wildflowers

Botta Pocket Gophers

Pocket gophers are an important and very common mammal in many habitats in our area, so it seems appropriate to learn a little more about them. Most people know them as pests of ornamental plants or crops, but they play important roles far beyond that pestiferousness. And, just look at how cute they can be- photo by Flickr user Chuck Abbe:

What is a Pocket Gopher?

Why is this critter called a pocket gopher? No, it’s not because of some 1970’s fad of domesticating gophers and putting them inside pocket protector-lined pockets. BTW, this fad fantasy must include pocket protectors because gophers have sharp teeth that they habitually gnaw with to wear them down…without such nervous-seeming gnawing, their teeth would be 11” long by the end of the year. This fad could really take off one day because pocket gophers are not legally protected by the State!

Back to the subject at hand…the ‘pocket gopher’ name comes from odd pockets that these critters use as their cargo containers, hauling soil or food. Those pockets extent from the cheeks back to their shoulders. Inside those furry pouches, they haul food into their burrow, creating food storage piles in a deep portion of their burrow system. This food pantry also serves as their sleeping, baby raisin area, so food’s close at hand. That makes me think that maybe there’s a niche for food-storing bedroom furniture for humans!

Local Gophers

Our local species of pocket gopher is the most widespread in California, and so there’s lots of information around about its natural history. Our species, Botta Pocket Gopher, is almost everywhere in the state except the high Sierra Nevada. Like most pocket gophers, the males of this species are larger than the females. So, its likely that the Jury Room sign that was posted for years ‘Home of the Giant Gopher’ referenced a male. Not that you’d try, but you tell pocket gopher species apart from where they live and then the size of their rear feet, the shape of their ears and the relative size of the dark area around their ear.

Territorial Gopher

Pocket gophers are very territorial, protecting their extensive burrow system which represents the extent of their feeding ground. The size of their territory depends on how much food there is, but they range from the size of a tennis court or, sometimes, you can fit 10 gopher territories in the space of a tennis court. If you kill a gopher, its burrow system won’t be vacant for long…

Waves of Dispersing Gopher Young

During breeding season, gophers become less territorial, allowing visitors into their burrows, which seems sensible for reproduction. Where people aren’t watering plants, and the summers are so very dry, pocket gophers have a single breeding season in late winter. They bear 2-5 blind babies (aka ‘pinkies’). Gophers kick these offspring out of their burrows as soon as they are weaned (40 days after birth), and those young have to find a place to live. Those dispersing gopher children are why folks suggest leaving root protection cages out of the ground 6 inches. That wave of dispersing gophers will try to occupy whatever burrows they find…including the burrow complexes that have been abandoned by other gophers due to trapping or old age. People think that our gophers only live 3 years.

Gophers Drought Solutions

Gophers are soil engineers and are so good at their work that they are known to be an important solution to California’s water crisis.

Some have suggested that restoring mountain meadows in the Sierra Nevada could store as much water as two new giant reservoirs. Part of this would be done with reintroduction of a different rodent, the beaver, but another part is already under way by the pocket gopher. Pocket gophers are excellent hydrological engineers, assuring infiltration of snow melt and rain through the soil through their burrows, which include specific drainage architecture. Gophers can drown and need to breathe air, so their burrow systems must accommodate drainage for the rainy season.

Native Meadow Gardener Gopher

The better local natural historians around us will already know about the super-diverse and super-interesting mima mound meadows around Santa Cruz. These are caused by eons of soil movement by gophers, which means that they are literally “ecosystem architects.” Atop the mima mounds, there are poppies, lupines, purple needlegrass and other ‘dry’ loving species; between the mounds there are buttercups and rushes as well as streams and pools of water weeping from ancient gopher mounds during the winter. Dry and wet gopher-created ecosystems in close proximity makes for extraordinary species diversity.

Gopher Burrows: Habitat for Other Creatures

All of those gopher burrows are quite inviting to other creatures. In other places, scientists have described insect species that only live in gopher burrows. I see a species of brown fly come out of gopher burrows around here- there’s probably much more to be discovered. Pocket gophers don’t much like to invite things to enter their homes, so they plug their holes with a distinctive soil plug. However, I’ve seen newts poised for nocturnal forays at the mouths of gopher burrows. Others have seen rare California tiger salamanders using gopher runs. Those tunnels would of course be cooler and moister than the surrounding habitats in the summer. I commonly see the aptly named gopher snake winding its way from one gopher hole to the next, only the middle of its body visible. If gophers plug their holes, how do the snakes find their way in? Somehow they know…I saw a gopher snake recently quickly and energetically ‘dive’ into a gopher-strewn dirt pile and disappear quickly. Many are thankful for gopher predators because of the damage gophers can do to human-plants. Gopher snakes and alligator lizards are the most effective gopher control, because they can get down in the gopher burrows and eat the pinkies, controlling many gophers at one sitting.

What to do About Gophers

There are plenty of websites with information about how to, and many tools to, kill gophers, but is there another way to coexist with these creatures? I have spent a fair amount of money and time killing gophers or protecting plants from gophers using buried metal caging, and I have a few suggestions for gopher coexistence.

Lawns are pretty much passe at this point in California, so how about letting gophers make their homes in what would have been a lawn? The only drawback I’ve experienced is the mounds of dusty soil that they pile up, making a mess of what I want to be level ground without trip hazards. Use a gravel rake and smooth those mounds out and you’ve got a great seedbed for wildflowers to sprout from next spring. Yes, with all of that soil disturbance, gophers are doing a great job of preparing wildflower beds- poppies, lupines and other wild pea relatives, new yarrow seedlings, redmaids, owls’ clover, and lots more appreciates that fresh ground.

Another thing to do is choose plants that gophers don’t bother. Colt rootstock for cherry trees is highly resistant to gophers. Wild rushes (especially Juncus patens) stay green through the summer and are so tough that gophers can’t destroy them.

A final solution is to cultivate meadow voles, which are superior at running gophers out of their tunnels. Voles like lots of mulch- put mulch around and voles proliferate…and the gophers run away (or die at the homicidal teeth of the vole militia).

I’d like to see more discussion about human-gopher coexistence, so these important creatures can continue to do so much good across our region.

-This post originally presented as part of Bruce Bratton’s BrattonOnline.com weekly blog…check it out!

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 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.