Meteorologists are echoing what we feel in our bones: the rainy season is over and we are onto another year of drought. The vibrant grassland greens are fading into echoes of verdancy, patches in huge fields of growing tawny gray. Cow tongues reach far, pulling at the remaining food previously protected along fencelines and hard to reach places. Poppies pop out and lupines poke up from the short stubble and rocky places. The springs and creeks still flow but will soon be slowing. The redwoods are in for another sorry year and are collectively crossing their needles for a bounty of fog should a warm summer ever arrive. The days are breezy and cool, the nights downright chilly.
During my short walk at dusk, I startled a big covey of quail- at least 50 whirring out of the cover crop and bumbling into the brush then taking off again and packing into the thick foliage of a fencline oak where they will bundle up for the night. Quail are ‘chi-ca-go’ -ing again but are wanting for drinking water.
A hawk wheeled overhead.
We missed the ‘chock’ -ing of hundreds of robins or the whistling wings of hundreds of mourning doves- both downhill progression patterns at dusk, but of previous seasons. Dusk tonight was less momentous.
Early Spring(like) Flowers
The cover crop is blooming a good bit early. We plant mustard as a quick growing cover crop that captures nutrients that would otherwise leave the system. Mustard plants produce compounds that clear the soil from pathogens. The flowers are bright yellow and support many early season pollinators, helping to spur their population growth in anticipation of the many crop flowers that will follow.
Radish is related to mustard, both being in the cabbage family. Radish is in full bloom in the fallow areas and hayfields; it is starting to seed. The onset of radish seeding is the trigger for the ‘first mow’ of the hay fields: mowing with the first radish seeds is the right time to keep songbirds from investing in nesting where we want to harvest mulch.
I originally published this post at my blog on Molino Creek Farm’s webpage.
If you are observant, the forest’s meandering and dappled light is just now illuminating the beginning of spring’s wildflowers. Patches of bright blue, pure white, pale pink, and startling yellow are the first of the sequence of forest understory flowers that bloom now through August in the Central Coast’s many types of forests.
Hound’s Tongue’s Leaves and Flowers
Perhaps named for the pink, in-rolled first leaves emerging from damp leaf litter, hound’s tongue provides the forest’s tallest and brightest blue bouquets. This is a perennial wildflower most commonly found in sunnier patches in forests with oaks and Douglas firs. It must taste bad because I never see it browsed by deer or rodents. A California wildflower book from 1897 says that ‘in the old days’ people thought you could put the leaves under your feet in your shoes and then dogs wouldn’t bark at you. Many gardeners are familiar with a near look-alike relative, borage. The healthiest plants make many flowers, widely spaced on a branching two-foot-tall inflorescence. Today, I saw bumble bees, honeybees, and hover flies visiting the flowers. Bumble bees were especially numerous, and when they latch onto the flowers, which are much smaller than they are, the whole plant bobs and waves, drawing attention from other pollinators. One plant in a hundred produces light purple-pink blossoms instead of the normal blue. This makes me wonder if we are witnessing the blue era of hound’s tongue…maybe one day eons from now, this species will evolve purple or red flowers.
If they get pollinated, each hound’s tongue flower will make a cluster of 4 fruit that hang tight to the stem until they snag on a passing animal. Starting late Spring, a forest walk will make you clean your clothes, and in that mass of messy seeds pinched from your socks, you might encounter these wild borage seeds. The seeds are oval and fat with just enough hooks to grab onto someone’s fur. These hitchhiking seeds are the species’ way of establishing new patches, reducing competition with the parents. This might be especially useful when new colonies might establish in post fire areas.
Another plant starting to bloom in the forest understory catapults its seeds for dispersal. Once ripe, the fleshy pods explode when touched, sending seeds into the air and many feet away. Since I’ve introduced this surprising behavior to many botanists, I’m guessing you’ll also be surprised about which plant has this trick: redwood sorrel! Yes, a plant with which many people are familiar performs this little-known novelty. You’ll have to get good at recognizing a ripe seed pod before you can experience it.
