In Memory of Doris Drucker
It was a great honor for me to meet Doris Drucker just a little over a year ago at the memorial service for another member of the Claremont College’s royalty, Jean Platt. I was fortunate to sit with Mrs. Drucker and have a good conversation with her. I mentioned that we had just slightly reoriented the bench in the Garden that was given in memory of her husband, Peter Drucker, in order to afford it a better view.
She commented how much she loved the Garden, as did her husband, who enjoyed walking the garden paths while thinking. She was interested in everything that I told her regarding new developments at the Garden, and about me as the new director. Clearly her mind was as sharp as a tack! Just last month we received a call that Mrs. Drucker was planning to visit the Garden on a particular morning. Sadly, she was not able to come that morning, but I like to think that her plan had been to enjoy the Garden and sit once again on Peter’s bench to enjoy the view. It is a great honor for us that she chose Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden as a recipient of memorial gifts to celebrate her well lived life.
The Garden Through the Seasons
No matter when you visit Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, there is always something to see.
With more than 6,000 kinds of native plants, California has the richest flora of any state in the continental United States. Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden is dedicated to the collection, cultivation, study and display of native California plants. A number of flowers as well as interesting fruits and seeds can only be seen at particular times of the year.
Choose a season below to help you navigate 86 acres of native botanical beauty of California to see a sampling of the showiest seasonal displays in the Garden.
See the Garden anytime on our Facebook page.
The cool, rainy winter season allows plants to put on fresh green coats. Winter rains begin the period of active growth and flowering. There is a great diversity and abundance of birds in the Garden year round, but especially in the winter. Check in at the admission kiosk for tips on which of our feathered friends you may see during your visit.
Look for Encelia californica (bush sunflower), which can be found throughout Garden; Acer macrophyllum (big leaf maple) found on the slope west of Fay's Wildflower Meadow; and Ribes aureum (golden currant) in the Communities. Heteromeles arbutifolia toyon berries throughout the Garden, Roger's Red grape in Cultivar Garden, Russian River monardella in Cultivar Garden, Celtis reticulata western hackberry in Desert Garden in January. Many gooseberries and currants, both in the genus Ribes, bloom in February. Gooseberries, such as the fuchsia flowering gooseberry (R. speciousum), have spines. Currants include the golden currant (R. aureum), chaparral currant (R. malvaceum), and the pink flowering currant (R. sanguineum). All have edible berries and grow well in gardens with some shade and year around water. These are deciduous, lossing their leaves in summer. Catalina perfume (R. viburnifolium) is an unusual currant that is evergreen, has a delightful aroma, and does well as a groundcover beneath coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia).
Manzanita (Arctostaphylos ssp.)
Winter is the time of the manzanita and the Garden boasts a large collection, which bloom late November through early March. See the delicate urn-shaped flowers in the California Plant Communities and throughout the Garden. There is a great variety of manzanitas ranging from tidy groundcovers to large multi-stemmed trees. Lester Rowntree manzanita is a large, broad shrub with gray-green leaves, and pink stems and flowers. If you have heavy garden soil consider growing this plant. Another dependable garden manzanita, Howard McMinn, is smaller and more upright than Lester Rowntree. Its profusion of white flowers, in early spring, contrast nicely with green foliage and cinnamon-colored bark. The following plants provide beautiful winter displays. Arctostaphylos 'Canyon Blush (Canyon Blush manzanita) located on Indian Hill Mesa south of the Cultivar Garden; Arctostaphylos 'Canyon Blush' (Canyon Blush manzanita) located on Indian Hill Mesa; Arctostaphylos refugioensis (Refugio manzanita) located in the California Plant Communities, Arctostaphylos 'Lester Rowntree' (Lester Rowntree manzanita) located in the Cultivar Garden; Arctostaphylos pungens (Mexican manzanita) located south of Fay's Wildflower Meadow; Arctostaphylos pungens (Mexican manzanita).
Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia californica)
Aristolochia is an interesting, semi-evergreen vine that always attracts attention with its masses of pipe-shaped flowers producing in late winter and early spring. This vine is found in the Garden climbing along slopes and over shrubs. Visitors are first attracted to the large, fuzzy arrow-shaped leaves, then to the odd shaped flowers. Run your fingers along the stem and leaves of this twining plant and feel the fine, silky hairs. Six-legged visitors are also attracted to this plant. The brownish to greenish-purple flowers are pollinated by fungus gnats, that get trapped inside the flowers, and the leaves are eaten by larvae of the western pipevine swallowtail butterfly (Battus philenor).
