California's Native Clovers and more!

Posted by Judith Lowry on

"In former times we gathered clover."
-Carolina Welmas (Cupeno Indian), 1973

Once so common as to be an important food source for the indigenous Californians, the native clovers of California are now rarely seen. Once, they inhabited the bare spots between bunchgrasses, fixing nitrogen for the bunchgrasses with which they intertwined, or shared the wildflower fields with other annual wildflowers. Most are extremely attractive, both in flower and foliage, and quite varied. Low-growing, they make good "front of the border bloomers", and are delightful in containers.

Normally, they are sown in the fall and bloom in early spring to mid-summer, but we have had successful grow-outs sowing both later and earlier. See picture below: Sowing the seed in flats in February, we transplanted into 4" pots in April, into the ground in June, and still have them blooming in September, both in containers and in border plantings. Trifolium albopurpurpeum, delicately beautiful, with deep purple and white markings and long, narrow, elegant leaves,

Clovers are both nutritious, delicious, and TOXIC. WARNING: All clovers have toxic principles, so please don't eat them till we know more. The indigenous technology of "clover eating," precious knowledge, is not readily available to us. Consider yourself warned. For now, till we know more, please grow for their beauty, interest, and wildlife value. Note that in 1902, V.K. Chesnut in his classic ethnobotany, Plants Used by the Indians of Mendocino County discusses the importance of clover-eating. He also mentions that in Round Valley, an Indian woman died, reputedly from eating too much native clover.

Diana Immel, on her dissertation on Showy Indian Clover, Trifolium amoenum, points out that the disappearance of native clovers coincided with the introduction of the European field slug and non-native snails. For a long time, our clover crops were routinely destroyed by snails, until we started using "Sluggo," a product also used by organic farmers. Now we are able to grow clovers, including The Queen of Clovers, Showy Indian clover, Trifolium amoenum. In 1993, a single plant of T. amoenum, presumed to be extinct, was about to be bulldozed next to a road near Occidental in Sonoma County. Rescued in the nick of time by botanist Peter Connors, those precious seeds have been carefully passed around for grow-outs. This year, we are listing this seed again.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Grindelia stricta
- Gumplant

What a year for gumplant, Grindelia stricta, this has been. It started blooming early August and is still going strong in September. The blossoms are large yellow daisies, easily 3” across, which make good cut flowers. They are frequented by masses of European honeybees (this is data, they’re still around as of August 2008) and many interesting though unnamed native pollinators. Butterflies love it.

I’m always surprised to see it growing around the lagoon, where it is lanky and scrawny compared to the magnificent plants that now appear in new places in our garden. Deep green leaves and stunning flowers, and we don’t help it out much, no water and no fertilizer. Seems to like wood chip mulch. Maybe it is our appreciation that makes it so healthy. Cut about four inches above the ground in late fall. Appreciate.

Scrophularia californica
- California Bee Plant

Today (September 4), we collected the fine black seed of California figwort, or California bee plant, Scrophularia californica. In the class of large perennials that go dormant in the late summer/early fall, California bee plant astounds me with its ability to rise up through the most trying circumstances, such as a smothering cover of cape ivy, that nasty vine considered the kudzu of the west, which easily eliminated shrubs and trees in the vacant lot next to our Demonstratiion Garden. The only other plant in sight was California bee plant.

When bee plant turned up in my courtyard garden, it was so attractive, with its large fresh green leaves and small but beautiful deep red flowers that I allowed a mass to flow around an old stump. I cut it to the ground every fall and enjoy its return with the winter rains. It spreads through underground rhizomes as well as seeds, but is easily contained by simply pulling unwanted plants straight out of the ground. They give up in a mannerly fashion.

The flowers backlit glow ruby-red, and though not usually considered for the native plant garden, it should be. Maybe the seeds are edible, as the seed of so many native species are. (I’ll let you know). Easy to grow, and the bees will thank you.”

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Achillea millefolium
- White Yarrow

Part of the sunflower family, Achillea millefolium grows in full sun, but if used for a lawn substitute, usually is more satisfactory through the summer with a bit of shade, unless on the coast. As it is soft to the touch and spreads through rhizomes, we are experimenting with using it as part of a grassless “coastal lawn,” with other low-growing native herbaceous species, like coast strawberry, Pt. Reyes checkerbloom, and coast lotus.

