Updated: Jul 2, 2021
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By: E. Azinheira
The effort put into stewarding a native plant habitat in my San Francisco garden has seen the slow but steady transformation of an invasive wasteland into a backyard sanctuary of native plants that attract an entertaining variety of birds, butterflies, insects, spiders, and salamanders!
Over the years, the effort has seen too many losses to remember. Toyan, phacelia, horkelia, snowberry, native plantain varieties, and buckwheat are just a few of the many planting that have been shaded out by a towering Monterey Cyprus in a neighboring yard or out competed by the relentless invasion of oxalis varieties, pellitory of the wall, allium triquetrum and endless introduced grasses that are the stuff of naturalist nightmares.
But one of the earliest wins at the start of the transformation of our garden was California bee plant or California figwort, known by its scientific name as scrophularia californica.
My original small pot, purchased at a plant sale hosted by the San Francisco Chapter of California Native Plant Society, has grown into one of the most prolific plants in the garden.
A perennial herb native to the western United States, bee plant as I like to call it, is found mainly along the coast of California but its full range stretches from British Columbia to Baja California. However, as common as bee plant is along this stretch of land, it is a plant that can easy go completely unnoticed.
Often in the shadows, bee plant has triangular shaped leave with toothed edges. The leaves grow in pairs opposite each other along a long narrow stem that is not round as is typically seen but is square in shape! The tiny reddish-brown flowers are rounded with hollow buds only about a centimeter long.
While many plants are valued for having big showy flowers, this plant has flowers so small they could easily be missed. However, its inconspicuous nature is the very thing that I like the most. For me, it is one of those things found in nature which give you reason to slow down and observe the small wonders.
In being still with this plant and observing it up close, you discover the special character of the square stems. You also discover the charm of the open mouth flower. And with a short amount of patience, it won’t be long before you observe the rear end of tiny native bee or wasp sticking out of the flower or perched on its rim. Pollinated by these small bees and wasps, the flower’s nectar is a source food. The leaves and stalks also serve as a food source for the larvae of Common Buckeye and Chalcedon Checkerspot butterflies. By consuming this plant, the caterpillars ingest a chemical which makes them poisonous to birds. Even as adults, the butterflies remain unpalatable from the sap they ingested as caterpillars. Pretty impressive.
As much as the miniature aesthetics and its important function as a life source for a variety of invertebrates, gives me reason to be fond of this plant, it is also the recently learnt medicinal benefits for humans which have made it even more of a garden treasure to me.
In northern Baja California, Tipai native Americans made a tea from the root of bee plants to relieve fevers. Using the twigs and leaves, indigenous California Pomo and Ohlone made a poultice or wash for infections and boils. The plant juice has also been used as an eyewash.
With so much to offer, I’m grateful for the presence of this plant in my garden. The whimsy of those tiny flowers not only spark joy and imagination, but the resilience of this plant despite the onslaught of invasives that it has to stand up to, inspires me to keep stewarding our little patch of wild San Francisco.