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Aug 1st, 2016

Pondering the dormancy of summer

Part of an occcasional series: Notes from the hillside (The Paintbrush, Fall 2016)

Text and photos by Graham Bothwell
Hoaryleaf ceanothus. Top: February 2013, vibrant blooms.
Bottom: August 2016: dry hulk with just a few green leaves

A few weeks ago on the wild hillside here in western Pasadena, a low-flying turkey vulture circled over me several times before heading up and over the crest, — fortunately, these majestic creatures consume only carrion, nothing alive. This brief, silent encounter served to underscore the dormancy of summer. The masses of spring wildflowers are a memory. More noticeably, the grasses are dead, the ocean of mustard is dead, and even some of the evergreen natives are showing signs of withering away, in some cases substantially so. This summer on the hillside seems drier than other recent summers.

Admittedly, last summer was special, with 15 to 20 flowering native species observed each week in August, compared with 5 or 6 this year. Last year small amounts of bush monkeyflower, black sage, toyon, and elderberry remained in flower for almost the entire calendar year. Not so this year. And last year we also had other summer flowers, such as western ragweed. This is not to say that 2015 was a wet year. It certainly was not overly so; but it was an El Niño year, with good rain (of the order of an inch or more) in May, July, and September, whereas in 2016 no such rain has fallen since early April. — it looks like being the traditional 6 months or more without any rain at all.

Turkey vulture eyes the hillside. August 2016

Early summer this year saw reasonable numbers of sacapellote and yucca flowers, mostly in June-July, and as of this writing (mid August), about the only remaining regular summer flower yet to appear is the saw toothed goldenbush. These little plants are scattered around the area, mostly on open south facing slopes, and they are in bud. Contrary to previous years, many of them are carrying masses of dead leaves and stems, increasingly so week by week. Presumably they won’t die before they flower.

Some notable summer mortality is evident in the past several years. For example, one of the two coffeeberry specimens (actually small trees) on the north hillside has died, and the remaining one looks truly unhappy. Also, a big ceanothus on the west hillside, which was glorious in successive springs, has become as of summer 2014 a mass of mostly dead wood, producing only a handful of flowers in the spring of 2015 and 2016. Hopefully it will survive.

Summer dormancy with a difference: Unlike annuals that grow from seed, these will spring back to life immediately after the next rain. L to R: goldenback fern, California liverwort, coffee fern. August 2016

Yes, the hillside is very dry. The natural springs on the hillside no longer flow all year round. Despite all this, I like to think of the many dormant plants as sleeping until winter rains arrive. This flora is designed to survive!  Meanwhile, the turkey vulture casts its watchful eye over everything.

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