Soapplant in the Native Garden, by Bill Hunt

Sub-title: An experience you may not get from seeing native plants in the wild!


We re-did our back yard landscaping in winter of 2011-2012. We expected to have a few sparse years but apparently our soil contained plenty of California poppy seed waiting for the opportunity that expanses of bare ground provided them.  We’ve had two springs of saturated orange color from the thousands of poppies but we have other plants to enjoy as well.

After the landscaping was done, my wife Lesley planted a dozen soap plant, Chlorogalum pomeridianum. The first spring, most survived and one plant produced flowers. This year, four of the soap plants bloomed. The leaves of the soap plant don’t get far above the ground so when the plant begins to produce a four to six foot tall stalk, it is a very dramatic announcement of things to come.  When the flowers appear, they are worth the wait.

Every evening starting in mid-May, a few blossoms open.  The flowers begin to open around 5:30-6pm. and are fully open by the time twilight fades into night.  The flowers have begun to wilt before we get up in the morning.  Producing flowers that only last through one night seems a chancy survival strategy, but it seems to work for this plant.  In our Walnut Creek Open Space, soap plants hold their own in grasslands dominated by alien oats and rye.

The flower buds are elongated striped ovals like small beans. The soap plant flowers are fairly small and mostly white but they have a very elegant design.  From a distance, the flowers look like feathers in the soft evening light.  Up close, the curve of the petals, the shape of the flower parts and the color of the stamens are striking.  Captured in a picture with a closeup lens, the flowers will give pleasure for years to come.

If I want to see this show, I have to be out watching the plants as the light fades.  That’s hard to do in park and open space areas that are closed to visitors at night.  Having the plants blooming in our backyard lets me enjoy the blooming process at length night after night.  One evening, I was able to watch a flower bud as it opened over 4 minutes.

Bud opening!

Click to watch Bud opening!
Chlorogalum pomeridianum, Soapplant

I love taking pictures of flowers so this year I spent several evenings trying to get good pictures.  There is not much light at the end of the day so shutter speeds are very slow.  Since there is usually a breeze at that time of day, I get lots of blurry pictures.  Sometimes the breeze blows the flower completely out of the frame and I get a picture with no flower at all.  If I remembered to get outside early, took plenty of pictures and had good luck, I’ll have some keepers when the light gets too dim for pictures.

I have wondered what sort of pollinators would visit the flowers during the night.  Some people suggested moths or bats as the pollinators.  I never saw either of those but I have seen yellow-faced bumblebees coming for a nightcap before the light faded completely.

The plants were finished blooming by the beginning of June but there are lots of seed pods growing on the plants now.  We’ll have more plants and a bigger show in a few years.

Bill Hunt is the Chapter Council representative of the East Bay Chapter and a board member of the California Native Plant Society.

Matilija Poppy, “Queen of California Flowers”


Romneya ‘White Cloud’ – Matilija Poppy

Matilija Poppy has been called the “Queen of California Flowers.” In the words of Mary Elizabeth Parsons, from The Wild Flowers of California, 1897: “The Matilija poppy (pronounced ma-til’li-ha) must be conceded the queen of all our flowers. It is not a plant for small gardens, but the fitting adornment of a large park, where it can have space and light to rear its imperial stems and shake out its diaphanous flowers. It is justly far-famed, and by English gardeners, who now grow it successfully, it is regarded a priceless treasure, and people go from many miles around to see it when it blooms. It is to be regretted that our flowers must go abroad to find their warmest admirers.”

Matilija Poppy, unique and distinct, is one of the most recognized and beloved of California’s native plants. The large white blooms are the size of a saucer.  The petals look like wrinkled crepe paper, the center is a bright yellow disk.  Some have likened the flower to the appearance of a fried egg.  A solitary bloom is a very fine thing, but a large stand of Matilija in full bloom is a sight to behold!  Hundreds of huge white flowers borne at eye-level on long straight stems, contrasted by attractive blue-green foliage… a real show stopper in late spring/early summer!

Matilija poppies are only found in a few locations in California.  Within their range, they prefer gravelly soil, sometimes on the sides of stream banks or alongside a road.  Their appearance always seems a surprise, as they are not common. They can be found in sunny chaparral and coastal sage scrub in coastal and inland regions of southern California.

ImageWhile easy to grow in the garden, in the nursery, the species (Romneya coulteri and R. trichocalyx) are difficult to propagate.  Seeds will not germinate unless they have experienced the flash heat of wild fire.  At Tree of Life Nursery, pine needles are ceremoniously burned across the tops of the freshly sown seed flats.  Germination usually begins within a few days. Seedlings are tiny and they are vulnerable to the elements.

