What is Milkweed?

Milkweed is a flowering plant named after a milky latex substance that is exuded when the plant tissues are damaged. Milkweed’s scientific name (genus) is Asclepias, named after Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine.

Narrow-leaf milkweed growing in the wild in Southern California (E. Wallace)

Milkweed is the host plant for monarchs because the caterpillars rely solely on milkweed for food.

The latex in milkweed plants contains cardenolide, a substance that can be toxic if ingested by humans and some animals. It has a bitter taste that most animals will avoid.

Two monarch caterpillars eating native narrow-leaf milkweed. (E. Wallace)

When monarch caterpillars eat milkweed, they ingest some cardenolide, which gives them a protective advantage from predators. If a bird tries to eat a monarch butterfly, the bird will have a bitter taste in its mouth and may throw up.

Even though milkweed plants contain a toxic substance, they are beneficial wildflowers that are important to birds and many insect species. The image below shows milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) enjoying narrow-leaf milkweed flowers.

Milkweed bugs feeding on milkweed blossoms. (E. Wallace)

Endangered bumblebees (Bombus crotchii) are gathering nectar from woolly-pod milkweed flowers in the image below.

Bumblebees (Bombus crotchii) gather nectar from native milkweed. (E. Wallace)

In Southern California, native milkweed plants go dormant in winter and die back to the ground before re-emerging in the spring.

Many nurseries sell non-native, orange-flowered tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) because it’s easy to grow and appealing to the eye. Unfortunately, it has a deleterious effect on monarchs. Scientists have found that tropical milkweed causes monarchs to be under-weight and parasite-ridden.

Tropical milkweed can harm monarch butterflies. (Monarch Butterfly Garden)

If you live in Southern California, resist the urge to buy tropical milkweed.

Instead, search for nurseries that offer milkweed that is native to your area. The healthiest milkweed you can buy in Southern California is narrow-leaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis) at Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar, or at Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano.

This year, Tree of Life Nursery is also selling a beautiful native milkweed called woolly-pod milkweed (Asclepias eriocarpa shown below).

Woolly-pod milkweed. (E. Wallace)

Summertime is a great time to plant native milkweed, and it is one of the easiest things we can do to help monarchs flourish. Visit Roger’s Gardens or Tree of Life Nursery soon and try planting a native milkweed in your yard.

Monarch butterfly at rest. (E. Wallace)

A Chemical-Free Garden for Monarchs

Is it possible to have a beautiful garden without using pesticides and herbicides? In my experience, it has been easy to have a healthy garden that doesn’t require chemical pest control.

Reducing our reliance on chemicals protects butterflies, and invites wildlife to step in and manage the unwanted insect population.

Birds feed their offspring mostly insects and caterpillars because insects are easy to digest when the baby birds are young and vulnerable. One nest of baby birds need more than 5,000 caterpillars to develop and be ready to fledge.

Adult birds, including hummingbirds, also rely on insects for protein and calories.

The images below show a kingbird after it captured a potato bug. The kingbird flew with the insect to a nearby elderberry bush and proceeded to smack the insect against a branch before eating it.

If you had killed the potato bug, the kingbird would have gone hungry. Sterilizing the outdoors with chemicals may be part of the reason terrestrial birds in the United States have declined by 3 billion birds since the 1970.

Instead of using pesticides, you can let birds and beneficial insects like the praying mantis shown below, do the work for you.

Mantis eats a winged insect. (E. Wallace)

Although birds and beneficial insects help with pest control, some pests are better managed by the gardener.

I remove tiny orange aphids that are attracted to native narrow-leaf milkweed by squishing them with my fingers. First I make sure there aren’t any pearly monarch eggs nearby. The aphids are soft, and removing them takes about 10 seconds.

I recently heard an entomologist say adult monarch butterflies won’t lay their eggs on milkweed that has aphids, so I keep an eye on my milkweed plants and make sure to smash the aphids when they appear.

Monarch caterpillars eating aphid-free narrow-leaf milkweed. (E. Wallace)

Before reaching for a pesticide, remember the possible harm chemicals can do to birds, butterflies, and bees. When you preserve the web of life in your garden, you will have fewer pests naturally, and a thriving butterfly population too.

Simple Support for Western Monarchs

Every winter, volunteers travel to western monarch overwintering sites to count butterflies roosting in trees near the coast. Last winter, fewer than 2,000 monarch butterflies were found overwintering along the California coast.

