Green Whiskers of Winter: Filaree and Wild Oats

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

During the drought years of 2007-2009, I was actually depressed because the hillsides and vacant lots and riverbed banks of Southern California never turned green.  Everywhere I went, people agreed with me that to see the foothills stay brown made them sad every day they looked up while driving or walking. Brown - not the tawny lion-fur gold of late spring, when the wild oats and grasses are just dried and beautiful, but the tired, burnt-hard dark brown of late fall, when months have passed without a drop of rain and the grasses and brush are worn and tinder-dry.

Since childhood, natives of this place know that all it takes is a few foggy days, collected dew drops on the hills, to let some early grasses germinate.  But during the years it never rains at all, those whiskers shrivel into dry threads and seem to actually disappear, drawn back into the earth.

This fall, we've been lucky enough to have two early rainstorms, and the hillsides are already covered with serious green whiskers, making Southern Californians cheerful even if they don't realize how much the landscape matters.  On the slopes of Mt. Rubidoux in Riverside, where the annual July 4th celebration always burns swaths of vegetation, green sprouts already cover the blackened soil of summer.  From a distance, it looks like a misty verdant fog, still new, but close up, you can see each needle-like blade of grass.  In a dry year, the tumbleweeds might be blue-teal against the dead grass, but this fall, the new green spreads underneath the dried taller shrubs.

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Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

Yes, the hills of Ireland are lovely, and the Alps with their wildflowers, and the savannas and plains of other states and nations all over the world.  But listen to the names of what we have here and think of the beauty of what people might think of as weeds, often overlooked:

Filaree, the flat ferny weed spreading so quickly after wet, already the size of doilies in every parking strip or vacant lot, sends up those tiny purple-petaled flowers and then makes seedpods which look like green storkbills.  Do you remember them?  Bend down and look.  When I was a child, they were my favorite.  In summer, when they're finished, the seeds look like screws, and if you spit on them, or apply water if you're not a child, they actually unfurl and burrow their way into the decomposed granite to wait for next winter.

Wild oats are the best measure of our drought or rainfall - first to sprout, and in a good year, four or five feet tall and covered with the quaking sprays of seeds in sheaves that quake in the wind like shimmering waves. (In a dry year, they set seed when they're only a few inches all, and confirm the bad times.)  They can cover miles of land, hide children playing games in empty lots, and when you're quiet, and the breeze sweeps through, wild oats with their plump seedheads rustling against each other, harvested only for the wild, sound like nothing else.

Mustard weed germinates quickly - in spring, the yellow clouds will cover the mountains, but right now, the flat scalloped leaves are gray-green, holding drops of waterlike jewels.  And wild radish looks similar, but sends up flimsy delicate pink or white blossoms you've seen a hundred times.

The flashy blossoms of spring will be welcome, the lupine and monkeyflower and red California fuschia, but this month, we celebrate the tender new stubble of winter, softening the view.  In summer, the boulders and rocks might be marked with red fire retardant, but now, nestled in green, they look clean and sweet as lumps of sugar.  The slopes of Southern California - from the Baldwin Hills, the Hollywood Hills, the slopes around Dodger Stadium and the steep banks near Whittier and El Monte, the Jurupa hills off the 60 Freeway and the lower flanks of Mt. Baldy and the San Gorgonios, are verdant.  San Jacinto and Santiago, too.

I'll walk in the Box Springs Mountains in Riverside this week, thinking that even though our hills may not be famous or impressive to those who don't know Southern California, the paths up Big Sugarloaf I've taken since I was three will be lined with wooly white curls and filaree.

Susan Straight's latest novel is "Take One Candle Light a Room."  Both she and photographer Doug McCulloh are natives of Riverside, and their stories appear on KCET every other Wednesday.  She is Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at UCRiverside.

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