plants

Iceplant

Succulent carpets sporting pale yellow, rich magenta, or light purple flowers blanket the bluffs and hang over the cliffs along the coast of California. Joining oleander and cotoneaster as historic roadside plants, ice plant has been dropped by public works landscapers for many good reasons. Several species of ice plants are quite invasive in parts of California, spreading 3’ a year, wiping out rich assemblages of native plants and changing wildlife communities.

Native Ice Plant??!

When my mentors taught me the native flora, they wanted me to recognize the difference between the ‘native’ and non-native ice plant species. However, the ‘native’ ice plant turned out not to be native, proven by a clever scientist who sleuthed for a pollen record in pond sediment from an ancient pond in Marina, California on the Monterey Bay. The trick is to find an old pond, drill into the sediment with a hollow tube, and pull out a long plug of mud: deeper muck is older. Scientists can reference ash layers from volcanoes in the sediment and use carbon dating of bits of organic matter to index the history in the sediment core. In that pond sediment, they discovered ice plant pollen beginning in the 1800’s and occurring steadily in the pond sediment ever since. That was the age of lots of Old World species’ arrival…a time when invasive grasses and herbs spread rapidly across the landscape. Some species spread faster than the invading people so that the first Old World botanists didn’t know whether something was native or not. How did ice plant get there?

South Africa: Iceplant Home

South Africa is home to many ice plant relatives. That Mediterranean region is a biodiversity hot spot for many interesting plants, including plants in the ice plant family. Many ice plant relatives have stunningly bright colors and thin, reflective petals. There might still be a patch of ice plant relatives in the South African collection at the UCSC Arboretum. When I worked there, I came across that patch on a sunny spring day and was mesmerized by the color, gazing at first one intensely bright color and then the next. Peeling my eyes away from those flowers, I was shocked to find a world of temporarily muted color (a world of gray!). Something in my eyes had been overloaded and it took a while to get normal colors back. Only a few of the South African ice plant relatives have become weedy in California- not to say that more won’t in the future, should they find their way via the nursery trade.

Limey!

Scurvy is a horrible disease of malnourishment caused by too little Vitamin C. Part of the ‘success’ of the Imperialist British Navy is due to the recognition of the need to pack limes on board ships, earning those sailors the name ‘limeys.’ Some sailors might have been better called ‘iceys’ but that term doesn’t appear in the history books. The term for ice plant seed pods was “Sea Fig,” and the fruit was packed aboard ships to combat scurvy the same way limes did.

Tasty Treats

Ice plant fruit is ripe when the pods are wrinkly and shriveled, having narrowed from their once plump shiny tautness just after the flower fades. If you try eating one too early, it is very disappointing. Wait a while and you get to enjoy sweet, tart, and salty fruit loop flavor. Like figs, ice plant seeds are on the inside of the fruit, suspended in a sticky, stretchy slightly slimy gelatinous goo- that’s the tasty stuff to harvest out of the pods. I am pretty picky about where to harvest the fruits because of what I’ve seen dogs do on ice plant carpets. The biggest flowering of ice plant is under way now, so you have to wait a while for the pods to ripen.

Rats!

Us bipeds aren’t the only ones who like the ice plant fruit- they are favored food for all sorts of small mammals. The moisture in the fruit might be attractive, but the protein-rich seeds are nutritious – so much so that all that food elevates small mammal populations above what might normally occur. Ground squirrel, rat, and rabbit numbers increase, and herds of these animals scurry into areas surrounding the ice plant patches and graze down native vegetation, making way for still more ice plant with seeds dispersed in the critters’ poop. Sit on some of the large cliff-erosion combating rock piles near West Cliff’s ice plant carpets some evening and watch the cracks between the rocks. You will probably get to see part of that ice-plant fed thriving rat population.

Salting the Earth

Feeding the ice plant gardening small animals is one way that the plant is clever, but there’s an even more genius method of invasion: salt. Ice plant is very salt tolerant. As it grows it concentrates salts in the soil under it, creating more saline conditions than much of the native ocean bluff flora can tolerate.

Biocontrol Story

As I mentioned above, there once was a fondness for ice plant for stabilizing soil along roads and railroads. Many older readers probably recall ice plant lined roads; CalTrans maintained at least 6,000 acres of ice plant in the 1970s. Native plant enthusiasts never really liked that ice plant landscaping, long recognizing the species’ invasibility, and so they rejoiced when an iceplant pest made it to the New World and started killing ice plant patches. The scale insect was taking a serious toll on highway and railroad plantings, and native plant conservationists were transporting sick ice plant to new areas to spread the pest. Others regarded the pest with disdain, and they ended up winning. Cal Trans funded and UC Berkeley launched a biological control program to fight the ice plant pest. UC researchers found a few species of wasps that controlled the scale insects and released those wasps in masses. The wasps established and now control the ice plant destroying pest.  

Removing Iceplant

Don’t worry: ice plant is controllable! Volunteers for the California Native Plant Society and other groups have embarked on ice plant pulling sprees to protect particularly rich areas of dunes and ocean bluffs. While the plants are quite heavy, they aren’t particularly well rooted, so are easy to yank. Pulled up parts of the plants are piled high and slowly decompose. You have to keep coming back to make sure some of the piled plants don’t re-root, but that follow up work isn’t very hard. And, one typically finds a few plants that were so small they got missed the first time pulling in an area. Ice plant is easy to recognize, so you might get to know it and pull it when it is out of place. Turn a pulled plant upside down, roots in the air, and it will probably die. After a while, the bare patches left from pulling ice plant might grow native plants. Often, old patches of ice plant leave behind a thick carpet of dead leaves and salty soil that takes some time to get back to something that can support native plant species. Hopefully, this essay will help prevent more people from planting ice plant in new places!

-post originally published at Bruce Bratton’s online weekly.

The Return of the Rain

HOT (85F), then cold and massively windy (wind damage!) … then drizzle…now gap (cold)…drizzle tomorrow gap…drizzle Saturday (cool): what an odd April! The April showers bring May flowers adage isn’t supposed to work here in California, or at least it hasn’t for a long time…but then again, it Does Work! Way back in March, the prairies were turning brown and the grass was stunted and dying. Ranchers were selling their cattle quickly to get in before the big sales rush later in the spring, when they would make even less money. Now, the grasses are growing again, and the prairies are mostly green where they were brown. Weird. The big lupine year here on the Farm will be prolonged maybe into May if this keeps up. If it keeps up, maybe we’ll have the plump tasty handfuls of native blackberry that we got last year with the late rains….that would be wonderful. Some nearby got an inch of rain this last round, where we were promised only two tenths. Roof runoff rainwater buckets filled entirely, which normally suggests a good soak.

No Chow

There is very little food on the farm, unless you like to eat lemons and limes or to harvest wild nettles. The cover crop pea shoots have been mowed and/or tilled in. It has been too dry for mushrooms, though the recent rains could promise morels if it warmed up and we looked hard. It is too early to harvest the very few Bacon avocados fattening on the trees. Very little of last season’s kale remains that hasn’t bolted. It’d be a good time to turn to eating bugs if you had to forage just on the farm. Canned food season continues. Oh, how we long for the produce of summer!

Wildlife Sightings

I saw as single deer running across the farm this past week, the first for a long time and too far away to know what sex. But it was nice sized and alone, very nervous…kept moving. A few fox barks emanated from the Vandenberg Field area one evening. Not much predator poo around. Gophers, though- very common! And the voles are starting to make a comeback. The Big Winners are the mice – the harvest and deer mouse populations are burgeoning right now. They leap and scurry in front of the mowers and hoes, and if you stand still too long in the grass they run over your shoes- it’s that kind of mouse year.

