Thursday, January 10, 2019

Gimme Shelter

Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, CA, Photo by Kathy Vilim
Gimme Shelter

A shadow passes overhead.  I look up to see orange wings.  A monarch butterfly is passing overhead, slowly, playfully with another monarch butterfly.  I am working in the OVF gardens, and I stop to watch them. They fly so free that it lightens my heart.  They are flying over a plot that contains one milkweed plant and one sage plant, the perfect combination for the monarch butterflies.

The milkweed plant (Asclepias) is not so much a nectar source for the monarchs as is the sage, but the milkweed attracts them because it is a host plant, a larval source. The female monarch will lay her eggs on the milkweed knowing the young caterpillars will have food when they emerge.  She can lay hundreds of eggs on a single plant, and they will take in milkweed toxin that will protect them from being eaten by birds.

When autumn is in the air, the great monarch migration begins.  Unlike their east coast cousins, our California monarchs do not migrate to Mexico.  Instead, they migrate to overwintering groves on the California coast. Along the coast there are no freezing overnight temperatures.  The monarchs cluster together high up in Eucalyptus trees, wings closed, to keep warm when the sun is not out. One of the largest of these overwintering groves is close by in Pismo Beach. Now, in  January, there will be a mating frenzy at the overwintering groves, and the females will depart with eggs to lay. They will fly low looking for milkweed host plants.

While the monarch butterflies are traveling to and from their California overwintering grounds, they need waystations where they can rest.  On their way out to the grove, they will continue to fatten up on nectar, and on their departure from the grove they will be looking for milkweed.

I have had the great pleasure of camping next to Pismo Beach’s Monarch Grove.  For several weeks I lived among the orange ballerinas of the sky, observing their daily routine of resting all together at night and then dancing in the mid-day sun.  I felt so free then, as they were free. And I left there committed to caring about what happens to them. How can a female butterfly find milkweed in the city?

The answer is private and community gardens. Places like the community gardens at Ocean View Farms are wonderful resources for the monarch butterflies.  The organic garden is full of life. What a great California waystation we could have by planting for the monarchs at our community gardens. I can envision monarchs flitting about the vegetable plots.  All they need is milkweed and a nectar source like sage. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if each of us planted just one of those plants and gave our traveling monarchs a rest stop?

Remember: If you want to help the monarchs, it's best to grow native milkweed plants that die back and encourage the monarchs to migrate rather than tropical milkweed that can interrupt their breeding cycles.

Friday, December 21, 2018

"Shrooms for Winter Solstice

Santa's distinctive style has drawn comparisons to 17th-century Siberian shamans.
(Illustration: Yumiyumi/Shutterstock)

Have you ever wondered where the Story of Santa Claus came from?  Me too. Then, looking at Mother Nature Network News the other day, a story by Russell McLendon caught my eye, "7 mind-bending facts about Magic Mushrooms."

Apparently, there are magic "muscimol" mushrooms found all over the world. There are also religious shamans all over the world. In Siberia, the variety of mushrooms ingested by shamans is Amanita muscaria.  And these 'shrooms help the shamans commune with the spirit world.  

What's this got to do with Santa?  Well, each year on the Winter Solstice (December 21st), beginning as far back as the 1600s, the Shamans of Siberia began an annual custom.  They would gather magic mushrooms, dry them, and go out into the neighborhood to give them to the villagers as gifts. The Shamans' custom was to dress up in costumes that resembled the mushrooms... red with white trim. They would take their reindeers with them and climb up onto the rooftops to enter the houses though specially-made openings, since the front doors were snowed in all winter long, and so unusable. 

The Shamans' reindeers also ingested the mushrooms frequently, by simply foraging in the woods where they are plentiful. In an altered state, Shamans enjoyed being able to communicate with the reindeers' spirits. 

Considering the hallucinogenic properties of Amanita muscaria, is it any wonder folks started seeing reindeers flying from the rooftops with a plump man in a red suit carrying gifts on wintery Christmas nights?

