Plant Profile: Iris douglasiana and native PCH cultivars

Iris douglasiana (Douglas Iris) and PCH cultivars

Douglas Iris are wonderful additions to a woodland or meadow garden. They are non-fussy, low maintenance, relatively drought tolerant and tidy, neat little plants with distinctive foliage and beautiful flowers.   Combining Douglas Iris with other cultivars of Iris (generally lumped together under one name — PCH (pacific coast hybrids)), it is easy to create and maintain a flourishing grove of beautiful, early to mid spring blooming California natives, with inevitably contrasting foliage to the balance of your gardens.   If you need more convincing, the following photos speak for themselves.


The Iris genus consists of monocots in the form of low fans of sword-shaped leaves with parallel veining.  Iris are perennial herbs, spreading by rhizomes and flowering in the early to mid spring.   The flowering shown in the photos above occurred in early to mid March 2012 and lasted until early May.  

Iris are members of the Iridaceae Family.  The Jepson Manual (TJM) attributes 65 different genera and more than 2050 species to Iridaceae.  Within the Iridaceae Family, the Iris genus consists of nearly 160 species according to TJM.    The USDA Plants database identifies 52 species of Iris, and indicates that Iris are found throughout almost all of North America, including Alaska.  The natural distribution of Douglas Iris is limited to California and Oregon according to USDA.  

According to TJM, Iris douglasiana is found in California primarily in pastures and grassy environments. The leaves are bitter such that livestock and deer will generally not graze on them (but the gophers in our gardens don’t seem to mind the bitterness!).  See the more specific locations of its natural occurrences here:,8195,8198.   


Iris was first recognized in 1840 by Herbert G. A. W. Arnott in W. J. Hooker and, Bot. Beechey Vol. 395 per Flora of North America.  Iris douglasiana is commonly known as Douglas Iris, but is also sometimes referred to as Mountain Iris. 

Observable Identifying Characteristics

General:  Medium green blades of fanned leaves – distinctly monocot in appearance.   The plants shown above are generally 12 to 18 inches in height and width.  The fanned leaves are folded over one another along their vertical axis and joined at the base.  Linnaeus referred to this fanned and folded feature as “equitant” — as if one leaf is riding horseback on another leaf (it is a very helpful distinguishing feature).  In our gardens, the Iris are present in two partially sunny locations, each of which receives supplemental water as needed approximately every 8th day or so.  

Leaves:  Evergreen, bladelike, parallel veins, roughly 1/4 to 1 inch wide, simple margins 

Inflorescence and Flowers: 3 turned down sepals (falls), and 3 upright petals (standards). The central area of the sepals (falls) will contain a different color than the balance of the sepal and the petals (see the yellow and white and purple distinctions in the photos above — notably only on the sepals (falls)).  Unlike certain non-native Iris, Douglas Iris and other PCH Iris are “beardless”.  

Stems:  N/A

Fruit/Seed:  Oblong, rubbery looking capsule approximately 1.5 inches by 0.5 inches. The capsules began to appear in our gardens in approximately mid May and early June during 2012.  

Compatible Plantings: In our gardens, we have mass planted Irises in a rock garden area beneath Oaks and as a border along a woodland path beneath a canopy of Oaks.  The green leaves contrast particularly well against the granite boulders.

Parting Thought:  It took us some time to appreciate Irises in general.  Non-native bearded Irises tend to appear very strappy and particularly messy (after they flower) in my estimation.  When we discovered the native California Irises, we noted a difference.  They don’t tend to get strappy, the flower stalks are less leggy and the browning and yellowing of the leaves after flowering is less obvious.  The Irises are now some of our favorites – remarkably beautiful plants, and tidy enough for our gardens.


The Jepson Manual, Vascular Plants of California, 2nd Edition, edited by Bruce G. Baldwin et al.

