Silver lupine (Lupinus albifrons) is back in stock after being sold out for a couple of months. Silver lupine is one of our best selling seed packets, and each year we try to collect enough seed to meet the high demand. We now have 30 seed packets available and more are on the way as we continue cleaning and packaging the seed we have collected this summer. We get enough requests for silver lupine seed packets that having it back in stock is worth a blog post of its own.
One of our favorite plants due to its beauty and rugged character, silver lupine is a go-to plant for drought-tolerant native gardens, xeriscape native landscaping, or dry-site habitat restoration projects. For a small amount of work required to establish this plant, you can receive knockout blue, purple, to violet blooms! Silver lupine blooms in late spring in the Klamath-Siskiyou region. The attractive, evergreen, silver leaves are lovely year-round and the plant generally grows 2-3′ tall. It is also tolerant of soil with low fertility. There’s no need to amend your soil to grow this plant, as this plant is a soil builder! Silver lupine is a nitrogen fixing plant, pulling nitrogen out of the air and fixing it into the soil.
Silver bush lupine requires no summer water after its established, but can handle occasional watering. Too much water may cause root rot and a shorter lifespan. It generally doesn’t like to be pruned. It does not sprout back from the root after fire or cutting back, and it relies solely on seed for propagation.
Silver lupine is not a long-lived species. It generally doesn’t live over ten years. Growing multiple plants will aid cross-pollination and better seed set. When multiple plants are grown together, this species can be a prolific seed producer. Just let the seedlings grow and you will have continuous generations of self-seeded silver lupine. You can also collect the seed and sow the seed where you want the plant to grow in future years.
In the wild silver lupine is found on dry, rocky, sunbaked slopes, chaparral, open grassland, dry meadows, sandy or cobbly streambanks, ridges, and openings in oak woodland and coniferous forest. It can be found as a solitary plant, or in large populations, and is native to Oregon and California.
Silver lupine is a pollinator magnet when it is in full bloom. It is very attractive to bees, especially bumble bees. It is also a larval host plant for some butterflies.
Although deer may nibble on silver lupine at times, we would consider it a very deer resistant plant overall. Deer resistant, drought tolerant, and beautiful — what’s not to love?
Seed Germination & Plant Propagation
No seed pretreatment is required to grow silver lupine. You can simply sow the seed outside in fall to early spring. However, seed germination can be uneven — some seeds will germinate right away, and other seeds may take some time to germinate, germinating at different times. To encourage more even seed germination you can soak the seed overnight in hot (not boiling) water before sowing the seed. This helps break down the seed coat for more even seed germination.
Direct Seeding: Direct seeding silver lupine where you want it to grow is the most reliable method of propagation. The seed germinates well, even without irrigation in years that we have moist spring weather; however, if we have dry spring weather, some occasional water may help the seedlings grow.
Container Growing: Silver lupine can be easy to grow in the nursery setting too, and plant starts tend to grow well initially, but these drought tolerant plants are prone to root rot in nursery containers. The best success is achieved by using well drained potting soil and by transplanting your seedlings in the spring or fall in the first year of growth, as they can be difficult to overwinter in containers. Nursery methods and containers that encourage well drained plants and air pruning will help seedling survival.
You can purchase silver lupine seed packets at the link below.
The two species of native tobacco seeds we offer are some of the few species we don’t wildcraft because they are hard to find in the wild. Our tobacco seed is grown agriculturally and this is the time of year we are collecting tobacco seed, observing the plants and their many pollinators, and thinking about the ecological and cultural significance of these beautiful species.
In 2018, Luke and I began work on a native planting and seeding project at a private fishing retreat on the Klamath River. In preparation for planting near some of the structures compost was tilled into the sandy riverbank soil. In the spring as our native plantings began to grow so too did hundreds of native tobacco plants! We hadn’t seeded or planted the tobacco, it had germinated from seed long-stored in the native soil seed bank, just waiting for the right conditions and disturbance to germinate. Both native tobaccos that grow in the Klamath-Siskiyou region germinated: coyote tobacco (Nicotiana attenuata) and Indian tobacco (Nicotiana quadrivalvis). With the compost and irrigation for the native planting establishment, the tobaccos got huge that year. In the years since tobacco plants still germinate here and there, but nothing like that first year following light tilling.
For millennia native tobacco has grown wild and was grown agriculturally by Native American tribes along the Klamath River and throughout the Klamath-Siskiyou region. Tribal communities have long used burning techniques to aid the germination of tobacco seed. Plots of tobacco are grown for both smoking and ceremonial purposes. The location where our native planting project is located is at a major confluence on the Klamath River and was certainly an historic village site where tobacco was tended. Additionally, tobacco germination also occurs following wildfire and flooding along the Klamath River when natural soil disturbance takes place.
