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December 24, 2013 > History Column: Native Plants

History Column: Native Plants

By Phil Holmes

Pioneer farmers had their share of difficulties trying to earn a living from the soil. The soil was rich, but it sometimes sprouted plants that created special problems. Wild mustard made it hard to harvest grain because all the stalks had to be separated.

There was a market for mustard seed so Erastus Johnson decided to gather and thresh it. He got a canvas, hired a man, hauled the mustard after grain harvest and separated the seed with horses and a roller. He shipped the seed to New York and netted about $1,000. His success became known, and neighbors saved their own seed after that. His brothers, Charles and George, came from the mines the next year and, needing something to do, joined the mustard harvest.

They decided to try harvesting mustard on the uncultivated prairie lands owned by non-residents. They took a team and reaper and began harvesting mustard. In about three weeks all the mustard in reach had been harvested. The price had fallen, so they only netted about $600.

Erastus got lost one night in Òthe mustard forests.Ó Even when he stood up in the saddle he could not see lights from settlerÕs houses. His pony finally groped his way out of the mustard about midnight. The pony was apparently in no hurry because he nibbled at the grass along the way.

About this time, Rufus Denmark and his wife came from the East to Irvington. Mrs. Denmark had procured a package of mustard seed to plant here because Òmustard was so good for greens after the snow melted.Ó The mustard seed was ruined when it got wet while they were crossing the Isthmus, and Mrs. Denmark deeply mourned her loss. The party reached San Francisco, crossed the Bay and rode the stage 30 miles to the ÒCornersÓ through the most luxuriant wild mustard ever seen. The stage road wound through mustard so tall one could not see the stage.

The authors of the History of Washington Township wrote in 1904 that in pioneer days, the country was covered with acres and acres of wild oats, tall enough to tie over the head of a man on horseback. Wild mustard from six to fifteen feet high rolled in golden billows over the valley and up the hillsides, and birds nested and sang among the blossoms. They decorated the Town Hall for their ÒGolden JubileeÓ in 1904 with great branches of golden mustard blooms, California poppies and wild oats in luxuriant profusion.

The writers observed some changes in the 1950 edition. ÒWild poppies and mustard still color uncultivated places, but the mustard and wild oats no longer can be tied above a manÕs head.Ó

Mustard continued to appear in writings. The first students at Centerville School noted that they Òcheerfully walked three long miles of lonely road with tall mustard growing high above their heads on either side.Ó Another writer wrote about a lost gravel yard. ÒWild mustard grew like the veritable tree of the Bible and covered everything with its rank growth,Ó until destroyed by fire.

A few native plants became part of local government. FremontÕs original City Seal was designed with a poppy on the left side, but at the suggestion of Mr. and Mrs. Maurice Marks, the Fremontia was chosen as the cityÕs flower. The Fremontia with five petals, just as Fremont had five communities, is a golden native California plant discovered by John C. Fremont.

Charles Shinn wrote that the Todd and Proctor flower gardens were the most noted of pioneer days:

ÒGrandmaÓ ToddÕs garden had roses, lilacs, oleanders, jasmines, spring bulbs and English irises. All family members were proud of the garden which furnished seeds and cuttings to hundreds of gardens. People sent flowers to them and it became a mass of lovely old-fashioned flowers.

Mrs. ProctorÕs garden had the finest collection of native wild flowers in California. She gathered flowers and shrubs from canyon and hillside, and they grew for her as never before or since. There were plenty of gardens all over the broad valley by 1890, but no successor to that marvelous collection of wild California violets, lilies, irises, vines and shrubs of Mrs. Proctor.

Shinn noted that these two gardens belong together in valley history as Òa sweet and royal memory.Ó Glenmoor residents carried on this tradition in later years.

Niles was a favored spot for gardens but also became known for its flower shows. The Niles School students staged wild flower shows in the late twenties and the Chamber of Commerce sponsored their first wild flower show in 1929 to encourage conservation of the 76 varieties they displayed. The family of George Roeding, Jr. started an annual outdoor bulb show in 1932. Thousands of friends and customers came from all over to see the flowers in bloom. Workers planted 164 varieties of tulips and there were over 200 varieties in the rose garden. The Niles Wildflower and Art Festival, sponsored by the Main Street Association, continues the tradition which now includes a quilt show.

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