From the Field

Profiles in Xeriscaping: The Chocolate Flower

August 18, 2014

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Chocolate flowers. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC
Chocolate flowers. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

As I stepped out my front door this morning, I was greeted by a familiar summer aroma: a tray of brownies cooking in the oven. But there wasn’t a baked goods sale in my front yard, the smell actually was my yard.

It was the aptly named chocolate flower (Berlandiera lyrata), a plant that sends me off on my work day with the aromas of sweet confection.

I wish your device had a “scratch and sniff” feature so I could share it.

This flower doesn’t only smell lovely. It also has striking yellow flowers that light up our front walkway. And more: planting it reduces water use, and provides habitat for pollinators and other small native creatures.

The chocolate flower is just one of the many great wildflowers and interesting plants that have been a part of our yard following our decision to tear out the grass ten years ago.

Living in Boise, Idaho – an arid city where we get less than 10 inches of rain a year – we wanted a yard that reduced our water use (most yards here require irrigation) and that also provided habitat for native critters.

We began by removing the monoculture of grass. We tried a number of methods, but ultimately decided turning it over shovel by shovel worked best.

The neighbors, unsurprisingly, thought us crazy. The home’s previous owners had put a lot of time into tending that grass, and now the new ingrates were ripping it up.

They heard the word xeriscaping and thought we meant ZEROscaping. They envisioned a yard of stone and gravel, about as visually appealing as a parking lot.

No one says that now. I take no credit: Jennifer is the plant and gardening expert, and she designed a yard full of native species that bloom, attract wildlife and smell nice.

Our human neighbors comment on the wildflowers. Our wild neighbors come for food and cover. The flowers are abuzz with bumble bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. Western fence lizards dart between the rocks. Goldfinches pick at seeds.

It’s a whole lot of diversity, right in the front yard.

And a lot of surprises. Like those chocolate flowers.

Chocolate flowers – also known as chocolate daisies — are pretty easy to establish. They are native to Colorado, Arizona and northern Mexico, but they do well in Boise and aren’t invasive. They are perennials and grow (and look) their best when they grow in a patch.

The flowers possess an interesting method of reducing water loss. They are in full bloom when the temperature is cool – attracting bumble bees, and emitting their cocoa scent. As the temperature rises, the flower petals curl up.

By the time I return home from work in the evening, the sweet aromas emanating from my yard have likewise receded.

But it will be back the next morning – chocolate flowers have a long blooming season.

Chocolate flowers do well in a wide range of conditions, but they won’t thrive everywhere. It’s important when establishing your own xeriscaped yard to pay attention to what landscapers call zones – temperature ranges where your plants are most likely to thrive.

Different desert plants have different needs (for instance, one grass we planted will not germinate unless nighttime temperatures rise above 60 degrees).

And “low water” doesn’t mean “no water.” Chocolate flowers benefit from a good soaking now and again in the summer, but not nearly as much as a “regular yard.”

When we began this xeriscaping endeavor a decade ago, I thought we were simply doing a part to help the desert’s precious water resources. But it’s a lot more. It’s the lizard scampering across the path. The California quail hiding under the bushes.

And that rich chocolatey goodness starting my day.

Choclate flowers in the author's front yard. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC
Choclate flowers in the author’s front yard. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC


Matt Miller

Matt Miller is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy and editor of the Cool Green Science blog. A lifelong naturalist and outdoor enthusiast, he has covered stories on science and nature around the globe. Matt has worked for the Conservancy for the past 14 years, previously serving as director of communications for the Idaho program. More from Matt

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