I spied on one of the bluebird boxes yesterday and watched a momma feed babies which were sticking their hungry maws out of the hole to get the dangly long caterpillar from her mouth. Cheep Cheep! Cheep Cheep!

The band tailed pigeons are the newest entertainment. Our big flock is back eating walnut catkins, an annual ritual. They sure are nervous, flapping noisily away when you approach a walnut tree. I am transported to the tropics when I see them- they trigger past parrot sightings in my memory, being a similar size and shape.

Farming

Adan is back on the tractor. So is Mark Bartle, who has been equally energetic with the big machines. The fields are mowed and a subset are getting tilled. Adan has rototilled the first field, so smoothly turned around, a special kind of soil beauty. Mark mowed the vineyard this past week and the vines opened their fresh light green delicate leaves; they are well trellised and starting to look like an established crop for the first time, their third spring of growth.

The orchard folks got caught up on watering and then with the drizzle can take a bit of a break. Soon the Maserati of Mulcharts will be going 185 with big piles of mowed up mulch to feed the trees.

The hay hauling mulch cart, a Molino Creek Farm invention- appropriate technology

Flowers

The blue, blue-blue native bulbs have burst into their small tight globes of flowers on the road into the farm, complimenting the other patches of white-and-blue lupines. Orange sticky monkeyflower subshrubs are getting towards full bloom, but Ceanothus are fading. French broom is scentfully blossoming, but we don’t like looking at it- what a scourge has been flushed after that fire! In the forest, it is peak iris time and the pale yellow flowered fat false Solomon’s seal is in full bloom (another scent sensation). Did I say iris time? Its really a big iris year! The poppies are in full regalia, meshing large patches of flame orange into the delightfully contrasting purple blue lupines.

We hope you enjoy some rainbows and perhaps the last rains of the season this next week. Our fruit trees will be in heaven.

Dry Winter Skies

Ravenous

You might recall the strain of conversation about Maw and Caw our resident ravens. I just want to say that they are So Cute! Well, a little more: they love each other and you can tell it- constantly fretting about one another and this time of year gazing at each other, playing follow the leader and other games. They are well enough fed to have lots of spare time and they fill it with fun. If you travel downhill and along the coast, you find Other Farm Ravens, and not in isolated pairs…big playful troupes of them, paired, yes, but 20, 30, or 50 strong groups – noisy tribes hopping up and down flushing grasshoppers or something just like our two but more. Somehow, they seem smaller, too. I hope someone one day helps us find where our two nest.

Other Farm Wildlife

We’ve got Western Bluebirds in fine spring regalia in and out of the nest boxes already setting up shop. I think I’ll not mention the cacophony of blackbirds much – only to say that they are still noisy and beautiful.

What we don’t have are foxes or coyotes or skunks or racoons. I heard that there is distemper spreading through the predator community nearby- can anyone confirm?

This year had the driest January and February on record in many places around us- San Francisco for instance. Maybe not here, but maybe so. Bob Brunie was digging a hole to plant a new tree and found the soil dry to two feet depth. That’s weird for this time of year- very weird.

Winter Farming

Bob was planting a new peach tree- number 7 in the group of one day 8 on Citrus Hill. If someone wants to donate a nectarine or two, we’ll plant those, too. Whatever we do, we must set up irrigation to start running Soon for the orchards.

It has become mowing and weeding time- 2 Dog Crew has been tidying up the Chardonnay grapes so now the vineyard looks so neat and tidy.

The first cherry blossoms are emerging on the few trees that the fire spared. Maybe we’ll get a bunch of cherries this year!

Lapins Cherries – Starting to Bloom!

Around the Edges: Wildflowers

In the wild places of the Farm flowers are blossoming. A common plant is called bee plant, a Scrophularia with flowers some say are like Micky Mouse – a pair of upright petals are like Mickey’s ears. The flowers are carrion colored red-brown and attract meat “bees” – really wasps. But, honeybees and hummingbirds have figured out those flower cups are filled with nectar, so the plants get lots of visitors right now…meat bees haven’t come out yet. Wild radishes have sprays of light flowers like sea foam across the fallow fields. Across the steep hillsides near Molino Creek, trilliums and other native bulbs are starting to flower as the forest produces more and more spring flowers.

Beeplant- a nectar rich native perennial
  • this post from my regular blog at Molino Creek Farm’s website. I am a partner in that collectively owned farm in northern Santa Cruz County, California.

Early Spring Understory Blossoms

If you are observant, the forest’s meandering and dappled light is just now illuminating the beginning of spring’s wildflowers. Patches of bright blue, pure white, pale pink, and startling yellow are the first of the sequence of forest understory flowers that bloom now through August in the Central Coast’s many types of forests.

Hound’s Tongue’s Leaves and Flowers

Perhaps named for the pink, in-rolled first leaves emerging from damp leaf litter, hound’s tongue provides the forest’s tallest and brightest blue bouquets. This is a perennial wildflower most commonly found in sunnier patches in forests with oaks and Douglas firs. It must taste bad because I never see it browsed by deer or rodents. A California wildflower book from 1897 says that ‘in the old days’ people thought you could put the leaves under your feet in your shoes and then dogs wouldn’t bark at you. Many gardeners are familiar with a near look-alike relative, borage. The healthiest plants make many flowers, widely spaced on a branching two-foot-tall inflorescence. Today, I saw bumble bees, honeybees, and hover flies visiting the flowers. Bumble bees were especially numerous, and when they latch onto the flowers, which are much smaller than they are, the whole plant bobs and waves, drawing attention from other pollinators. One plant in a hundred produces light purple-pink blossoms instead of the normal blue. This makes me wonder if we are witnessing the blue era of hound’s tongue…maybe one day eons from now, this species will evolve purple or red flowers.

Hooked Fruit

If they get pollinated, each hound’s tongue flower will make a cluster of 4 fruit that hang tight to the stem until they snag on a passing animal. Starting late Spring, a forest walk will make you clean your clothes, and in that mass of messy seeds pinched from your socks, you might encounter these wild borage seeds. The seeds are oval and fat with just enough hooks to grab onto someone’s fur. These hitchhiking seeds are the species’ way of establishing new patches, reducing competition with the parents. This might be especially useful when new colonies might establish in post fire areas.

Cynoglossom grande, Hound’s tongue, a bright blue understory wildflower

Catapulting Seeds

Another plant starting to bloom in the forest understory catapults its seeds for dispersal. Once ripe, the fleshy pods explode when touched, sending seeds into the air and many feet away. Since I’ve introduced this surprising behavior to many botanists, I’m guessing you’ll also be surprised about which plant has this trick: redwood sorrel! Yes, a plant with which many people are familiar performs this little-known novelty. You’ll have to get good at recognizing a ripe seed pod before you can experience it.

Sparkling Sorrel

With the recent dry, warm weather, redwood sorrel has started to carpet the redwood forest understory with beautiful pink to white blossoms mixed with its lush medium green, 3-leafleted leaves. Come Saint Patrick’s Day, you might purchase sorrel or see it displayed, but you’ll never find a 4-leaved redwood sorrel (really, shamrocks are clovers, and it is possible to find a four-leaved clover!) In full sun on a hot day, redwood sorrel leaves fold down to keep from roasting. But, in the more typical cool dark understory, each leaflet tilts and turns, orienting independently to maximize light capture with the passing sun rays. The flowers open above the leaves and soon there will be so many redwood sorrel flowers that the forest floor will sparkle like the many stars of the night sky.

