Well WFLA’ers, it is mid-May and we find ourselves in that slightly confusing “is it spring or summer in Los Angeles?” stage of weather. May usually feels like a transitional month between the two seasons, and this year is no exception. Some days are predicted to be in the upper 90s this month, while other days are currently forecast at a pleasant 75 degrees.
The annual wildflowers in your meadow are feeling the same way – you’ve probably noticed that some early blooming species took a cue from the summer-like heat and have already gone to seed (tidy tips and lupines, for example) or are starting to brown up, while others are still in spring bloom (probably including clarkias and farewell-to-spring, some poppies, and globe gilias). As your meadow transitions with the season, you may wonder what to do next in terms of maintenance.
If you leave the spent flower heads in place for a while, the birds will consume some of the seed (which is always fun to observe) and some of the seed will go into the soil bank where it will rest until it receives its germination cues next fall. Should you wish to help the seed scattering process along a bit, you can shake the spent flowers directly over your ground.
Some gardeners enjoy harvesting the seed and storing it for sowing in the fall or for sharing with friends and neighbors (I’m sure many of you have had ooh’s and aah’s over showy wildflowers from passers-by). In general, seed is ripe when the flower head is tan or brown and slightly crunchy without being too dried out and “fried to a crisp”. Take a paper bag and place spent flower stalks in upside down so that the seed can dehisce (discharge seeds) on its own. Place the bag in a cool, aerated, and dry area up off the ground and protected from rodents for a couple weeks. After that drying and dehiscing period, you should find that some seed has dropped to the bottom of the bag. That seed can then be labeled and placed in a jar, and then stashed in cool, dark, dry closet or cupboard until next fall.
Perhaps you are intending to clear and prepare your ground over the summer in preparation for planting native perennials in the fall – an exciting prospect! Should you wish to remove the dried flower stalks entirely after leaving them a while for the birds to enjoy, they do pull up easily and can then be added to compost bins; this way, any seed remaining within the plant material has an increased chance of regenerating. The removal of dry plant material might be the option appropriate for sites in wild land interface areas that are fire-sensitive. This process can be done gradually so that the flowers still in bloom remain and the dried individuals are removed.
This phase of the native wildflower meadow is an especially intriguing one – as bright blooms give way to the muted tones of next year’s seed bank, we are reminded that each phase of the cycle continues to provide habitat essential to the survival of local animal and insect species and is beautiful in its own way.
Posted by Genny Arnold, Theodore Payne Foundation