Overwintering monarchs November 2015. (Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Compared to 1997, when it was estimated that more than 1 million monarch butterflies overwintered, the numbers from the 2021 count were historically low.

Emma Pelton and Stephanie McKnight of the Xerces Society write, “Iconic and beloved monarch overwintering sites like Pismo Beach and Natural Bridges reported only a few hundred monarchs during the count. More startling, Pacific Grove, which goes by the name “Butterfly Town, USA” because of its overwintering sites, had no monarchs at all. Each of these sites normally host thousands—in some years, tens of thousands—of butterflies during the winter months, and are locations where visitors travel to experience the marvel of glittery orange monarch clusters.”

Scientists are not sure exactly why the overwintering monarch butterfly numbers were so low last winter, but they know that wildfires, increasing use of pesticides and herbicides, climate change, and habitat loss are some of the culprits. 

Western monarch butterfly. (E. Wallace)

What can we do to help western monarch populations recover? 

Plant native: Plant milkweed that is native to the area where you live. For Southern Californians, you can find native milkweed at Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar and Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano.

Plant pesticide free: There is a dizzying array of chemicals available to kill insects in your home and garden. But many of these pesticides kill beneficial insects like monarch butterflies as well. The Xerces Society writes:

“‘Pesticide” is an umbrella term that includes—but is not limited to—insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and rodenticides. Each year in the United States, more than a billion pounds of pesticides are applied across home gardens, parks, and farms to manage unwanted weeds, insects, diseases and other ‘pests.’ The majority of pesticides used are ‘broad-spectrum’ meaning they kill broadly. Contamination resulting from the extensive use of pesticides has been tied to the decline of species important to ecosystems, including pollinators.”

A beneficial insect, the praying mantis, hanging out on a pesticide-free narrow-leaf milkweed. (E. Wallace)

Xerces also writes about the dangers of using herbicides: “Herbicides may kill plants or, in the case of pre-emergent herbicides, prevent plant germination. Herbicides can indirectly impact pollinators and other invertebrates by eliminating habitat. For example, declining populations of the monarch butterfly have been linked to increasing herbicide use—because that, in turn, leads to the loss of milkweed and nectar plants that monarchs rely on.”

Instead of reaching for a pesticide, consider planting a more diverse plant palette in your home landscape to attract beneficial insects and provide support for birds and other predators to pests. To learn more about pesticides, click here.

This video shows a monarch caterpillar climbing on native milkweed, on its way to finding more milkweed leaves. This video is in real time. The caterpillar is speedy! (E. Wallace)

We can all provide a healthy environment for creatures living in our home landscape. A healthy garden will support western monarch butterflies as they seek out nectar this summer. And when a female monarch butterfly finds native milkweed in your yard, she can lay eggs there. Your native milkweed will provide food for caterpillars to munch and grow.

Monarch caterpillars eating woolly-pod milkweed. (E. Wallace)

Monarchs Arrive for Summer

Have you noticed monarch butterflies flying around your California yard this summer?

Western monarch butterflies are an iconic butterflies that delight us with bright orange plumage, black stripes, and white polka dots. They are so large, they cast a shadow when they fly overhead.

After hearing about the historically low overwintering monarch butterfly count last winter, I have been surprised to see a healthy number of western monarchs making daily visits to my home landscape over the past few months. 

Monarch rests on a native milkweed. (E. Wallace)

I am seeing more monarchs than I expected because last winter, fewer than 2,000 monarchs were counted overwintering in California. 

According to Xerces.org, “Early count numbers from Xerces’ Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count suggest that the western migratory population is headed for an all-time low. With approximately 95 percent of the data in, only 1,800 monarchs have been reported…This is a significant decline from the low numbers of the last two years where the total hovered just under 30,000 monarchs. These numbers are a tiny fraction of the millions of monarchs that likely visited overwintering sites in the 1980s and the hundreds of thousands of monarchs that graced California’s coast as recently as the mid-2010s. In fact, this represents an overall decline of more than 99.9% in the migratory population.”

Photo of overwintering Western monarch butterflies by Candace Fallon/Xerces Society

What can we do to help reverse their dramatic decline in numbers?