Big Leaf Mistletoe (Phoradendron macrophyllum)
The name, Phoradendron, comes from two Greek words signifying thief of a tree. Indeed mistletoe is a parasitic plant growing on trees or shrubs, absorbing water and food from the sap of the host plant. The clumps of the evergreen mistletoe festooning trees in the Garden are most conspicuous in winter when leaves have dropped from the tee hosts. Big leaf mistletoe is chiefly parasitic on western sycamore, Platanus racemosa but also may be found on cotton wood (Populu spp.), alder (Alnus spp.), ash (Fraxinus spp.) and walnut (Juglans spp.)
Catalina Crossosoma (Crossosoma californicum)
Crossosoma is an uncommon and botanically interesting plant found on dry, rocky slopes and in canyons on San Clemente, Santa Catalina and Guadalupe Islands and on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The plants become dormant during the summer months and the dead leaves remain hanging on the shrubs until the advent of the autumn rains, when they are shed and the plants suddenly become covered with bright green leaves and soon after with apple-blossom like flowers. The fruit is unusual looking; a cluster of 2-9 drooping, dry vessels each about 1 inch long and terminating in a curved or hooked beak.
Silk Tassel Bush (Garrya elliptica)
Garrya is a horticulturally significant plant, grown for its drought tolerance and attractive, pendulous flowers. It is an evergreen shrub with male and female flowers borne in catkin-like clusters on different plants. Silk tassel is found from Ventura County north to Oregon and on Santa Cruz Island on dry slopes and ridges in the outer coast ranges at elevations below 2,000 feet where it is a member of several plant communities from the missed evergreen forest to chaparral. It is nowhere in abundant and usually occurs in small groups or an isolated shrubs.
San Clemente Island Bush Mallow (Malacothamnus clementinus)
This is an endangered plant in California. Occurring in only a few localities on San Clemente Island it is threatened by navy activities and grazing b feral animals. This slender-stemmed, erect shrub forms colonies by underground runners. The foliage of this plant is favored by every kind of herbivore. The hairy, bright green leaves are round in outline with three to five lobes. The flowers, arranged in spike-like clusters, are white to pale pink in color. A striking characteristic of its plant family (Malvaceae mallow family) can be seen in the flowers. The stamens are fused into a column around the pistil as in the very familiar hibiscus. Peer into these flowers to observe that character.
Mission Manzanita (Xylococcus bicolor)
Mission Manzanita is similar to the true manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.) in general appearance, but can be easily distinguished by its leaves and fruits. The leaves of Xylococcus are leathery and brittle with margins that are rolled under. The upper surface of the leaf is dark green; the lower surface densely hairy. The fruits are berry-like, dry and become maroon-red or black when mature. Like the manzanita, Xylcoccus blooms during the winter months and has clusters of urn shaped, white, yellow or pinkish flowers. Mission Manzanita is found on dry sloes in scattered localities from near the coast in Los Angeles County south to northwestern Baja California, usually at elevations below 2,000 feet where it is a member of the coastal chaparral community. It is also found on Santa Catalina Island.
American Dogwood (Cornus sericea ssp. sericea note: formerly C. stolonifera)
American dogwood is a large spreading shrub 6 to 30 feet tall, often rooting where the branches touch moist ground. The arching stems are a distinctive red-purple color. The leaves are arranged opposite one another along the stem and have four to seven prominent veins that form thin latex threads when broken. Individual flowers are inconspicuous but are arranged in large, noticeable flat-topped clusters. They bloom from May to July then develop into small round, whitish stone fruits. American dogwood occurs in moist places below 9,000 feet.
White Alder (Alnus rhombifolia)
White alder is the only member of birch family found in Southern California. It is widely distributed along rivers and permanent streams. The bark of young trees is a smooth steel gray color that becomes darker and broken into irregular plates on old trees. The male flowers are arranged in 2 to 4 inch pendulous catkins at the ends of the branchlets. Female flowers are distinctive little woody catkins that look like miniature cones of conifers. The seeds are shed from this cone in the fall and winter to the apparent delight of flocks of grosbeaks and finches who gobble-up the tiny seeds during winter months.
Fuchsia-flowered Gooseberry (Ribes speciosum)
The gooseberries are a distinctive group, with their spiny branches and rounded to deeply lobed leaves. Our most interesting species is the fuchsia-flowered gooseberry, which has abundant bright red pendulous flowers that line the arching or sometimes horizontal stems of the plant for a length of up to several feet. The stamens are twice as long as the flower and are exserted from the floral tube. The fruit is sticky and exceedingly prickly, but like all our prickly gooseberries they are eminently edible. Fuchsia-flowered gooseberry is a member of the coastal sage scrub and chaparral communities and is common throughout Southern California. It blooms from February to April and is an important nectar plant for hummingbirds in the winter season.
