Late summer and early fall are the quiet season in a native California garden. There are exceptions, but for the most part my plants have gone into dormancy. There has been no rain here in Encinitas since May, as is normal for coastal San Diego County. There is not likely to be any rain until November. These native plants are adapted to the long drought, in part by going to sleep for several months.
Some visibly go to sleep, such as the Matilija Poppy (Romneya coulteri). Mine finished blooming a short time ago, and now the leaves are drying up.
I like to use the dried leaves and stems as mulch, so I cut them down to the ground at this time. When the leaves are fully brown and dried, they crumble easily. I cut up the stems with a hand pruner. Cutting back this poppy is generally recommended because it triggers new growth. It also opens up the area to more sunlight which is good for the other plants.
Another genus that goes into quite visible dormancy is the Dudleyas. The one below is D. pulverulenta. It bloomed in June and July with tall flower stalks that put its blossoms up where hummingbirds can get at them. Now it's work for the year is done, and the leaves shrivel to become papery flakes. Though dead-looking at this time, these Dudleyas are quite alive. They can wait patiently another 3 or 4 months until the rains arrive. Note that the Dudleya is the background looks less dessicated because it is in the shade of the oak tree.
Other plants go dormant without looking quite as dead. In the photo below, the Yucca Shidigera looks much the same as always, while the cream-colored flowers of the buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) become cinnamon-colored seed heads.
Then there are the late bloomers, those plants that for whatever reasons produce their flowers in late summer. One of the best of these for the garden is California Fuchsia (Epilobium canum) in the Onagraceae (Primrose) family. There are several species and subspecies of this plant, but in general they have silvery foliage with tubular red flowers that are well used by hummingbirds.
Another late bloomer, at least in my garden, is Eriogonum grande var. rubescens. It's a Channel Islands species that can bloom as early as April or as late as October (according to Calflora.org). I'm using it as one of the understory plants beneath a large Santa Cruz Island Ironwood.
Still another late bloomer is Woolly Blue Curls (Trichostemma lanatum), a member of the Mint family.
Last but not least is an agave that I've had in a container for around 10-12 years. I believe it is A. parryi, but it may be a hybrid or variety. I just don't remember. Anyway, it decided to bloom this year. Like all other members of the agave genus, it will die when it's done flowering. For now it is spectacular. The 3 photos below show the full inflorescence, the unopened flower buds, and the open flowers which are loaded with so much nectar that they drip onto the ground. Note also the huge anthers and filaments. It will be interesting to see if any seeds are produced.
I was recently reading an excellent article in Fremontia (the journal of the California Native Plant Society). The article was written by Mark Bourne who spent 4 years in Japan learning their traditional approach to landscape design. He focused on the philosophical concept of Wabi. To quote Mr. Bourne, "Wabi is an aesthetic of emotions, expressed in the atmosphere of unadorned fulfillment that can be found in Japanese poetry. Wabi conveys a feeling of rusticity, simplicity, soberness..." The Wabi approach to both poetry and gardening involves references to the seasons and to specific natural locations, especially in the off-seasons. In Japan the off-season is late winter. In California it is late summer. Anyone can fall in love with a garden in Spring, but it takes more study and reflection to love a garden in late summer. Learning about Wabi has helped me to better appreciate my garden in this quiet season when there is as much brown as green, and the flowers are few and a far between. The plants are merely at rest, waiting, conserving water and energy to be ready for whatever comes next.