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.