Wild Cucumber, Man Root (Marah macrocarpus)
Wild cucumber is a trailing vine from a huge, fleshy root with long, stalked leaves palmately lobed and up to 4 inches across. The creamy white flowers are interesting as some are male and some are female on the same plant just like other members of the cucumber family (melons, squash, etc.) The male glowers appear on the stems in groups of five to 20 with the stamens exposed and noticeable. At the base of this stem may be one female flower with a fat, little ovary that develops into a large, egg-shaped fruit with long, bright green prickles that turn hard and spiny as the fruit dries. The flowers of this vine are among the first flowers to bloom often starting in January and continuing to June. Because of its large root, it is one of the first plants to reappear after a fire. The long green stems spreading over the blackened soil are particularly noticeable.
Chaparral Currant (Ribes malvaceum)
Ribes malvaceum is a deciduous member of the chaparral community. The pink flowers are in drooping clusters and appear in the early winter often before the first leaves. It is a refreshing burst of color in the chaparral after the long period of summer drought and dormancy. The flowers are an important source of winter nectar for resident hummingbirds. The lobed maple-like leaves of this species are dark green and roughened above, paler below. The fruit is a dark purple to black smooth berry. The branchlet, leaves, flower clusters and fruits of this plant have glandular, bristly hairs that make the plant sticky to the touch and give this plant its distinctive aroma.
California Bay (Umbellularia californica)
The California bay, an evergreen tree, can reach a height of 90 feet. The lance-shaped leaves with smooth margins are thick, leathery and 3 to 5 inches long. When crushed, the leaves emit a pungent odor suggesting camphor or bay, which serves as a positive identifying characteristic. Leaves are often used for flavor in cooking, but are about twice as strong as the European bay (Laurus nobilis). The clusters of yellow-green flowers, appearing from December through May, have an agreeably sweet fragrance. The fruits are fleshy and green and look like small avocados (a relative of this plant).
In the spring, the Garden is full of color as California poppies (Eschscholzia californica), California lilacs (Ceanothus sp.) and salvias burst into bloom. Wind your way through Fay’s Wildflower Meadow on the one-of-a-kind stone-tiled rattlesnake path. The riots of color throughout the Garden attract butterflies and hummingbirds. Spring is the peak season for flowers of all kinds. Wildflowers abound in Fay’s Wildflower Meadow, irises brighten the Indian Hill Mesa, vibrant cactus flowers illuminate the desert area in the East Alluvial Garden, and wild lilacs softly scent the air throughout.
The Butterfly Pavillion is open late spring through summer. The pavilion combines science education and interactive fun for visitors of all ages. Read more about the RSABG Butterfly Pavilion here.
Summer and autumn months provide a more subtle color and texture in the Garden as native fruit and seeds ripen. The dry summer months are a time of dormancy for many plants. Visit during our concert series Garden Groove in June and July to enjoy a cool evening walk and great music in the Garden.
Summer is quieter but the pink flowers of the desert willows and the bright yellow of the Palo Verde in the Cultivar Garden add colorful highlights to the tawny browns, soft grays and greens of the grasses, shrubs, and trees. Visit the Container Garden for new ideas on growing natives in pots.
As the hot months give way to cooler autumn days, plants begin to waken after their summer slumber. Fall is the time to plant California native plants. A visit to the Garden may provide inspiration for your inner landscape designer. It is the time of anticipated seasonal rains and the start of the planting season. Attend the annual Fall Planting Festival on the first weekend of November at Grow Native Nursery Claremont to purchase old favorites and exciting new native plants.
California Buckeye (Aesculus californica)
The California buckeye is native to the Foothill Woodland commmunity inhabiting the dry slopes and canyons. One of California's most unusual and picturesque trees, the Aesculus californica is small, deciduous and multi-stemmed. It grows to 15 to 30 feet tall with broad, rounded crown and smooth gray-white bark. Showy, foot-long spikes of creamy white flowers cover the trees in spring and are fragrant. As drought stress increases in the summer, the foliage becomes brown and heat-crumpled. The branches are leafless by early fall, revealing conspicuous pear-shaped pods containing large, shiny, chestnut-colored seeds.