So, the next time you look up in the sky on a winter's night and recall the Santa Claus story, you are going to remember the Siberian shamans' magic mushrooms and think: makes as much sense as anything else!

Enjoy your Winter Solstice today, shortest day of this year. 

And to read McLendon's wonderful complete story, visit: 

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Thankful for the Bounty

Autumn is Harvest Time, 
                Thankful for the Bounty

Juana shakes the oak tree with her sisters until acorns drop from the branches. In this way, the Tongva Women harvest acorns together. It is Autumn, and the acorns are plentiful. Once collected, the acorns are laid out in the sun to dry. Later Juana and her sisters will store them in a large grain basket, taking care to place it on a platform raised above the earth and out of reach of rodents.

                                   Photo Credit:
When Juana prepares acorns for eating, she cracks them out of their shells and peels the kernels out of their paper-like skin. Using a stone mortar, she grinds them to flour. The next and very important step is to leach out the bitter tasting tannins by pouring water over them in a leaching basin made of layers of fine and coarse sand. She knows this could take most the morning, but it is very important to be done completely, and so she is patient. When done, the bitter taste will have been removed from the flour. The Tongva Women can then prepare the acorns as a mush, soup or “bread.”

Acorns have been a staple of Native Californians’ diet for 4,000 years or more.    They were the most important plant food for many tribes, as they are very nutritious. In this case, Juana and her Tongva sisters would have been collecting  acorns from the Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) in Topanga Canyon Santa Monica Mtns, where the Tongva people  lived. (Their territory abutted that of the Chumash tribe of Malibu. Tongva were also known as Gabrieleños.)  Besides the Coast Live Oak, the acorns from many other oak tree species, such as Black Oak and Valley Oak, can be harvested.

                                  Hollyleaf Cherry (Prunus_ilicifolia) 
                                       Photo Credit:

Besides making flour from acorns, Native Californians would also make flour from the pit of the Hollyleaf Cherry fruit. After removing the pit’s poisonous outer layer, the kernels were crushed and then leached, like the acorns, before being turned into flour meal.  Though the flesh of the fruit can also be eaten straight off the tree, or fermented into an intoxicating drink, the Native Californians’ main use for the Hollyleaf Cherry was making flour.

When it came to foraging for wild edible plants, the Native Californian people knew what to eat and what not to eat. They had extensive knowledge about the resources that were available in the land in which they lived, and they passed this knowledge down to their children. They were also aware of medicinal values of the plants around them. Most of this information has been lost to us, which makes it difficult to know what is safe to pick or eat of the wild bounty that grows around us.

The Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia littoralis) would have provided sustenance to the Tongva people of the Santa Monica Mtns. Meaty and nutritious, Juana and her sisters would have harvested the fleshy pads called “nopales” of Prickly Pear Cactus. The fruit that forms at the very ends of the pads is called “Tuna.” When ripe (deep red color), they make a delicious jelly or a sweet raw dessert.

One of the nice things about Prickly Pear is that you can harvest both the pads and the fruit without destroying the plant. That way there is always more Prickly Pear for tomorrow! You can gently pull the fruit (Tuna) off. Pads can be removed by snapping a pad at the joint. It is wise to pick young tender pads, but not the youngest, as they have more spines. But what about those spines? Native Californians mastered a good system for removing them, and you could, too.  Some people recommend wearing heavy work gloves. But my trick works better: use a paper bag. Seriously! Put a paper bag on your hand like a glove when touching prickly pear and the spines cannot get to you! Next, to prepare for cooking, you can remove the spines by scraping with a knife.

Pads of Nopales are high in iron, beta carotene, vitamin C, and calcium. The deep red color of the fruit (tuna) means it is high in antioxidants. Nopales and Tuna would have been a very nutritious choice for the Tongva people, as it is for us. Today, Prickly Pear Cactus has many uses: raw cut up in salads, sautéed, breaded and then fried, boiled, tossed in soup, or pickled.  I myself have harvested Prickly Pear often from my chaparral garden, and especially enjoy making Nopales Tacos, a completely meatless dish.

Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium californiacum or album) are one of the best-known wild edible greens, with a taste like spinach.  Archeological evidence suggests it has been foraged for some 9000 years and cultivated for 4000 years. Before the Europeans came, this was another one of the many plants that would have sustained the indigenous peoples of California.  Lamb’s Quarters are high in protein, iron and vitamins A & C. The wild plant makes prolific seeds, which can also be ground into a dark flour for making bread, “mush” or tortillas.

Long before the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans lived well off California’s edible flora, which was bountiful. They lived in a balanced way, maintaining the land. Edible landscapes were everywhere!

Autumn is harvest time, and at Thanksgiving we are thankful for the bounty of food on our table. But, I also want to take a moment to be thankful for the bounty of knowledge about edible native plants left to us by the Native Americans who came before us. In California edible native plants still thrive in wild places. Nature gave them to us, free for the taking. Each of us can add edible native plants to our native plant gardens, and enjoy the Autumn harvest season, sharing our bounty with our wildlife friends.

~Check the local native nurseries in your area and see what they have for your edible native garden~

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

2019 Herbal Almanac: Attract Hummingbirds with Sage

It's so exciting to see this book is out on Amazon and also in Barnes & Noble bookstores! I'm proud to have my own chapter in this great #herbal resource! Learn how to "Attract hummingbirds with sage."

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Buckwheat and the El Segundo Blue Butterfly

Buckwheat and the El Segundo Blue Butterfly

Male-and-Female-El-Segundo-Blue-Sterba (Euphilotes battoides allyni) 
Photo ©Don Sterda and Friends of Ballona Wetlands

Nothing warms my heart quite like hearing the happy news that butterflies are flourishing~ somewhere.  Rarely do we get good news about our winged friends lately.  But this story is one of hope and promise!

The El Segundo Blue (Euphilotes battoides allyni) is a pretty light blue butterfly that is found nowhere but in So California and is federally designated as Endangered.  This butterfly is named for the dune system where it makes its home.  There are only three known colonies still existing, and the largest is located on a small area of land owned by Los Angeles International Airport and maintained as the El Segundo Blue Butterfly Habitat Preserve, which was created in an effort to protect this rare species. (The land was formerly known as Palisades del Rey.)

El-Segundo-Blue (Euphilotes battoides allyni) 
Photo © Patrick Tyrrell, Program Director at Friends of Ballona Wetlands

The Good News: Recently it was reported that the El Segundo Blue Butterfly re-established itself in a small area of the wetlands about half-mile away from the LAX site.  More than (100) butterflies have been seen near the Ballona Wetlands. The El Segundo Blue’s population in the Ballona Wetlands has increased steadily over the past seven years. Ecologists believe that the El Segundo Blues found in the Ballona Wetlands moved there from the LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) preserve, as the El Segundo Blue is not a highly migratory species. It will not travel outside of 400 feet from home to find food. This bodes well for the return of other endangered species to the wetlands and tells that restoration efforts are working.

Eriogonum parvifolium (Dune Buckwheat Detail) 
Photo © 2006 Steve Matson

Naturalists are delighted to find that the small blue butterflies are making use of the Coastal (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parviflorum). After an intensive effort by volunteers to remove invasive iceplant (native to China), the native Buckwheat had more room to grow. Corridors opened up making room to plant more Buckwheat, as well. The volunteers are part of the nonprofit Friends of Ballona Wetlands.  Coastal Dune Buckwheat (Eriogonum parviflorum) is the sole food source of the Blues, and they will also use the Buckwheat to lay eggs, as it is their host plant.

About the Blues: The El Segundo Blue Butterfly, in the family Lycaenidae, emerges during summer when the flowers of its host plant, Coastal Dune Buckwheat (Eriogonum parviflorum) open. The adults live only a few days, during which time they will mate and lay eggs. Within a week, the eggs will hatch, and the larvae will feed entirely on the flower heads of their host plant. El Segundo Blue spends virtually its entire life cycle in intimate association with the flower heads of just this one species of buckwheat.

