The first real rain came rather early this year, and the damp season has always been characterized by the appearance of exotic-looking fungi. These somewhat mysterious and complex living organisms spend much of their life in darkness. Mushrooms and their other non-photosynthetic relatives may live under the surface of the soil, deep within the tissues of green plants, or sometimes creeping within walls, basements, and even the cushions on garden furniture. Many of these fungi are wholly or semi parasitic — harvesting the mineral nutrients of their host (a green plant that can be physically coerced into sharing its nutrients) by invading their tissues. Many of the fruiting structures—mushrooms—are, of course delectable and even healthful additions to the diet of humans and other creatures.
One harbinger of late summer and fall is the “chicken of the woods” that, without fanfare, appears at the base of (in our area, mainly) eucalyptus trees. This spongy organism feeds off the heart of its woody host. Luckily, its appetite is small, and its host tree can live for many years before succumbing to this decay process. The manifestation of this parasitic union is a stunning series of radiating shelves in shades of ivory and yellow (darker colorations indicate old age for these species). Other fungal growths that should follow soon are chanterelles, bluets, and honey mushrooms (Armilleria mellea), those savory little mushrooms that, if found at the base of an oak, indicate its unfortunate demise within a few years. All of these are very distinctive. Once their identity is confirmed, there will be no reason to doubt their edibleness. There are certainly a few mushrooms that will make you ill and a few more that will actually send you to meet your maker. So, learn from an experienced harvester and research the species that grow here, and absolutely don’t eat anything that is not readily identifiable.
Another sign of the season (in most years, anyway) is the explosion of oak worms and moths. The oak moth (Phryganidia californica) is the adult of this insect. Like all moths, it must lay its eggs somewhere near a ready source of food for the caterpillars when they hatch; the eggs of the final cycle can even overwinter on the underside of the leaves and hatch when conditions are right. While they are not obligate on oaks (they will attack other hardwoods, too), they are an intimate part of the life cycle of the coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), the valley oak (Q. lobata), and, to a lesser extent, the coastal scrub oak (Q. dumosa). Oak moths are somewhat cyclical; one year they may be nearly nonexistent, while sometimes the trees are teeming with moths and caterpillars. Some say they appear in hordes on an eight- to 10-year cycle, but that is not well documented. Some neighborhoods are experiencing a surge in their population this year, while others are not. Making a bird-friendly garden can help in attracting natural predators to keep their numbers in check.
While the eastern and northern parts of the country have seen colorful autumnal displays as deciduous plants lose their leaves, in Southern California, this is often delayed. Among the first to show their colors, though, is a vine called Vitis ‘Roger’s Red’. This selection was apparently a chance hybrid between the native California grape and the grapes of commerce. Its leaves are just now going from green to a deep red in preparation for its winter dormancy — another sign of the season.