The best garden variety is a supposed hybrid between the two species.  Theodore Payne first discovered it in a southern California nursery in 1940.  The selection he made had much larger blooms, attractive lush foliage and a slightly more compact habit than the species forms.  He introduced it as ‘White Cloud’ and first offered it for sale sometime before 1956; the exact details are now lost in history.

At one time the hybrid plant was all but lost in California horticulture.  In the early 1970’s, Art Tyree (who had worked with Theodore Payne in the 1960’s) knew of a stand of ‘White Cloud’ growing in a private garden in Pasadena. Tree of Life Nursery obtained permission to secure a few small root cuttings.  Since ‘White Cloud’ is a cultivar, it must be grown vegetatively. Seed would not be suitable and stem cuttings are practically impossible. From those few cuttings thirty years ago Tree of Life Nursery has planted and maintained large stands of mother plants, of the exact clone that Payne had selected almost seventy years ago.

ImageMatilija poppy is a clumping perennial with long, upright blue-green stems and foliage. Plants reach 5 to 8 feet tall and spread by underground stems to form large colonies. The plants can be difficult to establish in a garden, but once established will thrive. Don’t plant anywhere where the vigorous spreading from underground runners would not be welcome.

Transplant carefully in cool weather to avoid disturbing roots and provide monthly watering and well-drained soil. The plant is drought tolerant and will not survive continually wet roots, such as in the middle of lawn (yes, this has been attempted). Matilija Poppy looks beautiful in roadside and parkway plantings, along fencelines, on slopes, in large scale planters and borders, and as an accent for entrances.  Cut it back hard after flowering (September-October) to remove old stems and allow for new spring growth.

Article adapted by Laura Camp with permission from Tree of Life Nursery,

Aesthetic Pruning of California Native Plants

Arbutus menziesii by Doreen L. Smith

Allison Levin’s articles about pruning California Native Plants can be found here on our main website:

Article One – Introduction (Why and When)

Article Two – Healthy Cuts: Pruning Basics and Tools

Allison Levin is an aesthetic pruner and native plant consultant living in Sausalito and working in the greater SF Bay region.

Please comment below if you have questions for Allison about pruning your native plants.  We’d love to hear from you!

Are you thinking SPRING yet? by Pete Veilleux

You probably should be.  I’ve been thinking about spring, or more accurately called:  next year’s flower season.

Clematis lasiantha - Chapparal Clematis; All rights reserved by

I use photos a lot to help me think about how plants look throughout the seasons and it helps me to sort and re-sort them by season, or ecosystem, colors, sun/shade requirements, etc… which is why I really like using flickr.  it helps me think about the possibilities for combinations that I might not have seen yet.  I just put this set together of spring blooms which might be of interest to some of you:


Continue reading

Feeding Frenzy-Manzanita and Friends

Every year in my garden, and in the garden at Tree of Life Nursery where I work, and maybe in your garden, too, the earliest Manzanita to bloom is Arctostaphylos refugioensis.  Last year it had plentiful flowers at Christmas, but this year it’s quite early and in full bloom in time for Halloween.

Arctostaphylos refugioensis, Refugio Manzanita, late October

On Saturday, October 30th, I attended a talk by pollinator and native plant expert Bob Allen at the nursery, and in the course of a talk about gardening for butterflies he mentioned that manzanitas are good nectar plants for adult butterflies and moths. When I arrived home later that afternoon, lo and behold, two Monarch butterflies were fluttering high around my front yard, and further observation showed that their target was the profuse blooms of my Refugio manzanita. Guru Bob strikes again! Continue reading

Seasonal Color – August – California Fuchsia

No discussion of year-round color in the native garden is ever complete without talking about California Fuchsia, Epilobium canum and other Epilobiums.  Just when the some of the garden is gearing down for summer dormancy, hot weather and no water, the bright red/orange blooms of California Fuchsia peek out and take center stage.   Continue reading

Seasonal color – July – Humboldt’s Lily

Update in July 2011:  Here is a photo of the Humboldt lily in my garden, taken on the 4th of July.  My niece called it the hot air balloon plant!

Now back to the original post:

For those of you who have been following my blog posts, I skipped April, May and June on my “seasonal color” theme.  Never fear – those are our best months for color, and you probably have flowers galore in your native garden without even trying. Perhaps I was intimidated by the sheer volume of choices.  We can catch up next year. Continue reading