Northern California: For the Birds

BY JEFF COX/Kenwood, California, Zone 9

In much of the country, there comes a special mild day in late March or early April that makes one glad to be alive. Its sudden pleasantness signals that the long months of horticultural downtime are over. The robins have returned, the grass is greening up, the air is cool and moist, you can smell the wet earth again, and if a sunbeam breaks through the showery clouds, it finally has some real warmth to it.

In coastal California, however, that pleasant day arrives in late November or early December. That’s when returning rains end the long, dusty, May-to-October drought and coax forth annual grasses and forbs, turning California’s famous golden hills bright green with new growth. The freshly wet earth breeds mushrooms and smells of minerals and decomposing forest duff. Instead of the sun’s usual desiccating ferocity, it turns gently warm. Clouds return to the sky. Robins, bluebirds, and many other birds show up in great numbers, refugees from the frozen mountains and icy high plains to the east.

And what a feast awaits them! Nature has stocked their winter sanctuary with abundant berry-producing native plants, supplemented by fruits and berries galore from the imported plants grown everywhere in California.

The most visually obvious berries are the flaming fruits of the genus Pyracantha, a shrubby, thorny plant often called firethorn, native from Italy east to the Caucasus. In late fall and winter, the bright orange to red-orange berries of Pyracantha coccinea cultivars and orange to coral to deep red berries of P. crenatoserrata cultivars pour in cascades from the plants’ pendulous branches. These mealy berries can ferment on the bush, which has caused many tales of inebriated robins staggering away from a firethorn, having had one berry too many.

Among natives, the toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia; pictured) is the berry bush of choice for the birds. Also called Christmas berry and California holly (whence the name Hollywood), its clusters of bright red berries color up in time for the holidays and the hungry visitors from the East.

But there’s so much more on this natural smorgasbord: the hips of wild and cultivated roses, the berries of the beautiful native tree called madrone (Arbutus menziesii), the fruits of ornamentals like hawthorn, honeysuckle, mountain ash, barberry, cotoneaster, photinia, skimmia, itea, holly, nandina, sumac, and, of course, Olea europaea, the olive.

In winter, large flocks of cedar waxwings descend on our hill, which was planted to olives by Italian settlers over 100 years ago. The olives, which hang on the trees through December, were abandoned as a crop long ago, but the trees remain fruitful. Hundreds of waxwings fly in tight formations to pick the trees clean, their wings making a whooshing, roaring sound as they move en masse from place to place.

How reassuring to see nature providing so abundantly for these creatures. It makes winter something to look forward to instead of something to be endured.

To do in the garden

  • Plant fava beans in the vegetable garden, to be turned under in the spring for soil improvement.

  • Sow seeds of native annual wildflowers on unused land. They’ll germinate over winter for a big spring show.

  • Rake up detritus under trees and shrubs and burn it. Insect pests overwinter in the leaves under these plants.

  • Set out winter-blooming annuals, perennials, and bulbs like cyclamen, violas, snapdragons, and calendulas, and get any leftover daffodil bulbs planted before it’s too late.

Worth growing

Christmas rose (Helleborus niger)

The Christmas rose’s habit of flowering from December to March makes it something of an oddity when seen blooming in the snow in climates as cold as Zone 5. Its white flowers, however, are just one of many winter blossoms in Zone 9—but it is still a welcome sight. The mid-green evergreen leaves have just a few prominent teeth, and make a mound about a foot tall and 18 inches wide. Nodding single flowers turn their faces away from the gardener’s view. Like all the members of the genus Helleborus, the Christmas rose is poisonous. 

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