Monarch caterpillars only feed on milkweed. The first step you can take to help the western monarch butterfly is to plant milkweed that is native to your area. Good native milkweed choices for Southern California include narrow-leaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis) and woolly-pod milkweed (Asclepias eriocarpa). 

You can install native milkweed plants now, and support monarch butterflies looking for a host plant to lay their eggs. 

Western monarch caterpillars feasting on woolly-pod milkweed in Southern California. (E. Wallace)

Planting milkweed that is native to where you live is more beneficial than non-native (tropical milkweed) because non-native milkweed often hosts parasites that harm butterflies and disrupts their reproduction and migration.  

One nursery in Southern California is trying to help increase western monarch populations by offering a free trade-in. At Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar, you can bring your non-native tropical milkweed into the nursery and receive a free native narrow-leaf milkweed replacement plant.

Another great nursery to buy native milkweed is Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano. Tree of Life Nursery has several species of native milkweed plants for sale this year including woolly-pod milkweed shown above.

Monarch caterpillar munching native narrow-leaf milkweed yesterday. (E. Wallace)

Planting plenty of native milkweed in your garden is a great first step in helping the western monarch butterfly populations recover. I will discuss more ways you can help monarchs in my next post. In the meantime, visit your local nursery and buy several milkweed plants for your garden, and while you are outside, look for monarchs cruising your garden.

Butterflies in the Air

Summer is here and the birds and butterflies are abundant among the native trees and shrubs in the garden.

(E. Wallace)

As I was writing this post, I noticed a pale swallowtail butterfly settling on a California coffee berry (Frangula californica). I took a break from the blog, stepped outside and captured this photo of an adult pale swallowtail butterfly laying eggs on the coffee berry leaves outside my kitchen window.

I grow edible plants in my garden, and native plants everywhere else. This summer’s garden has zucchini, cucumbers, carrots, butternut squash, and herbs. Native plants including buckwheat, narrow leaf milkweed, and white sage grow above the garden.

(E. Wallace)

I combine narrow-leaf milkweed with buckwheat throughout my yard. This combination seems to support monarch caterpillars, and the two plants require the same conditions–very little water and lots of sunshine.

Milkweed growing among buckwheat. (E. Wallace)

Whenever I have the chance, I go outside in the afternoon to see how many pollinator and butterfly photos I can capture. Here are a few photos taken this week in the garden:

(E. Wallace)

California sister butterfly. (E. Wallace)

Monarch caterpillar. (E. Wallace)

Blue-eyed bee. (E. Wallace)

Morning glory and a bee. (E. Wallace)

The garden supports thousands of beautiful creatures, but you have to look closely and be patient to see many of them. If you take a close look at a buckwheat plant, you will see the tiniest bees, butterflies (the size of your fingernail), and other pollinators enjoying the profusion of flowers.

(K. Ethington)

These tiny pollinators are important creatures in the landscape. Consider planting a buckwheat and a narrow-leaf milkweed, and lend a hand to native California pollinators. Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar has the healthiest, most beautiful narrow-leaf milkweed plants for sale right now.

Summer Buckwheat Blooms Bright

It is July, the height of summer in Southern California, and buckwheats are blooming with thousands of showy white flowers.

(E. Wallace)

I took a walk this morning at my favorite local park, O’Neill Regional Park in Trabuco Canyon. Many of the spring-blooming plants are hunkering down in the 90-degree heat, but California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) is just beginning to shine. Look closely and you will see clouds of tiny butterflies and pollinators flying from blossom to blossom, gathering pollen.

Gray hairstreak butterfly. (E. Wallace)

Beetles too are enjoying the buckwheat blossoms.

(E. Wallace)

In the photo below, notice the tiny fly (upper left corner) coming in toward the buckwheat flower while the Flower Longhorn Beetle forages.

(E. Wallace)

If you are looking for a summer-blooming shrub for your garden, buckwheat should be one of your top choices. Buckwheats bloom for months during the hottest parts of the year and support clouds of pollinators, butterflies, and birds. Buckwheats are easy to grow, and once established, require no supplemental water.

(K. Ethington)

Try planting a buckwheat interspersed with salvias, fuchsias, and mallows. You will get year-round blossoms in your garden and year-round butterflies too. Add a native milkweed, such as narrow-leaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis), and support declining monarch butterfly populations.