More White Forest Flowers

Another white to pink early spring forest flower is in full bloom right now, growing on the edge of patches of redwood and out into Douglas fir and oak groves. Milk maids is a relative of cress and has bright 4-petaled flowers, normally quite white (but ones near my house are quite pink). The description of this plant from the aforementioned 1897 book by Mary Parsons ‘The Wild Flowers of California’ deserves quoting:

“What a rapture we always feel over this first blossom of the year! – not only for its own sake, but for the hopes and promises it holds out, the visions it raises of spring, with flower-covered meadows, running brooks, buds swelling everywhere, bird-songs, and air rife with perfumes”

Milk maids is attracting a beautiful butterfly that matches its white flowers. The mustard white butterfly is the earliest butterfly you’ll see…besides the overwintering Monarchs…and you’ll almost certainly see it if you find a big patch of milk maids, upon which it lays its eggs. When the eggs hatch, the larvae will grow up feeding on milkmaid leaves. Once the larvae have pupated and grow into butterflies, they sip nectar from and pollinate milkmaid flowers. In this way, milk maids and mustard white butterflies have a close partnership.

Violá Violets!

The forest violets have started blooming including my favorite, redwood violet, which makes carpets along banks and on steep slopes in many places near Bonny Doon. Redwood violet has bright yellow flowers that, like redwood sorrel, peek up well above a dense mat of leaves. If you look closely, you’ll see tiny dark red lines in the throat of the flower that lead pollinators to seek rewards inside of the flower. Redwood violet leaves are nearly round, except when you find the telltale sign of the butterfly that feeds on them.

Redwood violets with their vivid yellow blossoms bedecking the post fire understory

Violet Feeding Silverspot Butterflies

Silverspot butterfly larvae carve out semi-circular scallops in redwood violet leaves and, when you see those bite marks, that is likely the only hint that this butterfly larvae is around, because they feed at night! Arboretum Director Ray Collett alerted me about these silverspot butterflies 30 years ago. He had met a butterfly collector who pointed out Bonny Doon silverspot butterflies that matched the endangered Callipe Silverspot previously known only from San Bruno Mountain in South San Francisco. With that tip, a conservation geneticist friend of mine recently hunted our local one for a while but only caught one, which looks promising to be at least closely related to the endangered one, but more work needs to be done. Meanwhile, later in spring, we can be on the lookout for these mysterious and rapidly flying orange butterflies with silver spotted underwings that feed late at night on the beautiful yellow violet carpets of Bonny Doon.

The Parade of Spring

These early spring wildflowers are just the beginning of the succession of wildflowers brightening the shade of our forests. As the days get warmer and longer, each week will bring a new suite of species into bloom. The flowers are stewarded by pollinators in conjunction with mountain lions which chase around the deer enough so not every flower is munched. Human stewardship is helpful, too. We can help not only by controlling invasive forest species (forget-me-not, French broom, periwinkle, etc) but also by not planting what might be new invasive species, one day. In the future, perhaps we’ll appreciate the native wildflowers enough to propagate them for our gardens. With these native species come a wealth of pollinators including butterflies that rely on native wildflowers for their larval stages. Planned correctly, your forest garden will have a natural succession of flowers, bringing different colors to every season without any additional water and with little need for tending.

  • this story brought to you via my column the prior week in Bruce Bratton’s weekly blog at BrattonOnline.com

The Chaparral of Santa Cruz County’s Highest Neighboring Mountain: Loma Prieta

Essay originally published in Bruce Bratton’s weekly online blog BrattonOnline.com.

Many of us are drawn to mountain tops if not physically at least visually, some even spiritually. Botanists go to see the unique flora. Some botanists are “peak baggers” along with many others. There is no “bagging” Loma Prieta, but the flora around it is very special. And the peak has been sacred to some but has been defiled by others, now buzzing with communications towers that make you want to stay far away.

At 3,790’ Loma Prieta towers above Santa Cruz, the highest peak of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The mountain is near the Santa Clara/Santa Cruz County Line and looks over the nearby San Andreas Fault. More people know the name of the peak from 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake – the epicenter was just west of the mountain.

Recharge

It snows up there almost every year and the rain falls in torrents because the highest peaks catch the most rain. There is little soil near Loma Prieta, but lots of well drained rock. There are patches of sandstone surrounded by a massive amount of mudstone. Craggy dark sandstone outcrops accent the slopes near Loma Prieta. Roadcuts reveal fascinating patterns formed by the nearby faulting. The mudstone and sandstone rocks were created by sediment washed into the Pacific from ancient California’s rivers, laid down in layer after layer, with different layers of slightly different colors, textures, and thicknesses. Tectonic movement has pitched those layers this way and that, sometimes in great undulating waves, other times tilted this way and that. The roadcut rock is fascinating mosaic art.

Rain soaks through these fractured stones, bubbling out below to form the headwaters of streams that provide drinking water for hundreds of thousands. Looking out from the mountain, you see the steep and thickly wooded Soquel Creek canyon or turn towards the other side and look down Uvas Creek that leads to the Uvas Reservoir and onto the Pajaro River, or gaze north into streams headed to the Lexington Reservoir.

Views

I try to visit the area’s peaks once a year to get my bearing and appreciate this place. And, I can see most of those peaks from Loma Prieta: Mount Diablo, Mount Hamilton, Fremont Peak, Devil’s Peak, and Ben Lomond Mountain are visible from there. A while back, I would visit Loma Prieta to get a good view of the region’s fireworks on July Fourth. Back then, the shoreline of the Monterey Bay was lit by many displays and there were many displays in towns all the way to San Francisco and beyond. It is a delightful place to see the entire Monterey Bay and a huge expanse of the sparkling Pacific Ocean. But really, I go for the plants.

This Chaparral’s Shrub Diversity

My favorite plants to visit up that way are two subspecies of at type of manzanita that is normally found a long ways north, but which have outlying patches on sandstone near Loma Prieta. The Hoary (A. canescens ssp. canescens)and Sonoma (A. canescens ssp. sonomensis) are beautiful silvery shrubs with smooth red bark so dark it is almost black. I visited last weekend and it was just starting to blossom, some shrubs had pure white and others very pink flowers.

This is a very shrub diverse area. In a short distance, in addition to the above, you can find three other manzanitas: Santa Cruz manzanita (A. andersonii) and brittle leaved manzanita (A. crustacea ssp. crustacea) and Rose’s manzanita (A. crustacea ssp. rosei). And, the ceanthus that normally accompany manzanitas are equally diverse with 5 species also occurring in close proximity to Loma Prieta: warty leaved ceanothus (C. papillosus); blue blossom (C. thrysiflorus var thrysiflous), wavy-leaf ceanothus (C. foliosus var. foliosus), buck brush (C. cuneatus var. cuneatus) and Jim brush (C. oliganthus var. sorediatus). More shrubs still include 3 species of silk tassel – bear brush (G. fremontii), silk tassel (G. eliptica), and ashy silk tassel (G. flavescens), mountain mahogany, pitcher sage, chaparral pea, bush poppy, coffee berry, coyote bush, and on and on. With this menagerie of chaparral shrubs, the scents are awesome as the sun warms the millions of resinous leaves.

