Friday, March 22, 2024

Bambara Nut Planting

Meet another Ground Nut, the Bambara Nut. Bambara are related to peanuts, and are cultivated all over Southern Africa.
These nuts are actually beans with a remarkable pattern of growth, very like peanuts. They grow up as plants and flower in the open air. Once the flower in pollinated, it starts to extend the flower stem (the pedicel) down towards the ground - and then right on into the ground. The seed pod generally contains one seed, and it develops underground connected to the plant above via the pedicel running down from the branching plant above. It takes about four months for the seeds to ripen. There are more than food values to them - they are part of Traditional Medicine in some locations, though the details are a separate topic. We are growing them to eat.

Harest involves pulling the entire plant out of the ground (after it turns yellow at the end of the growing season), doing so very carefully - all those Banyan-tree like structures running down from the plant stems are not roots, each is a pedicel and leads to a subterranean seed pod. Pull the pods off gently and allow them to dry in an airy, shaded location. Seed storage is normally in the pods to protect them from weevils and other bugs. Shelling them just before preparation is normal.

Getting them started is a matter of soaking them overnight, then rinsing them well and planting them in a suitable soil. We are starting our first crop with seeds purchased online as food, and starting them in 3" square and 9" deep tree pots. We fill them with soil and plant the soaked seeds four to a pot and about 1" deep, covering with more soil. A cactus mix might work well instead. It has taken them two weeks to sprout, and they are sprouting at a good rate.

We are growing them in mounds of a pearlite-sand-coir-bark mixture that we use as an all-purpose soil for growing seasonally dormant bulbs, but that is fancier than needed - these are specialists in poor soils that fix their own nitrogen from the air. Sandy and not waterlogged are very useful traits for the growing soil, basically you need to be able to pull the seed pods out of the ground when the plant is ready without breaking the somewhat fragile stem leading to the pod. We will post again when we harvest!

Usually, these are grown for consumption in the same household where they are grown. The nuts are a complete food all by themselves. In the latin naming system, these are Vigna subterranea. There are many common names used for these nuts, each of which tends to be localized to a specific region. A decent list of regional names can be found here.These names are encountered in South Africa:

  • Jugoboon
  • Ditloo-marapo
  • Izindlubu
  • Indlubu
  • Jugo bean
  • Nduhu
  • Phonda
  • Ndlowu
  • Njugo
  • Tindlubu
  • Inhlowa

The South African Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries has produced a solid introductory document about Bambara Nuts, which is a good place to start further reading: A much more detailed view is available from the 2022 book Bambara groundnut: Utilization and Future Prospects by Jideani and Jideani.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Late Winter Mushroom Foraging and the Black Chanterelles

It has been a wonderfully wet Winter in California this year - that means mushrooms! A gem that we never get enough of is flourishing this year, the Black Chanterelle.
These unexpected looking mushrooms are Craterellus cornucopioides, variously described as "black petunias" sitting in the duff, or "holes in spacetime that you cook Risotto with" (ok, that one is mine). We usually have a few each year, however, this year we have enough to cook with!

There are very few mushrooms these can be confused with, though the list isn't empty! If you want to pick and eat your own mushrooms, always start by joining your local mycological society and going on some of their forrays. We are long time members of the Mycological Society of San Francisco (at and it is an eclectic and fun group. Local knowledge is essential, and your local mycological society will have experts on the local ones that are safe to start with, and the ones best left for photography rather than culinary purposes. You can die from eating the wrong mushroom, plant, or animal - if you are going to forage, then "apprentice" to local folks doing the same to learn how to do it safely. My first finding of a tasty edible was about a quarter century ago, and when I brought it to the gentleman doing the identification, he joked "I'll tell you what it is if you give me half and tell me where you found them"... coming from a chef, I sort of had my answer... he even helped me confirm the identity of the mushrooms without actually asking for any.