Flora of North America:

Missouri Botanical Garden, Tropicos:

USDA Plant Database:

California Native Plant Society:

Las Pilitas Nursery:

California Native Plants for the Garden, Carol Bornstein, David Fross and Bart O’Brien, Cachuma Press

Wild Lilies, Irises and Grasses, Gardening with California Monocots, Nora Harlow and Kristen Jacob, editors.

California Plant Families (West of the Sierran Crest and Deserts), Glenn Keator

Woodland Garden: Part 1

On a knoll beneath 5 large California Live Oaks, running alongside a dry creek bed, we’ve recently planted a woodland and dry shade garden.  The dimensions of the garden are approximately 20 feet wide by 70 feet long. We’ve hyrdozoned the garden into four zones — as the garden transitions from full sun to shade, and from plants that are more drought tolerant to more traditional woodland garden plants needing more frequent watering.

This first image shows the garden in its entirety, from the low point to the knoll in the distant background (reminder — it is still in its infancy, so it looks a bit barren).  Unfortunately, the large California Live Oak in the middle of the creek bed has recently begun to show signs of a fungus that may signal its demise. More on that in a future post.

In the lower left foreground, among the rocks on the edge of the dry creek, we planted Philadelphus lewisii ‘Goose Creek’, which have just recently begun to bud after a dormant, deciduous winter.  This native California plant is commonly known as Wild Mock Orange, and will grow to 6 feet or so (completely filling in the bare dirt areas!), with abundant flowers from May to July.  Here it is from a shot in early May:

On the right side of the creek, as you climb the flagstone steps, on your left you see a small grove of native Rubus spectabilis (Salmonberry), and then native Rubus parviflorus (Thimbleberry), with interspersed non-native, but beautiful Acanthus mollis.  The intent of the “Rubus repeat” is to form a thicket — which we expect by late summer — from which we can harvest berries or which the critters that we happily welcome into our yard (including the neighborhood bear) can enjoy.

Two key distinguishing features between Rubus spectabilis and Rubus parviflorus are the serrated leaf margins and thorns on the Rubus spectabilis — which are less prevalent in the Rubus parviflorus. The leaf shape of the Rubus parviflorus is also more deeply lobed and palmate.

First, Rubus spectabilis:

Next, Rubus parviflorus (my favorite plant in the garden):

And, among them, the exotic, non-native, but unforgettable, Acanthus mollis (shown here in bloom in May 2012):

In our next post, we will transition into the dry shade garden on the upper right knoll. The Chicago Tribune summed up the challenges of a dry shade garden in a November 2011 article: “Dry shade. Those two words are enough to frustrate any gardener. The culprit could be a wall, an overhanging roof, a fence, a hedge, or a towering tree, but the result is usually the same — dusty soil and lack of direct sunlight — two growing conditions that make life difficult for many plants.”

Enter California native plants, and the challenge is met.  More on that to come.

Plant Profile: Arctostaphylos edmundsii

Arctostaphylos edmundsii (Little Sur Manzanita)

California native plants are often presumed to be scraggly, untidy and generally “less appealing” than other non-native ornamentals.  We sought to question that premise early in the re-thinking of our gardens.  To our pleasant surprise, we stumbled upon, among others, a varietal of Arctostaphylos edmundsii known as ‘Carmel Sur Manzanita’.  This tidy little manzanita forms a tight clustering evergreen ground cover and has found a prominent place in our gardens among other equaly tidy natives such as Rhamnus californica (coffee berry) and Ribes viburnifolium (catalina perfume).   A profile of the plant follows a few photos, which like proud parents, we can’t help but share.


The Arctostaphylos genus consists of dicots in the form of groundcover, shrubs and small trees, some prostrate and others more erect.  These plants are members of the Ericaceae Family (see here for a profile of the Ericaceae Family).  The Jepson Manual (TJM) attributes 62 different species to the Arctostaphylos genus.   The USDA Plants database identifies 76 species within the Arctostaphylos genera, and characterizes Artostaphylos edmundsii as endemic to (only found naturally in) Calfornia.  See the distribution map at:

According to TJM, Arctostaphylos edmundsii is found in California primarily in sandy terraces, bluffs and maritime chaparral.  See the more specific locations of its natural occurrences here:,3454,3468.   

