Harbingers of spring, the California buckeyes are budding now. I expect most will flower by April and by June they’ll be one of the first plants in the landscape to lose their leaves. Closer to the coast if the fog is thick and persistent, the buckeyes will hold onto their leaves and linger into the season.
Much of the trails I explore are at the base of Mt Diablo. Where there are creases and intermittent streams, you’ll find buckeye dominating this terrain. Scattered among the buckeyes are valley oak, California live oak, willow and Pacific madrone. On the eastern slope of nearby Las Trampas Peak you will find big leaf maple, box elder, and canyon live oak. Up higher you’ll spot coulter pine, grey pine, and knobcone pine. Manzanita is found up here, I find it higher up the slopes.
Much of this habitat is dominated by chaparral or oak savannah. The recent rains on the bone dry hillsides has sparked new growth. The terrain is green, creeks are running for now, we need more rain, and soon.
Here a snippet from my most recent novel, it is the central character, Joann Triche out for jog near her home in Yountville, California. Habitat is much the same as here.
“Right here was squeezed so tight until all there was room for was road, riverbank and hillside. Jo wasn’t always so generous, she didn’t always take the time, but here along this stretch was her favorite part of what she imagined herself to be. This was who she was. The forest canopy was the sanctuary that had held her here. Her work would take her away, out of town, on the road. She’d miss seeing her oak woodlands shrouded in dank fog. She’d miss gazing at the starlings synchronized flocking maneuvers, the murmurations against days growing shorter, nights that would by then be cooler.”
Spring doesn’t much arrive here in these climate shifting times, the bright warm days feels as if spring is a constant, trees are beginning to bud, others already have, many of those are ornamentals purchased at nearby nurseries, they are non-native and reacting to signals from previous generations, back from where they first came up.
Still there are as ever cold nights ahead and plants that can be hurt by a late frost. Even with that this is California and there is no snow in the forecast, not here in the Bay Area or even further east in the Sierra Nevada where snow was once more reliable and frequent.
The dead of winter characterizes Northern California’s weather pattern. By spring westerly breezes will pipe up and begin blowing off the Pacific Ocean. Sailors have to readjust to the stout winds. Unless there is a low-pressure system moving through the air is stagnant and becomes hazy from pollution. In some instances, the air becomes trapped, and the air quality alarms are sounded. This is becoming more and more apparent as the state continues to grow, all of this growth brings traffic and with all of this comes dirtier air.
Another paragraph from Women of the Oak Savannahs.
“Venus thistle standing high as the human eye gathered at the dried edges. The loading chute and spring fed water trough was surrounded by damp muck. Raccoon tracks set memorialized where they had come to drink from mud puddles left by downpours. Anna hummingbirds hovered over thistle blossoms plunging their beaks into the nectarous red prickles. Jo walked with a pregnant mother’s rocking motion, Buzz hobbled to keep up. They went over the locked gate giving no mind to the trespassers will be prosecuted signs. The shade-soaked trail was marked with fresh coyote scat. The fire road had been cut between two precipitous hillsides, squeezing until the two-track path just fit. Poison oak and blackberry vine beneath the oaks were tangled into impenetrable knots. Ahead where the land opened was blue sky filled with a procession of billowing white clouds.”
Aesculus californica─ the California buckeye is stirring even in these first days of February. I only began giving the tree attention in the last 15 years, I was too busy, too on the run, too young and too self-obsessed to give them my attention. Chastened by foolish youth I give them my time now, finally, at last─ not because I’ve wised up, it occurred that it appreciating the buckeye tree is good for my soul, like you know eating all your vegetables. The trees have made their presence known, they’ve never disappointed, theirs is a great show, a magnificent early call to joy of renewal, of another chance to witness the grand design of nature. Buckeye blossoms are a proxy for arboreal bombast, for making something big and giving it class. The seeds are the size of baseballs, they are toxic, some of our first people figured out how to leech the seeds then grind them into powder. Nobody eats buckeye seeds today, there are easier, less dangerous more tasty food sources to choose from.
Anna’s hummingbirds thrive on the buckeye blossoms nectar. The closest trail from my front door there are many hundreds of buckeye trees to be found, there must be many tens of thousands of blooms within just a few miles. Anna’s find them a reliable food source, and their early blooming must be a boon while waiting for the Venus thistles to flower.
Finishing a conversation with a friend in route to help his father, the old man has been stricken with Covid-19 and while recovering is suffering from brain fog. The father has a son that loves him, and is willing to help nurse him back to health. Standing along the footpath putting my phone in my pocket, I was taking in the green shoots, the first signs of leaves, appreciating this delicate dance we all do with our lives, these fragile and uncertain forces we are surrounded by. Standing amidst a favorite tree along a trail within a cluster of more trees and counting my luck that I have my health and I can still enjoy the buckeye trees.