The El Segundo Blue’s dorsal wing color is blue, with the males being brighter blue than the females. The ventral side is gray, with square-shaped spots and a series of orange spots on the hindwing that appear merged into a single band of color.

El-Segundo-Blue Butterfly on Dune Buckwheat, 
Photo © Patrick Tyrrell, Program Director Friends of Ballona Wetlands

The El Segundo Blue has found its home increasingly coveted by humans. One of the last remaining populations lives by the Los Angeles International Airport. The airport’s construction, oil refining, sand mining and urban development have all claimed large portions of its dune habitat, which used to be more extensive. Though the threat of development has  been largely halted, there are other threats, as well. Their host plant is competing with several introduced plants, including other Buckwheat Eriogonum species on which the El Segundo Blues cannot feed.

In order to ensure the future of the El Segundo Blue Butterfly, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has started dune management programs which focus on restoring the sites’ native vegetation. The Urban Wildlands Group has applied to the USFWS for an enhancement of survival permit and safe harbor agreement for approximately two acres of bluff habitat on private property in Los Angeles County, California. I have written previously about the Ballona Wetlands, and the how important this preserve is to so much wildlife, as one of the last remaining wetlands in California.  As time goes on, I hope that this place will remain safe for many generations of wetland wildlife to continue to prosper.

As you might expect, the folks at Friends of Ballona are excited! Their message to volunteers, “Stay tuned – this is one of our most exciting developments in years – a DIRECT result of our restoration efforts!”

Dune Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium) 
Photo ©Charles Webber California Academy of Sciences

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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

If you plant it, they will come~

Here in Southern California gardeners experience unique challenges, drought being one, but there are joys as well, such as having hummingbirds that visit all year long.  If you want to attract more butterflies and hummingbirds and even native bees (which do not sting, BTW) to your garden, then you want to plant more flowers.  It’s as simple as that, really. And, if you like seeing flowers blooming, then this is a win-win for you: Plant them and they will come!

While our East Coast friends are blanketed in snow, their gardens asleep and requiring little care, here in Southern California we are somewhat obligated to keep our front yards looking tidy and vibrant--- all year long.  At the same time, after working in the garden we can enjoy sitting back in our favorite chair with a cold drink--- all year long.

To my mind, there is nothing more rewarding than watching pollinators move about my garden.  It means that I have planted enough nectar-rich native plants.  Butterflies, hummingbirds, and native bees are all looking for nectar.  They zoom in on the splashes of color they spy down below in your yard, and close in to see if they can feast at your place today. I used to grow flowers just for the beauty and fragrance, but now I’ve found that adding wildlife to the garden scene makes it all the more interesting.

I recommend native plants and wildflower seeds. Why? Because native plants are naturally adapted to our climate, our soil, and our weather, so they require less water and little maintenance.

Attract Pollinators with Nectar Rich Wildflowers: Native wildflower seed mixes are a wonderful addition to your garden. They can be spread en masse for a sweeping meadow look, even replacing your lawn entirely, or they can be tucked into existing flower borders.  An interesting idea is to hand-sow wildflower seeds in pots or barrels and place them in sunny locations.  Their blooms will be unique from the usual big box store flowers we see everywhere.  And the pollinators will come.  For better success, you need to sow local native wildflowers, rather than a generic mix meant for the entire country. Native seed mixes are available for both Southern California’s coastal areas and for inland areas.

Attract Hummingbirds: The hummingbirds will thank you over and over again with repeat visits if you plant their beloved sage, aka Salvia.  Salvias are perennials that will stick around, growing larger year after year, filling out a garden bed and adding more flowers.   While there are many different varieties of sage, look for Hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea) with whorls of red flowers. Hummingbirds are attracted to these plants, with red being their favorite color. Hummingbird sage can be grown in garden beds, as a ground cover, or under trees.