We had been growing native tobacco for 20+ years but our original seed sources were from outside the Klamath-Siskiyou region further south in California. After getting a good quantity of native tobacco seed at our planting project along the Klamath River we have been able to transition slowly to exclusively growing tobacco strains that originate from the Klamath River and have long been cultivated and adapted to the Klamath-Siskiyou region.
Native tobacco species in the Klamath-Siskiyou
Coyote tobacco (Nicotiana attenuata) is a highly revered plant to many Native American tribes in the Western U.S., where it has long been cultivated for ceremonial and medicinal use. Like other tobaccos, our native coyote tobacco also contains nicotine and has been smoked ceremonially for thousands of years. Coyote tobacco is an annual herb, typically growing 1-5′ depending on growing conditions and location. In the garden setting with summer irrigation, coyote tobacco can grow in excess of 5′ tall. The white, five-lobed, tubular flowers are attractive to hummingbirds, sphinx moths, and native bees, especially carpenter bees that chew holes at the base of the tube to get to the nectar. This species blooms from May to October, depending on water availability and soil conditions. The leaves are long and narrow and the foliage is hairy and somewhat glandular. Coyote tobacco grows in full sun in dry locations, well-drained slopes, along cobbly or sandy floodplains, in rocky washes, and in post-fire habitat. Wildfire can trigger seed germination. Coyote tobacco is a larval host plant for hawkmoths, which are also one of its pollinators. When hawkmoth caterpillars start to damage the plant, coyote tobacco can switch from blooming at night to blooming in the morning in order to attract hummingbirds and bees as pollinators instead of hawkmoths.
Indian tobacco (Nicotiana quadrivalvis) is also a highly revered plant to many Native American tribes in the Western U.S., where it has also long been cultivated for ceremonial and medicinal use. Individual family plots of Indian tobacco were seeded and tended with weeding and soil building techniques. Lewis and Clark documented the detailed farming practices of Indian tobacco during their expedition. Indian tobacco seeds were and still are traded far and wide throughout tribal networks. Like other tobaccos, native Indian tobacco also contains nicotine and has been smoked ceremonially for thousands of years. Indian tobacco is a bushy annual herb that grows in many habitat types, including sunny, open slopes and along well-drained, cobbly or sandy floodplains and washes. It also likes disturbed and post-fire habitat. Indian tobacco typically grows 1-4′ depending on water availability and soil conditions. The foliage is hairy and somewhat glandular. The tubular flowers are generally white, but can be tinged with green or purple. The flowers are attractive to hummingbirds, bees, sphinx moths and more.
Calflora recognizes only one variety of Nicotiana quadrivalvis in California: Nicotiana quadrivalvis var. wallacei. OregonFlora doesn’t currently recognize any varieties of this species. Nicotiana quadrivalvis in California does have variation in growth, however, and in some areas the plants grow smaller and bushier (Sierra foothills & Central California), and in other areas the plants are taller and grow more erect (north of San Francisco). Neither Calflora nor OregonFlora recognize any varieties of Nicotiana attenuata. California has a couple other native species of tobacco that don’t grow in the Klamath-Siskiyou region.
For an historic look at anthropological studies of native tobacco in the United States, this article, Aboriginal Tobaccos written in 1921 for American Anthropologist, a publication of the University of California, Berkley, by William Albert Setchell, not only dives into the understanding of the different species at that time, but also different methods for growing tobacco.
A more modern book from 2000, Tobacco Use By Native North Americans, edited by Joseph C. Winter, University of Oklahoma Press, also has great, detailed information about the different native species of tobacco in North America, as well as uses and cultivation practices.
Native Tobacco: Nectar Robbers and Outwitting Hawkmoths
Native tobacco is great for pollinators. Many species are attracted to the trumpet shaped flowers: bees, moths, hummingbirds and more. Our observations have shown that in our area carpenter bees are the primary pollinator, at least during daylight hours when we observe the flowers; however, carpenter bees are “nectar robbers” on native tobacco and may not pollinate the flowers during every visit. Nectar robbers create slits near the base of the flower to access floral nectaries, circumventing the usual plant-pollinator relationship and “cheating” by entering the flower from the outside to steal nectar and avoiding pollination or contact with the anthers.
In some areas hawkmoths are the main pollinator. Some interesting research has been done regarding the relationship between hawkmoths and coyote tobacco. One study showed that coyote tobacco moves its flowers during the day in order to maximize the ability of hawkmoths to pollinate their flowers.
“Additionally, N. attenuata flowers move vertically during the day − flowers face downward during the midday and upward during the night. N. attenuata flowers adjust their upward or downward orientations in synchrony with the active periods of their main pollinators.”
“Clearly, hawkmoths provide superior pollination services when flowers are at 45° and deliver more pollen to the stigma when flowers are oriented at 45° compared to 0° with respect to the horizontal.”
