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Updated: Jul 25, 2019

by Kathy Kuebbing

My plant love story starts in 2010. At the young age of 60 years old, I decided to take on a monster gardening project. After retiring to the beautiful Oregon coast and having more time to spend in the yard, I decided to transform a very weedy and ugly hillside into a native garden. I walked the hillside for months, thinking about what I could possibly be done to improve it. More importantly, however, I thought about how to prevent the hill from eroding away during a long rainy winter. Eight years later, I am amazed at how much change has occurred and how much fun I had along the way.

In 2006, when we purchased the house, the hillside was covered in ugly grasses, annoying weeds, and invasive plants that my daughter continually informed me needed to be removed after each visit! By 2010, I finally determined that the only way to begin this project was to tackle small plots--about 3x3 feet at a time. The tedious process allowed me to research plants native to Oregon and then try them out to see if they loved their new home. And like any worthwhile experiment, it would take years to determine if the plan worked.

I first learned that the hillside had 3 different growing zones! The end closest to the house was the sunny side, and the far end near the back of the lot was the wetland. In between, was the steepest part of the hillside rising up over 10 feet tall with partial shade. I started with the sunny side, and selected 3 Nootka roses (Rosa nutkana) to plant in my first plot. Next, I decided only the native Salal berry bush (Gaultheria shallon, above) would be able to hold onto the steep hillside. These first few attempts were very successful, giving me confidence in my selections and my experimental design.

However, the wetland gave me the most challenge. For the wetland, I explored adding some color other than green. My first attempt at adding color was with the addition of a yellow monkey flower (Diplacus aurantiacus) during the rainy season in late November. Usually, I wouldn’t have planted anything at that time, but this was when the County Conservation & Soil group in town held their annual plant sale. Unfortunately, I did not mark the place where I planted my lovely monkey flower and for the next 2 years I searched relentlessly to find the yellow in my wetland. It was not to be. I had lost my monkey flower. That was not my last attempt at adding color, but I failed many more times before I realized that green is a beautiful color. Today, lovely green mosses and ferns adorn the wetland.

When I began this project, I had no hypothesis or hint of a theory of what would happen. I just had hope that years into the project I would not need to hire a professional landscaper to clean up any disaster I might create. But, I did discover something unexpected halfway through the project. Once the hillside filled with more native plants than weedy plants, I would find native plants choosing the hillside garden as their home. One year thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) showed up and then a gooseberry (Ribes spp.) moved in next door to the thimbleberry. Brackens (Pteridium aquilinum) decided the wetland needed a slightly softer color of green than the dark green sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) I planted in the area. Native flowers populated the slope from time to time, my favorite being the Fringe Cup (Tellima grandiflora). Now my hillside project is done, but years into the future I will enjoy visiting it frequently to find what new native plant or flower has decided to join the community.

Best of all, I purchased 2 more yellow monkey flowers after my hillside project was complete. I upgraded these plants to the formal gardens in my backyard and I put signs around them to remind me of where my lovely monkey flowers would forever grow.

Kathy Kuebbing is soon to be 68 years-old, retired, and living in Oregon on the beautiful Pacific Coast. All photographs in this post are her own.

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Updated: Jul 25, 2019

by Heather Dawson

Heather with her gear and the alders

I spent years fighting with alder trees. They grow in dense thickets that form tangled and terrible walls of vegetation on the banks of streams. As an invasive species biologist, I study sea lamprey, an invasive fish in the Great Lakes region. I had always seen alders as one of the hurdles, literally and figuratively, in getting my field work done — until one day they became my savior.

The “uniform” for fish biologists working in streams takes some getting used to. Waders are the base layer, onto which our equipment, backup batteries, and replacement parts for the electronic equipment we ask to work in water, are a necessity. As is a lunch. All of which are clipped on our person with an assortment of clanking carabiners before walking, climbing and wading into the stream. Like a kangaroo, we also use our waders as a waterproof pouch, stuffing data sheets down our front and we always have lots of fun small things tucked away in pockets, like measuring tape, electrical tape, and - every day except this fateful one – writing instruments to record data on our waterproof Rite in the Rain paper.

Before this day, I cursed alder trees (or are they really bushes? Or thickets? Whatever the botanical classification, they were the enemy). For example, I had lost countless pair of sunglasses walking into the shaded overgrowth; many an alder had stolen my glasses from the top of my head, never to be seen again.

When a beaver dam would block up a stream or it would become too deep to pass, we would lose so much time having to climb up a steep bank, fighting alders all the way. And then crash back down a few meters downstream, which should have been easier with gravity on our side, but it wasn’t.

In small, shallow streams, the alder branches leaned into the sunshine, creating a near tunnel of branches across the water. Spiders love these just-barely-not-touching-twigs as holdfasts - perfect places to build their webs. Imagine walking down the stream, looking down so as not to trip or slip on the rocky bottom, carefully collecting data and WHAP! Spider web to the face. Regain your balance, brush yourself off, go back to collecting data and carefully walking and WHAP! Spider web to the face. It is

as fun as it sounds.

On this fateful day, we had been dropped off along the Carp River in Canada, early in the morning, by the field truck we shared with the rest of our crew. In this area, the river has a really steep embankment and the stream bed would best be described as “ankle breaking rocks”. Beyond the river lies a swampy marshland with every step threatening to pull you down into the slurping mud.

