Late December is primarily a time of rest in the winter garden and landscape. Yet, the cycle of life is still turning, and a number of plants remind us that in California there is never a time of complete quiet. While some plants are leafless, others nearly so, and many plants have retreated completely into the soil, there are those that have been triggered by the fall rains to grow.
Bulbs are emerging everywhere. In burned neighborhoods and wildlands they are easy to see, and besides ferns, they may be the only trace of green. Largest among them are the bright green, wavy lily leaves of the native soap plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum). Already some eight inches high or more, these are decorating the blackened soil under burned Manzanitas and along roadsides, often seemingly appearing where they have never been seen before.
When dug up the bulbs are easily recognizable by the surrounding coarse brown fibers. A lily, their flower stalks are about 2 feet tall in spring. The profuse lily flowers are small and white, opening late in the day, and fading by the next morning. When glimpsed as one drives by, they appear translucent- like a mist of white. In the day, blooms almost visually disappear in the landscape. Keep an eye out for the flowers along roadsides in late April and May. They are pollinated by bumblebees and carpenter bees who flock to them when the bloom are open.
Soap plant was used by the native peoples to make soap, as its name suggests. When the bulb is crushed the liquid it releases contains saponins, compounds that reduce the surface tension of water, causing it to foam. The same compounds were (and are) toxic to fish, and have been used to stun them in creeks and rivers.
The much smaller, deep-green, almost thread-like leaves of wild hyacinths (Brodiaea) are several inches tall right now, resembling thin, round blades of grass. Brodiaeas are considered corms rather than bulbs. Blooming March through May, we have some time to wait until we see the showy and star-shaped, clusters if deep blue blooms woven in the dry golden grasses. There are a number of species of wild hyacinths with similar but varying flower types classed in the genera Brodiaea and Triteliaea.
The flower colors vary from violet-blue to white and even yellow. Different species grow in different environments. Some are found in dry rocky conditions, others in more moist soils, still others in dry grassland. Many are commonly seen on Serpentine soils. Some of the wild hyacinth species formerly grew in vast numbers in our valleys before intense cultivation and grazing destroyed habitats. In some areas, bulbs are still profuse and in spring hillsides have a blue haze from their blooms.
Manzanita flower stems and buds are beginning to elongate and develop, drooping at the end of showy, deep pink/mauve stems against bright gray, waxy leaves. Fairly colorless this time of year, the subtleties of Manzanita leaves and stems are easy to appreciate. No plant is more showy in winter. With mahogany-red, smooth bark transitioning to pink/mauve new stems against white to gray leaves, this plant holds an almost surreal beauty. The showy clusters of white to pink bell-shaped waxy flowers are each a precise and perfect picture in our wild chaparral landscapes. Manzanita pollen and nectar is a very important floral resource for many species of early emerging native bees, including bumblebee queens just starting new seasonal colonies. Manzanita flower nectar is also a very important early spring food for hummingbirds.