(E. Wallace)

Native plants are gaining popularity as gardeners learn to appreciate their beauty and importance to wildlife. Join the movement! Try planting a buckwheat and see how many pollinators are attracted to your landscape. Then add more. Butterflies will flutter, birds will sing, and you will be filled with happiness.

(S. Bressler)

Buckwheats Around Town

A Buckwheat in Every Garden was created with the hope that sharing a free native plant with gardeners would help improve habitat for birds and pollinators in home landscapes throughout Orange County. We recently reached out to people who picked up a free buckwheat to see how their new buckwheat plant is growing.

Here’s a sample of what people are telling us:

  • My buckwheat appears to be doing well. It is on a SW facing mini-slope at the base of a young Engleman Oak, near where our driveway and sidewalk meet. I appreciate this outreach program and hope that my yard and I can become ambassadors for natives!–Brian
  • I’m happy to report that the buckwheat I received at the Fullerton Arboretum is alive and well. It’s about 2-3 times the size it was when I picked it up… It’s in full sun, right in the middle of my butterfly garden.–Carla
  • The buckwheat plant is doing very well. It is over 15” high at this time and looks very healthy.–Albertus
  • The buckwheat in my garden is thriving.–Trina

We also received some important questions:

How often should I water my buckwheat now that the rainy season is over?

We recommend watering your fall-or winter-planted buckwheat twice a month on a cool morning (60 to 75 degrees). If your buckwheat was planted early last fall, and has tripled in size, you can try watering it once a month deeply when it’s cool.

Why water only when it is cool? 

For the best success with your new buckwheat and most native plants, water ahead of the heat wave. It doesn’t rain in Southern California from May through September–these plants are built for our long, dry, and hot summer. Do Not Water Every Day!

How do I water a brand new 4-inch buckwheat I picked up in May?

If you just picked up a new starter buckwheat plant, water it very deeply as soon as you plant it. Then water deeply once a week or every five days if it’s really hot. After the first month or so, soak your buckwheat once every two weeks (on a cool morning) until the rainy season begins.

(R. Moore)

My buckwheat is already 15 inches tall. How big will my buckwheat get?

Your buckwheat can grow to be three feet tall and three feet wide. Your buckwheat will soon start blooming and attracting pollinators. Most people prune their buckwheat in December after the blooming period has ended.

(K. Ethington)

Is this a coastal plant? Will it get as big as a tree?

The ‘Dana Point’ California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) is selected from a buckwheat that grows in the coastal Dana Point Headlands. It can grow up to three feet wide and tall, but it can also be pruned to the ground in December to refresh it and keep its growth in check. It will not get as big as a tree. This buckwheat is a shrub. Buckwheats grow inland and along the coast.

Is California buckwheat edible? Can I make buckwheat flour out of it?

California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) cannot be made into flour. Buckwheat pancake flour is made from California buckwheat’s Eurasian cousin, the crop plant, common buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum).

Are these buckwheat plants sold in any nursery?

Yes, you can find the ‘Dana Point’ California buckwheat at Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano.

My buckwheat died, what should I do?

We have good news: You are invited to try again! Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar and Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano are giving away a free four-inch California buckwheat to anyone able to stop by the nurseries during operating hours. Check their web sites for current hours of operations.

Thank you to everyone who sent photos of their new buckwheat and shared their buckwheat stories and questions. There is still time to plant a new buckwheat before July. Stop by Roger’s Gardens or Tree of Life to get a new plant and install it in your yard to help animals, pollinators, and birds thrive in Orange County.

(K. Ethington)

Powered by Insects

Did you know that most birds gather insects every day to nourish themselves and feed their offspring? Many people believe birds can survive eating seed from bird feeders, but most birds need insects to provide digestible protein for energy, migration, and breeding. A baby bird’s tender digestive system needs soft, fat-filled proteins from insects and caterpillars to fuel its growth.

Bushtit collects insects. (K. Ethington)

The photo above shows an American bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus) gathering all sorts of insects, including aphids, from a salvia in a Southern California backyard. A bushtit is a tiny bird, smaller than many hummingbirds, weighing about .19 ounces. Despite their diminutive size, bushtits still need plenty of insects to feed themselves and their babies in the nest.

Birds are having a hard time finding enough insects to eat. Scientists have estimated that 40 percent of insect species are threatened by extinction. Insects are integral to the food web, eaten by everything from birds to mammals and fish. Insects also pollinate crops that produce one-third of the world’s food supply, and they break down waste.