Fitness consequences of altering floral circadian oscillations for Nicotiana attenuata Felipe Yon, Danny Kessler, Youngsung Joo, Lucas Cortés Llorca, Sang-Gyu Kim, Ian T. Baldwin First published: 13 December 2016 https://doi.org/10.1111/jipb.12511
Coyote tobacco can also change the time of flowering and the shape of its flowers in response to foliage damage from hawkmoth caterpillars, resulting in an advantage for hummingbirds to be their main pollinator. Tobacco plants have essentially outwitted hawkmoths.
“Normally, the tobacco plant is pollinated by hawkmoths that visits its flowers every night. But when these hawkmoths leave eggs behind that develop into leaf-chomping caterpillars, the plant’s self-defense snaps into place and switches to flowering in the day. That attracts a different pollinator, the hummingbird. Ecologist Danny Kessler noticed this change when he was trying to get a picture of the plant being pollinated for a study. He saw that the plant was not just flowering in the day but also that they had changed their flowers to make them more attractive to hummingbirds: they emitted less of a chemical that attracts moths; they had less sugar in the nectar, which is the way hummingbirds prefer it; and they were more tube-shaped, making them friendly to a hummingbird’s long, thin beak.”
Growing Instructions for Native Tobacco for Gardens
Native tobacco is easy to grow from seed. The seed doesn’t have any pretreatment requirements and can simply be started outside or in a greenhouse in the spring. Our property is at 2,200′ in the Siskiyou Mountains, and we usually start our seeds in March in a greenhouse. Once the starts are rooted and have numerous sets of leaves the plants can be out-planted in well-drained, fertile soil in the garden. Although the plants are drought tolerant, some summer irrigation will help the plants grow larger and produce better leaves and seed. If too much water is given the plants can fall over from their own weight. Pruning and pinching flowers will produce larger leaves.
Growing native tobacco from seed in burn areas
One of our favorite ways to grow native plants on our own property is by seeding into burn pile ash after doing fuels reduction or other cleanup work around our forested homestead. Once the burn pile cools down we sow seeds into the ash in fall to winter. The burn pile clears the area of competing vegetation and creates a nice mineral ash layer that many species prefer, especially fire-followers like native tobacco. The photos above show a small burn pile area that was burned in late fall 2020. Native tobacco seed was included in the native seed mix, along with native bunchgrasses and other wildflowers. Due to the drought conditions, some occasional water has been given to the area to help the plants establish and grow. Despite a little nipping from our local deer, the tobacco has grown well and has just started to flower, opening in the early evenings to the delight of carpenter bees, clearwing moths, hawkmoths, and other pollinators.
Coyote tobacco rises from the ashes of the Almeda Fire
Last September when the Almeda Fire burned through urban towns in the Rogue Valley of southern Oregon during an historic wind event that fueled wildfires throughout Oregon and northern California, Luke’s mom lost her home in the small town of Talent. Although there was a tragic loss of homes and lives during the Almeda Fire, and the traumatic event will forever be part of our family as we continue to support my mother-in-law as she rebuilds her life, we were heartened to find coyote tobacco growing at the site of her burned-out home. For years she had grown native coyote tobacco from plant starts we had given her for her small garden. The seeds survived the tremendous heat of the Almeda Fire that was so hot it turned glass and metal into unidentifiable molten masses. From the ashes of the Almeda Fire grew native tobacco that flowered in the devastated landscape of burned homes. There are lessons to be learned from the tenacity of native tobacco that flourishes after fire.
Tending the Wild
Excerpts from Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources by M. Kat Anderson
Cultivating Tobacco Patches
“California’s native tobaccos, both Nicotiana attenuata and Nicotiana quadrivalvis were widely used by tribes in rituals, as offerings, and medicinally to heal cuts and as an emetic. Burning, pruning, and sowing of areas of native tobacco were common practices throughout California, and there is evidence that in some ares the care of tobacco patches approached a level resembling that of agriculture.
The Western Mono loosened the earth around favored tobacco plants with digging sticks when it became dry and carried water to soften it. The tips of the plants were pinched off to encourage the growth of big leaves. The Ethnobotanist Maurice Zigmond described the leaf pruning process among the Kawaiisu: “It was relatively late in the summer when the women embarked upon a series of prunings of the individual tobacco plants [Nicotiana quadrivalvis] and may also have done some weeding at the same time. There were three prunings a week apart as leaves were approaching maturity. On each occasion the small, weak leaves, the new growth at the junctures of the large leaves and stalks, and the flowering tops were broken off. After the third pruning there were left only the large healthy leaves on the stems. About five days after the last pruning, when these leaves were picked off, only the bare stems remained.” Zigmond noted further that “sometimes the ground about the plants was burned to make them grow better.”
