Frank Landis' Blog

What genius looks like in a hummingbird
October 29, 2011, 7:03 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: ,

I’ve got a small hummingbird feeder on the back balcony, next to the room where I’ve turned into my office.

Young Anna’s hummingbirds (and the occasional adult) use it regularly, draining it every few days. There’s usually one that sits on the tomato trellis and guards it, but they trade the role around every few weeks.

When the feeder gets low and I have the door open, one hummingbird flies in about two meters, hovers loudly until it has my attention, then turns around and flies back out, ostentatiously dipping its beak once in the empty feeder before it leaves the area.

I know my cue: I clean the feeder, put more sugar water in, and put it back out, and a happy hummingbird comes by in a few minutes to suck down on the fresh sugar. I’ve done this five times now in the last few weeks.

Obviously, cats know how to point at things, but it’s interesting to see the same behavior in something whose body is smaller than the cat’s brain. It doesn’t take much of a brain to be smart, does it?

So far as I can tell, only one bird has figured out how to tell me to change the feeder. It will be fun to see if any of the others learn the trick.

Is this social genius, or problem-solving genius? Or both?

Compare this with the dumb hummingbird, who got trapped in the same room a couple of months ago. He flew in through the open door, and I found him sometime later buzzing around the white ceiling. Did he think it was the sky? He buzzed around, poor little beak touching the ceiling, unwilling to drop even a foot down and go out the door. I lured him out by raising the feeder up to where he could see it, near the wide open door. Once he started drinking from it, I slowly lowered through the door. Once he was outside, he immediately flew away. I don’t know why he didn’t fly back out the door, or why he saw a white ceiling as a blue sky, but he panicked and got stuck.

There you have it. There are smart hummingbirds, and there are dumb hummingbirds. Natural variation on the back balcony.

I’m not sure how to photograph the smart one doing his thing. That’s the next puzzle.


Rare Plant Survey Reports 1: Fiesta Island and Silver Strand Elementary
August 16, 2011, 6:49 pm
Filed under: California Native Plants, Real Science, Uncategorized | Tags: ,

This spring, the CNPSSD rare plant survey committee surveyed dune plants on beaches up and down the coast. I’ve been putting our work together in reports that were sent to the agencies, and I’m posting them here as I finish them.

Here are the first two, from Fiesta Island and from Silver Strand Elementary.

Silver Strand Elementary Rare Plant Survey Report

Fiesta Island Rare Plant Survey Report

Seed Ball, one year later
August 2, 2011, 12:56 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

Fun in August!

Last August and September, the CNPSSD email list hosted a long discussion about seed “bombs,” or rather seed balls. At the September meeting, a man came forward to provide his seed balls free to CNPSSD as a demo. They reportedly contained the seeds of ten native plant species.

I have a dish on my patio where I grow native annuals, so I dropped the seed ball in that dish. My first experiences with it are chronicled in a previous blog entry. Now it’s eleven months later, and I decided to end the project.

As can be seen in the pictures below, there are two species now growing in that dish: some sort of italian ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum) and sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima). The ball also grew a California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) in the spring, and it flowered and died.

Seed ball finale. The left picture is the dish, the right picture shows the remnants of the seed ball with the plants growing out of it. Click on the pictures to enlarge them.

Today I took the pictures, ended the experiment by ripping out the weeds, roots and all (they’d rooted through the pot), and planted a Dudleya pulverulenta that needed a new location.

This experiment has a couple of important learning points: one is that seed source is critical. Even if the seed ball maker used what he thought were nothing but California native plants, the evidence unequivocally says there were weed seeds in that ball. The second is that only two plants will grow from a ball at a time (the poppy came up and died before the grass grew). If there were 100 seeds in that ball, then 97% failed.

For do-it-yourself seedball makers: Do realize that you can spread weeds with seed balls. If you insist on making seed balls for a project, ideally you should collect your own seed, assuming you can identify the plants correctly. A second choice is to buy pure seed from a reputable dealer. Good dealers will tell you how much weed seed is in their mix. That number is rarely zero, despite everyone’s best efforts.

If you buy a packet of “wildflower seed,” for your seed ball mix, you have to realize that “WILDFLOWER” is an industry term for a certain group of annual plants, some of which are weeds in California. You actually have to look at the species list to see what is in the packet, and to make sure they are all California natives. If reading such a list perturbs you, don’t use wildflower seed packets.

It is ALWAYS possible for weed seed to get mixed in, simply by accident. If you’re not planning on weeding a site after you seed ball it, my advice is not to throw seed balls. We have enough weeds in this county already, and we don’t need people spreading more.