Insects for breakfast. (K. Ethington)

Bird populations have declined along with insect populations. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, bird populations have declined by 2.9 billion birds since 1970. The decline is due to habitat loss, invasive plants, pesticide use, and more.

Breakfast. (K. Ethington)

Each of us can do our part to help increase bird populations. If we plant vegetation that is native to where we live, we won’t need to use pesticides or herbicides. It may seem counterintuitive to encourage insect life, but they are a valuable and necessary part of our food cycle.

More breakfast. (K. Ethington)

The next time you need to replace a plant in your yard, plant a native! Your soil health will improve (without amendments or compost), you won’t need to use pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers, songbirds will come to nest, and butterflies will appear.

Roger’s Gardens and Tree of Life Nursery are offering a free California buckwheat to homeowners who want to try starting a native plant garden in their home landscape. Stop by their garden centers to pick up a free buckwheat plant while spring is in the air.

Garden While Spring is Here

Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano and Roger’s Gardens in Newport Beach are open and have free buckwheat plants available for pick-up (while supplies last).

When you go to pick up your free buckwheat, consider buying a few extra native plants to install in your garden this spring. Tree of Life Nursery is open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, closed on Sundays. Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. everyday.

New native plants. (E. Wallace)

I visited Tree of Life Nursery last week to purchase a dozen native plants to replace non-native ferns that grew in a small planter. I removed the ferns and installed monkey flowers, yarrows, coral bells, and dudleyas before the rain poured another 3 inches on my garden. The finished installation is shown below…the hummingbirds and bumblebees now have more plants to provide nectar.

New natives. (E. Wallace)

Featured below are a few recent photos that illustrate what happens when you install native plants. Birds, bumblebees, and other pollinators flourish and multiply.

Bushtits. (K. Ethington)

Rufous hummingbird.  (K. Ethington)

Swallowtail. (K. Ethington)

Hoverfly. (E. Wallace)

Gray Hairstreak visits buckwheat. (K. Ethington)

Stop by Roger’s Gardens or Tree of Life Nursery and pick up your free buckwheat plant while supplies last. Enjoy your time in the garden. It is one of the safest places we can be right now. Stay safe and be well!

Befriending the Bumble Bee

Did you know that honey bees were imported from Europe and are not native to the United States?

Honey bee collects pollen. (K. Ethington)

In California, we have about 1,600 species of native bees, and 26 of these are bumble beesThe bumble bee is the largest and gentlest of all the known species of bees. The queen bumble bee hibernates in the winter, then emerges in the spring to collect nectar, rebuild her strength, and find a suitable nest location. Click on this link to learn more fascinating details about a year in the life of a bumble bee from the Xerces Society.

If you look closely at the vegetation in your garden or park space now, you might spot a bumble bee collecting pollen from the flowers. Bumble bees are particularly good at pollination. Their wings beat 130 times or more per second, according to the National Wildlife Federation, and the beating combined with their large bodies vibrates flowers until they release pollen, which is called buzz pollination. Buzz pollination helps plants produce more fruit.

Crotch’s Bumble Bee. (E. Wallace)

When you see a bumble bee, snap a photo and share it with scientists. One of the best places to record your bumble bee sighting is iNaturalist. iNaturalist is a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society. With iNaturalist “every observation can contribute to biodiversity science, from the rarest butterfly to the most common backyard weed.”

The Crotch’s bumble bee pictured above was verified by scientists after I imported the photo to iNaturalist. It is classified as endangered due to the impacts of pesticides, climate change, and human development.

Black-tailed bumble bee. (E. Wallace)

Bumble bees need three things to thrive:

  1. Flowers on which to forage.
  2. A place to build their nest (abandoned rodent holes in the soil, leaf litter, and cavities in rock piles).
  3. A pesticide-free environment.

Yellow-faced bumble bee. (E. Wallace)

Let’s help our bumble bees so we can enjoy their fuzzy buzzing every spring. Now that we have been forced to slow down, we can spend some of our free time watching the secret lives of animals, and then upload our observations on iNaturalist. Maybe we can plant a native plant or two in our gardens, and see if we can help these creatures while we help ourselves.