Rocket Fuel and Mushroom overlap! Helvella dryophila makes rocket fuel as a toxin to prevent its being eaten! The Oak-loving Elfin Saddle has a much longer season than the Black Chanterelle while being an even more improbable looking beastie:

This is a distant relative of the famous Morel mushroom, and others in this group have amazing properties - while some folks consider this "edible, but not worth the trouble" since it must be cooked thoroughly, the very thing that is being driven off is rocket fuel. Yes, this is a mushroom that makes toxic rocket fuel to prevent its being eaten. The material in question in monomethyl hydrazine. Really. I tend to cook these thoroughly (see hydrazine - not food) and put them into my eggs (cook before putting in the eggs!) before scrambling them. Eat entirely at your own risk - I strongly suggest going to some mycological society forrays and talking about the different perspectives on Gyromitrin and some of the other toxins in this group, how to mitigate and remove them, and whether it is worth the effort at all. Wikipedia has a short article on this mushroom's kin:

How about some tea on a cold evening? Probably not the tea made from this mushroom, yet it is an important element of several First Nations traditional medical practice, as well as being commercially available in several forms, generally from Traditional Chinese medical practicioners, though I've even seen tea containing it show up in some local specialty shops. Meet Trametes versicolor, a common mushroom on fallen oak and tanoak logs. Locally it is called Turkey Tail and several other names. Once again, join your local mycological society for experienced guidance on how, when, and where to collect and use this if you are inclined to try, or just go with the farmed commercial material. This is however able to be found almost year-round in our local mountains, most frequently in the deep, moist woods and on fallen hardwoods. It is a delightful and beautiful sight, stumbling across a log or stump covered with these.

Read more about Trametes here:

Here are a few others from recent walks. These two are different types of Waxy Caps (not food):

Below is a member of the Club Fungi, I think Ramariopsis but am not certain (not food):
For a few years during the recent drought, mushrooms became rarer encounters. It feels great to have all these old friends popping up when I explore the forest again! Get out into the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Open Space preserves and such this month and you may well meet amazing mushrooms and fungi - if you are wanting to collect some, try Point Reyes National Seashore and follow the rules.

Thursday, January 4, 2024

The Mockingbird and the Bulbine

Animals have opinions of things just like people do. Evidently we have a Northern Mockingbird that has it in for some plants we grow called Bulbine mesembryanthemoides. Bulbines are succulent lily relatives, with most of the ones we grow coming from the Winter rainfall regions of South Africa. They die back to the ground when the weather gets hot and dry. The ones we like a lot are also "picture leaf" succulents, with leaves that push their transparent tips above the sand and gravel, then most of the leaf is hidden in the ground, yet photosynthesis happens largely underground in the burried green part of the leaf. This is what they look like in cultivation with a bit more of the leaf exposed than is always the case in habitat:
However, the Mockingbird has reduced this to a "hopefully it will live" condition:
Another species is Bulbine haworthioides, which looks like this in cultivation for us:
It hasn't been pecked with the exuberance of some of the other species, yet has taken damage from our Mockingbrid:
Yet another species under attack is Bulbine bruynsi, this one shows light damage and is the least damaged photo I have from this year:
B. bryunsii after Mockingbird attack is a lot less photogenic, and I worry whether it will be able to set seeds:
Birds do not sit still and pose for my photography the way plants do, so the image quality of my photo of the culprit is a wee bit "Loch Ness Monster" quality:
I have questions: This bird and this plant have no natural range overlap - what is the bird getting from the plant? Is this medicine, or a treat, or something it feels some way about? Mockingbirds drink dewdrops, and one idea is that the plants with their crystalline looking leaves appear to be constantly covered in dewdrops. Once pecked, the leaves are clear gel much like from an Aloe vera leaf, so the bird gets a drink as it expects. Now to practical matters: Defense of the plants. I purchased a fistful of 3/16" diameter 3' long dowel rods. I cut them into bits that fit the tray length, and used the remainder of the 4 dowels as verticals. I cut four crosspieces from two more dowels (each about 12" long). I also bought a bag of wooden beads from a craft shop and used a drill press to turn them into vertices of the structure (3 holes at 90 degrees to each other). I assembled this into a rectangular frame that I could fit over the plants, and draped mesh over it. So far, it is working.
I'll update if this continues to work to protect these plants. With luck, they can set seeds successfully in here as well.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Picking Saffron