…and Tree Diversity

Trees are super diverse up there, too. It is surprising to see a rare local conifer California nutmeg emerging from the chaparral. The canyon live oaks are everywhere in multi-trunked patches resprouting from multiple fires. There is also interior live oak, foothill pine, and knobcone pine. Some trees are odd: the madrones have paler orange bark than normal, the bay trees have more flakey bark, and the tanoaks have longer and or smaller more toothed leaves. The patches of trees are especially thickly festooned with beards of mosses and dense carpets of lichens.

Clearing the Shrubs – the March of Weeds

With the exception of a few patches managed by public parks, most of the area is privately owned, and it shows. A County Planner has told me on many occasions that the County’s policy is to not allow clearing of this rare chaparral type. And yet, you can see the expansive clearing from Highway One. There are immense mansions and squalid trailers, many with massive fire clearance zones. And, there are acres and acres of vineyards and horse corrals as well as sprawling greenhouses.

This network of development and the roads that serve them has badly fragmented this beautiful chaparral, especially in the last 15 years. Human incursions are made evident by aisles and acres of weeds: jubata grass, Scotch and French broom, and acacia are the most evident.

Even with all of the clearing but especially with the influx of flammable weeds along the roads, this area seems likely to burn badly one day.

A History of Fires

Many areas around Loma Prieta have not burned in a long, long time; but there have been recent fires. North and West of Loma Prieta, there are some of the oldest, largest knobcone pines I’ve ever seen, evidence that it has been a long time since fire. South and East of Loma Prieta, are miles of skeletons of trees and shrubs that belie more recent fires. The 2008 Summit Fire (4,200 acres), the 2009 Loma Fire (435 acres), and then the 2016 Loma Fire (4,470 acres) all have scorched areas around Loma Prieta, and all were human caused.

How to Visit

You can visit patches of this unique chaparral in a few parks. Some of this type of chaparral is at Mount Madonna County Park. The more shrub-diverse type is found in the Sierra Azul Preserve managed by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District at Mount Umunhum, the next peak north of, and not far from, Loma Prieta. The top of Santa Clara County Park’s Uvas Canyon County Park touches the shoulder of Loma Prieta south of the peak. This type of chaparral gets less interestingly diverse but still remains expansive in the upper areas of Nisene Marks State Park, say along the top of Aptos Fire Road.

The Early Winter Prairie

This is a slightly edited reprint of my recent column at Bruce Bratton’s online weekly, to which I strongly suggest you subscribe.

Each season life in the coastal prairie changes in hue and character. The many inches of rain and the cold nights fashion the winter’s prairie now turning bright green with life that is gradually emerging from quiescence. Most annual plants have germinated; both annuals and perennials are growing slowly, the sward just 4 inches tall. The first flowers are blossoming, swales and pools abound with water, gophers throw muddy balls out their desperate breathing holes, and frost ices leaf edges, wilting tender new growth. Newborn calves follow their hungrily grazing mothers far to find enough food. Recreational trails through the prairies are frequently stirred muddy messes, destroying life while eroding ancient soils onto the few remaining prairies; bicyclists proudly sport their muddy equipment and clothes. Some signs of early winter prairie are ancient, while others are quite new.

Pop Goes the…

The first native coastal prairie wildflowers are related to broccoli and celery. Popweed and peppergrass are in bloom, relatives of broccoli. These are a tiny plants on shallow soil or along trails and the sparrow-grazed edges of shrubs…or on last year’s badger or gopher mounds. They have little white flowers with 4 petals that seem to twinkle almost like glitter brightening the prairie. After flowering, popweed makes elongated pods that dry and then ‘pop’ sending seeds further than you might think possible from such a small plant. The U.S. gave popweed to the rest of the world…as a pest! You are probably more likely to encounter both of these plants in sidewalk cracks or (popweed) in potted plants in town. I’ve had the unpleasant experience of getting popweed seeds in my eye more than once, a victim of the barrage of flinging seeds from one of these weeds hiding in a pot that I was moving in my nursery.

Who Spilled the Yellow Paint?

The other very early prairie wildflower is starting to show color. It is called ‘footsteps of spring.’ It has the botanical name Sanicula arctopoides – that last word of its name being a botanical pun: “arcto” for bear and “poides” for foot: barefoot (harr harr!) footsteps (guffaw!) of spring … chuckle-chuckle go those goofy botanists. The name seems right somehow if you think Spring leaves footprints when she arrives: the first really bright thing is this plant- the entire 8” across flat plant turns a surprisingly vibrant yellow framing similarly yellow clusters of flowers. These wildflowers tend to make patches on shallow-soiled ridgelets and outcrops in the prairie. And so, Spring seems to have left footprints with her arrival as she danced from ridge to ridge and across rocky pathways to awaken the prairie from its moist green wintery slumber.

Prairies as Wetlands

Many people are surprised that many of our prairies are wetlands, but if you wander out there now, you’ll become a believer. Coastal Terrace Prairies are on flat ground, mostly along the ancient wavecut and uplifted coastal terraces within a few miles of the coast. Housing and agriculture cover most of the first terrace, the one right above the ocean, but there are extensive prairies on the second, third, and fourth terraces. Look uphill and inland of Highway 1 on the North Coast, for instance. Being flat, coastal terraces don’t drain well and so are apt to have long periods of saturated soil, which is a key attribute of wetlands. In some places, there’s water pooled across the soil surface, but mostly the soil is just so wet that only plant species adapted to wetlands can survive. Walk across these areas and you’ll find shimmering rivulets snaking among the grasses downhill to add water to creeks. Along the edges of these squishy grasslands are seeps and springs oozing and gushing with plentiful water now and remaining green late into spring. In mima mounds and on rocky areas on the terraces, you might find vernal pools- small ephemeral ponds with chorus frog or toad tadpoles, festooned with curious alga and teeming with zooplankton.

Grassy Carpet

Looking broadly across the prairies, grasses are mostly what you see, but slimy things are hiding underneath. Perennial grasses, many of them million-year natives, are waking underground with only the slightest sign in their leaves; their tiny leaves are green, but their new white roots have already grown inches into the surrounding soil, quickly claiming as wide an area as possible. They compete against quicker-growing annual grasses, most of them here for just a few hundred years; these get tall faster and shade natives, inhibiting many native plants from establishing from seed. Without something like the ancient megafaunal grazing regimes, the non-native annuals create a (relatively) towering canopy protecting slugs and snails from bird. Under the grassy protection, mollusks devour the nutrient-rich native annual wildflower seedlings before they stand a chance.

Cows = Flowers

In some places, cattle graze the prairies, maintaining some semblance of the evolutionary disturbance regimes that coastal prairie diversity requires. Betting on a better yearling market, some local cattle ranchers set the bulls free among the heifers at a time that makes for calves right now. This is a difficult time for raising a calf – despite the slow growing lush grasses, there’s very little protein in those leaves. To make enough milk, the mothers must constantly graze, cropping the prairie short. Flocks of birds follow the cattle for the food they expose along the way. Research UCSC Professor Karen Holl and I have performed over the past many years has shown that cattle grazing in coastal prairie creates more abundant and more diverse native annual wildflowers than adjoining ungrazed areas. Cattle grazing, cow trails and the lightly driven ranch roads that accompany livestock also make for excellent habitat for the rarest of beetles…the Ohlone tiger beetle.