My field partner and I made sure we had all our equipment that day, including our electrofisher, the trusty back-up battery and electrical tape, datasheets, bug spray, sunscreen, and lunch. We loaded ourselves up, clipped on our gear, and waved goodbye to the truck. We would meet up with the rest of the team eight hours later and four kilometers downstream as we collected toward to the meet-up point.

We crashed and thrashed and fought through the alders, finally reaching the stream. It wasn’t until we were ready to begin filling out our datasheets when we realized our mistake. Neither of us had anything to write with.

Our options were simple: 1) do nothing for eight hours, 2) climb up and out of the stream and hike through a wet swamp for 4km to reach the truck and then do it all over again to get back, or 3) figure something else out. Our only real choice was 3 – if for no other reason than we would never live it down if we did 1 or 2. The teasing from our lab mates would be relentless.

Our first thought: Blood. Could we cut ourselves and use our own blood to record our data? We quickly realized no, though our biggest hurdle may have been not being able to actually cut ourselves with anything we had.

Second attempt: Rocks? Is there some kind of coal like rock or sandstone that would leave a mark on the paper? No dice. The soil was really clay-based and our waterproof paper didn’t like anything we could find.

Then, it dawned on me. I had a vision, inspired by my experience breaking twig after twig, branch after branch as I fought my way through the alders. Each one had a tiny, dark brown center – a dark pith... like a pencil. Could we write with it? Would the waterproof paper allow it to show up? I broke off a twig, dragged it across the paper and IT WORKED!

We spent the day breaking twigs and branches off to get sharp ends and collected data for eight hours and four kilometers using our alder pencils.

I have never cursed an alder thicket since, though I now use my electrofisher poles to clear spiderwebs and I wear my sunglasses on a strap.

A message in alder pencil

Heather Dawson is an associate professor of Biology at the University of Michigan – Flint. She studies aquatic invasive species management and fisheries management focused in the Great Lakes region.

Heather's Plant Love Story was told to Rebecca Tonietto, 2015 Smith Fellow, Plant Love Stories co-founder and Assistant Professor at University of Michigan - Flint, and written collaboratively.

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Updated: Jul 25, 2019

by Thomas Oberbauer

​​Growing up in San Diego County in Southern California, I was exposed to a wide variety of habitats during weekend drives with my parents. Early on, I began to appreciate the diversity of California’s vegetation, from coastal scrub and chaparral to the forests and deserts. One summer in high school, I took a biology class that had an assignment to create a botany booklet. The booklet had to contain 20 species of plants with photographs and descriptions. Prior to that assignment, I was mostly interested in birds, but that class raised my awareness and started my life-long fascination with plants. From this early Biology class, I continued studying plants. While in college at San Diego State, I took a botany and taxonomy class with Dr. Lee Wedberg that included field trips all around San Diego County. On those trips,we saw many endemic plant species that could only be found in the County, including San Diego mesa mint, Pogogyne abramsii,and Parish’s meadowfoam, Limnanthes alba var. parishii at at Cuyamaca Lake.

In 1975, I joined the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) after working for a summer with CNPS representative Mitch Beauchamp and a number of other biologists on Vandenberg Airforce Base. An early CNPS publication was a report of the rare and endangered plants of California, which listed them by County. My home, San Diego County, is well-known to support a high number of rare and endangered plants.

Inspired by this list, I began to spend my weekends looking for these hard-to-find plants. My brother and I would drive back county roads in my 1971 Porsche 914. It was perfect for plant hunting because it was a very small car with great handling that allowed for quick steering corrections when the driver was preoccupied by an interesting plant growing along the side of the road.

The one plant I wished to find the most on these hunts was the desert beauty, Linanthus bellus. I knew how beautiful its sister-species, the ground-pink Linanthus dianthiflorus, was with its bright pink flowers and tiny scalloped edges. I found old references that told me it was once found it near the community of Boulevard. I drove to Boulevard with my brother in e​arly May during its flowering season. We stopped at every open area that looked suitable: areas with course sandy soil that were transition areas between desert and chaparral. We finally found it on an open slope west of Boulevard.

Desert beauty is one of the most striking wildflowers I have ever seen. It has brilliant rich pink petals with a white throat and dark brown spots near the base and yellow anthers. The flowers are gramophone shaped with 5 petals. When really warm, the petals fold backward making a flattened round face of the flower. The flowers ranged in size from larger than a nickel to smaller than a dime, depending on the soil moisture. The stems and leaves of the plant look like dark threads and create the illusion that the flowers appear to be floating over the grainy coarse sand. For many years, I made the pilgrimage to see the flowers each May. During exceptionally rainy years, desert beauty covered the ground pink. My trips to visit the flowering desert beauty were so well-known that a friend of mine gave me a T shirt emblazoned with a photograph of the flowers. To this day, finding Linanthus bellus was one of my greatest rare plant discoveries. Finding the ephemeral, brightly colored flowers is like finding a treasure.

Thomas Oberbauer is a third generation San Diegan and rare plant enthusiast, and the pictures in this post are his own. He loves the vegetation and plant diversity of Baja California and its adjacent islands. He graduated from high school in 1970 east of El Cajon, California and posts documentaries about the natural wonders of Baja California on You Tube.

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