In California autumn comes slowly, taking her time after a start that might be called “Indian Summer” in other parts of the country. Flowers fade and turn to seedheads; berries open on bushes; Sycamores, Cottonwoods and Willows begin to turn yellow; even Poison Oak puts on a display of red autumn colors. Yet, it is not fully autumn because there is no rain. Where is the rain? Southern California gardeners wait for the first rain to initiate autumn. The plants, the birds, indeed all the wildlife wait expectantly. The Fifth Season then is that season between summer and late autumn, it is the early autumn which is still dry.
In the chaparral of Southern California’s Santa Monica Mountains, there is an unique display of seedheads at this time. The bronze-colored seedheads of Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) create a spectacular display when growing en masse on hillsides, a sight that is uniquely Californian. Buckwheat is such a valuable plant in the wildlife garden year round, attracting native bees and butterflies. Buckwheat pollen makes a delicious, nutritious honey that local bee keepers take advantage of, as well.
Grasses are a pale brown-to-gray now and lay down in swaths, pressed down by animals and winds. Seedheads on native chaparral plants stand out against their backdrop, artful in their own way, each lending a delicate independent beauty in the wildlife garden.
Sages (Salvia) are an example of an artful form of seedheads, and their open arrangement on the stem makes them easy to collect. Sages: black, white or purple, all give so much to pollinators throughout the year, and still in this early autumn without rain they are giving, giving up their seed.
Yellow Squirrel Cover (Hazardia squarrosus), a butterfly favorite, photo by Kathy Vilim
One of the many birds that eat early autumn seed is the California Quail (Callipepla californica). I delight in seeing them pecking & scratching around in my garden this time of year. Traveling in good-sized groups, whole families will jump over fences to get at a good batch of seeds, whether in your garden or your neighbor’s.. Quail know no boundary lines. Though they can fly, they don’t usually bother to take flight unless something startles them, like me opening my back screen door to have a better look!
Much has been written about cleaning up the garden in autumn, getting it ready for winter. But for the native gardener who welcomes wildlife, there is really not much to do. When the perennials of the chaparral go to seed, the plants take on a completely different appearance, and seedheads are lovely left on the plant, as well as useful to wildlife. In fact, overdoing, making your garden all picture perfect and tidy can be very detrimental to the relationship of plants to wildlife in this fifth season of early autumn. No, this season is not so much for doing as it is for watching, enjoying the goings on around you quietly without interference.