Excerpts from “In the Garden With Blue Butterflies” horticulture textbook:


Excerpts from “In the Garden With Blue Butterflies” horticulture text





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Excerpts from “In the Garden With Blue Butterflies”






This is building off the work of the great Russian scientist Nikolai Vavilov who documented the centers of origin of cultivated plants, and their wild relatives.   Each drawing of a geographical area is followed by a key to the plants depicted.  The trinity is composed of the land, plants, women and children.  Thank you earth.  Thank you goddesses of fertility.

























A handful of characteristics to look for in the identification of round ball-like cactus

It’s like this. If you are not paying attention everything is the same, and passes by in a blur. The mind is fru fru doing circles in the sky but the eyes don’t catch the wonder. You think you got the big picture down but you are missing the ants and the Indians and the creases on the palm of the hand and the grains of sand and the roots of the trees.


Then you focus, and are stunned by the bewildering variety of… Globose Cacti! Wo I really fell hard for this group. Can’t take my mind off of them. Something about the desert and her chanting. I hear her heart beating boom boom boom boom and she is singing about the grasshopper sparrow’s adventures with roadrunner next to the tarbush.

Besides color and size, there are characteristics that deal with form and structure, growth and development. There are ribs and tubercles, areoles and spines, wool and hairs, and the placement of the flowers.



To show the cactus structure I blanked out the spines and just drew a little circle in its place.





















cac22This is what I’ve learned so far thanks to the experts of this realm. I hope that there are not too many egregious mistakes in terminology or taxonomy. It was inspired by a visit to the San Francisco Cactus and Succulent Society annual show in Golden Gate Park, and reinforced by a book by Graham Charles on their identification and cultivation. Online, I found a site called Cactiguide to be useful as well. Good luck in your collections and pilgrimage to the arid places!

In the olden times there was a nice inuit girl. She was of marrying age but she did not like anybody in the village, nor anybody her folks set her up with.

One day a handsome stranger landed ashore and they fell in love. Boom like that. He was a great fisherman, and brought many fish for the whole family. It was very impressive. Everybody say This is the dude!


There was something strange about his nose though. There was a growth on top of it. And grandma thought he smelled a little too fishy. But grandma kept quiet and wished her grand daughter the best. Heck why be so prejudiced!? Let them young people have some freedom! Off they went, the happily married couple, to go live on their island home.

Once on the island, it did not take long for the wife to figure out that she had been tricked. This guy was not a real man.


Maybe it was the cold fish and squid day after day after day. Or, it was the patch of wet grass they slept on every night at the top of the rocks. The regurgitated throw up was another clue. When he spat stinky oil one day, she knew she had married a fulmar. What?! You have got to be kidding me! I married a sea bird?!

Well, after getting used to the routine, it was not so bad. Food was plentiful and the colony was real festive. Then the fledglings arrived, winters came and went. She learned the language and made friends. She missed the warm fires and human company, but she was too ashamed to go home.

One day her father was out hunting in his skin boat and paddled to the far away island to see his daughter and son-in-law. It had been many years. He missed her and wanted to meet the grandchildren. He was shocked to learn that his daughter was living with a fulmar. He erupted in anger at this deceit. What the heck is going on here!?   You damn liar! So, he hacked the fulmar to death.


He grabbed his daughter and put her in the skin boat. You are comin’ home with me! Right now! And he rowed away into the sea as fast as he could. But the daughter, she was so upset about her husband, and her kids, she began grunting and screaming and cackling. The whole sky filled with fulmars! They came in dive bombing, spitting, stirring up the waves, goin nuts! What are you doing?! You stupid girl! Be quiet! The boat was rockin’ hard back and forth, filling with water and bird guano.

The boat was about to capsize with all the action so pops threw his daughter overboard. She did not know how to swim, and so she clung on to the boat. Father was in a mad panic, grabbed the ax, and cut off all her fingers so that she would let go.


She swirled to the bottom of the sea. Bleeding. Unconscious.   Walrus and sea lion, cod and mackerel – all came by to take a look and say a prayer for her. As she sank deeper and deeper, she transformed herself. Not a human. Not a fulmar. Into the goddess of the sea.