Buckwheat blossom. (E. Wallace)

Speaking of native plants, the Orange County Chapter of the California Native Plant Society (OCCNPS) is offering free California ‘Dana Point’ buckwheat plants (while supplies last) at Tree of Life Nursery and  Roger’s Gardens. These two nurseries are operating carefully and have made some changes in light of COVID-19. Tree of Life Nursery has reduced their operating hours — check the web site before picking up your free buckwheat. Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar is also operating with protective measures in place.

Digger bee. (K. Ethington)

After you pick up your buckwheat, send us an email at buckwheat@occnps.org. Let us know where you planted your new buckwheat and we can input the location on our Buckwheat iNaturalist map. Wishing you the best in these uncertain times. I hope you spot a bumble bee, and take some solace in your garden or local park space. Be well.

Buckwheat Buddies

Some folks who planted their free California ‘Dana Point’ buckwheat are searching for plants to keep their buckwheat company. This is a great idea because California native plants help each other thrive as they share micorrhizal fungi through their roots. When California native plants share space, it makes life easier because they don’t need much water once established: just a deep soak once a month will do.

Photo of a ‘Dana Point’ California buckwheat along with native plants sharing the space in a home landscape. (Kris Ethington)

It can be tempting to crowd new plants close together for an instant landscape, but this will cause problems in the future. Give your California native plants plenty of space to grow into their full size in a year or two. Use a light layer of mulch between the plants to keep weeds out and soil moisture in.

Brand new native plant installation with a swale to harvest water. Plants wisely spaced. (E. Wallace)

Buckwheats begin their super bloom in late spring. To maximize your garden’s flower time, consider pairing your buckwheat with early spring bloomers like mallows and

Buckwheat paired with a mallow (Abutilon Palmeri). (Kris Ethington)

sages such as white sage (Salvia apiana), ‘Bees Bliss’ sage and

Close-up of a Bee’s Bliss sage blossom and a hover fly. (Kris Ethington)

Bush sunflower (Encelia californica) and

Encelia californica paired with buckwheat in early spring. (E. Wallace)

Yucca (Hesperoyucca whipplei) or a Dudleya species for structure.

Hesperoyucca whipplei (yucca) just about to bloom. (Dan Songster)

One of the most important things to consider when adding native plants to your garden is their eventual size. Bees bliss sage grows low but it spreads eight feet wide! Dudleyas are small succulents that can be tucked into small spaces in your garden.

Flowering chalk dudleya in a home landscape. (E. Wallace)

If you have room for taller plants, consider adding a manzanitaCalifornia lilac, and a Western Redbud to the mix.

Western Redbud (Cercis occidentalis) and California lilac (Ceanothus ‘concha’) in full bloom. (E. Wallace)

You can find many of these plants at Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano. Before you make the drive, check to see if the plants you are hoping to install are available. Local nurseries and Home Depot garden centers are beginning to stock a small selection of California native plants. The popularity of native plants is increasing as the public gains an understanding of their beauty and importance to wildlife.

Butterfly visits a mallow. (Kris Ethington)

With the COVID 19 virus on everyone’s mind, why not spend some time in the garden? The garden is a safe space, and you will see some amazing sights in your own backyard especially when native plants are providing nectar and food for the butterflies and birds.

American Kestral perched in a backyard garden. (Kris Ethington)

Upcoming A Buckwheat in Every Garden giveaway events have been impacted by protective measures for the COVID-19 health crisis. We are discussing safe ways we can distribute free buckwheat plants to people who want to install them in their garden. We will announce plans for future buckwheat giveaways soon.

California peony growing with buckwheat in the background. (E. Wallace)

Best wishes for your safety and good health.

 

My Interview with the LA Times

Jeanette Marantos, garden reporter for the LA Times, called me in mid-February as I was returning home from a landscape restoration project I work on in Trabuco Canyon.

(L to R) Brad Jenkins, president of OCCNPS, volunteer Vern Jones, Jeff Wallace and myself, after planting four Coast Live Oak trees and two toyons at a landscaping project in Trabuco Canyon. (E. Wallace)

Marantos asked me to provide a short list of the best native plants Southern Californians can plant in their home landscapes, and also why it is important to plant natives in the home garden.