For light traffic, not a soccer field. Cut every few months, don’t allow to go to seed. Leaves are aromatic, and foliage color ranges from dark green to silver gray. If let bloom in spring and early summer, its flowers will attract bees and butterflies. It is also found in Europe, and in California, local forms should be treasured.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Tarweeds and the Fifth Season

Deep in the dense fogs of August, I see in the garden outside my study window a multitude of sunny yellow disks floating disembodied in the pervasive gray. Their scanty stems and petioles are scarcely visible, so that the blossoms themselves, with no visible means of support, seem suspended in midair. To say they are a cheering sight doesn't begin to express the impact of the native wildflower called elegant, or common, tarweed (Madia elegans), blooming in the days of fog.

California's unique "fifth season," the time when the true aridity of our region most expresses itself and no immediate hope of rain exists, is supposed to be quiet, restrained, and without much bloom, as befits a Mediterranean climate. Yet tarweed's drought-evading strategies allow it to blossom when the soil dries and cracks, days are long, and rain only a distant memory. The clay soils preferred by tarweed may retain sufficient moisture at depth to retard desiccation till seeds have set. An unusual mucilaginous substance in the leaf tissue also aids in water retention.

Elegant tarweed's lemony-yellow petals, yellow with just a hint of green, are fully open only at the beginning or the end of the day, or when we are enshrouded in fog. I say to garden visitors on a sunny day, "Oh, if only you had been here before the sun came out." In years when it has reseeded around my house, I can wander in a tarweed forest, inhaling its complex soapy fragrances, with their intriguing undertone of kerosene. It's a deep-summer-in-California smell, fresh and bracing. Hayfield tarweed (Hemizonia congesta ssp. congesta), found in fields between Bolinas and Olema, has a sharp, compelling odor and turns our midsummer coastal fields to gold.

I share my love of tarweed with a plenitude of insects. Once I collected seed from the hayfield tarweed mentioned above. In doing so, I disrupted bug paradise, a heaven of insect life going on in those seed heads. The collecting basket into which I beat the seeds was soon teeming with a diverse mass of insects madly trying to escape, now that they had been dislodged from their snug seed homes.

In August-to-October the small black seeds of elegant madia, beloved by finches, rest in the dried flower heads, the stalks forming a delicate tracery of gray. I find the fine blur of their crisp stems, holding on through the fall, to be quite gardenworthy, especially when planted in a relatively large area, at least one hundred square feet. Studies have shown that pollinators prefer such a patch to smaller, scattered populations one of many examples where good garden design creates good habitat.

A homeowner in Los Gatos, looking for a groundcover for the slopes around her new house, went to a nearby hillside to collect seed of Hemizonia congesta ssp. luzulifolia, a tarweed with pure white petals. It thrived and was attractive at all seasons, becoming the keynote plant of her garden—a good example of both a creative use of tarweed and the rewards of turning to local species for garden solutions. This gardener earns an honorary membership in the Tarweed Appreciation Society.

For native Californians, the beauty of wildflowers was literally mouthwatering. Linked with hopes for a bountiful seed harvest from which to make pinole (roasted, ground seed food), tarweed, with its rich and oily seeds, was an important component of the indigenous diet. In Grace Carpenter Hudson's painting The Tarweed Gatherer, held in the collection of the Grace Hudson Museum in Ukiah, California, a member of the Pomo tribe is depicted carrying a seed beater and gathering basket with which to harvest tarweed seed.

Indigenous land management practices fostered flourishing wildflower fields. One writer from the early 1900s referred to tarweed as "wild wheat," saying that the Indian's autumn begins when "the lemo- lo sap-o-lil (wild wheat or tarweed) had all been gathered and winnowed and the whole countryside could now be baptized with fire." Containers of tarweed seeds have been found in archaeological digs. Some of us are eating them again. If we partly owe their presence now to the management practices of West Marin's indigenous peoples, thank you for that. Thank you for tarweeds.
The Tarweed Gatherer by Grace Carpenter Hudson (1865–1937), a painter well known for her more than 600 portraits, mostly of Pomo people. Her anthropologist husband John was an outstanding scholar-collector of basketry and other ethnographic artifacts. This reproduction is courtesy the Grace Hudson Museum, Ukiah, California (;
special thanks to curator Marvin Schenck.

Original post: October 27, 2015

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