She married a sea scorpion, and befriended an octopus dwarf. She shared gossip with tube worm and clam. She pow wowed with king crab and Ms. eel. The only problem with living at the bottom of the sea, without any fingers, is that it is hard to comb your hair. Luckily, humans send their best and bravest representatives down to sort out the tangles. Pay respects. Apologize for trespasses. And give thanks. This pleases the goddess, and she returns the favor with bountiful schools of sardines, herds of narwhal, and a couple of breeching whales.  sedna.jpeg                                                                                                                                                       The end.



wiri.jpegThe earth is mother.


The sun is the father.


Pup of an agave, eagle’s hatchling, friend of whitetail.  That is what you are.


Greet your cousins wolf and amanita, datura and solandra.  Respect them but do not play with them.


Grandfather fire & grandmother water are cheering you on and rooting for you.  All are family and relatives.




I heard about Tafa’i’s adventures in an old timer’s book about Polynesian navigation.  He was a righteous dude who set Tahiti in place back in the day when Tahiti was a big ol fish.  He cut its sinews with a long hard spear and the fish could swim no more.


Then with his buddies in a double hulled canoe they sailed and paddled everywhere in the ocean.  Tafa’i pulled up more lunkers with his fishhook and set them in place as islands.  He plotted maps so that they could return with women and kids, taro, pigs, coconut, breadfruit, and dogs.


Much later on in the story, he had to battle a man-swallowing kava monster in order to win the favor of a Hawaiian princess and her court of royalty. Of course, he was victorious, and even brought his dead cousins back to life.  But instead of marrying the princess, he goes back to Tahiti and marries a local girl, lives happily ever after.

plants and magic

About a decade ago we set up a day of festivities and speakers celebrating the connection between plants and spirit.  It was sponsored by the San Francisco Botanical Garden and the Conservatory of Flowers.  There was representation from a handful of cultural traditions.  So before the main event (Dr Plotkin), Gamo Da Paz got the crowd dancing to the drums of samba-reggae and Candomble, and Feroz presided over the kava lounge.  Feroz was from Fiji, he brought his bowl and made some nice strong kava.  In every bowl there was smiles and hospitality, kindness and family.  That was my first taste of kava, thanks Feroz!



So kava belongs to a big family named Piperaceae.  There are several thousand members in this family, mostly from the warm and wet regions of the world.  The two primary genera are Peperomia and Piper.  Around these parts, we know Peperomia as our little indoor friend with the roundish or heart shaped leaves.  The Piper we are familiar with in the kitchen is the spice that gives us black pepper and white pepper.  Piper nigrum.  Kava is Piper methysticum, the intoxicating pepper.

Some six or seven years ago a big storm knocked down a bunch of monterey cypress trees at our school.  Somebody craned two whole trees to our yard for some reason, and we ended up chunking them into pieces for chainsaw practice with our tree care class.  Took five or six sessions.  Lucky we had Martin Kutches Jr and his husqy in the class or else we’d still be whittling away.  Anyhow, I salvaged a few big chunks of the material, and hoarded it for some future use.

This spring,  a nice Samoan lady came asking for a kava bowl so that she could do a presentation in her Plant Identification class with Ms. Charmain Giuliani.  The cypress log was now wanted and went to meet Mr Stihl.  Andreas Stihl.


This was the rough cuts all chainsaw.  There was quite a bit of rot in the piece which required some patching.  Thinking back, I probably should have researched what authentic bowls looked like before I got started.  At this stage, I got design input, some polynesian patterns, a request for turtles and dolphins, and began to dremel away.


There is a concave turtle shell inside the bowl, four legs, and a head.  Ok, lets take her to ceremony!


The plant. Comes to us from Carolyn at the Park nursery and Martin Grantham of San Francisco State University, horticulturists extraordinaire.


Our lovely host.  Anonymous here but well known in our garden world.  Good little turtle.