Enhancing tobacco growth was one of the most consistently recorded reason for indigenous burning in California. For example, Driver recorded that the Western Mono, Foothill Yokuts, Panamint, Kawaiisu, Tubatulabal, and Owens Valley Paiute all pruned tobacco to increase leaf size and burned over the fields where the tobacco grew. Omer Stewart recorded burning by the Pit River (Achumawi): “When the grasslands, with their weeds and herbs, dried in the late fall they were set on fire nearly every year, because the Achumawi recognized that burned-over plots produced tobacco and wild seeds more abundantly than the areas not burned.”
Not only were tobacco plants pruned and the areas in which they grew burned, but seeds of tobacco were sown. The Sierra Miwok understood the environmental conditions required by native tobacco, so they sowed seeds on north-facing slopes. The Yurok cultivated tobacco in the following manner: “[After] selecting a proper place, pile brush over the ground and then burn it, which would leave the ground with a loose layer of wood ashes. Over this, while the ashes were yet dry and loose, they would sow the seed and protect the crop by putting around it a brush fence. From year to year they would select from the best stalks, seed for the next year, and at times to hold the seed for a number of years if necessary, for if kept properly it will grow after being kept for a long time.”
Burning off shrublands to plant tobacco seeds was common among various tribes:
Tobacco grown [by the Tolowa]; burned off clump of brush, planted seed, covered with aromatic leaves, fir boughs, etc., to impart good flavor; patch sheltered by brush windbreak, to prevent wind from blowing away strength of leaves.
Tobacco was cultivated [by the Shasta]; every spring after burning logs and brush, wild tobacco was planted. There was a tobacco garden at Butler Flat and others elsewhere.
Where logs have been burned the best ones grow. They [the Karuk never sow it [tobacco] in an open place. Upslope under the trees is where they sow it….And where they are going to sow tobacco, too, they burn it too….It is in summer when they set fire to the brush, at the time when everything is dry, that is the time that is good to set fire, in the fall before it starts in to rain.
Patches of tobacco growing on open shrublands and in forests were unique habitats ecologically. Today they are no longer present; instead, only a few scattered plants of native tobacco can be found.” (pages 173-174)
From early accounts of tobacco planting, we know that many tribes gathered leaves in ways that ensured the plant would produce seed. For instance, the Maidu would pinch off the leaves, to use for smoking in stone pipes, and leave “the stalk to mature” so that “the seeds from it” could be “replanted the next year.” (page 272)
Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources by M. Kat Anderson, 2005, University of California Press
Are you enjoying the gorgeous spring wildflowers in bloom right now? Do you want to grow and enjoy wildflowers in your own yard or for a native planting project you are developing? Now is the time to plan for fall planting and seeding in order to achieve native seed germination next spring!
When it comes to native seeds, in general, it is best to sow seeds in the fall. By preparing a project site this spring and summer, you will be ready when the time comes!
Whether you have a small, backyard garden plot where you want to sow native seeds, or a larger field or project site, the following site preparation information fact sheets from The Xerces Society provide solid information to help you get started.
These fact sheets provide information about various site preparation methods. Different methods are appropriate for different sites and projects, so choose the method that fits the needs of your specific project. From solarization, sheet mulching, smother cropping, organic herbicides and sod removal, these fact sheets will help you consider various site preparation options and get started on preparing an area for fall seed sowing.
Weed control is generally the largest barrier to native seed establishment and seedling growth. Act now, during spring and summer, to prepare your site for fall native seed sowing. No matter the size of the project area, site preparation ahead of time can make a huge difference in the success of your project.
Although our favorite methods for establishing native seed on rural properties in the Klamath-Siskiyou region is to seed into burn pile scars or areas burned using prescribed fire or propane torch methods, once spring arrives and fire danger is in full effect, other site preparation methods need to be pursued. Many people also can’t safely use fire for site preparation, no matter the time of year, so these Xerces Society fact sheets are great!
We’ve added a new species to our seed packet inventory!
Western wallflower (Erysimum capitatum) is a biennial to short lived perennial wildflower with knockout, four-petaled, bright yellow to deep orange flower clusters borne at the top of an erect stem that grows from a basal rosette. Western wallflower is in the mustard (Brassicaceae) family and grows throughout the United States, but mainly in the West. It is also referred to by the common name, Sanddune wallflower, due to its preference for well drained, rocky or sandy soil throughout its range.
Although it has a preference for well drained soil, it grows in a wide variety of habitat types, from sea level to high elevations, which leads to variability in appearance.
Western wallflower blooms in spring to early summer, depending on elevation. In bloom it will grow between 1-2′ tall. It has tubular, upright seed capsules that burst open and spread seed as they dry out.