Arctostaphylos edmundsii is listed as a rare, threatened or endangered species according to the California Native Plant Society’s Inventory of Rare and Endangered Plants (found here), and there are only 6 to 20 known occurrences in the wild (so why not do your part and plant a few in your gardens?!)


Arctostaphylos edmundsii was first recognized by J.T. Howell in 1952 in Leaflets of Western Botany per the CNPS .  Arctostaphylos edmundsii is most commonly known as Little Sur Manzanita. The varietal shown above is ‘Carmel Sur Manzanita’. 

Observable Identifying Characteristics

General:  Low, mounding groundcover, with light to dark green leaves.   The Carmel Sur Varietal shown above is not more than 6 inches high, and spreads to approximately 3 feet in width.  Drought-resistant, but adapts to normal ornamental garden (though we now have it on restricted drip every 15 days).  Grows best in part shade.

Leaves:  Evergreen, simple, very short petiole, adaxially (top) slightly puberulent (tiny hairs), abaxially glabrous or slightly puberulent, roughly 1.5x as long as wide, round to ovate, entire (non-serrated/lobed) margins

Inflorescence and Flowers:  Terminal clusters, racemose to umbellate, tiny, pendent, urn-like, white to pink, actinomorphic (mirror image in any plane if bi-sected), classic urn-like flower of the Ericaceae Family, appearing in early to mid-winter.

Stems:  Woody, twig like, reddish-brown nearest base

Fruit:  Not yet observed in our gardens, but expecting tiny, reddish-brown compressed sphere like

Compatible Plantings: In our gardens, a mass planting of Carmel Sur Manzanita serves as ground cover in front of Rhamnus californica (coffeeberry).  Another mass planting of its relative, Arctostaphylos uva-vursi ‘Point Reyes Manzanita’ is also in the same part of the gardens, as well as Arctostaphylos ‘Sunset’, Arctostaphylos viridissima, and Arctostaphylos ‘Mama Bear Manzanita’. Manzanita Mania!


The Jepson Manual, Vascular Plants of California, 2nd Edition, edited by Bruce G. Baldwin et al.

Flora of North America: 

Missouri Botanical Garden, Tropicos:

USDA Plant Database:

California Native Plant Society:

Las Pilitas Nursery:

California Native Plants for the Garden, Carol Bornstein, David Fross and Bart O’Brien, Cachuma Press

Plant Profile: Rubus parviflorus

Rubus parviflorus (thimbleberry)

During the fall of 2011, we planted a new woodland garden on a knoll under a canopy of oaks and japanese maples.  The area was previously mostly dead grass with an overgrown Philodendron grove.  One of the plants that we included in the woodland garden has become one of our favorites — Rubus parviflorus (thimbleberry).   Here is Thimbleberry in our gardens in November 2011 at the beginning of its seasonal dormancy and a profile of the plant is below: 


The Rubus genus consists of dicots in the form of mostly subshrubs (lacking distinctly woody stems).  These plants are members of the Rosaceae Family.  According to The Jepson Manual (TJM), there are 400 to 750 species of Rubus across the globe including the more commonly known Rubus glaucifolius (wax leaf raspberry) and Rubus ursinus (California blackberry). See the following link for distribution across the United States:   

Rubus parviflorus is native to California and is found throughout the state, except the desert and central valley, according to TJM.  It is generally found in partially shaded woodland environments — as it is in our gardens.  


According to the Tropicos database, Rubus parviflorus was first recognized in 1818 by Thomas Nuttall (Nutt.) in The Genera of North American Plants.  Rubus parviflorus is most commonly referred to as thimbleberry, but is sometimes described as western thimbleberry or salmonberry (the latter being the more appropriate common name for a different species of Rubus).   

