Friday, October 10, 2008


The dictionary defines the Turkish word sonbahar simply as "autumn," but it's an interesting word if you look a bit deeper. "Son" means "last." The standard definition of "bahar" is spring, but "last spring" sounds a little strange too. It seems the Persians looked at things a bit differently; Summer and Winter were the main seasons, and in between them were the bahars. People in temperate climates usually thing of spring as the time when nature wakes up, and fall as the season where everything drops seed and dies, or drifts into hibernation to survive the long winter. I was not much of a fall person for a long time, because in Iowa, as beautiful as the asters were agsinst the falling leaves, I knew all to well what came on its heels - several months of snow and subzero weather.

But in a Mediterranean climate or even those climates that approach the Mediterranean order of things, the "bahar" concept makes more sense. Bahars are times of respite between the gloom and cold of winter and the blazing heat of summer; times that many plants take care of. Here perhaps the most important element of fall is rain, the return of constant moisture. We do get some rain in the summer too, but it is hit or miss, and most native plants here seem to know better than to depend too heavily on it. And as the rain falls in increasing volume, the garden is once again full of action. Much of it is subtle, some is invisible. Seeds are swelling throwing up tentative shoots; bulbs are sending their roots out and will continue to do so through the winter. It's the beginning of a time of preparation. In Iowa, spring meant emerging bulbs, seeds coming up, but if we used that definition here, spring would start in October. they do, and it's called bahar. "Last" bahar.

The many seeds and bulbs that are slowly waking up with the coming of the rain and cool weather will grow slowly through the winter, sending down roots, gradually increasing, gathering strength. Then when the weather begins to warm and the bees come out, they will shoot up in a race with time; bloom, get pollinated, and with that last urgent bout of photosynthesis before the scorching summer heat comes, produce and ripen their seeds. Then they'll pull the last bit of nutrients and moisture from their fading leaves and stems, and wait out the summer safe underground.

A few of them have a different tactic. Colchicums, some crocus, and Amaryllis belladonna (affectionately known in California as "naked ladies), grow through the winter like the rest of the bulbs, but produce no flowers before the leaves die down in the spring. They wait till the end of summer to throw up their blooms. It's a clever strategy; when the seeds ripen and fall, they will either have conditions perfect for their growth, or in the case of some of the high-mountain plants, their seeds will be safely protected under a blanket of snow until spring, and watered by the constant trickle of runoff.

Obviously there are plenty of plants that, mission accomplished, are now going brown and making way for the next generation; the last fruits of the garden, persimmons and medlars, are coming into season. Indeed, some ornamentals draw more attention with their fruits than with their actual flowers. One of my favorites is Iris foetida, or "Gladwyn Stinking Iris." I always thought this name was a bit unfair, or at least exaggerated; it refers not to the flowers but to the leaves which, if crushed, smell a bit off, or to some noses, like roast beef. Compared to some of the other things I grow in the garden, Iris foetida is hardly spectacular. Its flowers emerge in late spring, and though they're hardly ugly, they're hardly worth devoting the space to a big clump of I. foetida. It's in the autumn, when color is at a premium, that the plant proves its value; the heavy green pods that have been developing all through the summer split open to reveal a bounty of brilliant orange seeds. These will hang on for at least a month or more, then either be eaten by birds or drop to the ground where many will sprout in early spring.

Of course there are plants that come into flower just now too. Besides the obvious chrysanthemums and asters (Note to myself, I need to get some asters growing here!) and the Jerusalem artichok at the top of this post, one of my favorite plants is now just starting its show: Salvia elegans, commonly known as pineapple sage. People growing this in colder climes might miss most of its show; even here I only get a month or so before the freezes make it start to look ratty, but it's definitely worth growing for the month of brilliant red blooms. I always seem to be taken by surprise; the plant looks like a big bushy mint plant for most of the summer and if it weren't for the delicious pineapple scent of the leaves, it wouldn't be much to write home about. Then suddenly one day I notice that the growing tips are pointing down, the signal that it is forming its flower buds. they elongate in a graceful droop, and finally, the red flowers shyly begin to peek from behind the green bracts. Then in a matter of days, the entire inflorescence turns straight upward and the intense red straw-like flowers open in quick succession. Each whorl is composed of several buds, and once the ends of the main stems are done, the branches join the party as well. Salvia elegans is a little tender; it goes down in a good freeze and really cold temperatures will kill the roots too, but it is easy to propagate. I usually take five or six cuttings about this time (get ones farther down with no flower buds). I just put them in water and they usually root within 10 days. They're easy to keep through the winter in a pot in a cool sunny place. Plant them in rich, moist soil (they don't like too much dryness in summer) and you'll be amazed at how fast the plants take off. If you can nurse it through the winter, you'll be rewarded even more richly; mine are as tall as my shoulder this year.

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