Western wallflower is attractive to pollinating species such as bees and butterflies, and is a larval host plant for numerous butterflies, including Sara orangetips and others.
Western wallflower will grow best in part-shade to full sun, with well drained, rocky or sandy soil. It grows well in medium-dry garden conditions. It can grow as a single stemmed or multistemmed plant. If pinched when first bolting to flower, it can produce more flowering stems.
It is an especially prolific bloomer 2-3 years following wildfire. Wildfire not only helps trigger seed germination, but it also clears out vegetation and increases available nutrients in the soil, allowing for more sunlight and nutrients for larger, more robust plants.
Unlike humans that may be called “wallflowers” because they are shy or unassuming, Western wallflower can be quite showy. From our research, the use of the term “wallflower” for shy people comes from the European relatives of Western wallflower that have a propensity to grow out of cracks in walls or rocky paths. Western wallflower is anything but shy!
Seed Germination Instructions
No pre-treatement necessary. Sow seeds outside in fall to early spring.
Western wallflower grows in a wide variety of habitat types. From low-elevation river washes, canyons, oak woodland, and chaparral, to mid-elevation mixed conifer forests, to high elevation rocky ridges and subalpine meadows.
If you love the world-class biodiversity of the Siskiyou Mountains, you’ll love southern Oregon artist, Deb Van Poolen’s, newest biodiversity-focused poster, “Plant Diversity in the Siskiyou Mountains.” Featuring rare, endemic, and special plants of the region, the poster includes twenty plant species that inhabit the subalpine region of the Siskiyou Mountains.
Klamath-Siskiyou Native Seeds proudly sponsored Deb’s exquisite work, and we support her efforts to bring biodiversity to life through art. Check out Deb’s other amazing posters as well, and support art that supports biodiversity!
“Deb’s posters focus on the region where the Cascade, Siskiyou and Klamath mountain ranges meet in Southern Oregon and Northern California. Renowned as a world-class hotspot of biodiversity, this area teems with life. The posters for sale are beautiful pieces of art, plus rich in educational and scientific information.”
We have a new species available: Alice eastwood’s fleabane – Erigeron aliceae! Check it out with our description below:
Alice Eastwood’s fleabane can steal the show in high mountain meadows when blooming en masse, however, even a single flowering plant is attractive to pollinators and people alike. This species is a perennial wildflower that is native to western Washington, western Oregon, and northwestern California where it inhabits meadows, rocky ridges, talus slopes, prairies and open forest, primarily at higher elevations (4,000′-7,000′), including the subalpine zone. A member of the Asteraceae or daisy family, Alice eastwood’s fleabane grows from a fibrous, rhizomatous root system, with green leaves and white, pink, or lavender flowers with a yellow center. Bloom time depends on elevation and moisture availability, but ranges between June to September. It generally grows around 6″-1′ tall. Alice eastwood’s fleabane prefers full sun to part shade and medium moisture. It will rebloom after deadheading, providing a long season of flowers for the many pollinators that are attracted to the flowers.
Although first “discovered” in the Siskiyou Mountains in 1900 by Thomas Howell, this species was named for acclaimed American botanist Alice Eastwood who lived between 1859-1953, and was procurator and Head of the Department of Botany at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. This species is sometimes referred to as Alice’s fleabane, or Alice’s daisy, for short.
Alice Eastwood was a very important botanist during her time. Her lasting legacy lives on in the many species named after her, as well as her prolific writing and enduring work at the Academy. Stories about her include this one from the Wikipedia page about her life:
“Eastwood was credited with saving the Academy’s type plant collection after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Departing from the curatorial conventions of her era, Eastwood segregated the type specimens from the main collection. This classification system permitted her, upon entering the burning building, readily to retrieve nearly 1500 specimens.”
Seed Germination Instructions: No pretreatment required. Sow outside in fall to early spring.
Alice Eastwood c. 1910 – California Academy of Sciences, and Alice eastwood’s fleabane
Klamath-Siskiyou Native Seeds (KSNS) has created a Seed Germination and Propagation Reference Guide to help you more easily and successfully germinate native seeds of plants native to the Klamath-Siskiyou Ecoregion of southern Oregon and northern California.
These short protocols provide basic information for seed germination, including recommended cold-moist stratification, warm-moist stratification and heat treatment times, or if no pretreatment is necessary at all.
We also make recommendations for when to sow the seeds outside to achieve the best germination results; however, these recommendations are for the Klamath-Siskiyou region and climatic conditions in other regions may necessitate different seasonal sowing times. For regions that have less winter chill time (e.g. coastal regions), artificial cold-stratification may be essential for seed germination.
Western thistle (Cirsium occidentale) seed germinating in the fall in Eugene, OR. Photos by James H.