With the recent dry, warm weather, redwood sorrel has started to carpet the redwood forest understory with beautiful pink to white blossoms mixed with its lush medium green, 3-leafleted leaves. Come Saint Patrick’s Day, you might purchase sorrel or see it displayed, but you’ll never find a 4-leaved redwood sorrel (really, shamrocks are clovers, and it is possible to find a four-leaved clover!) In full sun on a hot day, redwood sorrel leaves fold down to keep from roasting. But, in the more typical cool dark understory, each leaflet tilts and turns, orienting independently to maximize light capture with the passing sun rays. The flowers open above the leaves and soon there will be so many redwood sorrel flowers that the forest floor will sparkle like the many stars of the night sky.
More White Forest Flowers
Another white to pink early spring forest flower is in full bloom right now, growing on the edge of patches of redwood and out into Douglas fir and oak groves. Milk maids is a relative of cress and has bright 4-petaled flowers, normally quite white (but ones near my house are quite pink). The description of this plant from the aforementioned 1897 book by Mary Parsons ‘The Wild Flowers of California’ deserves quoting:
“What a rapture we always feel over this first blossom of the year! – not only for its own sake, but for the hopes and promises it holds out, the visions it raises of spring, with flower-covered meadows, running brooks, buds swelling everywhere, bird-songs, and air rife with perfumes”
Milk maids is attracting a beautiful butterfly that matches its white flowers. The mustard white butterfly is the earliest butterfly you’ll see…besides the overwintering Monarchs…and you’ll almost certainly see it if you find a big patch of milk maids, upon which it lays its eggs. When the eggs hatch, the larvae will grow up feeding on milkmaid leaves. Once the larvae have pupated and grow into butterflies, they sip nectar from and pollinate milkmaid flowers. In this way, milk maids and mustard white butterflies have a close partnership.
The forest violets have started blooming including my favorite, redwood violet, which makes carpets along banks and on steep slopes in many places near Bonny Doon. Redwood violet has bright yellow flowers that, like redwood sorrel, peek up well above a dense mat of leaves. If you look closely, you’ll see tiny dark red lines in the throat of the flower that lead pollinators to seek rewards inside of the flower. Redwood violet leaves are nearly round, except when you find the telltale sign of the butterfly that feeds on them.
Violet Feeding Silverspot Butterflies
Silverspot butterfly larvae carve out semi-circular scallops in redwood violet leaves and, when you see those bite marks, that is likely the only hint that this butterfly larvae is around, because they feed at night! Arboretum Director Ray Collett alerted me about these silverspot butterflies 30 years ago. He had met a butterfly collector who pointed out Bonny Doon silverspot butterflies that matched the endangered Callipe Silverspot previously known only from San Bruno Mountain in South San Francisco. With that tip, a conservation geneticist friend of mine recently hunted our local one for a while but only caught one, which looks promising to be at least closely related to the endangered one, but more work needs to be done. Meanwhile, later in spring, we can be on the lookout for these mysterious and rapidly flying orange butterflies with silver spotted underwings that feed late at night on the beautiful yellow violet carpets of Bonny Doon.
The Parade of Spring
These early spring wildflowers are just the beginning of the succession of wildflowers brightening the shade of our forests. As the days get warmer and longer, each week will bring a new suite of species into bloom. The flowers are stewarded by pollinators in conjunction with mountain lions which chase around the deer enough so not every flower is munched. Human stewardship is helpful, too. We can help not only by controlling invasive forest species (forget-me-not, French broom, periwinkle, etc) but also by not planting what might be new invasive species, one day. In the future, perhaps we’ll appreciate the native wildflowers enough to propagate them for our gardens. With these native species come a wealth of pollinators including butterflies that rely on native wildflowers for their larval stages. Planned correctly, your forest garden will have a natural succession of flowers, bringing different colors to every season without any additional water and with little need for tending.
this story brought to you via my column the prior week in Bruce Bratton’s weekly blog at BrattonOnline.com
Whether you are new, visiting, or have long lived in this area, how you are growing to appreciate the nature of this place to its deserving depths? Nature inspires, heals, and supports us all, and the land around Santa Cruz is a as special as nature gets. And yet, I find few people prepared to describe that richness in the ways that they more easily describe the culture, the recreational opportunities, or the human history. Will you take some time with me over the coming year to grow our appreciation of nature together, to be better able to describe this wonderful place?
