Hero Image

Marin IJ Articles

Tough guys in the Garden

  • Diane Lynch
  • Last year I went with some friends to Land’s End at the western tip of San Francisco. This windswept, rocky part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area is a revelation if you haven’t been there. We were close to frozen when we left, but a nice warm lunch at Outerlands on Judah thawed us out promptly.

    It’s an understatement to say that the hostile environment out there is challenging for plants. We had a ranger tour and she was nice enough to send me a list of the best of the tough. No surprise that the California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) tops the list. Is there a happier plant on the planet? Interestingly, the poppy is yellow in Northern California, orange in Southern California and a mix of the two in San Francisco: yellow with orange inside.

    I sow seeds in 4-inch pots in my sunroom to keep the birds from eating them. Plant ASAP to take advantage of our bounteous rains. This cheerful little plant will bloom year-round in Marin. In late December there was a lone plant in full bloom growing out of a crack in the median going into Tiburon.

    Silver beach lupine (Lupinus chamissonis) is the host plant for the Mission blue butterfly. As a legume it fixes nitrogen into the soil. Several varieties of lupine make their livings in our coastal scrub areas with no help from us in the way of watering or fertilizing, and their flowers are beautiful, in colors ranging from yellow to deep purple/blue.

    Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a staple in drought-tolerant gardens with its beautiful dissected leaves topped by umbels of tiny white flowers. There are many varieties of yarrow in stunning color combinations. Native tribes used the leaves for stomachaches and toothaches. Bright yellow sticky monkey-flower (Mimulus aurantiacus) is a great habitat plant, providing nectar for butterflies, bees and hummingbirds. The Coast Miwok used its leaves as an antiseptic and the roots to treat dysentery and fevers. Mimulus comes in other colors as well.

    A good source of vitamin C, miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) is delicious in salads and seeds prolifically, providing food for native birds such as mourning doves and quail. Should you wonder how it would do in Marin, it grows all over the county.

    Bee plant (Scrophularia californica) is native only to California. Its dark green triangular leaves provide a nice backdrop when not in bloom. It’s the host plant for the variable checkerspot butterfly larvae, as well as providing nectar for bees and hummingbirds. It was used to treat athlete’s foot, joint pain, bruises and insect stings.

    Yerba Buena (Clinopodium douglasii) was the original name for San Francisco. This creeping plant from the mint family has fragrant, edible leaves and had many uses: spices, perfumes and medicines.

    The following plants might not be the best selections for a nicely cultivated garden, but could have a place bordering open space or on the back 40:

    Most of us won’t bother to plant poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) but it’s actually food for deer as well as birds, that enjoy the tiny white fruits. Coast gum plant (Grindelia hirsutula) produces bright yellow daisy shaped flowers with sticky centers that serve as protection from its predators.

    Soap plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum) was useful to our original inhabitants and used to make scrub brushes, as well as soap and to paralyze fish. California blackberry (Rubus ursinus) produces wonderful fruit and the roots were used to treat skin infections as well as dysentery. It’s a lot less aggressive than the Himalayan blackberries that run rampant through the county.

    Not all of these plants will work in every garden but this is a good start on considering plants that are tough enough to withstand drought and brighten up any garden when in bloom. And poppies, in my opinion, will work everywhere, especially as filler between plants as they cheer up any garden.