Not to be confused with Chinese lanterns, Chinese houses (Collinsia heterophylla) are native to shady foothill biomes below 2500 feet in elevation throughout California and the most northern part of Mexico's Baja Peninsula. The individual flowers look nothing like Chinese architecture, but the overall silhouette of the flowering stems—large whorls of blossoms at the bottom, tapering to smaller whorls at the top—resemble the multi-tiered shape of traditional Chinese pagodas.
Especially if you've had too much box wine.
Chinese Houses and California History
Chinese houses were originally named Collinsia bicolor by the famous English botanist George Bentham. Collinsia is a nod to botanist Zaccheus Collins (1764-1831).
Collinsia heterophylla doesn't have a storied cultural background woven from centuries of writings by classical Greek botanists and Victorian gardening superheroes. But sometimes, a name alone can inspire a peek into history.
Though botanists of European descent discovered Chinese houses well before the California Gold Rush, history tells us that both the flowers and their cultural namesake populated the state's mining regions. Immigrants fleeing war and famine in China helped build the infrastructure required to mine, refine, and transport gold. In spite of high monthly taxes levied on immigrants by the state government and in defiance of racist attacks on their mining camps, Chinese miners doggedly worked the sluices and mines, and established businesses catering to the influx of "Forty-Niners."
Perhaps we can think of these wildflowers, which pop up on the same golden hillsides upon which the people for which they're named, as tributes to the deeper stories behind the lessons we learned in grade school.
Chinese Houses in the Garden
Collinsia heterophylla is a member of the figwort family (Scrophulariaceae) which includes mullein, butterfly bush, and penstemon. In spite of this wildflower's limited natural distribution, you can grow it in almost any region.
Consider planting Chinese houses at the base of garden trees, or among spring bulbs to hide fading foliage. If you love the tiered look of some of the prettiest ornamental mints but your garden is short on sunlight, Chinese houses can step in.
Pennyroyal looks a lot like Chinese houses, and both share the same lighting preferences. Or, mix Chinese houses in with lemon mint, or hyssop. You don't have to plant Chinese houses with similar-looking species, though; use your imagination, and have fun with your garden designs.
Early-flowering plants in the 1” to 3" range "hold space" for late-bloomers and shade-loving Chinese houses can make use of shadier spots that gradually become brighter as the summer sun moves toward its zenith in mid-summer.
Chinese houses can tolerate full sun, especially in cooler maritime zones. Don't be afraid to plant them en masse where shade coverage only reaches so far.
USDA Hardiness Zones: Herbaceous annual in zones 1 to 10.
Sunlight Preferences: Full sun to partial shade. Chinese houses naturally thrive under broad oak canopies, which throw dappled shade. We recommend that, in the hottest and driest areas, you plant your C. heterophylla where it will receive early morning sun and afternoon shade.
Moisture Requirements: While Chinese houses are somewhat drought-tolerant, even and consistent moisture ensures the best blooms and vigor.
Plant Height: 12" to 24" tall.
Plant Width: 8" to 12" spread.
Flowers: Collinsia heterophylla has 4 to 5 fused sepals and 4 to 5 fused petals—two above and two below. They resemble pea flowers and have both male and female reproductive parts. The lower petals are a deep blue to purple with a white spot where they join, and the top petals are pale blue to white.
Bloom Period: March through June. Flowering may be extended with deadheading.
Foliage: Glossy, deep-green, sharply-pointed, spear-shaped basal leaves; smaller leaves appear intermittently on the flower stalks in an opposite pattern, ending before the first whorl of flowers. The stalks and smaller leaves are usually covered in fine hairs.
Days to Maturity: No hard data available other than "FAST!" but we estimate approximately 30 days given its early bloom time. In moderate climates, market growers should be able to plant starts throughout the growing season.
Pests & Diseases: Under ideal conditions, Chinese houses aren't particularly prone to infestation or diseases.
Maintenance: Deadheading will prolong blooms and prevent re-seeding. Cut annuals down to ground level after or shortly before frost-kill in the fall for a tidier garden.
Harvesting: Entire stems make wonderful fresh cut flowers. Pick them before the uppermost "rings" have opened up.
Growing Chinese Houses from Seed
We strongly recommend direct-sowing your Collinsia heterophylla on finely-raked, medium-to-rich moist soil, but if you do start them indoors, be sure to use biodegradable peat pots or—our favorite—CowPots—when growing Chinese houses from seed. That way, you can set out your seedlings with minimal disturbance to their fragile roots.
Seed Treatment: None required.
When to Plant Outdoors: Direct sow in late fall or early spring.
When to Plant Indoors: Start your seeds in a sunny window or under a fluorescent plant light 6 to 8 weeks before your last spring frost.
Seed Depth: Collinsia heterophylla seeds should be surface-sown. If they're covered by more than 1/8" soil, they're unlikely to germinate.
Seed Spacing: 12" to 18".
Days to Germination: 10 to 30 days.