Rare Dune Plant Briefing
March 8, 2011, 10:06 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Not my usual briefing, but I figure this is a way to send the document to people who want to use it.

Let me know if there are any issues with this pdf.

Rare Plant Briefing–Rough Draft

Native Plant Art Contest!
February 3, 2011, 3:45 pm
Filed under: California Native Plants, Uncategorized | Tags: ,

Native Plant Week is the April 17 to 23, and San Diego County has more native plants than any other county in the U.S. To celebrate native plants, CNPSSD is holding a Native Plant Art Contest. Attendees at the March 15th General Meeting will select the winning image, and the chapter will use the image on our website and in other formats during plant week, and we will distribute it to the media and other non-profits to promote and celebrate native plants.

Calling all artists! You can enter one or more times, and the winner will receive a prize: a one-year individual membership in CNPS or cash equivalent ($45). The contest is open to everyone.

Both photos and artwork are welcome, but the image must meet four criteria, under the judgment of the volunteers running the contest. The criteria are:

1. A California native plant that is native to San Diego or Imperial County must be the dominant feature in the image. Native means that it has grown wild in San Diego or Imperial County since 1491. Dominant feature means that the native plant is noticeably larger than any other feature of the image. Non-native plants are not acceptable. The San Diego Native Plant Atlas is a good reference (

2. The plant must be identified in the application, and it must be recognizable. An orange lollipop is not a California poppy.

3. The image must not contain the title of the piece, the artist’s name, a copyright or other watermark, or other problematic material.

4. The image must look good under multiple formats. The image will be used in a variety of media, and four versions of the image must be submitted to demonstrate its versatility.

Images must be submitted online to by February 26, 2011. The email application must include:

1. Applicant’s name, address, phone, and email address

2. The title of the piece, and the name (common and/or scientific) of the plant represented in the image.

3. Four versions of the image, either in jpg or pdf, attached to the email, the biggest no more than 3 megabytes in size: a) an 8.5” x 11” color image; b) an 8.5” x 11” grayscale copy of the image; c) a 1”wide color image, and d) a 1” wide grayscale image. If the image is naturally grayscale, only images b and d must be submitted. These must all be versions of the same image: simply resize the image and change color to grayscale to make the different versions. Do not crop or recolor the image.

4. A statement saying: A) that the artist(s) owns copyright to the image, B) that they are the creator of the image, and if the work is derived from another copyrighted artwork, they either own the original artwork or had permission to create the image submitted. C) That they will allow CNPSSD to use the image without cost or issue until January 1, 2012, and D) that they take responsibility for any issues of ownership, and they release CNPS and CNPSSD from all legal responsibility in regard to issues arising over questions of ownership of the images submitted.

CNPSSD will screen all submissions to determine whether they are complete and meet our criteria. If the submission passes, we will contact the artist and ask them to submit a physical copy for the March 15th contest. We will ask the contest winner to grant CNPSSD sole use of the image until January 1, 2012 without charge, and free use of the image thereafter.

Seed Balling and Guerrilla gardeners
October 19, 2010, 2:49 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

At the CNPS-SD plant sale last weekend, I helped Amy Huie sell seeds (Hi Amy!). We had this little legalistic statement on the seed packets, about how they were for landscaping use only, not for restoration. Now as far as I know, that little phrase on the seed packet is a reminder that the seeds came from a commercial vendor, and we have no idea where they were harvested. The idea is that people can do whatever they want on their private property, but we’re not going to recommend that they scatter them in the wild.

One of the customers said, “what does this notice mean? What if we ARE planning on using them for restoration?” I questioned her, and it turned out she wanted to scatter the seeds (including California poppies) in a nearby park. According to her, it was all empty, with Eucalyptus and stuff, and (as I found out through more questions), lots of mustard. She wanted to make it more natural, and she didn’t like that we were being all legalistic. I guess she felt we were criticizing her environmental inclinations, her desire to be a Ninja Do-Gooder in its latest, most fashionable phase: the guerrilla gardener.

We’re seeing more of that guerrilla gardening thing around this year. For example: seed balls, mistakenly called seed bombs. At the last CNPS meeting, a guy handed out seed balls, after he inadvertently sparked an online discussion because someone implied that his balls contained invasives. For the record, those balls don’t contain invasives, just 8-10 species of California native plants, and at least a hundred seeds per ball.

I took one of those balls home and pitched it in the pot I grow native annuals in. The ball was an inch round of solid red clay and it didn’t shatter as it was supposed to. It bounced (surprise surprise) . The thunderstorms a few weeks ago triggered something to germinate, and at least 10 seedlings sprouted right next to each other. A week later, they were all dead. The clay had dried out, and they could not reach the soil. With the current rains, something else is sprouting on top of that ball, but I’m not holding out much more hope for it either.