Remember that seeds are living organisms that may not always behave in the way you expect! That’s why experimentation is at the foundation of seed germination success!
We love getting feedback from our customers and clients regarding their own experiences with seed germination. Sometimes people have different results than we do, which can make seed germination protocols difficult to generalize for different regions of the country. Different methods can sometimes achieve the same results and vice versa. We feel it is important, however, to provide some basic seed germination information and short protocols to get people started with their own seed germination experimentation.
James H. in Eugene, Oregon emailed us the photos above of Western thistle (Cirsium occidentale) seed he purchased from us that germinated quickly after he sowed the seed this past fall. Our experience has been that this species needs 60-90 days of cold-moist stratification for seed germination, but perhaps because the seed was very fresh, or perhaps because Eugene has a more mild climate than the Siskiyou Mountains region where we germinate our native seeds, James achieved different results. We appreciated getting James’ feedback and photos!
As you can see from the photos, James uses cages to protect his seedlings. Cages are important to prevent seed predation by birds, squirrels, mice and other small mammals. Wire cages or bird netting is an easy solution to prevent sometimes major losses of seed and/or germinates to wildlife.
Those who are familiar with using cold-stratification for triggering native seed germination may enjoy trying other types of seed treatments. Experimentation with heat treatments for fire adapted species can be really interesting and fun, and can help deepen your understanding of plant and fire ecology.
There are many methods of heat treatment, including hot water, oven, and direct heat. Using an oven or hot water are some of the easiest heat treatment methods. For Yerba Santa (Eriodictyon californicum), however, our experimentation has found that direct heat works the best to break down the tough seed coat.
Yerba Santa: The Holy Plant
Yerba Santa has a rugged beauty that’s hard to beat. The aromatic evergreen foliage of thick, leathery and resinous dark green leaves, combined with gorgeous white to lavender, trumpet-shaped flowers in late spring that are often adorned with bumble bees and other pollinators, is the perfect combination for a drought tolerant native planting project. Yerba Santa typically inhabits dry, sun-blasted slopes and ridges, often in rocky soil, but can be found in a variety of habitats, from disturbed sites, valley bottom grasslands, foothill chaparral and woodlands, to high elevation rocky ridgelines. It can grow from 2-6′ tall, depending on the location and growing conditions, and when mature it can spread by woody underground rhizomes and form clonal stands.
Yerba Santa is native to California and southern Oregon, where it is adapted to the Mediterranean climate and is a “fire-follower,” germinating readily by seed after wildfire events, and sprouting from underground rhizomes. Yerba Santa is an important medicinal plant with significant ethnobotanical uses. The name Yerba Santa means holy plant in Spanish. Many Native American tribes and modern herbalists have long-used various parts of the plant for a wide range of ailments.
Yerba Santa is currently classified in the Boraginaceae (Borage) family, and was formerly classified in the Hydrophyllaceae (Waterleaf family). It is deer resistant, drought tolerant, and is best grown in full sun in well drained soil.
We currently have a limited amount of seed packets available of Yerba Santa seeds, but we hope to expand our availability for this species in years to come.
Many people know and love Yerba Santa but have a hard time growing it from seed. The trick: heat! Using a metal pail and a handheld propane torch, a flash burn of Yerba Santa seeds has worked well for us for successful seed germination. We place uncleaned Yerba Santa seed in the metal pail and use the propane torch to light the material on fire for a quick, flash burn.
If needed, a small amount of wadded newspaper will help to ignite the material. Remember that this will get hot and can be dangerous. This heat treatment method should be conducted with safety in mind, and should only be used outdoors, away from combustible material and on a calm day with no wind, preferably during the rainy days of late fall or early winter when fire danger is at a minimum.
If you are unable or uncomfortable using direct heat to treat Yerba Santa seeds, alternatively, you can heat the seeds in an oven for 5 minutes at 190 °F, or scarify the seed coat by rubbing the seeds between two pieces of sandpaper to help break down the tough seed coat.
Remember that seeds are living organisms that may not always behave in the way you expect! That’s why experimentation is at the foundation of seed germination success!
Seed pot of Yerba Santa, grown from heat treated seed.
Yerba Santa seedlings ready for transplanting.
Transplanted Yerba Santa seedlings.
Seed Coat Dormancy
In general, there are two types of seed dormancy: seed coat dormancy and internal dormancy. Internal dormancy is most often overcome using cold stratification methods. Seeds with seed coat dormancy usually have a tough seed coat that is impermeable to oxygen and/or water, allowing the seed to stay dormant, sometimes for a very long time, until an external mechanism (e.g. fire, animal digestion, chemical reaction, etc.) cracks the seed coat and allows for oxygen and water to permeate the seed coat and trigger seed germination.