OTB

The Ohlone tiger beetle is emerging from its burrows now, bright metallic green-blue carapaces like finest jewels of our local prairies. This species is only found in a handful of grasslands near Santa Cruz. On sunny, warmer days, it forages for invertebrates along open trails in only the most diverse coastal prairies. Those sunny warm days also attract mountain bikers who cruise so swiftly along the trails – including miles of trails that are not sanctioned by the landowners – as to smash innumerable of these endangered insects. Just last week, a colleague visited the Mima Meadow at UC Santa Cruz to find many smashed, most probably killed by fast-moving bicyclists. The carcasses were on a trail not sanctioned for bicyclist use and even in an area the University, as a legal mandate from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, has set aside expressly for beetle conservation. If court cases from Florida are any precedent, the University could be held liable for the death of a federally protected endangered species…and penalized. Perhaps that’s what it would take for the University to enforce the protection of this area.

Muddy Mess

Perhaps one could understand a University’s difficulty in managing natural areas, but what about our State Park managers? Many of the coastal prairie trails at Wilder Ranch State Park once had Ohlone tiger beetles, but State Parks destroyed much of that habitat by dumping tons of gravel to ‘harden’ the trails as a ‘solution’ to allowing recreational access during the muddy winters. Parks staff subsequently decided to manage a small remnant area (successfully) for this endangered species. Even so, coastal prairie trails are a muddy mess these days, and use only stirs up that mud, loosening it so that it washes off into the surrounding grasslands. Those extra nutrients spur weedy growth and destroy wildflowers. Meanwhile the incising and eroding trails serve to drain the surrounding wet meadows, an alteration that also degrades the habitat. Shame on users and managers alike for destroying eons of evolution and a legacy for future generations! If you see the (rare) ‘trails closed’ signs…which are almost always (if present) defaced and thrown aside…please prop them back up and go for a forest walk, instead.

Provocative Eucalyptus

This is reprinted from my weekly post as part of Bruce Bratton’s excellent weekly brattononline.com This post was modified from the original in response to critique by Gillian Greensite who has followed this issue for many years. My content was largely informed by a science conference on the subject, with a record of many materials here.

Many Californians have opinions about Eucalyptus. Either you are for them or against them. Its a subject like politics or religion that you hesitate to bring up at the dinner table. As with Covid-19 vaccination, you can’t predict who’ll be on what side (or why) – people of any political persuasion can surprise you with their beliefs. I’m betting that you know what I’m talking about…I didn’t even need to mention which of the hundreds of species of Eucalyptus I am talking about.

Eucalyptus Bad

The most common concern I hear about blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus) in California is how fire-dangerous it is. Locally, some recall the 2008 Trabing Fire just north of Watsonville, ignited on a hot day by a poorly running vehicle backfiring, and spitting out fire balls along Highway 1. Grass caught fire and quickly spread into nearby invasive pines, acacia and Eucalyptus (those have since regrown denser than before). That fire surprised fire-fighting professionals from how high embers were flying…hitting their fire monitoring planes at altitudes previously thought safe. They cited the architecture of Eucalyptus forests…the tall, close very vertical trunks create chimney-like conditions, hurling fiery brands much further than expected. Leaves with volatile oils and large amounts of bark and branches accumulated in the understory are other reasons for fire concern.

Eucalyptus Good

The most common defense of Eucalyptus I have encountered is its beauty. Our cityscapes have surprisingly few trees, but there are almost always huge Eucalyptus nearby. Many are fond of their massive trunks, shaggy bark, and towering, spreading canopies, shimmering with blue green leaves. I have seen many painters capturing the alluring patterns of rows of old Eucalyptus trees in many seasons, in many shades of light. A few people will dedicate their spare time and energy to protect big old Eucalyptus city trees from the too-frequent human desire to cut down trees.

What Do the Birds Say?

If birds are any indicator, Eucalyptus is good in some places and bad in other places. Birds like city trees including Eucalyptus. Eucalyptus adjacent to larger bodies of water are attractive to birds. You may have seen masses of herons and egrets using Eucalyptus as ‘rookeries’ where they raise their young. Trees near the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor are roosting areas for herons. The Eucalyptus grove south and inland of the Elkhorn Slough Bridge in Moss Landing has a huge rookery, with so many birds that their guano is killing the trees. Peregrine falcons were using the talk Eucalyptus near the river mouth for a while. Raptors like the tallest trees for nests and perches.

Gum Gone Wild

Eucalyptus in our area is considered to have a moderate threat of invasiveness, with regionally specific higher rate of spread in foggy areas and in areas with more water availability, especially along the Central Coast. As with so many Eucalyptus issues, this was once a source of controversy before Eric Van Dyke at the Elkhorn Slough Reserve demonstrated an 8 foot per year rate of spread of groves in northern Monterey County. Since then, many other examples of the species’ ability to spread in our region have been documented. Where Eucalyptus spreads into streamside habitats, there is a particularly bad impact for bird conservation.

River Gum Bad

Riverside or streamside (aka ‘riparian’) habitats are by far the most crucial targets for bird conservation in California. Most of these habitats have been highly altered and are no longer good habitat for wildlife. Many migratory birds visiting from the tropics nest in those habitats. The loss of riparian bird habitat compounds with the loss of tropical forests, and so these birds are particularly imperiled. Riparian ecosystems host many cavity nesting birds that favor holes in the soft wood of riparian trees like willows, cottonwoods, and alders. Eucalyptus trees quickly invade and transform diverse riparian forest, and cavities become much less common. Bird conservationists say that controlling Eucalyptus in riparian areas should be a ‘no brainer.’

Euc Pests

Some types of birds have recently been newly attracted to Eucalyptus because they like at least one of its natural pests that found its way to California. The blue gum psyllid is apparently tasty for birds such as warblers. I’m less sure if birds are eating other ‘new’ Eucalyptus pests: apparently a number of blue gum eating pests recently found their way to California. It used to be that Eucalyptus leaves were perfectly shaped, no damage- nothing ate them! Now, those leaves look like someone took a paper punch to them. Eucalyptus tortoise beetle are eating blue gum leaves – does anyone know if birds like to eat it or other of the new Euc pests?

The Arrival of Eucalyptus

Eucalyptus has a long history in California. It was widely planted in the 1870’s to address the ‘hardwood famine.’ Hardwood was becoming scarce because of its use as fuel for steam engines and heat, so there was a Eucalyptus planting boom. Eucalyptus was soon advertised as the solution to many problems: a fast-growing hardwood for fuel, people thought its wood could be used for railroad ties and other lumber, people said the tree would dry up wetlands and reduce mosquitoes, and its fast growth attracted people to plant it for windbreaks. People were buying large numbers of seedlings. Some advertised, promising investors good returns from productive Eucalyptus wood lots.

Hardwood, though, eventually lost favor to petroleum in California. But, if you travel to Central or South America, where hardwood is still important for fuel, you will notice many areas managed for Eucalyptus firewood.

Heavy and Twisty

It turned out that Eucalyptus wood twists and buckles when drying, so it was eventually recognized as useless for lumber. Well, almost. 15 years ago, someone claimed they had a process for drying Eucalyptus “correctly” so that it could be used lumber, including for picnic tables. They donated one to the organization I worked for…it weighed 250 pounds and took 4 people to move! After a couple of years it was impossible to use. It was so warped that when people sat on it, it rocked wildly about, and created a balancing challenge with people bobbing around spilling their drinks at vastly different elevations.

