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Editor's Pick for 2023

This Month's Pick + Editor's Pick Archive Index

Each month our editor, Laura Lukes, highlights an outstanding plant, interesting insect, or helpful tool.



Chlorogalum pomeridianum (California soaproot)

California soaproot can be seen along the trails in Upper Bidwell Park. This ground-hugging native to our state (found almost everywhere except the desert) was well known to the first peoples of our region, who used the juices to both create a lathering soap and to stun fish, as the saponins (bitter organic chemicals) are toxic. Cooking destroys the toxins: indigenous peoples roasted the roots for a sweet treat and gave some to the starving Breen family of the Donner party in February of 1847.

Soaproot’s spiky, white, short-lived blossoms open only in the evening and stay open throughout the dark of night. Use soaproot (aka wavy-leafed soap plant) as an accent in your garden, particularly as an oak understory plant. It will flower reliably given just enough dappled sunlight. Don’t water it in the summer!

It’s a true bulb, dying back to the ground after it flowers - leave the dying stalk in place until it’s fully dead and has had a chance to broadcast its seed before trimming. The plant will come back after the first winter rains, announcing itself with its long, ruffled leaves.

Photographer: Toni Corelli



Galanthus: Snowdrop

This bulb blooms primarily in winter, before the vernal equinox. It is often confused with Leucojum (Snowflake), which we will discuss next month.

Snowdrops have small drooping bell-shaped flowers, in two whorls of petal-like segments: an inner set of three petals with three arching petals above. The blooms are held by a single slender stem, which rises from a base of strap-like leaves. These plants enjoy the moist soils of winter, blooming sweet and bright during the season’s short days and cold weather. Just as with any true bulb, they die back and vanish until winter rains awaken them the next year.

Photographer: Anne Burgess



Leucojum: Snowflake

Leucojum (Snowflake) is our featured plant for March, as promised last month when we showcased Galanthus (Snowdrop). Not only do these two early-flowering bulbs have similar common names, but they also look a lot alike. Blooming in mid to late spring, Leucojum’s flowers are elegant snow-white dangling drops with greenish-yellow dots on their points. They resemble Lilies-of-the-Valley, but without the fragrance. They easily tolerate poorly drained soils during the wet season, and dry conditions during their summer dormancy. This perennial bulb will reward you with a few more beautifully flowering plants each spring!

Photographer: maifel (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)



Viola tricolor

You may know these cheery flowers as Johnny jump-ups. They also go by wild pansy, heartsease, heart's ease, heart's delight, tickle-my-fancy, Jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me, come-and-cuddle-me, three faces in a hood, love-in-idleness, and pink of my John. Shakespeare references them in Hamlet, A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, and The Taming of the Shrew. They also make an appearance in Christina Rosetti’s poem “Balm in Gilead.” Not bad for a common European wildflower/weed!

Years ago, someone planted a few of these in our backyard. Each spring, they pop up in many more places—bright and smiling flower faces sometimes seem to be taking over. The fact that they die back in the first real heat of summer makes their rampant spread easier to deal with. They are a true sign of spring and a sweet harbinger of the many varieties of flowers yet to come. We’ve never given them supplemental water, yet they give us weeks of enjoyment every year.

Photographer: Hans-Martin Scheibner



Of course plants can talk!

A fascinating study out of Tel Aviv University confirms what many plant lovers already know: plants communicate. The sounds they emit are at frequencies that are inaudible to the human ear, but that “can probably be heard by various animals, such as bats, mice, and insects." And also by other plants. The study focused on stress factors, such as injury and dehydration, and found that each plant and each type of stress was associated with separate specific sounds. These communications can spread the word to surrounding plants and animals about water scarcity and physical threats.

Researchers embarked on the study to assist the agriculture industry in better determining water needs, noting that “more precise irrigation can save up to 50% of the water expenditure and increase the yield." A follow-up study we’d like to see is what sort of sounds plants emit to indicate the opposite of being stressed – such as enjoying plenty of sunshine, good soil, beneficial insects, and just the right amount of water.

Actually, the follow-up studies are endless: do they also make noise when they are being harvested? Do the sounds differ if they are being harvested by hand or by large gas-powered machines? What more could we learn from plants?

Read more about it at Tel Aviv University (includes a video).

Photo courtesy of Tel Aviv University



Naturehood Gardening Webinar: Milkweed, Monarchs & You.

If you have not already, check out the Naturehood Gardening Webinars of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS), which are free to the public on the second Tuesday of each month. They feature timely and interesting topics hosted by leaders in that field. Archives are available in case you can’t attend the live sessions.

Of special interest to eNews readers might be the May webinar: “Milkweed, Monarchs & You.” CNPS says, “Milkweeds are the food of choice for monarch butterflies, and the best milkweeds for them are native varieties! California is home to a variety of milkweeds, like showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa), narrow leaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis), and more! Find out how you can grow them to support monarchs at all stages of life!”

You can also check out our very own Real Dirt articles by Master Gardener Kim Scwhind on Milkweed and Monarchs and Milkweed.



