Candy and Real Food — It's All Here to Enjoy!

Text and photo by Gabi McLean

(reprinted with permission from the The Paintbrush, Summer 2018, San Gabriel Mountains Chapter of the California Native Plant Society)

Roger Klemm calls them “eye-candy”, and he discovered – and shared on Facebook – lots of them. They are the spring flowers that have been prolific this season, especially in the areas where fire raged in the past summer or fall. We are so fortunate that we can experience many of these eye-candies in our natural gardens as well, without having to endure a fire in our garden. Some of those fire-following annuals are available in the horticultural trade, or you can grow them from seed: Arroyo and Stinging Lupine (Lupinus succulentus and L. hirsutissimus), Wild Canterbury Bells (Phacelia minor), Chia (Salvia columbaria) and Globe Gilia (Gilia capitata), and the impressive Chaparral Snapdragon (Antirrhinum multiflorum). My experience in our own garden in Covina has been that even though I put out seeds for Arroyo Lupine and Globe Gilia in earlier years, only in years after we had fires nearby, nearby meaning up to 10 miles away, have they come up. I am assuming that the winds brought just enough smoke and ash particles into our area to help with the germination of these species.

Besides annuals, there are bulbs and corms that do exceptionally well after fires. Among them are Blue Dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum), Goldenstar (Bloomeria crocea), Soap Plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum), and White Star Lily (Toxicoscordion fremontii). You might find bulbs or corms or seeds in the trade, rarely potted plants. Bulbs for our local White Fairy Lanterns (Calochortus albus), Plummer’s Mariposa Lily (Calochortus plummerae), and Yellow Mariposa Lily (Calochortus clavatus) are usually not available in the trade, so come and enjoy them in the wild. They are considered a rare find. Share information about their whereabouts only with people you know are responsible and won’t disturb, collect, or otherwise harm them or hamper their natural reproduction.

For perennials, the Showy Penstemon (Penstemon spectabilis), pictured here, comes to mind. I have had no luck in other years, but this spring, we enjoyed a beautiful specimen in our garden which came up from seed. It sprouted in an odd place so I transplanted it to a new sunny spot where it now attracts hummingbirds, native bees, and admiring neighbors.

Penstemon spectabilis

One shrub that we can enjoy for a few years after a fire, and in our gardens, is the Bush Poppy (Dendromecon rigida) which is readily available in our native plant nurseries. Its large yellow flowers pair nicely with its blue-green foliage and their flowering time is quite long; they love sunny slopes and are quite drought resistant.

Real food from our natural garden
Besides eye-candy, there is also real food to be had from our gardens. Before the berries and grapes ripen, I love to use young grape leaves from 'Roger’s Red' to make a variety of stuffed grape leaves recipes, either with a meat stuffing or also delicious as a vegetarian treat. I use Purple Sage (Salvia leucophylla) leaves in my pasta water and for seasoning chicken and lamb dishes. And if you were brave enough to add a Prickly Pear Cactus to your plant palette, now is the time to harvest the young pads and use them for nopalitos, in a wide variety of recipes. I hear from longtime cactus advocates that the cactus pads are good for diabetes sufferers, with claims that it actually provides a cure. But I am not a nutritionist nor a doctor, so don’t take my word for it. In any case, if you harvest the pad, make sure to remove the spines and glochids before cooking. You can find instructions on how-to remove spines and glochids on YouTube, as well as a multitude of recipes. I like them all!

If you would like to share your favorite native plant recipe or your natural garden history with other CNPS members and plant lovers, please contact me at

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