Madrone (Arbutus menziesii)
Madrone is considered by many to be the most handsome broadleaf, evergreen native tree. It has a wide distribution with scattered stands found in the peninsular ranges in Southern California and extending north through the foothills of the Sierra Mountains and along the coastal ranges to British Columbia. It is most common in California's north coast ranges where it grows with douglas fir, tan oak and black oak on mountain ranges, slopes and valleys. The madrone is a picturesque tree with smooth, terra cotta colored bark, glossy, burnished foliage, large clusters of fragrant urn-shaped white flowers and brilliant orange-red berry-like fruits, which ripen in the late fall.
Refugio Manzanita (Arctostaphylos refugioensis)
This rare manzanita occurs in a botanically complex region where the South Coast and Transverse Ranges converge north of Santa Barbara. Refugio manzanita has strongly overlapping leaves which clasp the twigs and stems that are densely clothed with glad-tipped bristles. In its natural habitat, Refugio manzanita blooms from Decmeber through March, but in cultivation this species is the earliest flowering of the manzanitas in the Garden. Blossoms can appears as early as October.
California Fuchsia (Epilobium)
California fuchsias are slightly woody, perennial herbs that grow to 1 to 3 feet high. There are many named varieties in the Cultivar Garden, displaying varied growth habits, foliage and flower color. The striking feature of this plant is the showy, tubular flower. The four petals and the four-cleft sepal cup are typically scarlet, but some cultivars are white or pink. Two common species in Southern California, Epilobium californica and Epilobium canum, bloom in dry portions of Coastal Sage Scrub, Chaparral, Oak Woodland and the Yellow Pine Forest plant communities from July through November. California fuchsias are an important nectar plant for hummingbirds during late summer. It does well in California gardens and is readily available from native plant nurseries.
St. Catherine's Lace (Eriogonum giganteum)
This medium-size shrub is native to San Clemente and Santa Catalina Islands where it is a member of the Coastal Sage Scrub communities. Large, flat-topped clusters of white flowers develop in late spring on stalks that branch well above the foliage. The flowers fade to a russet-brown in the fall and are quite showy against the silvery-gray leaves. Eriogonum giganteum performs well in cultivation, in both coastal and inland regions, and is frequently used in landscapes and gardens.
Four-needled Pinyon, Parry Pinyon (Pinus quadrifolia)
Pinus quadrifolia has needles that are four to a bundle. That number can be variable however, and you may find trees with some bundles of three or five needles. The pinyon is an extremely handsome, small tree with a pleasing pyramidal form. The short needles are pale blueish-green on top and white on the under surface. It is found in scattered localities on dry slopes bordering the Colorado Desert, from the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Moutnatins to Baja California. The pinyon nuts of this species as well as Pinus monophylla, the singleleaf pinyon, were a staple food item for many groups of Native Americans.
Toyon, California Holly (Heteromeles arbutifolia)
Toyon is a large, handsome shrub or small tree with evergreen, leathery, saw-toothed edged leaes. The showy clusters of small, white flowers in summer mature to bunches of rich, red berries in late fall and winter. The berries are significat source of winter food for birds and other wildlife. Look for a lot of variation in the color and size of the berries as you walk through the Garden. Two cultivate varieties of toyon having yellow to gold berry color are 'Claremont' and 'Davis Gold.' Toyon is one of the most widely cultivate California natives because it ofers both attractive foliage and fruit, and shows a wide tolerance for different soils, exposure and moisture conditions.
Chuparosa, California Beloperone (Justicia californica, Beloperone)
Chuparosa is a rounded, twiggy desert shrub with numerous intertwined greenish branches. The leaves are small and drop off as soon as the plant is drought stressed. A striking feature of chuparosa is the orange-red, tubular blossom. The flowers are grouped in terminal clusters, a perfect vantage point for visiting hummingbirds that frequent this plant during its long fall and winter flowering season. A native of sandy washes and bajadas of the Sonoran Desert, chuparosa is well adpated to hot, dry climates and is recommended for gardeners who want to attract hummingbirds with a natural food source.
Catalina Cherry (Prunus lyonii)
Catalina Cherry is native to Santa Catalina, San Clemente, Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz islands off the coast of Southern California. It grows in the Island Chaparral plant community and reaches its largest size (35 to 40 feet) in canyons and protected areas where greater moisture and deeper soils occur. This species has evergreen, glossy dark green leaves that are 3 to 5 inches long. Showy, creamy-white flowers appears in late spring to early fall.
