The Star-News


Behold the mighty dandelion

Sat, Mar 24 2012 12:00 PM Posted By: Susan Walter

“The flowers that bloom in the spring, tra la, have nothing to do with the case…” (Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Mikado”).

Springtime wildflowers! I’ve been admiring wild radish, oxalis, sow thistle, chrysanthemum, tree tobacco and similar dominant wild blooming plants.

South Bay, no, San Diego, no California’s native plants began to be replaced by interlopers as soon as anyone came here, and our vegetation continues to change by our plant selections.  I’m as guilty as anyone else, with my bizarre mishmash gardens of bright colors and oddly shaped foliage.

Botanist Mitch Beauchamp runs Pacific Southwest Biological Services in National City.  I’ve had several occasions to consult with him and these scribblings are partly a result of his gracious assistance. So, here goes:

Wild mustard (Hirschfeldia incana or Brassica nigra) blossoms result in swaths of golden fields.  Their bloom season is long because of their blooming habit, which continuously produces flowers as the bloom stalks grow.

A romantic legend that the padres planted these things is false. What really occurred was horses and cattle, when being shipped to our soon to be even more golden shores, were fed feed that was also from other parts of the world.

Those mustard seeds went into the animals’ mouths, sloshed around during digestion, and then were excreted well prepared to sprout here in a tidy packet of fertilizer.  That’s how mustard really got here. Origin: Europe and Asia.

“…and that’s what I mean…”

Filaree (Erodium spp.) are small herbaceous members of the geranium family and have a similar origin and history as mustard (i.e., came with the Spaniards). Sporting cute little purple flowers, the seeds are efficiently armed with scythe shaped tails which embed themselves painfully into your socks.  Cattlemen I have interviewed extol the healthy merits of this plant for beef and dairy animals, so filaree is more than all right for some people. Origin: the Mediterranean.

“…when I say or I sing…”

Less popular with range men is the castor bean (Ricinus communis). It appreciates moisture and grows into formidable plants, spreading easily with prolific seeds. Those seeds are very pretty and pretty toxic.  People have died from eating them. However, castor bean oil is a prominent specific in pharmacopedia, and the vile tasting stuff is a legendary remedy of long standing high favor as a tonic. Origin: Mediterranean Basin, Eastern Africa and India.

“…oh bother the flowers…”

Maiden hair (Cortaderia jubata) is referred to prosaically and less romantically as pampas grass. Woe betide unprotected hands that meet these razor edged leaves. Its “fluff” drifts everywhere at the slightest breeze.  Tremendously popular in an earlier era for its decorative properties – “Pampas plumes are now nodding beautifully in the ocean breezes” (Otay Press, Oct.9, 1890) – today it is considered such an invasive pest that it is illegal for local nurseries to sell it. Origin: South America.

“…that bloom in the spring…”

Bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) is a cute member of the morning glory family. Usually white, it sometimes sports dainty triangles of pink. With a vining habit, it became the scourge of our early lima bean farmers, smothering the plants and filling the harvest with too many flower seeds. Origin: Eurasia.

“…tra la la la la-a, tra la la la la-a…”

And finally today I will address that regal symbol of wealth and status: the Canary Island date palm (Phoenix canariensis). Origin: ummm, Canary Island? Never, never, ever in his wildest dreams, when John M. Davidson, before 1900, planted an arboreal fortune to front his five-acre parcel, never I say would he have thought his linear forest would be considered an invasive pest. But, indeed, there it is on the California Invasive Plant Council website. Of his original 20 palms, when we moved into John’s former home only 10 remained. Two died on our watch: the largest one blew over during a violent windstorm leaving a 20-foot stump.

The other was cut down by permission of the Chula Vista City arborist. Granted, the city does own those palms planted in the median. And granted that most likely the arborist who ordered the tree in question to be cut down has been replaced so it technically wasn’t the current arborist’s fault. But why did the city of Chula Vista think so little of its historic home owners not to bother to send a notice that a venerable tree – part of his/her property’s heritage – was slated to be cut down?

I suppose I should content myself with the ubiquitous presence of my very favorite flower, despised by gardeners worldwide: the bright, cheerful, humble little dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). Origin: Europe and Asia.

Ain’t botanical history grand?

“Oh bother the flowers of spring!”


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