Using Charate for Fire Adapted Species
For some species, just adding charate (charred wood containing leachable chemicals) to the soil alone can stimulate seed germination. Heat treatment is a mechanical treatment that can crack the seed coat and allow for germination; whereas, using charate or liquid smoke is a chemical treatment. Chemical treatments mimic the signals fire adapted species get when plants on the soil surface have burned in a wildfire and open ground is available for seed germination success.
In other words, the chemicals from charate signal to the seeds: “Hey, there’s great post-fire conditions up on the soil surface for successful seed germination, growth, and plant establishment. You should germinate now while there’s room to grow and mineral rich ash to help you grow healthy and strong!”
If you want to experiment with using charate for a natural chemical treatment for fire adapted species, use the following method: Char small branches with a propane torch until blackened through — do not burn to ash — or use charred wood from a campfire or woodstove. Finely grind the charred wood to a powder. Mix the powder into your soil. If you don’t have the materials to grind the charred wood, soak it in water for 24-48 hours and use the extract to water the soil. Char wood only from species that don’t have allelopathic properties.
Using an Oven for Fire Adapted Species
Mimicking fire through the use of an oven can be used to heat seeds and open serotinous cones of species such as knobcone pine. Serotinous cones are sealed with a resin that must be melted for seed dispersal. This adaptation allows species to exploit the favorable conditions of the post-fire environment, and cones can remain sealed for over twenty years. Just place cones on a lined baking sheet and heat them briefly in the oven until they open.
For heat treatment of seeds in the oven, just place the seeds on a tray and place in the oven at the recommended temperature and for the recommended duration. You may need to do some research prior to heat treatment, to find the recommendations for the species you are treating. As mentioned above, for Yerba Santa seeds, the recommendation is to heat the seeds in an oven for 5 minutes at 190°F.
If the temperature recommended for heat treatment is between 180°- 200°F, it is possible that a hot water treatment of the same temperature and for the same duration would give comparable results.
Using Hot Water for Fire Adapted Species
In general, when using hot water for fire adapted species, bring water to a boil, take the water off the flame, immerse the seed in the hot (not boiling) water, and let the seeds soak overnight.
More specifically, seeds should be placed in about six times their volume of water that is between 180°- 200°F. They should be left to cool and soak in the water for 12 to 24 hours, after which they are ready for sowing. The seeds should be sown promptly.
Although many species germinate readily after hot water treatment, we haven’t found this method successful for Yerba Santa seeds. Perhaps they need to be boiled for a short time for this method to work, instead of just placed in hot water, but we found a method that works for us — direct heat using a propane torch as described above — so we stopped experimenting with hot water treatment for Yerba Santa. We do use hot water treatments regularly for other species, however, with great success!
Small batches of larger sized seeds can be scarified by hand, using a file or knife to make a nick or slice in the seed coat, or by using a rock tumbler to allow for the penetration of oxygen and water through the tough seed coat. Some care must be taken to avoid injuring the interior radicle of the seed. Smaller seeds can be rubbed between sandpaper. Yerba Santa has smaller seeds, so the best way to scarify the seed would be with sandpaper.
2021 New Year’s Resolution: Experiment with Heat Treatment!
Whether you’re germinating Yerba Santa seed or seed of other fire adapted species, the treatments mentioned above will help you start experimenting. Make a New Year’s resolution to try one type of treatment for a fire adapted species in 2021! Seed treatments are like food recipes, there can be many different methods to achieve similar results, and experimentation is the key! And like food recipes, once you get the hang of a new trick, it becomes second nature.
Many of the plants we know and love in the West are not only adapted to wildfire, but they need periodic wildfire to reproduce and/or thrive. Whether their seed germination is stimulated by wildfire, prescribed fire, Indigenous burning, or seed germination methods such as those described in this blog post, understanding how fire adapted plant species reproduce is an important part of understanding native plant communities and conservation.
In 2016 Klamath-Siskiyou Native Seeds collected seven pounds of native seed under contract for a private land native seeding project on a ridge below Mt. Ashland near Ashland, OR. The site had recently been disturbed during hardscaping upgrades, creating the perfect opportunity to seed natives. All of the seed was hand collected in the Siskiyou Mountains, with a good portion collected right on the property in areas where intact habitat and abundant seed was available.
In the fall of 2016, seed from 58 species of native wildflowers and grasses were hydroseeded. Four years have passed since the project began, resulting in a vibrant and showy display of native wildflowers, and a drastic increase in pollinator species diversity, including a brand-new, large colony of digger bees that decided to move in next to the project this summer in order to take advantage of the abundant pollen and nectar resources. Over four years regular weeding and light watering has aided the seedling establishment and helped keep the area primarily native plants.
We created this video to document the success of the project and highlight how naturescaping with native plants can bring not only beauty to your property, but also an increase in native species diversity that provides important habitat for pollinators and wildlife.