 Observable Identifying Characteristics

General:  Small subshrub, sometimes characterized as thicket-forming, with bright, almost lime-like leaves.   Erect to 2 to 3 feet.  Prefers regular watering (we water every 7 days if no rain).  Grows best in our gardens in part to full shade.

Leaves:  Deciduous, simple, palmately lobed, toothed margin (slight in this photo), acute tip (tapering to a point with no distinct change in the margin from mid point to tip — straight), distinct petiole (stalk connecting the leaf to the branch), lovely green.  We are just beginning to see new basal growth after winter dormacy.

Inflorescence and Flowers:  Not yet observed in our gardens, but expecting white and zygomorphic flowers on panicle-like cymes (branched flower stems emanating from a single point with flowers).  The flowers are dioecious (“imperfect” in that the male and female flower parts are not found on the same plant — so why not plant many to ensure reproduction?!).  

Stems:   A characteristic which distinguishes Rubus parviflorus from other species within Rubus is the lack of prickles (small, sharp outgrowths on the stem). 

Fruit:  Not yet observed in our gardens, but expecting to be blackberry-like (and tasty!).

Compatible Plantings:  According to Las Palitas Nursery, Rubus parviflorus is commonly found in nature along side Ribes.  We’ve planted these two in close proximity to one another.  We’ve also added Rubus spectabilis (salmonberry) adjacent to the Rubus parviflorus.  We’re expecting lots of critters to find homes in and around the Thimbleberry and Salmonberry soon!

Parting Thought:  This post begins by noting that we planted the woodland garden under a canopy of oaks.  That may, at first, seem incompatible (particularly with moisture loving Rubus and dry-loving Oaks).  Rest assured, the topography and layout of the knoll on which the woodland garden was planted is hydrologically separated and downslope of the Oaks and in a separate hydrozone.


The Jepson Manual, Vascular Plants of California, 2nd Edition, edited by Bruce G. Baldwin et al.

Flora of North America: 

Missouri Botanical Garden, Tropicos:

USDA Plant Database:

California Native Plant Society:

Las Pilitas Nursery:

California Native Plants for the Garden, Carol Bornstein, David Fross and Bart O’Brien, Cachuma Press

The Heath Family: Ericaceae

In the study of our gardens, we have recently begun to look for and see shared characteristics between certain plants.  At the most basic level,  there are obvious common traits between different plants of the same genus or among a variety of cultivars of one species.  However, a more educated eye has allowed us to move beyond the lower ranks in the biological classification system, such that we have begun to group plants across genera boundaries — by their biological Family. 


One particular plant family has captivated us – the Ericaceae Family.  Ericaceae derives its name from one genus within the family — the Erica genus.    Plants within the Erica genus are commonly known as Heaths, and thus the Ericaceae Family is commonly known as the Heath Family.   According to the Missouri Botanic Garden’s Tropicos database of taxonomic information, Ericaceae was first recognized in 1789 in Genera Planatarum by Antoine de Laurent Jussieu.   The Ericaceae Family consists of dicots within the Equisetopsida Class and Ericales Order in terms of overall biological classification.   

According to The Jepson Manual (a leading treatise for understanding key characteristics of California plants), the Ericaceae Family consists of approximately 100 genera, and 3000 species, including (in part): Arctostaphylos (manzanita), Arbutus (madrone), Comarostaphylis (summer holly), Empetrum (crowberry), Pyrolla (wintergreen), Vaccinium (blueberry and cranberry) and Rhododendron (azalea).   Flora of North America attributes 120+ genera and more than 4000 species to the Ericaceae Family, and the description of the Ericaceae Family in FNA is found here:  The USDA Plant Database for the Ericaceae Family contains links to images of numerous plants within the Ericaceae Family and can be accessed here:

General Characteristics

The Ericaceae Family consists primarily of shrubs and small trees.  They are mostly evergreen, though some deciduous (Rhododendron).  They are distributed worldwide, but are highly compatible with our climate.  They are widely considered acid-loving (think Azalea), but certain genera (e.g., Arctostaphylos) will tolerate alkaline soils, and particularly the serpentine soils of the foothills in which we live.  