Transplanting Tips: Transplant young Chinese houses when they're about six inches tall. Harden them off for about a week before planting them in their intended spot.
Source Your Seeds from Seed Needs
If you can't make your way to California, you can still grow a patch of Chinese houses. Contact us at Seed Needs, and we'll get you set up.
Did you know we print custom seed packets and sell blank envelopes for weddings and special occasions? We've had customers order wildflowers representing their home states, and Collinsia heterophylla is a fantastic favor for California weddings. So are California poppies.
If you're celebrating in (or you're from) any one of our other 49 states, we can help you choose seeds to celebrate your heritage.
At War With Garden Pests? Enlist Wildlife Mercenaries!
Chemical pest control is similar to antibiotic use: It kills the good critters the same as it kills the bad. For centuries, we've fought insect and animal pests with every available option, and because of this (and common misconceptions), we've driven away many of our enemies' natural predators.
It's time to bring them back, and get them to fight on our side!
The American Kestrel
You've probably seen these winged fluffballs scouting prey from telephone lines. These tiny falcons are about the size of a robin, and their favorite food includes voles, mice, caterpillars, and grasshoppers.
Like with most raptors, females are larger than males, and hunters who practice the art of falconry chase invasive, crop-eating starlings with their trained kestrels—usually females, which are larger if less colorful than their male counterparts. Wild kestrels will chase off starlings too, which is why vineyards and berry growers love to put kestrel boxes on the edges of their fields.
Kestrels live in every state in the continental U.S. and don't migrate too far south in the winter, as long as there's enough prey upon which to survive.
According to the North American Bat Monitoring Program (NABat) our bat populations are facing an "unprecedented" decline due to a bat-specific fungus, habitat loss, climate change, and even wind generating turbines. Little brown bats—which can live up to 30 or more years—can eat as many as 500 mosquitos in a single hour, and are only one of several North American bug-slaying bat species that help keep insects in check.
The mammalian counterpart to the electric bug zapper, bats eat more than just mosquitoes. They'll also chow down lots of unwelcome moths and beetles.
Don't worry about rabies; as long as you don't disturb a bat crawling on the ground during daylight, you're safe. They're less likely to harbor rabies than other mammalian wildlife in your area. And that bat might just have had a rough night out with her friends. (Put away that box wine before you go to bed, darling gardeners.)
Buy or build a bat house or two to encourage them to roost on your property. As an added bonus, you can collect their guano for the best fertilizer ever!
(And if you follow the above links, you can find additional meaningful ways to contribute to bat conservation).
Anaxyrus americanus is the general Latin name for the American toad, which is widespread throughout the continental US. Amphibians are highly sensitive to water and air contaminants, so toads love chemical-free gardens…and because they eat so many pests, organic gardeners love them right back.
According to the University of Georgia, native toads are homebodies. Given the right habitat, they'll use the same hidey-holes, and when it's not breeding season, they'll stay within a range of a few hundred square feet.
When grabbed, toads emit an unpleasant liquid that is mildly toxic to pets but only in the sense that it's an irritant. And as far as we know, if you lick a toad, you're not gonna get high. (We tried.)
Here's what you need to make your yard toad-friendly:
An out-of-the-way place
Toads are shy, and they like to feel secure in their "homes." Set up a spot that's away from the heaviest garden foot (and, for that matter, vehicle) traffic.
A damp, dark spot in the shade
Try stacking some medium-sized flat rocks to form a cave. (Broken flower pot pieces work, too). Cover it up with moss or sod to help keep the temperature somewhat stable. Toads like to be on the cool side during the day, but nighttime temperatures can't get too chilly.
Toads are mostly nocturnal, so once they warm up they'll enjoy patrolling your garden.
A water source
Toads breed and lay their eggs in still water, but even when they're not gettin' it on, they like a good soak now and again. A large saucer of water under a dripping hose spigot, or one that catches sprinkler irrigation, is usually good enough to keep a bachelor (or bachelorette) toad happy. But if you have a garden pond, your garden will become the equivalent of Studio 54.
A sunning rock
Don't force your toadie to hop onto the asphalt to warm up on a cool morning. He'll get squished! Provide a thick, flat rock that will absorb afternoon sun and radiate warmth in the morning. If there's enough cool soil into which he can burrow, you can use his sunning rock as his cave roof.
It never hurts to keep a few sun-absorbing rocks (and some water dishes, too) in strategic spots in your garden so your resident toad can take a few breaks while he's dining on bugs at night. They like dark, damp bark mulch too!
Seed Needs: Fighting for Healthy Gardens since 2006
None of these mercenaries, alone or together, can win the war on its own. They can, however, reduce the need for human intervention, and they can help maintain balance—and peace—in your chemical-free garden.We hope we've helped you find some great resources for inviting these critters onto your property. We can't mail you bats, birds of prey, or toads, but we can send you seeds so you can grow plants that create healthy backyard ecosystems and attract beneficial insects. Contact us for our top recommendations!