Sugarbush (Rhus ovata)
Sugarbush is an erect, medium-size shrub with distinct reddish twigs and thick, waxy leathery leaves. A key characteristics of this plant that distringuishes it from its Rhus relatives is that the leaf blades fold sharply upward at the midrib resembling a taco shell. The dense, terminal clusters of tiny pinkish-white flowers give way to sticky, sugary, russet-colored fruits in late summer and early fall. The evergreen foliage and tolerance for various soil and climate conditions makes sugarbush a desirable ornamental for heges and screens.
Woolly Blue Curls (Trichostema lanatum)
The woolly blue curls plant is a member of the chaparral plant community. It can be difficult to propagate and is frequently finicky in cultivation. To the amazement of RSABG horticulture staff, woolly blue curls performs exceddingly well in the Indian Hill Mesa soil and flowers intermittently year round. The attractive flowers are an elaborate two-lipped, blue or purple blossom tightly packed along the upper stem. The whole flower cluster is densely cothed in purple wool-like fibers. Strongly aromatic, woolly blue curls are a member of the mint family.
California Wild Grape (Vitis californica, 'Roger's Red')
The California wild grape is a robust vine, closely resembling (and frquently a rootstock for) its cultivated cousin the wine grape. Growing along streamsides and springs, the wild grape is readily recognized by its trailing habit as it attaches to other plants with coiling tendrils. The purple fruits are small but taty and can be eaten fresh or dried. 'Roger's Red' is a cultivated variety selected for its brilliant scarlet autumn foliage.
The western bluebirds residing on and around Indian Hill Mesa near the boundary of Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden and the former Claremont Golf Course property have a new 'home address' as of January 16, 2014.
Due to the closure of the golf course in 2013 and the now restricted access to the property, the ten western bluebird nest boxes that used to be located in trees within the golf course have been relocated to the western edge of Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. This short move allows the bluebird population ongoing access to the nest boxes while still being in close proximity to their favored habitat – the open spaces provided by the former golf course fairways. The move also allows volunteers, including Marty Marino of the Southern California Bluebird Club, access to boxes for maintenance and regular population monitoring. The Garden is now the location for an important ongoing project, the California Bluebird Recovery Program.
So why are bluebirds in need of these manufactured, 'artificial' nesting sites?
Nearly 100 species of birds across North America, including the western bluebird, historically nested in holes, or 'cavities' within rotting limbs and trunks of dying or standing dead trees, also known as 'snags'. The softer wood of the dead or dying trees developed natural holes or provided easy access for other 'primary cavity nesters', such as some species of woodpeckers, to excavate cavities within the wood for their nests. Over time, these cavities are used by other species such as the western bluebird that are 'secondary cavity nesters', or birds that do not excavate their own nests, but utilize holes or cavities already within the wood.
Increased habit loss due to human development and the ongoing removal of these trees or dead portions of them, reduces the availability of these natural nesting sites. To ensure their survival, volunteers and organizations such as the Southern California Bluebird Club hang and monitor nest boxes and provide educational information and resources for others to do the same. Click here for more information on the Southern California Bluebird Club and links to other educational information, monitoring equipment, nest box information and much more!
Note to visitors: there are no known sightings of rattlesnakes at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden.
RSABG Volunteer, Nature Interpreter
Few words in the English language get our attention so quickly and completely as rattlesnake. We are fascinated by the danger and mystery surrounding this slithery reptile. Let’s explore some pit viper facts.
The western rattlesnake, Crotalus viridis, is one of 30 known species plus many subspecies of rattlesnake found in southern Canada, the United States and northern Mexico. It is the most prevalent rattlesnake found in the chaparral area. It often dens in rocky outcrops or in rodent burrows.
This snake has a wide triangular head, narrow neck and heavy body which can reach a little over four feet in length. It lacks eye lids and ears, depending on its forked tongue to detect taste, smell and touch. Its eyes have vertical pupils. Heat sensitive pits between the eyes and nostrils help it to detect prey. Fangs, folded back on the roof of the mouth, are released forward to bite prey or for self defense. Venom is squeezed from glands down through the hollow fangs and out through the holes in the tips. The venom attacks blood vessels and blood cells.
Coloration varies depending on habitat and subspecies. Generally, western rattlesnakes are light colored in hues of brown. Patches of dark brown are often seen along the back, becoming dark bands toward the tail. A color band can often be found back of the eye. Out in the open it is easily seen but is hard to detect curled up in scrub chaparral.
The rattle on the tail is a series of flattened interlocking horny segments that produces a buzzing noise when shaken vigorously. A new segment is added each time the snake sheds its skin, normally two to four times each year, although older snakes may shed only once a year.