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on
San Joaquin Willow Bush (
Salix gooddingii)Location: Leo Carrillo State Park
 Photography by Kathy Vilim
Attract Monarch Butterflies: We should all add milkweed plants to our gardens for the monarch butterflies. I watch the monarchs sometimes on my walks, flitting about my neighbors’ yards, looking for that splash of color that means one thing: nectar, and looking for that special plant, the Milkweed (Ascelpias), that is the only plant they can lay their eggs on to raise the next generation (called a host plant).  When the young caterpillars emerge, they will devour the plant, consuming as many as 20 leaves each; it will be their food and their safety until they emerge as butterflies.  So, plant milkweed for the youngsters and a variety of nectar-rich flowers for the adults.   (Important: Plant the variety of Milkweed (Ascelpias) that is native to your region – NOT the Tropical Milkweed.  For most of us in Los Angeles, that would be the Narrow-Leaf Milkweed for coastal regions.)

Attract Native Bees: Having more bees in your yard is the answer to a flourishing vegetable garden. Native (wild) bees do NOT sting, so don’t be afraid to attract them. For an easy-to-grow bee magnet, plant the wonderfully aromatic Rosemary plant. Did you know this herb helps improve memory retention? Not remembering the past, but future-memory, remembering what you have planned for tomorrow! Anything that helps me with my To-Do List is a welcome addition to my garden.

Go Organic:  One more important thing to mention: Your garden will NOT support butterflies and other pollinators if you are spraying chemicals.

Resources: One source of native wildflower seeds is the Theodore Payne Foundation.  They also raise native plants, like Salvia and Milkweed. For more resources on finding native plants, visit your local chapter of the Native Plant Society

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Recollections of Memorial Days Past

It is a gray cloudy morning with a chill in the air; we are having the typical beach weather called June Gloom. Today in the middle of Memorial Day Weekend 2018, I cannot help but remember Memorial Days that have gone before. Many times I'd gone down to Topanga Canyon Boulevard with my husband on Memorial Day morning to watch the Topanga Days Parade put on by local businesses.  (Topanga Canyon can be found in the Santa Monica Mountains, a town wedged in between Malibu and the San Fernando Valley, in the northwesterly part of Los Angeles County.)

On some years the weather would be just like it is today, cool and cloudy, while other years it would be very hot, with 90dg weather heating up early in the morning.  One year it was so hot that kids in the parade were throwing water-filled balloons at the audience - and no one minded!

Then there were years when we wouldn't bother to walk down to the boulevard to watch the Topanga Days Parade. Instead, we would watch from our own deck atop the hill as firetrucks announced the start of the parade. The deck was always very breezy, and truthfully we needed binoculars to see much of anything!

One year my girlfriend asked me to meet her at Green Thumb Nursery in Canoga Park, California.  That year the weather got up to 100 dgs in the San Fernando Valley.  I thought I would die! How can she be looking at plants in the blazing sun?  Sweat began to form on my neck, as I dashed for shade.

Nothing says Road Trip like the announcement that Memorial Day is just around the corner. I recall years when I was running a business, that it was impossible to reach customers on the phone. Everyone was so anxious to get away from their jobs that they would plan their vacations for the unofficial "Start of Summer."

May Wildflowers of Topanga Canyon, Photo by Kathy Vilim

In Topanga Canyon I was perfectly content to be a hermit on the "First Day of Summer." I did not mind staying away from the Topanga Days Fair, with its press of people. Likewise, I did not mind declining invites to barbecues, with some kind of meat sizzling on a grill.

Instead, I recall enjoying Memorial Days in the garden, listening to the live music from Topanga Days that would waft up from across the canyon, from the hillside beyond. Many happy times were spent with a wine glass in hand listening to varying degrees of good rock -n roll music or reggae from my garden bench. My gaze softening as my mind mellowed, I would follow the movements of lizards across rock walls and wait for hummingbirds to notice the newly-filled, ruby red feeder.

As long as I had my music-filled garden and my hummingbird friends, I was happy to welcome in the unofficial First Day of Summer~