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Let's Go Outside | Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Feb 21, 2013

evelynevandersande_mugFacebook is a wonderful tool, allowing us much more rapid communication. In January, a young woman sent us a photo from a bush covered with pink blossoms, and we all celebrated. The chaparral currant was officially in bloom, and it was the first sign of the coming spring.

That was great news. In this strange world we live in, where so many things are changing, I find great comfort in observing the constant cycle of the seasons. We can count on that remaining the same year after year, and seeing all of the “firsts of the season” are a reason to be excited and pleased.

Chaparral currant

Chaparral currant

You should know there is a short walk at Placerita called “Bloom of the Season” on the fourth Saturday of the month from 9.30 a.m. to 10.30 a.m. The chaparral currant is one of my favorites; it blooms in winter and early spring when some bright color and fresh blooms are so welcome. The clusters of pink flowers are really pretty; the small and slightly fuzzy leaves have a delicious scent, too. Rub them through your fingers and the smell is acidic and pungent. The leaves smell like blackcurrant, a related plant that is popular in Europe (you might know the liqueur, cassis). Strangely enough, the fruit is not flavorful. They are small, black berries with a powder-like coating that the birds always see first before you get a chance to have a taste. The native Americans used the roots for toothache.

Wild cucumber

Wild cucumber

Another first flower of the year is the wild cucumber, and you can find them everywhere. They are a vine with tendrils that cascade from trees and bushes, creeping on the ground until they can find some support and then climb up toward the light. Their fast growth pattern is really exuberant and their fresh, new, light green color shows them as one of the newcomers of the season.

Their flowers are small and white, with both male and female flowers growing on the same plant. Usually, the fruit starts developing while the female flower is still open. The fruit looks weird: a green, 3- to 5-inch-long capsule shaped like a hand grenade, covered with one-half to 1-inch-long sharp spikes.

You have to hold them gingerly. The capsule hangs down on a strong, short stalk and splits open at the end when ripe, to release the four to 12 brown seeds that are contained in four chambers. The fruit and seeds are poisonous. The brown, dry pods remain on the plant for some time and look like bath loofahs. Kids are always intrigued by them and ask if they are nests.

The wild cucumber is also called a man root. It grows from a large root – sometimes as heavy as 100 pounds. The more you learn about nature, the more intriguing it is: Wild cucumber is a common vine, so it is strange to imagine all of those man roots under the ground, forming almost a battalion.

Wild peony

Wild peony

Another photo we received on Facebook was from a lady who wanted us to identify a wild peony. The blossom was beautiful, and we asked right away where she had seen it. They do not last long, and if you want to see them in bloom, you have just a small window of opportunity.

Not too many wild flowers have the impact of the wild peony. The blossom is gorgeous, almost exotic looking. It could be our wild orchid of Placerita. They are dark red with five to six petals, but the flower does not open completely like the cultivated peony and remains in a cupped shape.

This is the only variety found in our area naturally. They seem to come back in the same area year after year, a beautiful large flower on a single stalk. It was used by the native Americans for medicinal purposes – as a powder to cure colds and sore throat, and as a tea against menstrual pain and depression.

Those wild peonies make a lasting impression when you are lucky enough to see one in bloom. They are not really rare but are certainly not plentiful, either.

Hoary-leaved ceanothus

Hoary-leaved ceanothus

You might think, “Why should I read about flowers I have never seen? “ This why I chose ceanothus as the next flower. You all have seen it even if you did not know the name of it, and the show is going to start in the next few weeks, so I want you to be to able to know what is going on.

The hills around Santa Clarita are covered with the bush called hoary-leaved ceanothus, and they will explode in white blossom. It is spectacular. The smell is sweet and strong like honey.

When the blossoms are finished, another ceonothus takes over with a dark purplish-blue bloom, and that is hairy-leaved ceanothus. You might have heard the common name, wild lilac. Both of those flowers are saponic, meaning that if you rub some water and those blossoms in your hands, you will develop a lather. Surely the native Americans were aware of this property. We were told the Tatatiam, the local tribe, bathed every day.

I wanted to share with you some of the excitement of the coming spring. Look for signs all around you, and let’s enjoy all those “firsts” together: first bud, first baby birds, and first leaves. Happy Spring!

 

Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at Placerita Canyon Nature Center for 27 years. She lives in Newhall.

 

Wild cucumber

Wild cucumber

eve022113c

Wild peony

eve022113a

Chaparral currant

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