Even if something does survive, there’s only space for one plant to grow in that ball’s footprint, so 99% of his seeds are wasted at the outset, never mind the ones that will strangle each other through competition. This ball was badly designed, but I’m having fun watching it, just to understand how it’s failing, in detail. I recommend this exercise to anyone who (like me) thinks seed balls are cool. Reality is cool too, and she’s a better teacher.

And so it goes with guerrilla gardening. Seed balls are fun, making them keeps little fingers busy, and since everyone’s talking about them, they must work, right? Moreover, you get to Stick it To Da Man and Help Mother Nature by throwing something over a fence, and that just feels right. Especially if, unlike me, you’re optimistic.

Does it work? Well, that’s the awkward part: I’ve heard one story of seed balls used to sow evening primrose into a canyon restoration. So far that’s it. If you’ve got more stories, please share them.

As for designing seed balls, I’ve started telling people to a) read The One Straw Revolution so that you can see how seed balls were originally made and used (hint, it’s not quite what we’re doing now), b) to use fewer seeds and 1-2 species per ball, so that something has a chance of making it (unless you like wasting seed, which I don’t), and c) if you want that ball to shatter, don’t make it out of solid clay. Otherwise, you’re going to make a seed bomb, which, as you might guess, is going to bomb. Badly.

And while it’s nice to keep little fingers busy making seed balls, maybe we should be teaching little fingers how to grow plants successfully? That’s a little harder, but I think the lesson (“Wow! Mommy taught me how to grow plants. She’s really smart.”) might be more useful than what they’re learning from seed ball making (“ooh, I can make a mess, and it’s fun, but the plants didn’t grow.”) Just saying.

As for the would-be guerrilla gardener from last Saturday, I learned from her that her partner was helping collect seeds for CNPS. So I gently suggested that, while CNPS could never condone trespassing or doing things without permission, if they were insistent on doing something about that park, they should collect seeds from the nearby canyons and plant them. If they followed those very nice collecting guidelines that CNPS has. And after they got the mustard under control.

She didn’t purchase many seeds, and I feel a little bad about depriving CNPS of her money. Then again, do we really need more California poppies in our local parks? It’s not like they’re locally native.

What do you think?

October 12, 2010, 9:53 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

Time’s fun when you’re having flies. Right now, we’re getting new tiles to replace the linoleum in our house, and I’m looking at the things I need to do for the next few months.

–Oh yes, EIR review. Fun. There’s a lot of CNPS activities on right now. For example, on October 16, there will be a plant sale at the Prado in Balboa Park. I’ll be there, and we need to sell a lot of plants.

–Rare plants. Starting in November (November 9 to be precise), I’ll be kicking off the 2011 rare plant survey season. The magic question: what to survey next year? Ideas are welcome.

–I’m trying to figure out better ways to monitor developments. It seems that one way for developers to economize is to paper over issues in developments (rare plants, etc) and hope no one notices. If you’ve got ideas about how to get around this, or if you want to join in one experimental effort, contact me here or via email.

–In the past, I’ve done some educational walks for CNPS. Since I’ll have to have a real job next spring, it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to lead walks for a while. I’m thinking about putting down some of my ideas, for other hike leaders. Tentative titles include: yes, you can talk for an hour about poison oak (especially if other Anacardiaceae are around), fun with Baccharis (or how to make Rick Halsey break a broom baccharis branch), fun with Artemisia, etc. Question is, will anyone read it? Let me know.

Probably there are a lot of other things, but I’ll save them for a later post. I’ve been neglecting this blog for a while.

Happy Fourth of July
June 29, 2010, 8:07 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Happy Fourth to all. I hope everyone gets the picnic food and fireworks that they want. Kye Ok is working this weekend, so our celebration is going to be something fairly low key in the evening. Perhaps we’ll be walking outside and watching the neighboring high school. Last year they had a fireworks display in the middle of their football field, and I hope that they do it again this year.

That’s one of the challenges being married to someone in the medical field. They work on weekends and holidays.

Back when I was fresh out of college, one reason I decided not to go into wildlife was that you have to work on the animals’ schedules, and most people don’t get that or you. Why are you banding ducks on the Fourth of July?, they’d ask. You could have all the beer you wanted if only you would be a normal person and come to my party.

Plants are more accommodating in a 9 to 5 world, and that’s one of the many reasons I went into botany. Still, I’ve gotten nasty, nasty remarks from zoologists I’ve worked with, who assume that you can go out with them at 4 am. They’ll survey their birds, while you map the vegetation in the dark… They’re done by 10 am and call it an eight hour day, while you’re just halfway into mapping. But I’m not cynical about that industry. Really.