Key to the Family

A dichotomous key for California plants within the Ericaceae Family can be found on The Jepson Manual’s online database: ERICACEAE.  A more comprehensive, and interactive online (!) key for the Family has been prepared by USDA and is posted at: (very very useful).

Plants within our Gardens and Observable Characteristics

Plants of the Ericaceae Family within our gardens include 10+ varieties of Arctostaphylos (manzanita), Arbutus unedo compacta (madrone; strawberry tee) and Rhododendron (azalea).  We intend to plant Vaccinium corymbosum (southern highbush blueberry) this year. 

A few of the more prominent visible characteristics of the Ericaceae Family which we have observed in our gardens are as follows (in plain language with a few recently learned magical-botanical terms):

Stems/Bark:  distinctive, often reddish-brown, smooth as opposed to “knobby”, peeling in either sheets or shedding small thin inconsistently sized pieces; new branching will occur just below point where terminal flowering occurs, which leads to the very architectural, twisting and tortured nature of the branching

Leaves:  Leathery, generally short petiole, entire (Arctostaphylos) to serrate (Arbutus) margins, sometimes pubescent (hairy); new growth is much brighter green and this brightness fades over time to dull gray to sometimes glaucous (dusty like a plum) appearance

Leaf Arrangements:  Simple (never compound) and alternating, leaves are often erect and vertically overlapping

Inflorescence:  Terminal clusters, somewhat observable racemose (unbranched flowering cluster), umbellate (pedicels of the flowers begin in a common point like parts of an umbrella).

Flowers:  Actinomorphic (mirror image in any plane if bi-sected); Urn-like (this is the most distinctive trait to our untrained eye), white to pink; flowers appear in November and continued to bloom through March and early April.

Here are a few photos illustrating certain of these key features (descriptions below the photos).

Arctostaphylos x ‘Mama Bear’ illustrating the reddish brown nature of the bark, and simple, alternativing leaves.

Arctostaphylos viridissima. Top down view showing distinctive architecture, terminal inflorescence, reddish brown bark, short to nil petioles, and glacous leaves.

October 2011

Arctostaphylos viridissima (white haired manzanita) beginning to flower in October 2011.  Here one notes the urn-like shape of the flower and the terminal nature of the inflorescence.

Arctostaphylos viridissima (white haired manzanita) flowering in December 2011.  The umbellate nature of the inflorescence is somewhat apparent here.  Note also the pubescence (hairy-ness) and distinctive bracts at the base of the pedicles.

Arbutus unedo compacta (strawberry tree) illustrating shared characteristic of urn-like flowers. Petioles with small bracts are prominent here.



The Jepson Manual, Vascular Plants of California, 2nd Edition, edited by Bruce G. Baldwin et al.

Flora of North America,

Missouri Botanical Garden, Tropicos:

California Native Plants for the Garden, Carol Bornstein, David Fross and Bart O’Brien, Cachuma Press

Winter – Moment by Moment

January and February 2012

Gardens and gardening afford us opportunities to synchronize with our surroundings.  We can literally see, touch, smell and taste the evolution of life.   This is most obvious in spring and summer gardens when there is a burst of new growth and color.   However, the winter garden can be equally rewarding.  The onset of winter and the dormancy of many plants forces you to look more closely — to slow the pace of your garden strolls, to stop more frequently, to bend down, touch and absorb the changes occurring and to connect with each moment.  Breath by breath.

Observations in the Gardens

Purple Leaf Flowering Plum:  First flowers appeared January 28th or so (first photo below). By February 12, trees were in full bloom (throughout Pasadena and Southern California)

Agave:  Stalk of the flower began to appear February 2 or so. Within a week, it had tripled in height.  This could reach 15 feet or so and the plant will likely die thereafter.  It lives to reproduce.