Kneading the root to release its power.  Bowl inside of the bowl because the tung oil had not yet totally dried on the wood,  and best not to mix it with the flavor of kava.  Too bad you cant join us for a coconut bowl of the best stuff.  Drink up!

Tung oil, that comes from a species of Aleurites tree in the Euphorbiaceae family.  Its cousin is the kukui nut tree.  Yup, you probably have one of those shiny black nut necklaces.  Okay, back to the islands, and back to work!  Leave the spurges for another day!




When and where to place plants in the garden is an art and a science. It can be approached analytically based on research and data or in a more intuitive by the feel way. Both are valid. Those inclined towards scientific methods often get stuck in decision making, get boggled down in minutiae, have difficulty finding information concerning specific plants, or become lost in trying to balance and unite all the variables inherent in working with nature. Those who go the artsy route are less bothered by the cumbersome research, but unless they possess experience and field knowledge in addition to their aesthetic tastes, the gardens will flop. Not initially because the artsy person will ensure that the garden will look pretty nice right off the bat, having just picked whatever looks good at the nursery at the moment. It is time that will reveal the character of the garden. That is to say the plants may end up crowded and unhealthy, dangerous by way of mature spines or poisonous saps, and in the end ‘ugly’ because not much thought has been applied to the plant palette growing up together as a garden community. Spacing, root room, shading, weeds and maintenance all play a part in such outcomes. A garden grows and changes in a dynamic fashion and that is its greatest joy. It is not a static picture or arrangement composed for one day of installation. It takes continual hands on human commitment and work if it is to persevere and be happy.

On the analytical side, consider the plants first. In spite of what the designer or landscape architect depicts on the plan, it is hard to predict how big the plant will be in five years or ‘at maturity’. Some plants just keep on growing and do not stop at 5’ diameter by 12’ height simply because somebody wrote that down in a reference text or drew a circle on a piece of vellum. Every plant has a particular growth rate and some get bigger faster, some take forever. For example in our region, the woody perennial Lavatera and the butterfly bushes Buddleia are fast but the Daphne is slow. A dwarf conifer is still three feet tall in fifty years. Also consider the plant’s way of growing and its natural shape. The hummingbird sage Salvia spathacea spreads sideways rhizomatously and may form a nice mat for you over time, but it is uneven and haphazard depending on where the stems decide to pop up. The seaside daisy Erigeron glauca is relatively well behaved, and does make a groundcover about a foot tall or less. And, you can prune it to your liking. A plant with closely planted neighbors often behaves differently from one with ample room to spread out. They are each individual and unique in their approach.

The plants do not grow in isolation or have set patterns that they adhere to. Their size and shape are dependent on the particular garden conditions of sun, water, soil, and wind. All interplay and are dependent on one another. Not enough sun and the plant may reach out farther and farther looking for it and have a floppy leggy look that ‘wasn’t in the catalogs!’ Too much sun and the shade loving plant may get the burned up leaves that have you calling the plant pathologist. Too much water and the plant may rot and drown and get sick with fungal disease, and too little water may cause the plant to become drought stressed, stunted, and not want to grow. Rock or sand? With manure or without? It goes on like this endlessly. There is a range that plants enjoy and are comfortable in, where they seem to sing and flower and hum laughing tunes. There is another range where they are in survival mode, hunkered down, wishing for a killing frost or a typhoon to take them out.

So assuming you figured out and calculated the growth rate, precipitation rate, percentage of sand clay and silt, parts per million of zinc and nitrogen and sulfur, gallons per minute of the variable rate nozzle, hours of daylight and the shade cast by surrounding buildings, the cation exchange rate, and so, there is still the matter of the nursery.

So somehow with the help of computers and scientists everywhere you have drawn up a plant list of the ‘perfect plants’ for your garden. It is based on careful analysis of existing site conditions. You have a plan using three-dimensional simulations which show the garden growing and fading through time, the angle of the sun, the tall plants in the back and the low plants in the front. Everything exactly as you have wanted and planned it. Not a thing out of place or random or unexpected. Good. At the nursery you hand them the plant list and they are like no we don’t have that cultivar you want twenty of. The other plant you want they say we have it only in five gallon plants not one gallon plants. Another plant which the computer said is perfect for our region the nursery says no way we don’t grow that anymore because it was a carrier for this or that disease. Your choice specimen plant in a two-foot box is sold out. You are like “what!’ I gotta go back to the drawing board and redo all my plants!