Successful native seed projects benefit from at least a few years of monitoring, maintenance, nurturing and upkeep. The level of summer maintenance needed will vary depending on the location and site conditions of each individual project.
Some sites have much heavier competition from non-native or invasive species that can outcompete the native plants being grown from seed. Other sites may need some supplemental summer irrigation to help the native plants establish while they are young.
Monitoring the native seed project site through the summer can help identify any issues that may need to be addressed. Long-term monitoring and tending of the area will lead to a higher percentage of native plants, which will provide better habitat for pollinators and wildlife, as well as native edible and medicinal plants for people.
Using the example of one of our native seed projects at a private fishing retreat on the Klamath River, this blog post will discuss weeding, irrigation and monitoring for a successful native seed project. The project site was prepped and seeded in early fall 2018. The seed mix included 57 species of wildflowers and native grasses native to the local area.
Weeding invasive yellow star thistle and dyer’s woad out of a two-year-old KSNS native seed project site along the Klamath River in northern California.
Summer maintenance includes weeding to help knock back non-native and invasive plant species in order to give the native species a better chance to establish and grow. Keeping down the encroachment of non-native and invasive species within your seed project area is an important part of the long-term maintenance of the project; however, different projects may need to work harder to eliminate non-native species than others, depending on the desired outcomes, and available time to weed yourself and/or money to hire someone to weed for you.
Although you may not completely eliminate non-native and invasive species altogether, it is important to keep in mind that native plants, in general, support three times as many species of butterflies and moths as introduced plants, and overall, native plants support more native wildlife and birds as well. The higher percentage of native plants you can achieve in your native seed project area, the more optimal habitat for native pollinators and wildlife you will create, as well as the potential for an increase in native edible and medicinal plants for people.
Identification of small seedlings can be tricky sometimes. When weeding non-native and invasive plants out of a native seed project it is imperative that there is correct identification of the seedlings so native plants aren’t inadvertently ‘weeded’ out of the project area. Additionally, careful weeding is important, so that root disturbance to the nearby native plants is minimized while pulling out non-native and invasive plants.
The use of supplemental summer irrigation can help native plants grown from seed establish during the first year or two after seeding. Especially during drought years, like this year in the Klamath-Siskiyou region, young plants may succumb to drought stress and die. In nature this is just a part of natural cycles, but when a lot of time, labor and money has gone into a native seed project, the success of the project is important. Water is not available for every project site; however, if it is available, a little water can go a long way toward ensuring project success.
For projects that are using locally collected seed from drought tolerant species, regular irrigation is not necessary. In fact, some drought tolerant native plants can die from too much irrigation. You just need enough to help the drought tolerant plants establish.
In the Klamath-Siskiyou region on really dry, sun-baked sites, a deep water every 2-3 weeks may be helpful from late spring to late summer for the first 1-2 years, but for higher elevation sites, moister sites, or projects in part-shade, a deep water once a month may be all that’s needed to help the plants establish better.
Idaho gumweed (Grindelia nana) blooming during the summer of 2020 in our Klamath River project seeded in the fall of 2018. Idaho gumweed germinated readily and bloomed in the second summer.
Monitoring a native seed project is a visual assessment that tracks some the following aspects:
which species germinated well in the seed project area;
which species failed to germinate;
which annual species were able to flower and go to seed;
which perennial species put on growth or began to bloom;
what non-native or invasive species grew in the project area;
how many species in your seed mix did or didn’t survive the first year;
what insects, pollinators or wildlife used the plants in the project area;
Monitoring can just be a casual evaluation, or you can document the information in a file or spreadsheet for the future and implement more quantitative and detailed, long-term monitoring projects involving plots, transects and photo points. No matter how formal or informal your monitoring method, you can use the information gained to benefit your site or future project areas.
Learning, watching your plants grow, and observing their use by wildlife are the most rewarding parts of a native seed project. These rewards can be better appreciated if you monitor your site. Any form of monitoring, no matter how casual or formal, will help you learn from your project, refine your techniques and become a better land steward.
Annual ballhead gilia, and perennials, Indian paintbrush and barestem buckwheat blooming in the second summer of the project.
Elegant tarweed (Madia elegans) is an annual wildflower that blooms late in the summer, providing beneficial floral resources for pollinators at a crucial time. It has long been valued as a native food crop. Tarweed germinated some the first year of the project, but germinated even more and bloomed profusely in the second year.
Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum) is a ‘workhorse species.’ It germinates readily, is drought tolerant and deer resistant. It also reseeds itself. Oregon sunshine bloomed in the second summer of the native seed project.
Whether you’re maintaining or ‘wild tending’ a large or small native seed project area, a little bit of work can make a big difference in successfully growing native plants from seed! Enjoy the results!