Heuchera (Coral Bells):  The woodland garden was recently planted.  And, it seems, we did something correct.  The Heuchera began flowering January 20th or so.  The evergreen nature of these plants, and their winter flowering, are good companions for other parts of the woodland (Rubus parviflorus) that are currently dormant, with all leaves gone.

Ceanothus (California Lilac) in bloom:  Various Ceanothus are in bloom at this time of year in Southern California, including the variety ‘Julia Phelps’ below.  The Ceanothus is supposedly a short-lived California native plant.  I hope not in our gardens.

Ceanothus ‘Yankee Point’ struggling to bloom (where the gardeners pruned last fall’s growth).  Notice the numerous small buds.

Aeonium have been in bloom since early January.  Although beautiful, these plants feel out of sync to me with the balance of our gardens — almost with the same effect that a bit too much plastic surgery does for certain folks on the westside (!)  It just doesn’t seem natural to me (note to self – transplant to another’s home soon).

Ribes sanguineum glutinosum (California Gooseberrry / Currant):  Weeks before, we weren’t sure whether our Ribes were still alive.  When this plant goes dormant, you see the very woody stems and nothing else — and there appears to be little life in them.  Then, in mid January, basal leaf growth began to appear, followed by leaf budding along the stems and then emergence of racemes (linear clusters) of tubular flowers.  Wonderful.

Parting Thought:  Mother nature is subtle and elusive, but if receptive and patient, you will feel her steady pulse and hear her consistent and reliable rhythm.

Pruning is a Good Thing

On November 30, 2011, a low pressure system descended on Southern California and caused extremely fierce Santa Ana winds to funnel down out of the mountains, through the canyons, picking up velocity as the denser cool air raced down the foothills into our neighborhood. Pasadena was hit particularly hard.  The local fire station chief indicated they clocked winds at more than 140 mph and we experienced sustained winds in excess of 75 mph for more than 8 hours.  Fortunately, we had pruned our larger Eucalyptus trees a few weeks before, and we escaped the windstorm without much damage (relatively speaking).  Our neighbors were not so fortunate, as you will see. Here are photos taken December 1 (captions below each photo).

View of the main back planter with debris, umbrellas, propane heaters and the like scattered about.

Swim anyone?

The winds were strong enough to pick up an umbrella holder that weighs roughly 35 pounds and deposit it into the pool below this deck.

A downed oak branch — it fell of course onto an area of the garden I had replanted only weeks before. Fortunately, only a few plants were lost.  This limb was sufficient cause for me to purchase my first chainsaw (every man loves his tools!). We don’t need no stinkin tree service!’

One of our larger pines shed a few very large branches, including these.  One such branch fell onto the electric lines, knocking out electricity in our neighborhood for 6 days. (Sorry!).

If you thought at this point that it didn’t look too bad, here is a good example of an experience that was rendered upon literally 1000s of trees in Pasadena.  This Eucalyptus was about 140 feet tall, with a base trunk diameter of approximately 5 feet.  The tree was just steps away from my 90+ year old neighbor’s front door.

If you click on this image — you will see more of the tree relative to the house.   Good thing trees fall downhill and that this house was uphill.  (Some homes in our neighborhood were not so lucky — but thankfully we are not aware of anyone being injured).

Here is the rootball of the neighbor’s downed Eucalyptus.   One lesson we learned — when you hire a crew to remove downed trees, they generally won’t remove large root systems like this — so, what is an elderly gentlemen and his wife to do to solve this?  We are still figuring it out.

In the upper right portion of this photo, you will note the damage to the olive trees.

Debris everywhere.  Just along our street, we counted more than 10 downed Eucalyptus trees — each of which was over 100 feet tall and 100 years old.  The Eucalyptus and Pines suffered the most damage.  The Oaks in our neighborhood survived mostly unscathed — another indication that trees which are native to the region have learned to adapt to whatever mother nature thrusts upon us locally.