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Nature in Los Altos

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

During the shelter-in-place, Sutro Stewards with partnership from Handson Bay Area created Nature in you Neighborhood a virtual volunteering experience where we challenge volunteers to go out into their backyard and neighborhoods to see what plants they can find near them! Below is one submission from our project with the youth from Handson Tomorrow. We hope you enjoy their discoveries!

By: Emmett Chung

Plant 1: Norfolk pine

Norfolk pine in a front yard, Los Altos.

While walking about Los Altos, my attention was drawn to a very short pine tree which to me resembled some kind of fern. In fact, after further research, I discovered that it was a Norfolk pine tree (Araucaria heterophylla). Despite the name, it is not a pine tree. An ornamental plant, the tree is native to a small island in the South Pacific Ocean, Norfolk Island, approximately 900 miles east of the Australian mainland. A key export of the island, the eponymous pine tree even appears on Norfolk Island's flag. As a native of tropical climates, it cannot grow in cold temperatures and is as popular as an indoor Christmas tree. Indoors, the tree only encounters a single species which finds itself reliant upon placing shiny glass and metal objects upon it, humans. However, it is able to grow outdoors all over California and even in sand along the coast due to its evolutionary resistance to salt and wind, the product of its island habitat. 

Unfortunately for the trees themselves, they are cut at a young age to ensure they are the proper size for use indoors. Otherwise, they grow upwards of 100 feet wild along Highway 1 and up to 200 feet tall on their native Norfolk Island. Notably, the tree has a nearly perfectly pentagonal trunk, and the soft leaves of the young trees makes them more suitable for ornaments. Though significant conservation efforts have been made for the plant in its native habitat, its extensive commercial growth in the US and Europe places its conservation status at least concern. While the Norfolk pine can be found all over the world, California (and parts of Florida) is the only place in the US with suitable temperatures for its outdoor growth. Though my family traditionally uses an artificial pine tree, the compact and beautiful Norfolk Pine will definitely be worth considering for the holiday season.

Plant 2: Western thistle

Western thistle, Los Altos Hills.

The beauty of thistles is often overlooked by the pain associated with stepping on or bumping into one. Even the US Forest Service describes them as "maligned." They can be found mostly in the wild, especially in foothills of the great California mountain ranges, the Coast Range, Cascades, and Sierra Nevada. At the same time, many thistles found in California are invasive species yet regarded by many people as more beautiful or desirable. However, the Western thistle (Cirsium occidentale) is an exception, a native perennial found in abundant numbers across the state excluding the Central Valley. This spiny herb has evolved to discourage large herbivores from attempting to consume it, while its colorful center entices birds and insects. In fact, native thistles across the United States play an essential role in protecting endemic insect species according to a Princeton University report. By protecting the insects, the ability of invasive species to spread within new environments becomes severely limited. Princeton experts regarded its role as an essential safeguard for complex ecosystems. 

Efforts were made in the last few decades to cull the thistle population through the introduction of biocontrol weevils. Outside of Scotland, thistles are often viewed with disdain or overlooked once again due to the unpleasant association with being hurt by them; they are "noncharismatic" species. Thistles are also edible, if difficult to collect. Snip the thorns off of the stalk, peel its fibrous coat, and enjoy its unique flavor boiled then sauteed with butter and spices. The flower buds and leaves have a small edible core, but require too much work to be a reliable food source. Despite their negative press, thistles have proven themselves to be essential ecosystem safeguards but they play an even more important role when they are native plants.

Read the full Princeton report here.

Thistle Recipes here.

Plant 3: Sticky Snapdragon

A wild sticky snapdragon in the Gabilan Mountains. Photo by me.

While only native within the Bay Area to Alameda and Santa Clara counties, the sticky snapdragon (Antirrhinum multiflorum), named after the fragrant oils it secretes to attract animals, can be found growing in chaparral and on the slopes of mountains across California. It can be found most abundantly in the Coast Ranges, San Fernando Mountains, and Gabilan Mountains. I encountered this flower ornamentally in a neighbor's yard, but depending on where you live you may be able to find a wild one. It grows in tall spires, complementing different types of plants in your garden well,as well as easily can adapt to different environments. Its maintenance is also quite low; the plant simply requires effective drainage. Its skinny, tubular flowers branching off its slender frame attract hummingbirds and Buckeye butterflies while also distinguishing it from otherwise identical snapdragons. Flowers grow in spikes, making large patches of the plant resemble colorful shrubs. 

While nutritious, sticky snapdragons are not recommended for consumption due to their bitter taste. In addition, the removal of the oils from the stalk and seeds is more trouble than it is worth (though the oils are supposedly used for cooking in Russia). However, natives have used the ground leaves and flowers as ulcer treatment and has been scientifically proven to help treat inflammation and hemorrhoids due to its anti-inflammatory properties. The plant is harvested at the height of summer, then dried, sometimes even for tea. Though quite bitter, the flowers contain many vitamins. I have seen this plant in the wild inside Pinnacles National Park, though it is perfect for your garden (and perhaps even your inflammation). 

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