Spring in December

Saturday, December 17th, 2005

The rains have been slow this year, only two since June. But the native garden I’ve been cultivating since 2001 has matured. Last spring I removed the drip irrigation system I’d used to get it established, and except for one ground soak, I refrained from watering during summer and fall. All 68 varieties survived and most have remained green, proving their adaptation to arid conditions, subsisting on fog, dew, and bits of moisture their roots capture deep in the parched clay soil. Buds were fattening on a buckeye I’d planted a couple of years ago and another had started to leaf.

But this made me nervous. With so little water in the ground, would they deplete their energy with premature growth? I checked my authority on California Natives, the website of Bert Wilson, proprietor of Las Pilitas nursery, and found that Aesculus californica is “tolerant to drought but needs regular water for the first few years.” Remembering Bert’s general abhorrence of watering, this warning seemed urgent. I hooked up the hose and gave the two little saplings a normal season’s worth of precipitation.

The next morning, Sunday, I was gently awakened by the gurgle of rain in the downspout on the wall by my bed. I put on a wool sweater and hat and went out to enjoy it. I climbed the ladder to the roof and cleared the gutters of curled Eugenia leaves and spikey liquidambar seedpods. I rooted up dandelions that had sprouted in the front yard. I transplanted ten bunches of Idaho fescue stored in pots after I’d cleared them off the hillside I’ve been excavating with pick and shovel to make room for an extension of Jan’s office. I cut huge clumps of deergrass straw and spread the leaves and seed stalks on the muddy paths. I filled the wheelbarrow with raked leaves and sprinkled the crackling residue on the spoil I’d been dumping alongside the house to raise the ground level. The porous mixture absorbed the water puddled on the dense clay, protected my shoes, and made a deep-textured carpet of autumnal tweed.

I knew that the thirsty plants would respond quickly to the rain, and next morning I went out to look at the new growth.

This is ribes sanguineum glutinosum, or pink flowered currant. The specimen between the neighbors’ towering second story and our roof has grown 10 feet, as fast and as tall as the Redwood next to it. Another in total shade under the fence, which I planted to replace a vigorous non-native tree I cut down, has only reached two feet, but is also showing new leaves. The two in back, on the steep north facing slope where there’s very little soil, have reached about four feet. Bert says “This Ribes is more drought tolerant than most of the drought resistant plants of the trade, but in a native garden plant towards the wettest section… .”

Plants for a Future, a British permaculture site reminds me that sanguineum and glutinosum stem from the latin words for “bloody,” and “sticky,” and informs me that its fruits are edible though not tasty. From Native Plants of Montara Mountain I learn that this Ribes belongs to the Grossulariceae family, which contains currants and gooseberries. The vivid language invites a bit of rearrangement

Leaves: alternate, palmately-lobed, hand-like, soft, veined, with edges curving under.
Flowers: pink, five-petaled and stamened, funnel and star shaped, racemes in hanging cascades at ends of branches. Calyx fused to the pistil.
Fruit: Fleshy, red berries ripening to dark blue; developing below the calyx lobes in clusters, with tan seeds inside.

It includes two beautiful words I pursue in the Dictionary

Raceme: An inflorescence having stalked flowers arranged singly along an elongated unbranched axis, as in the lily of the valley…from Latin racemus, a bunch of grapes.

Calyx: the whorl of sepals…collectively forming the outer floral envelope…enclosing…the developing bud

Compared to these technical descriptions, how little of this plant have I described or perceived, even with the assistance of the camera. I need another look.

Another Look

Friday, December 23rd, 2005

“What is a course of history or philosophy or poetry no matter how well selected…compared to the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen,” says Thoreau. (Walden p. 105) I tried to exercise some of that discipline this morning. Instead of going Christmas shopping I returned to the raceme of pink-flowered currant that I had looked at earlier in the week, now again illuminated by a horizon-hugging sun.

I noticed that the five petals of each blossom split into two layers, a longer outside one arching back and curling at its edges, and a shorter inside one that remained erect. The splaying outside layers gave the blossom its star shape. The inside layers combined into an open tube surrounding its golden pistil and stamens. I also noticed some changes since the last look:

seven of the blossoms were open instead of four. Five pink closed blossoms cupped a cluster of immature green buds at the raceme’s tip. As each blossom opened, it diverged from the central axis on its own outward stretching stem. The higher on the raceme, the more mature the blossom and the the more shrunken and curled the sepal which had enclosed it as a bud.