Now, of course, I’m sharing my life with a wonderful woman who works with those strange animals called people. And people get sick at all sorts of inconvenient times, so she has to work an inconvenient schedule. Come to our wonderful party, our relatives say (our friends know better than to drop snap invitations). Sorry, we reply. Kye Ok’s got to work, and anyway, if we’d wanted to take the 4th off, we would have had to schedule it last year.. And so it goes.

That’s how life is these days. Holidays need to be scheduled six months to a year in advance.

Still, the Fourth of July is as close as we get to a summer solstice celebration. I hope everyone reading this has a happy fourth, whatever you do.

May 11, 2010, 6:20 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

Once a month? I’d rather blog more often than that, but I’ve gotten seduced by a beautiful little plant, the San Diego thornmint.

Actually, that’s not quite the true story. Back in the winter, I got persuaded to take on the rare plant committee for my local CNPS chapter, and so I naively volunteered to run a survey for this cute little endangered thornmint that I didn’t even know. A hundred hours or so later, I’m supervising a crew of thirty-two wonderful volunteers who are out all over San Diego County looking at historical populations of this little annual and sending the information to me so that I can collate it.

The fun really started when the thornmints communally decided (possibly through telepathy, though more likely through physiology) to bloom a month late. My carefully crafted plan to survey them in April shattered, because non-blooming thornmints are darlings things about an inch across, and they’re *hard* to spot. Fortunately, the volunteers have been great about re-aligning their weekend schedules around their childrens’ finals so that we can go out and find them. They’re out there. We’ve found thousands of the little cuties, which is good news.

But I’m not sure that the thornmints are to blame for me blogging once per month.

I’ve got a 140,000 word novel manuscript that I’m polishing to submit for publication, and I’ve been spending a lot of time learning about the ins and outs of the publishing industry. It’s a different world out there, and I’ll see how it goes. The process has similarities to publishing an academic paper or writing a grant proposal. Every publisher wants to see something different, and they may want a query letter, a pitch, a proposal including a synopsis (short, medium, or long), sample chapters or the first 10 or 50 pages, and/or an outline (which is a chapter-by-chapter synopsis up to 10 pages long). Many publishers say that they want submissions only from agents, while there are several blogs that say that following these rules doesn’t work. It’s the granting process run by English majors.

So guess what I’m writing? All of the above. That’s what’s taking the time. It’s certainly a learning experience.

Happy May!

Curing the Green Blurs
March 31, 2010, 11:01 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

This is turning into a rite of spring. “Curing the Green Blurs” was Mike Mesler’s subtitle for his plant taxonomy class at Humboldt State University. I took that class, and TA’ed it three times, and it’s still one of my favorite classes. Nowdays, I get to do a little green-blur curing in the spring, when I lead a couple of public hikes for the local CNPS chapter. Yes, it’s a bit of a come-down from TA’ing for the great Mike, but it keeps my head in the game.

What is curing the green blurs? It’s simply learning how to identify plants. If you don’t know what you’re looking at, all those plants around you are (wait for it) a green blur. Being able to name them changes the way you look at the world around you. As I tell the people attending my walks, it’s the difference between going to a big party where you don’t know anyone, and going to a party where you have a lot of friends. The more friends you have, the more fun you have, at least in my opinion.

One thing I remember vividly is the last field trip I took in plant taxonomy lab, before the final. We just walked off campus and down the street in Humboldt, past vacant lots. The TA was quizzing us: what’s that? What’s the scientific name? What family? And of course, we were racing along, trying to be the first to get it right. At the end of the walk, the TA turned around and said, “Do you notice anything? Remember, at the beginning of the semester, we took a walk, and you didn’t know any of those plants?” That was an empowering moment. In the course of the semester, you don’t realize how much you’re learning, and that little walk through town was a great way of helping us students realize how much our worlds had changed. Great part was, I got to give about 50 other students that same experience.

I still like doing that.

Mike is a great teacher, but it’s a hard class. Three hours of lab, six hours of lab per week, and most people came in on Fridays or weekends to practice. Oh, and there was a quiz every week. The lab final was six hours long (ID 80 plants on sight, key out 6, including a composite and a grass) Average grade? B, no curve. And almost every biology student at HSU took that class, so we had 80 students (or more) every semester. I still think Mike is a genius, because he got students who had little botany background to do so well.

So Mike, if you’re reading this, THANK YOU! And if you want to learn plants, this is still the best way to do it. In my humble opinion, of course.