Eye on the Garden: Signs of Spring
Although it’s been a dry winter, there are a few spring bloomers getting started. A watchful eye and sensitive nose can catch these now:
The fresh white flowers of Beach Strawberry (Fragraria chiloensis) precede tiny red strawberries. Although edible, and one of the ancestors of our cultivated strawberry, Beach Strawberries are eaten more often by birds than by humans. This plant is native both to the coast of California and Chile – coastal migrating birds eat the fruit and excrete the seeds along their migratory path.
Native plant is an interesting term not always easily defined. Biologists define a plant as native to a place if animals brought seeds or plants to the area. If humans brought the plant, it would be considered exotic. Can we always be sure? No. A plant may have been growing somewhere so long, biologists believe it to be native, but in fact the plant may have been introduced by prehistoric humans. As with all labels, we need to understand their limitations and use them thoughtfully.
You must smell these flowers on Florida Street! The fragrant flowers change from cream-colored to butter-yellow on the sweetshade tree (Hymenosporum flavum). They are right at nose level so go take a whiff – you’ll be glad you did. These Australian trees are typically tall and thin at maturity so over the years, the flowers will be much higher up. Take advantage while they are young to enjoy the scent.
Native to Australian rainforests, this tree is surprisingly tough enough to survive as a San Francisco street tree. It does not like winter cold; young trees will die or be damaged in frosty weather – older trees can survive to about 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Sweetshade is also called Native Frangipani in Australia.
The wacky flowers of the California scorpionweed (Phacelia californica) have no scent but are a beautiful lavender color. The light-colored leaves and stems are hairy, and the flower stalks stick straight up as flowers unfold from coil-shaped inflorescences. This native wildflower is a nectar source for the endangered Mission Blue Butterfly and is also beloved by bees. Although most resources say it prefers full sun (about 6 of sun hours per day), I have seen it growing in part shade (about 4 hours per day in summer), although it takes longer to flower.
Sticky monkeyflower (Mimulus aurantiacus) is another California native, although it also grows in southern Oregon and the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. Some people think the flowers look like a monkey’s face, hence the common name. Flowers are yellow or orange – both colors can be found on 20th Street – and are pollinated by bees and hummingbirds.
Many nursery hybrids have been produced over the years, so you can find many more flower colors including red, maroon, and salmon. This plant takes a wide range of soil including wet, dry, sandy, rocky and serpentine, and can take full sun or part shade, so try it in your garden.
The garden is always changing, so see what you can detect when you walk by. Use your eyes, nose and ears. I heard birdcalls and saw maybe a flash of feathers outside the birdhouse above Sightglass – is it occupied? See what you can see…
Ellyn Shea is a gardener and garden educator in San Francisco.