On a recent hike on the Fiscalini Ranch, a companion asked me, “What happened to all the beautiful green grass that used to be on this trail? It’s all brown and dead now. Will we ever see that lush green grass again?”
Of course, her concern had validity. By fall, our hillsides are a brownish gray color. Pasturelands offer little for cows to graze upon, and at this time of year, most farmers and ranchers are supplementing their cattle feed with various types of hay, including alfalfa.
Grasses are one of the most common plants on Earth. Many grasses have an annual life cycle that is timed for them to sprout and send out roots when the rains begin in the fall, reach their maximum growth as the days get longer in the spring, and die off when rainfall subsides in the summer.
Just before a grass plant dies, it drops tiny seeds onto the soil. Those seeds lie dormant until the first rains of fall. Even a light drizzle can be enough to stimulate sprouting. With continued rainfall at regular intervals, grass grows quickly. First the hillsides take on a pale green haze, then a velvety green nap, and finally, by springtime, lush grasses at least a foot high are flowing like a lion’s mane across the hillsides in the spring breezes.
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Grasses are well-adapted to drought periods. They can sprout, grow, flower and seed out based upon the available rainfall. Other grasses form rhizomes that remain dormant under the surface of the soil until the right rainfall and temperature conditions stimulate growth.
Grasses of all kinds form an important part of the coastal grassland ecosystem. Grasses use the process of photosynthesis to absorb energy from sunlight and nutrients from the soil to produce more shoots and leaves. The photosynthetic pigment chlorophyll is what gives grass its green color.
Rodents like meadow voles and deer mice feed on grasses and seeds. Their reproductive cycles rely on an abundant food supply to support their litters of young.
In turn, land-based predators, including bobcats, weasels, hawks, herons and egrets, feed on the voles and mice. Omnivores, such as bears and coyotes eat grasses, seeds and other plant matter. The entire coastal prairie ecosystem relies upon grass.
Shoots appear soon
Our annual rainy season starts in October, and with it, hopes of ending the drought. We can always count on a few showers during the Scarecrow Festival. Now’s a good time to start looking for tiny shoots of green starting to appear, almost like magic, along the edges of trails, under trees and between the cracks in sidewalks. By next month, we should start to see some of that green haze on the hills.
My mom used to say that in San Luis Obispo County we have a green Christmas instead of a white one. Our hills and trails may be dull this time of year, but fall brings the promise of growth and change. Look for it!