My revisited raceme seemed to be the oldest one on the shrub, its location best placed to gather the sparse sunlight and attract me with my camera. On other twigs I found younger growing tips. They revealed that flowers and leaves are originally enclosed in a single germinal container springing from the battered remnants of last year’s growth.

The subtle fragrance of Ribes sanguineum glutinosum, more leathery than sweet, occasionally wafted past but dissipated before I could satisfy my hungry nostrils. I wanted to be smaller, faster and more sensitive–like the bug that buzzed by me and dove into one of the blossoms. Then I understood that they had evolved to entice it into spreading their red and sticky seed.

I’ve often discussed with students the lines of Wordsworth’s “The Tables Turned” that inspired Thoreau’s preference of Nature over Culture:

Come forth into the light of things
Let Nature be your teacher.

Enough of Science and of Art
Close up those barren leaves
Come forth and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

I’m still trying to figure out how to do that. Returning to the same flower after a few days and noticing some changes, spending enough time to really look at it and allow the bugs to show up, taking as long as I need to find the right words–that’s a start.

On the way to the back door to clean the mud off my shoes, I noticed a patch of sunlight on the wall of my excavation.

While digging I find the life of the seasons in the mineral as well as in the vegetable and animal. A few weeks ago, this same ground broke the tip off the steel pickaxe. Now my spade sinks into the damp earth like a scoop into ice cream.

February Garden

Saturday, February 4th, 2006

It was supposed to rain today, but we got wind and clouds instead. While grading papers, I’ve been taking vitamin C and Echinicea pills every couple of hours, humbly hoping to hold at bay the headache, cough and scratching in my lungs. I visited my mother in law at Assisted Living for a break, and seeing her and her companions in the rec room 20 minutes early for Bingo reinforced the winter mood.

But the overcast skies provided some good light for pictures of developments in the garden last week. After Spring in December, not much changed during January. The longer days of February have brought the early bloom of the volunteer almond tree, remnant of what must have been a local orchard before the 1950’s subdivision of this neighborhood.

On Friday I got a copy of his brand new book, Plants of San Luis Obispo: Their Lives and Stories from Matt Ritter who teaches in the Biology Department and is curator of the Cal Poly Plant Conservatory. In addition to running the conservatory, teaching full time, and writing scholarly articles for tenure, he wrote the text, shot all the pictures, and did the layout for the book himself with Photoshop and Indesign.

His descriptions of the species in my garden help me see them up close: “Fuschia-flowered gooseberry is a bristly, evergren shrub with leathery, dark green, irrgularly toothed leaves. The beautiful, bright red, tubular flowers, which are pollinated by hummingbirds, hang from the stems. The stamens, which are twice as long as the rest of the flower, hang down with bright yellow tips. To ward off herbivores, there are three stout spines emanating from each node.” (p. 57)
This Ribes speciosum is another early bloomer. I’d describe the leaves as waxy rather than leathery, since they’re thin and they dry up in late spring, unlike the thick leaves of the holly-leafed cherry for example. Once flowers and leaves are gone the plants have a forbidding allure, like that of a cactus, but now they are all slender and delicate. At the Brizzolara Creek Committee we’ve talked about planting them as hedge to keep people out of the watercourse.

At the side of the house, by the compost and redwoods, the wild strawberries are back. Soft, matt, and pertly serrated, the leaves make a fresh bed for occasional yellow-centered white blossoms.

February Garden 2

Sunday, February 19th, 2006

It gets light now soon after the alarm goes off and its not dark until suppertime, but the plants in the gardens have remained at the same stage of development where I left them two weeks ago, when I broke off writing the last entry and abandoned my postings. So I’m going back to where we were.

Here is the growing tip of Heuchera maxima

This plant is as hardy as a weed, tolerating deep shade in front of the house and direct sun in back, no water or plenty of water, as when it grows under redwoods. One of its common names is Alum root. And yet it’s delicate as these velvety hairs on its leaf tips and stems, and therefore it’s also called, Coral Bells, for the lily-0f-the-valley-like blossoms that will spring from these buds.