Enloe Medical Center Garden

The grounds at Enloe Medical Center include an expansive and thoughtfully landscaped space designed for respite, escape, and contemplation. Growing along its apricot-hued crushed granite paths are a wide variety of flowers, shrubs, and small trees, with just enough open space to provide breathing room. When we visited for our photo shoot, blooming yellow daylilies provided charm and cheer. The paths wind gracefully throughout, and plants of varying textures, heights, and colors complement one another. Patients, visitors, and staff are all welcome to avail themselves of the peace and comfort this garden offers: there are plenty of metal benches for sitting, resting, and reflecting.



Wild Almond Prunus fasciculata

We are all familiar with the currently grown commercial varieties of almonds. They originated as descendants from a diverse population of seedling trees grown originally from imported in shell almonds in the late 19th century.

But did you know that we have our own native almond – or at least a native plant that resembles one? Prunus fasciculata, known variously as the wild or desert almond, or native wild plum, is a dense woody shrub native to the deserts of Arizona, California, Baja California, Nevada, and Utah. Never attaining the stature of a tree, this species grows in sandy or rocky soil on dry slopes and washes. In California, it is found in the Southern Sierra Nevada Highlands, Tehachapi, Inner South Coast Range, Transverse Range, and the desert regions.

The nut—or drupe—is tiny, about half an inch long and thin-skinned. Some indigenous desert peoples, notably the ancient inhabitants of the Mojave Desert, leached and pounded the seeds (inside the drupes) into flour.

If by chance you are able to find a cultivated example of this drought-tolerant, sun-loving native, it may be a good choice for your dry rock garden.

Photographer: Stan Shebs


insect damage

UC IPM's Plant Problem Diagnostic Tool

This useful and easy-to-use online tool helps you determine what is wrong with an ailing plant.

The Plant Problem Diagnostic Tool is located on the University of California’s Integrated Pest Management website. Through photos and descriptions of damage, the tool helps you identify specific plants and symptoms in a series of steps that narrow down the potential pest, disease, or cultivation problem.

Begin by choosing your plant category from the Plant Types options: Flowers; Fruit trees, nuts, berries and grapevines; Trees and shrubs; Vegetables and melons. Then click on Plant Name and scroll through the choices until you find your affected plant.

Once you've selected your plant, click on Plant Parts and select one or more of parts showing damage on your plant. Then click on Damage to see descriptions and photos and select the type (or types) of damage you see on your plant.

Finally, click View Results to see the diagnoses and recommended treatments or actions you can take to help your plant recover.

Expert Tip: The more you narrow down your selections by choosing plant names, plant parts, and damage, the fewer potential results you'll get and the faster you will be able to find the pest or problem affecting your plant.

Photos left to right: lace bugs feeding on photinia, Female California red scales are round with concentric rings, Adult Fuller rose beetles chew and notch leaf edges. Photo courtesy of University of California Statewide IPM Program at Davis.



Teucrium chamaedrys (wall germander)

Teucrium chamaedrys, commonly known as the wall germander, is a very well-behaved little plant originally from the Mediterranean regions of Europe and North Africa. As most of Butte County is blessed with a Mediterranean climate, this plant does well here (it is zoned for USDA’s 5–10).

A low grower with small, dark green, deeply serrated leaves growing on many upright stems, the wall germander offers tiny purple and pink blooms from late spring into summer. It spreads neatly by 2–3 feet from the original clump through underground rhizomes, and at its tallest is about 2 feet. It loves the heat and needs only occasionally supplemental summer water (a couple of times a month is sufficient).

Use this attractive plant as an edge along decks, or as a low defining hedge. It attracts bees and butterflies and does best when you shear its flowering spikes after bloom, and again in late winter to keep its growth habit dense.

Photographer: manuel m. v.


mexican sage

Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha)

The velvety-soft purple and white flowers of this late-blooming salvia make their appearance in our area in late September and last until the first frost. In warmer winter climates they will bloom almost year-round, but here they die back during the winter. Cut branching stems to the ground when die-back occurs. 

Mexican bush sage is a very attractive bushy plant that will grow 4 to 6 feet tall and just as wide. The leaves are long and narrow, colored gray-green on top with fuzzy white undersides. Flowers rise above the long lean stems in arching spikes. 

These flowers are much loved by hummingbirds, especially since little else is blooming in the garden right now. And they have the added benefit of being deer resistant. This plant is a lovely addition to your garden, but it will require some supplemental water in the summer months.


what we sow

What We Sow

We are reading and wholeheartedly recommending Jennifer Jewell’s newest book: What We Sow, On the Personal, Ecological, and Cultural Significance of Seeds. A local plant and garden expert perhaps best known for her syndicated radio show Cultivating Place, Jewell has written a deeply personal and deeply relevant book that explores and celebrates “the essential importance and power of seed in our world.” The book is organized by month throughout the year and combines scientific analysis and intimate observation. Why not gift yourself this beautiful paean to the offspring of plants, without which there would be no other life on our amazing planet?