Rattlesnakes are active from about April through October. During cooler weather they are active during the day, and when it gets hot, they hunt at night. Typically, prey consists of small mammals and some reptiles. Mating season occurs from April through June. As many as 25 young are born alive between August and October. Large numbers may overwinter together at a common den site.
Human and rattlesnake encounter stories abound. Many are simply scary meetings while others have ended in painful debilitating bites, though rarely in death. “The National Audubon Field Guide to California” suggests that if you encounter a rattler, freeze to let it withdraw, then step away. If you are planning to be in an area where there are rattlesnakes, become knowledgeable about the latest first aid practices on how to treat snake bites.
Critters in the Garden
RSABG Volunteer, Nature Interpreter
Picture a quiet residential neighborhood late at night. Several muffled thumps followed by a loud thud break the silence. Dogs bark and angry human voices command them to stop. The next morning the householder finds his trash can overturned, the soggy contents strewn about and well-picked over.
As you may have guessed, the culprit was a raccoon, Procyon lotor. Found throughout North America from Canada to Panama, it is of medium size with a grayish coat. Two of its most distinctive features are its dexterous front paws and its facial mask. It is intelligent, omnivorous, usually nocturnal and highly adaptable. It can be found in habitats ranging from mountains to coastal marshes, and escape from captivity has enabled it to become widely distributed in Europe and Asia. The raccoon often occupies human habitation where it enjoys a variety of easily found food.
Raccoon kits of two to five are born in the spring in nests in hollow trees, rock crevices, mammal burrows or buildings such as barns and attics. The female raises the young until they go off on their own late in the fall. Though they are usually solitary, groups of females will often share a common area and males may live together in groups to defend a territory.
Scientists have concluded that a raccoon washes its food to soften the hard skin on its front paws so it can feel the object and remove unwanted parts. The earlier theory that a raccoon does not have enough saliva production to moisten its food has proven incorrect.
Occasionally staff, volunteers and guests encounter a raccoon at Benjamin Pond or the upper pond hunting for tidbits. Which is an encounter I prefer to the one I had in my garage when a raccoon was dousing a charcoal briquette in the cat’s water dish. The charcoal became soggier and messier by the moment, leaving black streaks on the raccoon’s muzzle, paws and muddy globs on the floor!
RSABG Volunteer, Nature Interpreter
In folklore the tortoise’s slow and steady pace wins the race against the hare. Reality is a different story, for one of its kind, the desert tortoise, is running neck and neck against extinction. Will it ultimately survive the destruction of its habitat, infectious diseases, and various predators?
Gopherus agassizii is found in the Mojave and Colorado deserts. The other species, Goperhus morafkai occurs east of the Colorado River in Arizona as well as in northern Mexico. Terrestrial, with a domed horn-brown shell and round, stumpy, elephant-like legs, the desert tortoise can live about 30 to 50 years. Its front limbs are flattened for digging and are heavily scaled; toes are webless. The head is a reddish tan, small and rounded with black scales. It grows slowly, often taking 16 years or longer to mature and may attain a length of 10 to 14 inches, with males a little larger than females.
Desert tortoises dig burrows in washes, canyon bottoms and oases surrounded by creosote, thorn scrub, and cacti. Most of their lives are spent in burrows which they often share with other reptiles, mammals, birds and invertebrates. They feed on grasses and other vegetable matter in the morning and late afternoon. Hibernation period runs roughly from November to February-April.
When two males meet, they bob their heads rapidly, rushing toward each other—one trying to overturn the other. Mating occurs in the spring and fall. Later, the females will lay a clutch of four to eight hard-shelled eggs that resemble the size and shape of ping pong balls. The eggs will hatch in August or September.
Because desert tortoises are listed as an endangered species, certain areas in the Mojave and Colorado deserts have been set aside as refuges. Scientists hope such protective measures will help the population to rebound. State laws have made it a crime to collect one from the wild or to engage in any activity destructive of its habitat. Although none of these gentle creatures resides at RSABG, at least one RSABG volunteers has a pet desert tortoise. Several organizations in Southern California are dedicated to the rescue, adoption and care of turtles and tortoises. If you are interested in knowing more, please visit www.sdturtle.org.
Plant of the Month
RSABG Volunteer, Nature Interpreter
As wildflower season rolls around, I am reminded of that proverbial box of chocolates wherein you are never sure exactly what you are going to get. However, a recurring denizen of Faye’s Wildflower Meadow is baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii) of the borage or waterleaf family Boraginaceae (as listed on Jepson eFlora).