The flowering time of Umbellularia californica has passed since this picture was taken; some of the tiny blossoms in the inflorescence were already dry then. That lilting scientific appelation is almost as melodious as “Bay Laurel,” its vernacular name, linked with the myth of Apollo and Daphne, which recalls something I wrote twenty three years ago:

Pursuing a youth
made lovelier yet by flight
through woods he runs
imploring recognition.
Outdistanced and breathless
she prays for escape
then stands.
Her heart still beats against his touch
as bark encloses the soft breast,
arms twist into branches
hair flattens to leaves,
and swift feet root underground.
They are crowned
With laurel.

Three bay laurels have been growing in the front for four or five years. They prefer sun and water–you can see them as the lighter-colored foliage in riparian corridors on the hillsides–but here on the north slope they are dry and shaded. One grows under a large liquidambar tree. It’s intended to replace that beautiful non-native if ever it gets tall enough, but that wont happen in my lifetime.

The old Fremontodendron grows dense and low on the steep bank above the wall in front. It turns into a burning bush of gold flowers from April to July. The one I planted recently with the early orange bud needs continuous pruning to keep the path clear.

The one with the large heart shaped yellow bud grows at the top of the hill in back.

These Flannelbush are showy and indestructible, perfect California natives for the garden. I like looking across the valley to Poly Mountain and seeing the clumps of Flannelbush growing there wild. But Flannel is a misnomer. Rather than stroked, their leaves, flowers and stems should be handled with gloves to protect you from their tiny hairs which want to embed themselves in skin.

Creeping mountain lilac or Ceonothus Joyce Coulter is another prolific bloomer, here just about to burst into a rich purple quilt. After the blossoms drop, the leaves remain almost as deep green and shiny all year round as they do here at first emergence.

The same is true for the other five or six other Ceonothuses that thrive in the yard, each different in leaf and growth.

Only one Red twigged Dogwood, Cornus sericea, grows here, cramped between the path and the wall in front. It seems to be capable of putting out new leaves all year long, whenever it rains. When it’s dry, the leaves, which are neither waxy, leathery nor hairy, go papery and fall off, exposing deep wine-colored stems.

The flowers remain packed in tight white bud-buttons during December and January and then burst into bloom lasting only a week or two.

Just uphill from the Dogwood stands a Western Redbud, Cercis occidentalis. Unusual for California plants, this one is winter deciduous, losing its leaves in early fall, blooming and regaining them in Spring. The dying leaves, slightly rubbery in texture, take on a touch of
Autumn coloring that reveals a veined and capillaried web on their circular surfaces.

Two weeks ago, when this picture was taken, I hadnt seen traces of regeneration on this tree for months, but since then tiny leaf and bright pink flower buds have started to pop all over the gray bark.

More dramatic suspense was created by the grapevine in the backyard, now about 12 years old and the centerpiece of the arbor on the mid-hill terrace that creates an elegant shady bower in summer and a rich harvest of grapes and raisins. I cut the canes back to old wood to promote new growth and fruiting in November, hesitantly following some website instructions. But when no buds appeared, well after the native California grape along the eastern wall in front had started to leaf, I thought I’d have to pull out the whole venerable stock. I checked and poked everyday for a month, and then the day of the last entry, February 2, I found, two tiny sprouts.

Now two weeks later, I still wait for more.

There’s no new growth yet on the old oaks, the ones I planted seventeen years ago. But several recent volunteer Quercus agrifolia have come into leaf. I marvel at the fragility and tenderness of these infants, knowing that within the next four months they will expand and curl into thick, hard, thorny surfaces. These are the only volunteer natives that have cropped up since I started cultivating natives, testimony I think, to the fact that this north facing slope wants only to be an oak woodland.

Hummingbird sage, Salvia spathecea, has been blooming here since January, almost as early as the Red Currant. I love the delicious pink, magenta and purple colors of its flowers springing modestly, just a few at a time, from teardrop shaped sheaths of its bud clusters.

I love the sticky clear residue it leaves on the fingers when touched, smelling tart and sweet as grape soda. I love its velvety green foliage that returns every year and spreads by rhizomes, overwhelming the dark brittle remaining stalks of last year’s growth. And I love the way it draws the hummingbirds low to the ground under the oaks, where it hides in the shade.