Perhaps this would be different if the wood were kept dry, indoors. Woodlots for Eucalyptus hardwood are still around, but you are more likely to see Eucalyptus spreading from old, planted windbreaks. Look carefully for the oldest biggest trees in a row with many generations of younger trees spreading from there. One thing remains true from the old hype: Eucalyptus does well at drying wetlands!

Drink it Up

With its huge canopy thick with leaves, Eucalyptus is known globally for its thirsty nature. Deforestation in its native home in Australia led to salinization of the soil from the evaporating heightened water table. Here in California, people note the loss of springs where Eucalyptus grows. Although closer scrutiny is needed, using transpiration rates from Eucalyptus elsewhere in similar climates, it is likely that a grove of Eucalyptus drinks most of the rainfall falling on it along our coast. This is much more water than native trees use. One day, one mitigation for new development that demands more water might be investment in Eucalyptus control.

Thinning and Containing

Given the fire danger and negative ecological and water impacts of most Eucalyptus groves, it is sad that they are still proliferating. To be sure, Eucalyptus control is an expensive proposition. Having felled several large trees, I can attest to the work it takes to clean up a fallen tree properly. The wood makes great firewood and is easy to split if you split it soon after felling. But there is an enormous amount of slash to deal with…chipping or burn piles- either way a lot of work. The stand-out organization for Eucalyptus control locally is State Parks. They are ‘thinning and containing’ some groves that people like to look at while obliterating others in ecologically sensitive areas. They realize that Eucalyptus control will cost more each year they wait, so they do what they can with the (too few) resources that our elected officials budget for them.

Fer it or Agin it?

After reading this, maybe you will have a more informed opinion about this provocative tree. It is my hope that you be ‘for’ the ones that grow near bodies of water or are city trees and ‘against’ the ones in riparian areas or spreading through our other precious native ecosystems.

Douglas Fir Forests

– this is another of my weekly posts reprinted from Bruce Bratton’s admirable weekly e-news publication at brattononline.com

According to tradition, people are hauling Douglas fir trees into their homes and decorating them for annual winter rituals. Some purchase dense, pruned trees, while others harvest spindly saplings from the woods (aka “Charlie Brown trees”). Soon, strings of lights cast needle shadows on the walls and ceiling, infants gurgle and sputter with delight, wide eyed at the beauty. The unique Douglas fir scent fills the air – a bright lemony pine smell. Hallways are festooned with ribboned Douglas fir garlands and people weave fir wreaths to decorate doors. In breaks between storms, on crisp cool days, we saunter into the forest, catching fresh fir scent moist with rain, sparkling in the foggy, low-angled sun rays.

Mouse Tales

Douglas fir is not a real fir- it’s a pseudo-fir, creating cones distinguished from genuine fir cones by having “the tail ends of mice” sticking out the cone. Check it out sometime- there really are what looks like two back legs with an accompanying tail poking out, so cones look like a bevy of mice are feasting on Douglas fir seeds.

The cone decoy seems to have worked, evolutionarily speaking. From Northern California though Canada, Douglas fir is the sole home of red tree mice. These mice live high in canopies and feed on only on needles. On huge branches among the complex old growth Douglas fir canopy, they maintain long lived, wickedly well-designed homes that include rooms with specific uses. If they aren’t careful while they are out harvesting needles, a spotted owl will eat them – red tree mice are a favorite and important food for this equally endangered bird. We’re apparently too far south for the red tree mouse- Santa Cruz is the near the southern end of Douglas fir’s range, and maybe there aren’t enough thick forests, or too frequent of fire, for these little critters.

Northward Ho!

Moisture-loving conifers have been retreating northward for a few thousand years, and Douglas fir may also be headed that way. There are layers of grand fir pollen up until just 15,000 years ago in the sediments of a pond in northern Santa Cruz County. The nearest grand fir is in Sonoma County, nowadays. South of here, if you look at the forest on either side of highway one south of Freedom Boulevard, you’ll see a few widely spaced straggly Douglas firs – those trees look like similar to those in the hills above Elkhorn. And that’s as far south as they go along the coast. But, north of there you’ll notice that they don’t appear to be having trouble making thick forests.

Rock Scissors Paper (Douglas fir wins)

In the rush to capture the sun, Douglas fir quickly wins against all but the coast redwood around here. Look at most any of our majestic coast live oak forests, and you’ll see Douglas fir trees winding their flexible leaders between old oak branches. Play that forward, and those oak trees will be toast, shaded and outcompeted for water by these highly invasive conifers. Douglas firs are also invading coastal scrub and coastal prairie.

Pull ‘em Up, Chop ‘em Down

Kat Anderson reported to me documentation that tribal peoples have long pulled Douglas fir seedlings as part of their tending of oak groves. The tribal peoples took over from the tree-invasion prohibiting Pleistocene megafauna. Just north of here, a remarkable recent turn of events saw reintroduction of native people land stewardship with collaboration between the Amah Mutsun and State Parks. The Quiroste village site was once in a matrix of super diverse, well-tended coastal prairie framed by managed oak woodlands, but for the last hundred years, without stewardship, those systems succumbed to Douglas fir invasion. After careful planning, and with some controversy, the tribe and State Parks have been restoring the site by clearing Douglas firs…almost like the old days, but the trees got bigger and so it takes saws and a lot of work to remove them. With their work, the area is becoming more species rich and more fire safe.

Doug Fir, Associates

While coastal prairies and coast live oak forests are much more species rich, Douglas fir forests do have their own set of interesting species associates. Instead of tree mice harvesting Douglas fir needles around here, we get ants. Anywhere there are Douglas firs in the Santa Cruz Mountains, you’ll find 2’ tall piles of needles teaming with ants. These are Formica integroides, a mushroom farming ant, growing their fungi food in piles of Douglas fir needles. This needle harvesting critter forms armies of harvesters walking in long and sometimes wide lanes across and down human trails: watch out…don’t be rude by stepping on them!

Orchids also seem to like growing in Douglas fir forests. Also at its southern range limit, the gorgeous Calypso orchid has been documented with ephemeral populations at UCSC and near Davenport (both gone now), but has a somewhat famous large population under a north-facing Douglas fir forest in Butano State Park. Coral root orchids also seem to prefer Douglas fir forests. Curiously, ground nesting ‘yellow jacket’ wasps seem to key into coral root populations under Douglas fir. So, maybe look very carefully before walking off trail to get a closer look at the subtle but beautiful colors of coral root orchids.

Timber!

“Douglas fir doesn’t pay for itself to harvest.” That’s what local foresters tell me. By the time they do the timber harvest planning, go through the regulatory process, carefully fell the trees, trim and haul the few logs they find that aren’t damaged/diseased, mill and dry the wood, they can’t recoup their investment because someone elsewhere has produced a similar board, cheaper. The Pacific northwest and Canada, with more lax forestry regulations and healthier Douglas fir trees, are creating cheaper Douglas fir (and similar) 2x4s for sale. So, for many years, we’ve been growing some large Douglas firs on the area’s timber lands.

Then came the CZU fire…now, there are thousands of large and small standing dead Douglas fir trees: what should we do? If left, these trees will gradually fall over and create a Giant Fire Hazard. The next fire, spreading through those hundreds of acres of log piles, will be very intense, torching whatever trees tried to recover and scorching the soil badly. It will be a hot fire storm, to a great extent our fault.

Biomass Fuels?

