Sunday, March 23, 2014

Persephone's Return

The pomegranate's crimson flower is one of the first signs of spring in many Malibu gardens, which is appropriate, since it has a long and mystical connection with Persephone, the Greek goddess of spring, who in Greek mythology was bound eternally to the Underworld for the months of winter after eating a seed from the pomegranate offered to her by Hades. Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann

The vernal equinox officially occurred on Friday. Persephone, the flighty Greek goddess of spring, tarried in the Underworld this year. However, Spring, late even in Southern California where drought, not snow, tempered her arrival, is here at last. In the Santa Monica Mountains, annual flowers like lupin and California poppies have just beginning to spring up in the aftermath of our one big March rainstorm. 

In the garden, everything seems to be rushing to make up for lost time. The first thing one hears stepping out of the back door is the buzzing of honey bees so loud it sounds like live electricity. They are drawn to the thicket of wild pear saplings that are covered with white blossoms. The thicket is really rootstock run wild after the ornamental pear tree grafted onto it died. It's much tougher and more drought tolerant than the original tree. It also blooms spectacularly in the spring, produces a crop of tiny bitter fruit in the fall that are eaten by the wild birds, and ends the year in a blaze of crimson leaves. The bees aren't the only ones who have come to love it.

A domestic honey bee gathers nectar from the blossoms of the wild pear tree in the garden.  We've been seeing more honey bees lately, most likely due to revived interest in backyard beekeeping in the neighborhood.  Photo © 2014 S.Guldimann
A tiny syrphid fly pollinates a lavender flower. These elegant little native pollinators are also known as flower flies or hover flies. Photo © 2014 S.Guldimann
Most of the winter migrants have moved on, even the robins, but the dark-eyed junco is still here. I can hear its whistling song and geiger counter-like ticking, alternating with mad splashing from the birdbath, as I type this. Most of the local birds are busy building nests. 

I anticipate the loud, insatiable shrieks from baby crows and conure parrot hatchlings any day now—both species are nesting in the neighbor's eucalyptus trees again this year. The great horned owls are back, too. All three species nest early and are already raising their young by the time most of the songbirds are nesting.

The dark-eyed junco prepares to take a bath. Photo © 2014 S.Guldimann
Bathing is a serious business for this energetic winter bird. Photo © 2014 S.Guldimann
The spotted towhee is another early bird. Its rusty squeak and high-pitched song is part of the spring soundtrack in the garden. You can hear it here.

Spotted towhees are ground nesters and will sometimes take advantage of manmade items like upended pots or abandoned construction materials to shelter their nests. I'm always careful this time of year about picking things up in the garden. I once found a nest under a fallen trash can lid, and another in an overturned bucket. 

A spotted towhee forages for breakfast using his claws to dig up grubs and other tasty morsels, including the bulbs of the invasive oxalis plant, which seem to be a towhee delicacy. This bird's bright coloring and fearless nature makes it a favorite garden resident. Photo © 2014 S.Guldimann
This spotted towhee nest was constructed under an old plastic trash can lid. It appears to be made mostly out of palm tree fibers and grass, but it's held together with thick, sticky black widow spider webs, and is lined with a warm, insulating layer of dog fur. I suspect humans could learn a lot from the towhee about the art of building with recycled materials. Photo © 2014 S.Guldimann

Here's another backyard character who is busy building a nest. The Western scrub jays have set up shop in the center of an old bougainvillea vine this year. They weren't thrilled when the paparazzi showed up with a camera. I was told to leave, in no uncertain terms. Scrub jays are members of the crow family, and like their larger cousins, they're intelligent and have good memories. Ours know just where the squirrels stashed their autumn supplies. We often see them snacking on stolen acorns long after acorn season is over.  Photo © 2014 S. Guldimann 
Here's the rightful owner of the acorns. The fox squirrels aren't nesting here this year (perhaps the great horned owls are a little too close for comfort?) but they come to eat pinecones and play tag in our liquidambar trees. Photo © 2014 S.Guldimann
The liquidambar trees are one of the most dramatic manifestations of spring in the garden. They've gone from bare branches to an explosion of chartreuse leaves and rusty flower catkins almost overnight. Photo © 2014 S.Guldimann

Spring green is always transient in Southern California. It's arrived later than ever this year and will fade faster than usual, unless more rain arrives soon. All the more reason to seize the day and spend the rest of it in the garden, or in the hills, or on the beach, celebrating the presence—however fleeting—of Persephone.

Suzanne Guldimann
21 March 2014

A little madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the King,
But God be with the clown—
Who ponders this tremendous scene—
This whole Experiment of Green—
As if it were his own!

—Emily Dickinson

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