See those orange threads in the centers of the these flowers? Those orange threads, when separated from the rest of the flower, spread out and dried, are the spice Saffron! It turns out growing Saffron is not that hard. Picking it is a bit different, especially in our yard where it isn't gardening or farming, it is "feeding the deer" far too often. The critters in the forest really love almost everything we plant, so fencing becomes important. Saffron is actually a crocus that flowers in the Fall. These small bulbs are from the eastern shore of the Mediterranean sea, where the Summers are hot and rainless, and the Winters are mild and have some rain. To grow them in California, we plant the bulbs about 4" deep on a well drained sandy slope (thin soil over sandstone). The slope aims west, to the sunsets. There are tall trees to the east, so there is little early sun. There are small shrubs and the ones that do best are right under the driplines of the shrubs. This may be because it is harder for the deer to get their faces into the place to eat the leaves.
They flower in November for us on the San Francisco penninsula, with the leaves coming up with the flowers or just after them. The leaves persist until late Spring, often into early June. Then they want no water at all over the long, hot Summer. This is both a permaculture crop (plant once, harvest many years) and a dryland farming crop. The first commercial Saffron farm in the area is just down by the coast from us. We just grow saffron for our own use. Saffron is a great plant for California as it works on rainfall alone - we do not irrigate our Saffron. In drier years it may not flower as abundantly, though it will still flower.

Monday, September 6, 2021

Biarum carratracense subterranean seed development

You know that feeling of anticipation when a small package that is long awaited arrives from far away? Someone in our household recently got a taste of that with the arrival of a new species of Biarum from afar (well, Oregon). This one contained a new to our garden species of Biarum!
If you've never heard of Biarum, that is because they are a pretty obscure bunch of plants found largely around the Mediterranean. The tallest ones are barely one foot tall in leaf, and they can be so inconspicuous that you can be walking through a field full of them and have the greatest trouble actually finding one. That is, if you nose is clogged or they aren't in flower. These are fly pollinated miniature relatives of the famous Corpse Flower (Amorphophallus titanum which has the largest flower structure of any plant). The flowers range through quite a range of intricate forms, from the jellyfish-vase-something-else shaped flowers of Biarum davisii
to the more conventionally shaped flowers of Biarum carratracense.
Both the photos above show plants in pots that are 2.825" wide at the top - so these are not large flowers! In fact, here is a photo of a Biarum flower just about to open (emerging from the small pot sitting inside the large pot) for scale next to a well-past-it's-prime flowering specimen of Amorphophallus konjac standing a bit more than four feet tall.
These plants tend to flower before or after the leaves have grown, so the flowers tend to emerge from bare ground. Most of the flower is below ground, and the seeds develop underground until they are ripe. In this way they resemble the completely unrelated genus Gethyllis from South Africa. This is the view down into one of the flowers of Biarum zelebourii earlier this year.
The seeds develop completely underground as a cluster of berries. The berries contain a single seed each. Clusters of berries are pushed above ground when they ripen, though the creatures that the berries are intended for are not well documented. Normally these in-development berries are hidden underground, and hence cannot be seen. While repotting Biarums recently that I expected to be fully dormant, I discovered this one with both root growth for the new year and developing berries:
If you want to try growing Biarum, there are very few commercial sources. These are some of the ones we have been able to get tubers from recently (we have used these sources, have no ties to them, and have no monetary or other kickbacks, affiliate programs, etc... with them for making the recommendations):

The Pacific Bulb Society - a nonprofit that has seed and bulb exchanges available to members several times a year, must be a member to participate

Rare Plants Nursery, United Kingdom Shipping is expensive, the plants are as advertised and always arrived for us in excellent condition

Illahe Rare Bulbs This one is tricky - they offer their catalog once a year, in late July into August, for a few weeks only. Often have excellent prices, quality is spectacular, and Mark is communicative if you need support or have questions. The old catalogs are posted for archival purposes - and the blog format to find the catalogs when posted is confusing, at least to me.

Seeds of Peace - Oron Perri runs this seed and bulb farm in Israel. He generally grows everything - the seeds and the bulbs. Often has several species unobtainable elswere. Quality I've received is excellent uniformly, seeds arrive in a week or two typically.

Telos Rare Bulbs - a California operation, catalog lists items when available, so order right then if you see something. Diana has always shipped me very high quality plants. One of my longest running an favorite rare bulb sources!

LIBERTO’s SEEDS AND BULBS Eleftherios Dariotis growing bulbs near Athens, Greece - I've always had excellent interactions and high quality materials from him. He sells on eBay sometimes, and directly other times. He also produces an annual catalog he emails out in Summer. You have to email him at eldaebay at to get on his email list. Ask him about Biarum - he may have some not in his catalog due to small quantities being available.

If you know other sources, please make a comment and I'll update this list.