The bowl-shaped 1/2 to 1 1/2 inch flowers are pale or clear blue and grow singly on slender stalks near the ends of slender, branched stems that reach six to ten inches tall.
N. menziesii grows throughout California, from central Oregon into Baja, at heights from sea level up to almost 6,500 feet. It grows in many types of habitat, even though Nemophila means “woodland-loving.” It comes from the Latin word nemus, which means “grove” and the Greek word philos, which means “loving.” It blooms freely in gardens. As an annual, the seeds should be broadcast in fall or early spring, in sun or partial shade. It can reseed itself, but your mileage may vary.
N. menziesii has a couple of varieties that are often offered for sale. There is N. menziesii atomaria, which has white flowers with black dots. A very different take is the cultivar ‘Penny Black’, which, as the name implies, is very dark if not actually black.
As I write this, Grow Native Nursery Claremont has a container holding a lovely mixture of all these on display.
Some references, like my 1979 field guide, list the family as waterleaf family (Hydrophyllaceae). But recent studies, as I understand it, have relegated the family to the subfamily Hydrophylloideae of the borage family (Boraginaceae). It seems that the jury is still out on this, and Jepson Herbarium apparently split the difference by adding “or waterleaf” to its citation.
Plant of the Month
RSABG Volunteer, Nature Interpreter
My research on this month’s plant underscored to me that just because I see a plant in the Garden frequently does not mean that it is well represented out in the world. One example is Nevin’s barberry. Another is southern mountain misery (Chamaebatia australis) a shrub in the rose family (Rosaceae), with highly dissected and sticky leaves. The common name comes from the fact that its pungent odor, approximating witch hazel, is all too easily transferred to clothing or shoes.
This plant is restricted to about 125 locations in Southern California, with some populations in adjacent Baja California. The sprawling shrub, which often forms impenetrable thickets, is typically surrounded by the chaparral of the Peninsular Ranges, such as on Otay Mountain or San Miguel Mountain in San Diego County. It is included in the “California Native Plant Society Inventory of Rare and Endangered Plants” on list 4.2 (limited distribution).
While it may be uncommon in the wild, there are good examples in the Garden. There is a scruffy specimen along the path that leads uphill from Faye’s Wildflower Meadow. There are larger showier ones by the steps that go from the back of the mesa down to the coastal sage scrub community. It easily caught my attention; it looks frilly and tough at the same time. The leaves are made up of small leaflets which are further divided into tiny leaflets, giving the foliage a fernlike appearance. Each leaf is a gland-dotted frond of one to three inches in length. The flowers are roselike with small rounded white petals and yellow centers filled with many stamens. Southern mountain misery may bloom from November through May. I frequently see flowers in April, so this might be a good time to look.
Critters in the Garden
RSABG Volunteer, Nature Interpreter
When we think of bees most of us imagine the little honeybee, originally a European transplant, gathering nectar in a flower garden or orchard. There are many types of indigenous bees that we rarely notice as they go about their business of foraging for food. One of them is the carpenter bee.
About 500 species of carpenter bee can be found world wide and of those the California carpenter bee, Xylocopa californica, is the one most common here. They get their names from the fact that they build their nests in dead wood or buildings.
Resembling a bumblebee, the carpenter bee is similar in size (about three-quarters inch to an inch) and has similar blue-black coloration. The abdomen is shiny. Males of some species have a white or yellow face, females do not. Carpenter bees have large compound eyes. Males do not have a stinger, but females are capable of stinging although they rarely do unless provoked. Carpenter bees are found in meadows, forests, desert mountains and at sea level. Adults drink nectar. Larva feed on nectar and pollen, often by biting through the base of the flower.
Considered solitary, some species of carpenter bees have simple social nests in which mothers and daughters may cohabit, sharing duties of brood tending and foraging. Often several will nest near each other. Males intent on mating may either search for females by patrolling, or by hovering and waiting for passing females, which they then pursue.
Carpenter bees make nests by boring into dead wood. Because their nests are near the surface, the structural damage is minimal. Their mandibles function as rasps against the wood, making a single entrance which may have adjacent tunnels. They discard the bits of wood or use it to build partitions between cells. In each cell they deposit a large egg, one of the largest among the insects. The eggs hatch in late summer, each waiting in line at the entrance to the nest for its turn to leave.
Next time you are strolling in the Garden on a warm day observe carefully and try to spot a carpenter bee or two out foraging. You may get lucky and find where it enters or leaves its nest in an old tree limb.