I will be writing a series for Bruce’s weekly, and through this writing I hope to inspire you to appreciate our place in the world more deeply, so that you will feel more comfortable describing our ecological wealth to others. Over th longer term, I hope we can help to improve more broadly our cultural relationship to the natural world and work to restore the web of life. That way, many generations in the future, people will be proud of of our stewardship culture and benefit from the richness that we co-create. The alternative is horrifying to those of us who see the trend and love what is left of nature.
I can describe some of our natural wealth, but I encourage you to invest some time to get to know it more closely, through personal experience, and to enter into more discussions about what’s going on around us. For instance, I can describe the incredible biological diversity driven by oceanic upwelling and the Grand Canyon depths of the Monterey submarine canyon. This might inspire another trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium to learn more…there is always more to learn there. And, maybe during our next visits, we will walk a little slower, look a little more intensely and take time to chat with a knowledgeable volunteer. You might also travel onto the Bay on a whale watching boat to experience firsthand the teeming of life. Patient walks along the bluffs peering oceanward also reveal hints of the Bay’s diversity. Many of us have done these things…but how often and with how much focus? How often have we tried to inspire and teach others about the Monterey Bay? Conversations can help bring us together, deepen our appreciation, and create a better culture. For nature and ourselves, we cannot do it often enough.
Without majestic whales, a Monterey Bay Terrarium, or (as yet) scientific institutions and economies to train and support land-based eco-tourism, it is not as easy to learn about our terrestrial natural world. And yet, the species diversity and diversity of natural habitats around the Monterey Bay offer endless fascinating experiences. In a very short trek, we can travel from sand dunes through estuaries and lagoons, along rivers and streams, into vast coastal prairies, under the canopies of so many forest types- Monterey pine, redwood, coast live oak, etc- and weaving through sagrebrush scrub and manzanita chaparral. Almost anywhere else in the nation, and even the world, one would travel hundreds of miles to visit this number of varied habitats. Each of these habitats has its own scents, critters, flowers, and seasonal changes.
Each Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer, I have favorite hikes to immerse myself in these various habitats to experience what they have to offer at various times of year. Recently, I walked in the understory of one of our recently burned redwood forests. The scent of charcoal and blackened redwood trunks are relatively new to me, but the ripening acorns, orange-blushed madrone berries and the cooing and loud wing flaps of band tailed pigeons remind me of the fall’s wildland harvest time. Creekside walks are especially nice right now with the sound of water, lush ferns and blossoming monkeyflowers contrasting with so much of the brittle dryness of late summer elsewhere. Soon, there will be rain, and the manzanitas unfurl clusters of urn-shaped, honey scented flowers. The chaparral is the first habitat to erupt in bouquets with the smell of fresh rain on soil. Bees will bumble and hummingbirds will dart between the many chaparral blossoms. Rehydrated back to fluffy life, lichens and mosses will add depth to the chaparral’s colors and textures, accentuating the change brought by the annual wet season we call winter.
Through the coming months, I will share notes about the places I visit and help connect you with ways to learn more. There are books, interpretive trails, guided field trips, multimedia internet resources, museums, and events that will help us continue to explore this wonderful place. Meanwhile, I hope that you will regularly remind yourself that we are living every day alongside one of the nation’s most densely diverse natural areas and that there are opportunities to explore it, real close by. Experts note that relationships last best between people who remain curious and are willing to stretch and grow; I posit the same is true for our relationship with nature. Remaining experientially and physically engaged with nature, we will be healthier emotionally and physically. Learning more about nature and having more frequent conversations about what we have experienced and learned will help to protect and steward nature.
Each week, I will present a bit of homework for specific direction to go deeper with the concepts I introduce. This week: do some ‘forest bathing’ in the redwood understory or walk near a stream. Read a bit out of Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild, Burton Gordon’s book Natural History and Cultural Imprints of the Monterey Bay, and Ellen Bakker’s An Island Called California. Visit the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. Talk to someone about your personal experience with the nature around us.
And, each week, I will list a few of the new things I have experienced in nature the past week. This past week, I saw the arrival (from Alaska!) of golden crowned sparrows as well as (from I don’t know where) western meadowlarks; geese flew overhead geese in huge honking V’s; the sun hit its midway point moving south to north- last Wednesday was Equinox – now the nights are longer! Send me a note about something you noticed that is new in nature so that I might add it to this list in future posts.