If you have toured the CZU Lightning Complex Fire area, you have probably noticed piles and piles of logs. Burned up trees are dangerous to houses, roads, and power lines, so they must be felled and hauled away. “Away” is an odd word…mostly it means a landfill (another odd word). Ever throw something away? It is instructive to visit ‘away’ at the end of Dimeo Lane or near Buena Vista. We must find a new ‘away’ soon, but no one wants ‘away’ near their homes or over their groundwater. Piles of post fire logs will fill up landfills quickly, especially with more frequent fires. Why not use modern technology and turn those logs into electricity? There are new carbon-neutral, mobile wood-fired power plants that burn wood, make electricity, and create ‘biochar’ that has been shown to be a useful soil amendment for agriculture. Keep your fingers crossed that we might get one of these at one of our local landfills sometime soon. That way, when you throw something ‘away’ that can be safely burned, you’ll be making your own electricity and enriching agricultural soils.

Brittle-leaved manzanita chaparral

– This is another of my posts from Bruce Bratton’s (highly recommended!) weekly at brattononline.com

The rains bring alive chaparral, so this is the beginning of a series featuring local types of “hard chaparral.” The term chaparral is confusing, so I use the term ‘hard chaparral’ to denote chaparral dominated by manzanitas, chamise, and ceanothus. Hard chaparral is so thick and dense and strong as to tear the clothes off of you if you are strong enough to try to walk through it. Rarely, you might crawl beneath the hard chaparral canopy. Nothing grows in the understory – there is only a light dusting of leaves – but you must squinch low while crawling…to 1 ½ feet… and wiggle down on the ground in tight spots; wearing a hat helps so that your hair doesn’t get caught and pulled out by manzanita’s stiff twigs.

Hard chaparral is different than ‘soft chaparral’ – also known as coastal scrub – which is dominated at first by coyote bush, then, later in life, poison oak, monkeyflower, and sagebrush. Soft chaparral generally grows on richer soils, closer to the coast. Hard chaparral grows on the poorest of soils, often with no discernable soil at all. Ridgelines and steep slopes mostly away from the immediate coast are home to hard chaparral.

In hard chaparral, along with the manzanitas you will find many other shrubs and an overstory of pines. Sometimes sparse, sometimes dense, knobcone pines are the more common pine, but there’s a Monterey pines overstory near Año Nuevo. Oaks and Douglas firs slowly invade brittle-leaved manzanita chaparral until you eventually get a few forlorn dying shrubs or even just old barely recognizable skeletons that tell you the chaparral is gone, for now (awaiting fire!).

Brittle-leaved Manzanita Chaparral

Brittle-leaved manzanita is the dominant species of most of Santa Cruz’ hard chaparral. Smooth maroon skin with sinewy muscle-like ripples down thick, strong stems – that’s what most people remember about brittle leaved manzanitas, but the flowers and burls also give them away.

If they aren’t already in bloom, they will be soon. They have clusters of pure white to pink jewel flowers – upside down urns with windows to capture and magnify light, so the flowers glow on even foggy-cloudy days. Bopping from one cluster of flowers to the next…hundreds of bumble bees delight in the winter nectar feast. Hummingbirds, too, zip around sipping from the flowers. On warm days in December and January, brittle leaved chaparral smells strongly of honey, a scent which enchantingly wafts far afield, down into the woody canyons below.

Burly Shrubbies

Of the nine taxa of manzanitas found in Santa Cruz County, brittle leaved manzanita (Arctostaphylos crustacea subspecies crustacea) is the most common and one of only two that have ‘basal burls’ or lignotubers. The other burly manzanita is a different subspecies of the same species (Arctostaphylos crustacea subspecies crinita), that is mostly found at the top of Ben Lomond Mountain, from the Bonny Doon Airport north to Lockheed. To see burls on these manzanitas, look at the base of the stems for a swelling, sometimes quite large, of lumpy wood. These are very easy to see after a fire, because that’s where these manzanitas sprout new shoots. That’s their magic: the ability to get hotly scorched, fire removing all of the branches, and still live. Up pop the shoots as soon as the rains come…and three years later, there’s a Big Shrub once again where the last one stood.

Locations and Co-Occurring Treats

The tops of our parks are great places to visit this type of chaparral. The top of Wilder Ranch State Park, in what used to be known as Gray Whale Ranch, and into upper UCSC, has patches of brittle leaved manzanita chaparral. The top of Nisene Marks State Park also has stands of this chaparral type. Other places include Mount Madonna County Park, as well as Big Basin and Castle Rock State Parks. From the edges of trails, a wintertime treat will also be Indian warrior, a bright maroon perennial wildflower which forms large mats. Shooting stars and various rein orchids also sprout trailside in clear patches of this type of chaparral.

Another thing about wintertime chaparral visits that is intriguing are the lichens, mosses, and liverworts that color and texture the chaparral. Liverworts, in this dry habitat?? Yes! Get off your bike and kneel at that bare-soiled edge adjacent to the chaparral…look carefully…and you’ll see liverworts (and hornworts!) hugging the ground in between mosses and ground-hugging lichens. The intrepid will get to see more and more species by counting the number of different types of tiny things in those patches, which are kept bare by the golden crowned sparrows who retreated when you came their way.

Critters

Sure, chaparral is for the birds, and that’s not a bad thing. And yet, it’s not just for birds. Wrentits are the quintessential shrub habitat bird, and I also like watching the large-curved billed California thrasher. Wrentits bop around below the canopy, mostly, but pop up out on a branch to make their subtle descending ping-pong ball bouncing song. California thrashers, also understory creepers, sometimes jet out onto a high point in a chaparral patch and sing their hearts out with operatic glory.

The San Francisco Dusky Footed Woodrat makes homes on the outer periphery of brittle leaved chaparral patches. It seems this packrat likes oaks and coffee berry more than manzanitas, but manzanitas keep coyote at bay, so having that habitat at their backs is a preferred location. Ratttlesnakes like wood rats…and the summer heat of chaparral…so, that’s a good snake species to associate with hard chaparral. Rats and rattlesnakes….?

What Good Is It?

Brittle-leaved chaparral is good for lots, but unfortunately it is getting destroyed very quickly nowadays. Nutrient poor soils lost their nutrients because they are well drained. Well drained soils are important for recharging the groundwater, keeping our streams flowing and drenching our thirst. Because this hard chaparral can thrive in nutrient poor soils, it is responsible for keeping those slopes from washing into the creeks and for keeping our groundwater infiltration areas infiltrating. Those sprouting burls…they send roots out on steep slopes after fire, preventing landslides and debris flows from destroying homes and roads.

Mowing It Down

Despite ostensibly being protected, brittle leaved manzanita chaparral is getting hacked up at an alarming rate. Now that fire has our attention, bulldozers are hard at work ripping up manzanita burls to make ‘fire safe’ areas. Crushers, masticators, and saws whittle away manzanitas as if they were enemies. When asked, County Planners have said that they have policies to protect this habitat type- they don’t allow development activities within it. The California Coastal Commission also ostensibly protects this type of ‘maritime chaparral’ as an endangered ecosystem, disallowing any destruction. And yet, even from Highway 1, you can see vast patches of chaparral being destroyed on the ridges above Watsonville. Parks organizations are mowing it down even on conservation lands to be doing ‘their part’ with fire safety. From Southern California, we have learned that treating chaparral this way isn’t a solution to wildfire: it generally grows up patches of weeds, which are even more flammable, less able to hold slopes in place, and no replacement for the habitat value of hard chaparral.

What I hope for is more people showing others how to live safely, and sustainably, alongside manzanita chaparral that is well cared for. If you know of any places, please let me know.

