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It may still be cold and frosty at night, with cool days and long nights, but our native landscapes are waking up to springtime. Taking advantage of still abundant moisture and gradually lengthening days, many of our native plants are beginning to bloom.

Manzanitas and California bay (Umbellularia californica) were blooming in January. But February is the beginning of a long cascade of spring bloom that ends in early summer, when rain has abated, soils are drying, and the days long and warm.

It is an interesting occupation to note the sequence of bloom through the year in a notebook. Now is a great time to start.

One of my favorite trees blooming now is the California bay, sometimes called the California bay laurel, or pepperwood. It is best known for its pungent leaves that are similar to the culinary and ornamental bay tree from the Mediterranean (Laurus nobilis). The California bay leaves are highly pungent, and contain a peppery, camphorlike volatile oil. A partial leaf is all that is needed to add a distinctive bay flavor to your cooking.

The nuts can be roasted and eaten and the trees are evergreen and fairly narrow when young. The structure of the slow growing tree broadens as the tree ages, taking many years to reach a stately size. On older trees, the branches droop, and the deep shade cast by the dense, dark green leaves creates an almost funereal presence in the landscape. The dark gray, fissured, often moss-covered massive trunks on old trees are a feature themselves.

California bays are found in shady canyons, along creeks or near rivers where there is year-round water and moist, fertile soil. Occasionally they grow on steep hillsides or even the top of ridges in what looks like a dry, uncharacteristic site. This indicates the soil strata is vertical or porous and has moisture the roots can reach down into.

Appearing incongruous in winter, the profuse light yellow flowers light up the somber aspect of the trees. Fragrant, they are pollinated by small bees and insects. Deer browse the young leaves. California bays grow well in our gardens, but are slow to attain size and should be planted only where they have room to develop.

Walking in a forest of madrones (Arbutus menziesii) is a magical experience. The broad evergreen leaves cast a deep shade that often excludes other plant species, making these forests feel like a stage on which the graceful, golden trunks and branches resemble almost human-like forms caught and frozen forever in nature. They are common in mixed conifer forests and oak woodlands.

Madrones are just beginning to bloom in our area, though in some places, flowering is still a month away. The large, fragrant, showy flower clusters are composed of loosely clustered bell shaped blooms that are formal and waxy upon close scrutiny.

Madrones are important plants for wildlife. Blooming February through April, the fragrant, showy, creamy-white flowers are pollinated by honeybees, native bees and hummingbirds and provide them valuable floral resources. Berries are ready in October and November and form an important food for many bird species such as band-tailed pigeons, mourning doves, varied thrushes, American robin, Stellar’s jays, house finches, Northern flickers, Bewicks’s wrens, yellow-breasted chats and quail, as well as deer and rodents. Birds disperse the seeds. The berries are high in carbohydrates and low in fats.

Though they are among the most beautiful trees, madrones can be tricky to grow in our gardens. They require well-drained soil, and limited water. Sometimes they die for no apparent reason. But if you have the right growing conditions, they may be worth trying.

Manzanitas are in their full glory right now and are worth looking at in detail. Some species have been blooming for a month, while others are just starting. Manzanitas range from groundcovers to massive, muscular and almost treelike. My favorites are those species with white leaves, and deep reddish bark. The flowers are similar to the madrones, to which they are closely related, but are held in smaller clusters. Most are creamy-white, but some have a pink flush or a distinct pink hue. Manzanitas hybridize, and some species vary in leaf color and shape from one plant to the next.

Manzanitas also are important to wildlife. Hummingbirds sip nectar, while honeybees and native bees eagerly visit the flowers for nectar and pollen. On warm afternoons, plants may be almost swarming with them. Many manzanitas grow well in our gardens, and are superb in every season. An added bonus is that they are one of our most drought tolerant and low maintenance shrubs.

Willows are blooming now too, their yellow flowers appearing as catkins before the leaves emerge. Willows are dioecious, with male and female flowers held on separate plants. There are 32 species of native willows in California. Some grow next to the river, others next to creeks. Their fluffy flowers are insect pollinated, and the profuse nectar they produce is very attractive to many bee species.

Kate Frey’s column appears every other week in Sonoma Home. Contact her at katebfrey@gmail.com, freygardens.com, Twitter @katebfrey, Instagram @americangardenschool

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