While out walking the trails and open spaces in various parts of Marin County, I’m often astonished at how certain native plants can grow and adapt very nicely to a variety of exposures, habitats, and communities. Coffeeberries, for example, grows in shady California bay forests, in dry oak woodlands, upslope from streams in riparian zones, or in chaparral and coastal scrub. Other natives, such as cream bush, California lilacs, sticky monkeyflower, California sagebrush and California bee plant also thrive in a variety of habitats and exposures.
Native Plant Communities
I love watching the birds at my feeders, which are strategically placed away from potential danger and in such a way that I get a great view from my favorite place to sit and read. I’ll notice all the activity in a peripheral sort of way, but when something unusual happens, or a bird appears that’s out of the ordinary, my attention is immediately focused. I get so much pleasure from watching these beautiful creatures un-noticed, but still close up.
A native plant that we all know (or certainly should!) is Poison Oak (Toxicodendron diversilobium) because it is so widespread in the Bay Area. Many people get a very uncomfortable rash if they touch any part of the plant, so knowing how to identify it and avoid contact with it is pretty important. Poison oak is a plant, as the specific name denotes, of extremely variable forms; it can grow as a shrub, as a climbing vine, or a groundcover. It is also poisonous in the dormant state—touching the bare branches can result in a rash for those that are especially susceptible.
The Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) is fairly common in Marin, and adults can be seen flying almost any time during the year. This species is also found in Europe; on the British Isles it is known as the Camberwell Beauty, and considered the rarest of British butterflies. In Marin we see this butterfly throughout the year; in more inland areas the adults migrate to higher altitudes in summer, and disperse again downslope in the fall.
Within the family Papilionidae are some of the largest and most spectacular butterflies in the world. Four species are commonly seen in Marin; each one associated with a particular type of habitat. Three are yellow with black markings; the Western Tiger Swallowtail, with a nearly 4" wingspan is the largest butterfly in Marin; and the Pipevine Swallowtail is the only large 'blackish' butterfly in Marin.
One of the most common butterflies we see around Marin is the Cabbage White; and it has the distinction of being the only naturalized exotic butterfly in our area. This species has successfully established itself over the entire continent since its apparent introduction from Europe into southeastern Canada in the mid 1800's. Most likely it was imported as larvae, hidden within the leaves of a cabbage plant. People called them 'cabbage worms', and since they fed on food crops, they were considered pests.
There are three closely related 'Ladies' that are easy to provide for in a habitat garden; the Painted Lady, the American Lady, and the West Coast Lady; however, they are not always easy to tell apart. Personally, I’m happy to see any and all of the butterflies coming to my garden for resources, and when I notice a medium-sized orangey butterfly I can be pretty sure it is one of the ‘ladies’. They often don’t sit still long enough, or with their wings held just so, to easily identify the characteristic field marks.
The Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) is the most cosmopolitan of all butterflies on earth. This butterfly is widely distributed all over the Northern hemisphere, and can be seen in all types of habitats except dense forests. Painted Ladies lay their eggs on many different plants, and their larvae feed on a wider variety of plants (polyphagus) than most other butterfly species.