Rain Awakes the Prairie

– from my 10/27/21 column at the highly recommended Bratton Online site

The rain is awakening the prairies; it is also time we awoke to the preciousness of these grassland habitats. Already, enough rain has fallen to wet the ground and trigger seed germination in the local meadows. Perennial flowers and grasses have also quickly flushed with new green shoots. The rains have brought migrating winter wildlife, increasingly threatened because, each year, there are fewer acres of grassland to which to return. It is because native peoples tended prairies that we have any prairies at all in our region. Now, together with indigenous peoples, we are relearning how to restore meadows. With attention and intention, we may one day witness the restoration of healthy populations of badger and burrowing owl living in flowered-filled meadows across the Central Coast. For this to succeed depends on more people sharing more coastal prairie wisdom. With that wisdom, together we can build and pass on new stories to future generations (and new arrivals) so that we might maintain grasslands and their many associated species.

Meadow Showers

Rain is soaking in, darkening the rich prairie soil with newfound moisture. Green patches of seedlings first appear along trails, on gopher mounds and other areas with less thatch. Soon, seedlings will also emerge from under the thick skeletons of prior years’ dead plants. Inhale the moist, cool air slowly, and you may detect new rainfall-induced scents. The first that strikes me is the pungent smell of mouse pee. Grasslands are thick with rodents and, for six months, mouse urine has been drying and concentrating on the soil surface. Now, that nutrient source has been re-wetted and is being soaked into the root zone, and it smells strongly throughout meadows. Beyond that scent, there is petrichor, the complex ‘fresh rain’ smell made up in part by compounds related to the scent essences of both cedar and beet root. With the new rain, I detect another smell…wet hay. When rain first falls, there’s a strong smell of newly moistened hay, and that scent turns quickly and sharply mushroomy. After a week of the first big rains, if you grab ahold of a thick mat of dead grass and pull- it will easily peel from the soil surface only clinging to a little soil. It will be held together with what look like bright white roots. These are fungal threads, soon to be better evidenced by their more familiar “fruiting bodies” – especially the familiar grassland types…puffballs and other fairy ring mushrooms. As if anticipating the quickly emerging life, new bird species arrived in the meadows just prior to the rains.

The Grassland’s Wet Season Birds

I had travelled a hundred times through one particular and expansive grassland and was startled to be reunited one morning with my favorite grassland bird: the meadowlark! These birds are almost as big as robins and have long stout pointy bills, yellow undersides and have long streaks combining yellow, brown, and black on their upper bodies. Their songs are loud and distinct – a signature noise of grasslands throughout the United States. Meadowlarks nest, eat, and sleep in wide open prairies. The flock I encountered that first day of their return was about 40 birds. Last I counted, three weeks into their winter stay, this tribe remained around that number. My bird guidebook’s range map suggests that western meadowlarks reside year-round around here, but that’s a national map evidently without fine enough scale for our particular rsituation. This local meadowlark group must nest elsewhere, in the spring and summer. In winter, our meadowlark clans join another very special winter-only prairie bird: the burrowing owl. Burrowing owls don’t dig, but they live in holes. Every winter, they surprise me as they flush from different kinds of holes: ground squirrel burrows, road culverts and agricultural pipes. When UCSC’s Seymour Center rat Terrace Point was still mostly surrounded by open meadows, burrowing owls could easily be seen in ground squirrel burrows on the berms piled up when someone was kind enough to try to hide the buildings. Those berms have been since bulldozed. UCSC also rousted burrowing owls from their last local nesting location when they paved the ‘remote’ parking lots. Given the chance, UCSC will continue paving over the increasingly endangered burrowing owl meadow habitat. Get it while you can, Regents! Your actions will literally pave the way for burrowing owls to become so rare they must be protected as endangered species by the State and Federal governments…saddling private landowners with even more regulatory burden. Meanwhile, we are lucky to have this owl, with tall yellow legs and huge, cute eyes; they can be found in the winter at UCSC and across the North Coast’s grasslands. Look for it vigorously bobbing its whole body while staring at you from quite a distance while it guards its precious sleeping hole.

Upland Newts??

The recent rains also bring another grassland critter to our attention: newts! Hiking over the freshly greening grass, I glanced into the mouth of a gopher hole: surprise! Looking back at me were the golden cat eyes of a rough skinned newt. Hands forward, this critter is like Dracula awaiting sun set to mosey out off its underground lair. That night, with the rain pattering down, it walked half a mile across the meadow, before sniffing out another unoccupied hole for the next day. Nocturnally travelling with uncanny directionality it joined an increasingly large group of its brethren, creating a river of newts, some of which made it across the road before sliding down the bank into a large breeding pond. Newts love the dry grasslands- that’s where they live most of the time, foraging all summer long in the cool darkness of rodent burrows. We think of them as stream or pond organisms, but mostly they are grassland creatures.

An Abbreviated Grassland Management History

Our local grasslands and their associated wildlife owe their presence to thousands of years of tending by native peoples. Without that tending, there would have been no ‘pasture’ for the invading old world cultures to graze livestock on. Indigenous cultures honed complex management activities to steward grasslands species. They used prescribed fire in small and large patches, at varying times and intensities to favor their desired outcomes. They cultivated plant species without our modern (gross) tractor tools.  They enjoyed a legendary favorite prairie feast that we can relate to involving prairie grown greens- salads full of diverse, freshly gathered tasty leaves and flowers especially from clovers. Their meadow tending created new cultivars and species. Plants provided food, medicine, basketry materials, clothing, tools, art, and so much more. Their management activities not only focused on plants but also wildlife management. Many of us would dearly love to have seen those prairie gardens.

After the Fall

After the genocide of the indigenous peoples, ranchers were responsible for maintaining open grasslands. Ranchers still manage many of the grasslands, but many are increasingly owned by public or private open space managers. Most recently, we have been moving towards relearning how to keep our prairies healthy. California native grasslands are one of the top ten most endangered ecosystems in the United States. More coastal prairie (grasslands in the fog belt) have been lost to pavement (‘urbanization’) than any other habitat in the USA. And coastal prairies are the most species-rich grasslands in North America. There are 80 plants species that only live in California’s coastal prairies. One third of all rare plant species in California are found only in grasslands. There are many plant and wildlife species in our local grasslands that are already recognized as endangered, and many more qualify for inclusion on state or federal endangered species lists.

Relearning

Amah Mutsun stewards are relearning alongside many others how to steward prairies. Far up the North Coast, the Amah Mutsun have been working with State Parks to remove shrubs and trees that have invaded ancient meadows. Elsewhere, State Parks has long had a prescribed fire program to restore prairie habitats. While the City of Santa Cruz effectively destroyed the meadows at Arana Gulch by fragmenting them with roads, City Parks staff are experimenting with prairie management regimes including grazing. The Land Trust of Santa Cruz County is working hard to restore and maintain the Scotts Valley grasslands at Glenwood Open Space Preserve. For decades, weed warriors with the Ken Moore’s Wildlands Restoration Team, the California Native Plant Society and the Land Trust have been responsible for rescuing meadows from weeds, especially French broom. We are making great progress and learning a lot. Grassland restoration is extremely rewarding because you can so quickly see a positive response. But, we must do more…

Please discuss some of this essay with someone while its fresh in your mind, say in the next week. Without more awareness, we will have no grasslands to restore and poor badger and burrowing owl, meadowlark and newt won’t have homes anymore.