December 11, 2014
Want to know the time of day? Look no further than your wristwatch, clock, computer, or cell phone. For the time of year, though, look to nature. Like a reliable timepiece, certain plants and animals signal the change of season. Just like learning to tell time, anyone can learn to read nature’s seasonal clock. As with so many things here in the Golden State, nature is decidedly different from the rest of the country — our spring really begins in autumn! The current three-year drought aside, L.A’s Mediterranean climate is usually characterized by cool, wet winters and warm, dry summers. California’s native plants have adapted over thousands of years to this cycle and, even before the first raindrops fall from the sky, some plants begin to emerge from their summer resting phase, sprouting new leaves or bursting into bloom.
Manzanita in bloom Manzanitas are among these “first responders”. Here in the Nature Gardens, two types of manzanitas started to bloom well before that marvelous, soaking rain around Thanksgiving: the white-flowered ‘John Dourley’ and the pink-flowered ‘Lester Rowntree’. Hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees were spotted visiting these early blossoms to get a dose of sugary nectar, inadvertently pollinating the dainty, fragrant flowers. After pollination, the tiny, apple-like fruits (manzanita means little apple in Spanish) will begin to form and will eventually be eaten by mammals, birds, and even humans. Wherever manzanitas grow, food foragers are rediscovering what many Native American tribes learned centuries ago — manzanita berries and flowers are tasty. You can make cider, jam, and a sugary powder with them.
More than 50 kinds of manzanita (Arctostaphylos species) grow wild in California, typically in sunny areas with fast-draining soils. Intrepid hikers can find them clinging to coastal bluffs or steep mountain slopes or forming impenetrable thickets in chaparral. In the Los Angeles area, head to the Santa Monica and San Gabriel mountains for the best chance of seeing them. Look for their tell-tale smooth, reddish bark and sinuous branches. For adventure seekers of the gardening sort, stroll into a local nursery or botanic garden, where you’ll find a tempting selection of manzanitas, from groundcovers to large upright shrubs. On your next trip to the Museum, make time to explore the Nature Gardens so you can discover these beautiful manzanitas and other signs of fall, or should I say spring? What a grand way to connect with this uniquely Californian season. Written by Carol Bornstein