Then there are the little analytical decisions at the nursery. Do I plant the small four inch pots or the big five gallon pots? Well they say the little plants will grow up fast in a year, and they are cheaper. But the big pots look good, right away! But what will happen in a year, two years, five years down the line?! Do I buy three mud flats of the groundcover, or twenty one gallon pots? My reputation as a designer is riding on this one! Help! And we have not yet even talked about client expectations, aesthetic preferences, and the finicky fashions of horticulture trends… So a strict analytical methodology is not only disconcerting and confusing, it is downright impractical for the landscape designer. Sometimes the pay sounds good but if you calculate the hours?!  The mental stress and anxiety?!

Another way to approach this whole project is by feel and flow. Intuition and imagination. The fiction foil to the nonfiction data and information saturated reality. I suggest that you visualize a mythical animal that lives in your garden space. See its innards and body parts. It is a vertebrate animal, by the way. So for the pieces of back bone, the vertebrae, you find a plant that some old timers called the structure or the bones of the garden. It can be herbaceous or woody, monocot or dicot. But, it has to work. For that spot in the garden. For that neighborhood. For that part of town. For that part of the country. It should be a good looking plant, a proven performer, a plant the nursery actually has. It may be a dependable bloomer eight or nine months of the year, it may have colorful foliage or cool texture and shape. It has to work. So if everything in the garden sucks, the bones hold up. When other plants are dormant or tired or shredded and haggard, this plant is still there, taking care of business. So you lay out this plant in an animalian flow pattern in the garden. Your mythical animal might be a sea snake or dragon, or a griffin stingray, whatever. The vertebra don’t all have to show, since the sea snake goes above and below ground in an undulating pattern.  In some cases it might even be two species of plants that serve as the backbone.  It is okay.

Then you put in a plant for the head of the mythical beast. That in design circles may be called the focal point, in the nursery the specimen plant, and so on. Maybe the beast has two heads, so two crazy cool plants. If you happen to dream of a hydra then you will have a crazy mind blower of a garden like the entrance garden to the San Francisco Botanical Garden but for most gardens that is overkill. Like looking at a movie awards ceremony of dressed up peoples everyday. The beauty in a small garden lies in the occasional kabamm spaced out in time, not constant stimulation.

Then, having the head and the bones, it is time to fill in the muscles and sinew and tendons, the appendages if any, the skin and colors, the internal organs and the frills of feathers and fur, iridescence and rough folds. Any number of smaller shrubs, herbaceous perennials, bulbs and corms and tubers, annuals, vegetables are all excellent. For most clients six or eight plant species in a small San Francisco residential yard is sufficient. If they are gardeners they appreciate diversity and understand complexity. But if they are not gardeners, many plant species stuns the client and causes them to lose their bearings and you to lose the design job. Remember it is a mythical creature you are working with. So it may have fins or legs, wings or a long slimy tail. What this means in horticulture language is that you may have a long swathe of daffodils in yellow and white, with a pair of rockroses and lavenders anchoring the northern slope. A set of manzanitas and sages on the eastern flats.  The mythical creature may have a belly that lights up with colors in the spring and summer evenings. That, in garden tongue, is the field of four o’clocks or Iceland poppies at the entrance to the garden.

Knowledge of information and its limitations, pushing gardening boundaries and making mistakes, and a magical framework are all important to consider in plant selection and placement. To combine the workings of art and science in the garden is the challenge. The best designs grow out of field experience and careful observations of plants in their habitats. For this, it is essential that good designers garden religiously, hike and wander profusely, and are patient as they meditate on nature through time. Do not fret and worry about the little decisions in the garden. Plop ‘em in and see what happens! Most importantly, enjoy the trees and learn as the years stream by. Good luck in your plant adventures!