Plant of the Month
RSABG Volunteer, Nature Interpreter
The seep-spring monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus) is a variable plant ranging from spindly and tiny to large and bushy, between one and three feet tall. The two-lipped yellow flowers have red, or reddish-brown spots and can range from about one-half inch to almost two-inches in length. Described as a plant that likes to get its feet wet, it is found in moist places throughout most of California below 10,000 feet and flowers from March until August.
My field guides place it in the Scrophulariaceae (figwort family). Newer references, such as Jepson eFlora, have it in the Phrymaceae (lopseed family). The name monkeyflower comes from the supposition that the flowers look like little faces when viewed from the front. I have never seen a monkey’s face, but have noted that the blossoms close their stigmas after pollination. Most years it blooms across from the California Container Garden, so you may want to look for it yourself.
These are not just plants lovely to look at—monkeyflower leaves were eaten as a salad. The stems and roots were brewed as a tea and used to treat diarrhea and kidney problems.
Mimulus guttatus is also known as the common monkeyflower. I tried to research the reason for this. Is it because it is more readily found than other species, or because it is plainer than its relatives? None of the sources I found shed any light on that subject. What I did find out is that it may not be a Mimulus at all.
Recent molecular analysis seems to indicate that almost all Mimulus species in western North America should be reassigned to the species Erythranthe, and eventually Mimulus guttatus will be called Erythranthe guttatus. RSABG’s very own Naomi Fraga is one of the coauthors of a paper discussing this and other revised classifications.
Critters in the Garden
RSABG Volunteer, Nature Interpreter
Wouldn’t it be great to curl up for a long winter’s nap and awaken when the spring flowers are blooming? Not humanly possible, of course, but there are animals who do take advantage of such abilities.
Hibernation is a resting state in which the mammal’s body temperature has dropped, and breathing, heart rate and metabolism have all slowed. This occurs during hostile seasons when the animal is less able to find adequate food to maintain energy. When this type of condition happens during the summer it is called estivation. Both are survival adaptations.
We know the story about bears snoozing in their dens while snow covers the countryside. Just what exactly happens to produce this state? Beginning in the early summer bears begins to eat heavily, chowing down great amounts of vegetable matter like ripe berries, insects, small rodents and fish. Thick layers of body fat accumulate in preparation for winter. At some point, perhaps coinciding with colder weather, precipitation, declining daylight length and the animal’s internal rhythm, its body signals it’s time to sleep.
In the den, the bear’s metabolism, breathing and heart rate slows, and its body temperature drops slightly. Proteins and urine are recycled allowing it to remain in torpor for most of the winter as it lives on body fat. Cubs are born in January while the mother is hibernating, suckling and nestling against her warm body as she remains dormant. Occasionally the mother rouses to check on her cubs. Some authorities assert that bears do not really hibernate because their body temperatures do not drop as low as that of the environment, one of the guidelines to determining hibernation.
Hibernation among rodents has been studied for decades, particularly for the golden-mantled ground squirrel (Spermophilus lateralis). Curled in its underground nest, its breathing, heart rate and metabolism slow. Its body temperature drops to a point just slightly above that of the surrounding air. Periodically it will rouse briefly but, like the bear, does not eat until it emerges from hibernation in the early spring. The chipmunk, however, stores large amounts of food in its nest and does eat during periodic arousals.
Many small mammals lose body mass during the winter thus lowering metabolic needs and reducing the need for hibernation. Some species of shrews and voles actually lose brain mass causing significantly fewer metabolic requirements, for the brain needs a large amount of energy. This shrinkage is thought to be controlled by the declining length of daylight.
Among closely related groups of California mammals there are both hibernating and non-hibernating species. Why this occurs is not known. For example, kangaroo rats are not known to hibernate, but several species of pocket mice are. Most species of ground squirrels and chipmunks hibernate, but tree squirrels do not. Some carnivores, such as the black bear, have a deep winter sleep, but various kinds of weasels do not.
Almost all California bats hibernate, usually moving into caves or mine shafts in the fall. Their seasonally acquired layer of fat enables the bat’s body temperature to drop close to the ambient temperature of the cave in a complex metabolic action not fully understood. During hibernation the fat serves as an energy supply and their bodies seem to lose body water. They feel cold to the touch and are sometimes covered in frozen dew droplets. Upon their periodic arousals they frequently ingest these droplets from their fur.
Hibernation as a survival adaptation is one of the wonders of evolution in the natural world. Researchers continue to study this phenomenon trying to find human applications. Perhaps induced hibernation in people with diseases or injuries could be a key to the healing process. Would periodic torpor help to lengthen human life? The questions are many, and significant discoveries may be just around the corner.