complimenting the other patches of white-and-blue lupines. Orange sticky monkeyflower subshrubs are getting towards full bloom, but Ceanothus are fading. French broom is scentfully blossoming, but we don’t like looking at it- what a scourge has been flushed after that fire! In the forest, it is peak iris time and the pale yellow flowered fat false Solomon’s seal is in full bloom (another scent sensation). Did I say iris time? Its really a big iris year! The poppies are in full regalia, meshing large patches of flame orange into the delightfully contrasting purple blue lupines.
We hope you enjoy some rainbows and perhaps the last rains of the season this next week. Our fruit trees will be in heaven.
You might recall the strain of conversation about Maw and Caw our resident ravens. I just want to say that they are So Cute! Well, a little more: they love each other and you can tell it- constantly fretting about one another and this time of year gazing at each other, playing follow the leader and other games. They are well enough fed to have lots of spare time and they fill it with fun. If you travel downhill and along the coast, you find Other Farm Ravens, and not in isolated pairs…big playful troupes of them, paired, yes, but 20, 30, or 50 strong groups – noisy tribes hopping up and down flushing grasshoppers or something just like our two but more. Somehow, they seem smaller, too. I hope someone one day helps us find where our two nest.
Other Farm Wildlife
We’ve got Western Bluebirds in fine spring regalia in and out of the nest boxes already setting up shop. I think I’ll not mention the cacophony of blackbirds much – only to say that they are still noisy and beautiful.
What we don’t have are foxes or coyotes or skunks or racoons. I heard that there is distemper spreading through the predator community nearby- can anyone confirm?
This year had the driest January and February on record in many places around us- San Francisco for instance. Maybe not here, but maybe so. Bob Brunie was digging a hole to plant a new tree and found the soil dry to two feet depth. That’s weird for this time of year- very weird.
Bob was planting a new peach tree- number 7 in the group of one day 8 on Citrus Hill. If someone wants to donate a nectarine or two, we’ll plant those, too. Whatever we do, we must set up irrigation to start running Soon for the orchards.
It has become mowing and weeding time- 2 Dog Crew has been tidying up the Chardonnay grapes so now the vineyard looks so neat and tidy.
The first cherry blossoms are emerging on the few trees that the fire spared. Maybe we’ll get a bunch of cherries this year!
Around the Edges: Wildflowers
In the wild places of the Farm flowers are blossoming. A common plant is called bee plant, a Scrophularia with flowers some say are like Micky Mouse – a pair of upright petals are like Mickey’s ears. The flowers are carrion colored red-brown and attract meat “bees” – really wasps. But, honeybees and hummingbirds have figured out those flower cups are filled with nectar, so the plants get lots of visitors right now…meat bees haven’t come out yet. Wild radishes have sprays of light flowers like sea foam across the fallow fields. Across the steep hillsides near Molino Creek, trilliums and other native bulbs are starting to flower as the forest produces more and more spring flowers.
this post from my regular blog at Molino Creek Farm’s website. I am a partner in that collectively owned farm in northern Santa Cruz County, California.