To obtain a "Permit to Import Plants and Plant ProductsRegulated by 7 CFR 319 Subpart - Plants for Planting" from the US Department of Agriculture go here and apply - they are free and enable legal importation of foreign plants (PPQ 587 is the form you are looking for): for overview of the permit process> for a blank permit form you can fill out in your browser and print to send in. If you are going to do a lot of permits, you can get put into the online system for applying for and managing permits - you have to take your passport into the USDA and make an appointment and all that.

It all begins with a flower... or is it a seed... which comes first, the flower or the seed? Er, yes, the seed came first, perhaps by a hundred million years. Happy gardening!

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Biarum zelebourii flowering for us for the first time

Biarum zelebourii flowering

This is a distant relative of the Calla Lily. It is found in Syria - this one came, in a roundabout fashion, from seeds collected outside Qalaat Majm in 1991. We purchased a tuber from a grower in the UK last year (their listing for the species is here). I am unable to find a single photo of this species on the web, so decided to put up at least one photo!


Biarum zelebourii

Biarum consists of about 21 currently recognized species. They grow around the Mediterranean and into the Middle East, none of them like snow or freezing temperatures, and all are dormant over the long, dry summer months.

Most species bloom in the Fall, with a few odd ones deciding to flower in the Spring after the leaves have died down.

I've been interested in Biarum for about 30 years, and have grown them before only to discover squirrels seem to delight in digging these up and eating them. Last year our son, BD, was looking through a catalog of unusual bulbs with me and fell in love with another species, Biarum davisii, immediately. He decided to do things to collect enough money so he could have his very own. Unfortunately, we ordered a bit too late and they were sold out. Thus began a quest across three continents via the internet, it having been 2020, to find and acquire his first Biarum.

We finally had success in Greece, where many of the species are native. A note about buying plants outside the USA - you will want to take a minute to apply for an import permit with the USDA so customs doesn't just take your plant. Use the PPQ Form 587 to apply for your permit. Expect it to take about two weeks to issue, and there are more rules that have to be followed (a phytosanitary certificate is needed, for example). Then you can safely bring in your plants from overseas.

One of the really neat things about these plants is how they are pollinated - they emit heat (there are "warm blooded" plants!?!) and trap flies (they smell like rotting things, much like their larger kin, the Amorphophallus or Titan Arums). Unlike them, the smell is very localized. The spadix (the large "tongue" emerging from the flower) appears to be something insects can crawl into the flower on. Once there, they encounter obstacles that force them past pollen bearing structures and the female parts of the flower, in some species trapping the bugs until the next morning.

For comparison, here is our Amorphophallus konjac finishing flowering (about four feet tall) alongside our son's Biarum zelebourii in bud:

Amorphophallus konjac flower and Biarum zelebourii flower for scale comparison

We grow these in our standard "desert bulb" soil mix (1 part coir fiber by volume, 1 part pearlite by volume, 1 part agricultural grade pumice by volume, and some slow release organic bulb food, and generally some garnet sand) in deep but small pots (the pot for the Biarum in the above photos is 3" wide and 7" tall).

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Fires in the Western United States, 2020

Watching the planet from the various instruments that are available in orbit offers some really clear insights into just how unusual the fires of 2020 were - not just in California, but across the West, including in Oregon, Colorado, and Washington. I screen captured (from the NASA firms system) one-week integrations of all the points on the ground that registered as "on fire" in the infrared and stitched them into a short movie.

At the beginning of the year, the fires are almost all in agricultural lands of the Central Valley. Fire pixels tend to be isolated or in very small groups, representing the burning of individual or groups of fields. This is from the week spanning February 5th through 11th, 2020.

By the end of October, the fires are mostly in the wildlands, and once again are small and distributed widely. Notice the large organized fires in the Sierra Nevada Mountains just below picture center - this is the end of on of the massive fires.

Compare either of the above photos with this one from the week of September 9th through 15th, 2020 - look at the numerous large fires that are crossing the Cascades, North Coast Ranges, Sierra Nevada, and San Gabriel Mountains.


Having just one of these mesoscale fires is unusual, having a dozen or more is unprecedented. These are burning concurrently, not just in the fire prone areas of Southern California, but in the Redwood forests of the Northern California coast and completely crossing several of the largest mountain ranges in North America.

The reasons for this are numerous and complex, and the topic of my next post.