We spoke on the phone for an hour and I suggested California native plants that are beautiful and easy-to-grow. We researched the plants together on the Calscape database. We also discussed Doug Tallamy’s research that shows when non-native ornamental plants are installed in the landscape, insect populations plummet because insects are co-evolved to feed from native plant species, not from introduced plant species.

Marantos’ article appeared in the LA Times on February 28 and is titled “Want to help bees and butterflies? Add these plants to your garden.”

Want to help bees and butterflies? Illustration by Julie Yellow for The Times.

Marantos wrote: “Once upon a time in Southern California, landscaping was primarily about decoration — the greenest lawn, easy-care sculptural shrubs and a few showstopper flowers, almost none native to the region or welcoming to butterflies or bees. In truth, we did everything we could to keep bugs out of our yards, and it worked — far too well.”

She spoke with Ron Vanderhoff, vice president of the Orange County Chapter of the California Native Plant Society (OCCNPS) and general manager of Roger’s Gardens nursery, who said, “Bees, butterflies and other native insects are dwindling because they’re running out of the habitat and food provided by native plants. If we want to save them — and the birds and other animals that need those insects to survive — we need to change how we think about landscaping.”

“There’s been a mind change where gardening is not just decorating, it’s doing something to help the world,” Vanderhoff said. “It’s gardening with a purpose to it.”

Hummingbird visits native manzanita. (Kris Ethington)

Kris Ethington, board member of OCCNPS, and winner of Orange County’s 2018 California Friendly Garden contest for re-landscaping her entire yard with only native plants, discussed her favorite plants for the garden including oaks, lemonadeberry, toyon, and verbena de la mina.

Here is a list of California native plants that Ron, Kris and I consider must-haves in every garden as reported in the LA Times:

Buckwheat growing under fruit trees

Buckwheat blossoms in late summer home garden. (E. Wallace)

If you are going to add just one native plant to your yard, make it a California buckwheat. At OCCNPS, we believe this is such an important plant for the landscape that we gave away 1,500 starter buckwheat plants to Orange County homeowners in our A Buckwheat in Every Garden program.

Hummingbird finding nectar from a Cleveland sage. (Kris Ethington)

Salvias and sages are pollinators’ favorite flowers. White sage is a sacred plant to Native Americans; it has silvery foliage and thrives in hot, dry locations. For shady locations, hummingbird sage spreads abundantly, blossoming with magenta-colored flowers in spring and summer. Vanderhoff also recommends the fragrant Cleveland sage which thrives in most parts of Southern California.

Monarch caterpillar munching on a narrow-leaf milkweed. (Cynthia Grilli)

Narrow-leaf milkweed has white flowers and is the best milkweed for monarch butterflies in Southern California. Many nurseries sell the orange tropical milkweed, but tropical milkweed is not native to Southern California, and researchers have discovered that tropical milkweed hosts a protozoa that makes adult monarchs sickly and weak, according to Vanderhoff. For that reason, Vanderhoff’s nursery, Roger’s Gardens, only sells narrow-leaf milkweed.

Maritime ceanothus. (Kris Ethington)

Ceanothus, commonly known as the California lilac, is a gardener’s favorite. With its honey sweet scent and profuse violet blossoms, this is a must have for every garden. The ceanothus variety ‘Yankee Point’ spills down hillsides in shady inland gardens. ‘Ray Hartman‘ ceanothus is a small-tree-sized California lilac covered with deep violet blossoms in springtime.

Native bumble with pollen on its legs and a lupine. (Kris Ethington)

California poppies and lupine wildflowers are easy-to-grow annuals with spectacular spring and summer flowers. Gardeners can sow the seeds of these flowers just before winter rains and provide abundant support for pollinators. You can purchase these seeds from Tree of Life Nursery and Theodore Payne Foundation.

Black-tailed bumblebee visits manzanita. (Kris Ethington)

Manzanitas are the superstars of California natives. If anything will turn people toward natives, it’s manzanitas. Manzanitas’ bell-shaped blossoms, structural characteristics, and rich red bark make this a garden standout. Two varieties of manzanitas are excellent choices for the first-time native gardener: Arctostaphylos ‘Sunset’ and ‘Howard McMinn.’

Join me at and other members of OCCNPS at The Dana Point Headlands Earth Day Celebration on April 25, and pick up a free California ‘Dana Point’ buckwheat plant. We care about your garden and the pollinators your garden can support with the right native plants. Join us and bring your questions. We are here to help.