In Praise of the Volunteer

Posted by Judith Lowry on

Here at Larner Seeds, we take pleasure watching plants appear unbidden in unexpected corners of the garden. Most gardeners know the joy of the volunteer plant: an exuberant winter squash vine bursting out of a compost pile, flowers growing in the cracks in the sidewalk. Having found the right conditions, these volunteers have a lot to teach us. In the native restoration garden, they are an indication of imbalance or of success. 
Cobweb thistle, Cirsium occidentale, is one of those species whose unplanned appearances delight us. The seeds float gently around the garden on a windy day at summer's end. Although this showy silver-leaved thistle's bright crimson flowers surprise the eye in harsh circumstances, such as on steep road cuts on Mount Tamalpais, or in windswept dunes near Abbot's Lagoon, we have still watched over them with care in the garden.

This year, a beautiful specimen showed up literally at our front door, treating visitors to both a nice sight and an occasional jab to the thigh upon entering our garden shop. An inconvenient spot, but we couldn't bear to pull it out. It had shown up in just the right place to thrive.

Red Ribbons Clarkia, Clarkia concinuum.

Another volunteer of note this season was the Red Ribbons Clarkia, Clarkia concinuum, a beautiful, long-blooming annual wildflower which we hadn't cultivated for years. This dainty flower appeared in the shade of an old coyote bush. Where did it come from? Why here, where we would recognize it and not in the empty lot next door? 
We also try to create conditions where colonizer plants can do their thing. These are ruderal species that like open ground and little or no competition. Our meadowfoam meadow is perfect during the summer and fall before meadowfoam germinates. One year Trifolium amoenum showed up. We keep it weeded and dry.

We've written in the past about the complicated wisdom of the seed soil bank, in which plants wait, sometimes for years, for the right conditions before emerging. This phenomenon expresses itself differently every year. Three examples for us are: Miner's lettuce, Claytonia perfoliata,  Bolander's phacelia, Phacelia bolanderii, and Candyflower, Claytonia sibirica. Our Monkeywrench Collection includes some of the species we've seen grow in adverse circumstances, surrounded by and hounded by invasive species.  
We have good collections of  Cobweb Thistle seed, but the intensely gorgeous Red Ribbons Clarkia won't be available till 2017.

Cream Cups, Platystemon californicum  
Trumpets should be blowing along with our announcement of the 2016 harvest of cream cups,
Platystemon californicum. It is without doubt the species that is most frequently requested by our customers, and one that we have not offered for at least ten years.

Though it is not considered rare and endangered, it hasn't been seen much during the drought years. We did a small grow-out here in the Demonstration Garden, and are making some of the seed available to our customers, one packet per customer. 

Because it ripens over a long period of time, harvest is time-consuming. At any given moment, only a small portion of the seeds are ready for harvest. 

In other words, it does not set a lot of seed, and that seed is tricky to gather. But there is nothing hard about growing this plant from seed. Because of its scarcity, we recommend sowing small amounts of seed in individual 4" pots for later transplanting to the garden, or to containers. A bit of late afternoon shade will be welcome. Sow when the rains start, and transplant before they stop.

Only a certain madness makes us persist in collecting this seed, along with a strange belief that it is good for the brain to search through hundreds of dry stalks to find the one ripe seed head.

Along the way, you hone your visual sorting, becoming familiar with the particular path this seed takes as it ripens. 

Original post by Jeff Manson: December 17, 2016

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