Friday, February 25, 2011

coastal sage scrub: my first love (epic post, FYI)

There's nothing like your first love.

You never forget it, and are forever changed by it.

Coastal sage scrub was my first ecological love.

(sigh... isn't it beautiful?)

Getting to know it was my job (oh-happiness). It was also the beginning of a lasting connection, and I love to return to it, as I did last weekend.

This is a pretty good overview of coastal sage scrub, and note it's World Wildlife Fund--coastal sage scrub is globally endangered, so be it ever so humble looking (to some), it's wicked cool are rare.

I particularly like the 1st and last sentence in the first paragraph:

"The California Coastal Sage and Chaparral ecoregion, located along the southern coast of California, has extremely high levels of species diversity and endemism." (Some evidence of that to follow.)


"Located on highly valued coastal real estate and threatened by human development, the ecoregion represents the struggle between preservation and human development." YES.

This scenario (super rare, super valuable real estate, very densely populated area) fostered some of the most forward-thinking, innovative landscape-level planning of the time (the plan is dated 1991).

One more factoid from that site, albeit dated 2001: "Seventy-seven species in southern California are currently listed under the Endangered Species Act, and another 378 are under consideration." Yeah. Serious stuff.

So you can imagine, for an impressionable young conservation biologist, this was heady stuff!

When I was in graduate school (midwest), we were learning about biodiversity hotspots, and there it was. On a global map, this TINY coastal strip was highlighted--my home!

Picture a forlorn (due to midwestern winter) California girl pointing at the map, staring at her professor in disbelief: "But... I just left there!"

So, to interpret and supplement yesterday's photos:

The above shot is looking up (NW) the coast at Cabrillo National Monument (in San Diego) from the trail one takes from the 2nd parking lot to get to the rocky intertidal area. That slab of fractured rock down there is the COOLEST. I've not been down to it in years and definitely will descend to it next time. Awesome mudstone/sandstone forms underfoot, and the view is not too shabby, either.

Super peaceful.

Many of the Shaw's agave (Agave shawii, a very cool and rare plant) were blooming while I was there--they're the big stalked succulents with large clusters of yellow flowers up high. Exciting!

Exciting particularly for bats.

When I worked at Cabrillo, a USGS bat biologist always asked me to let him know if this plant was blooming, so he could come look for a particular bat species (oops, forget which. sorry!). Really wanted to walk up to those plants, but now they're off trail, so being the good little former ranger that I am,  I resisted the urge to crunch plants underfoot to see them up close.

Oh, and the islands you can see in the above pic are Mexico's Coronado Islands. I got to loop around one of them once on a pelagic birding/whale watching trip. Seem to recall that there were elephant seals out there. Pretty cool stuff. Largely unpopulated, except perhaps by a few military gentlemen, presumably to ensure folks' clarity re: whose land that is. =)

I dimly recollect that during the Prohibition Era, Americans went to those islands to party. =)

Another rare beauty. This is sea dahlia, a.k.a. Coreopsis maritima. SO beautiful and graceful. The center is yellow...

These sunny blooms are propped up on LONG, graceful stems, so their bright yellow faces bow over and over in the sea breezes.

And their foliage is this delicate, almost lacy stuff that hardly looks like leaves at all.

Looks more to me like art.

I've decided it's the supermodel of native flowers in Southern California.

This native plant is a total stunner and according to the info on the link above, its propensity to live atop cliffs that face the ocean and, therefore, erode, combined with the fact that additional habitat is mostly filled by houses and roads, does not bode well for its future. So, any place it is, is important.

I got to chat with Cabrillo's new terrestrial biologist, who seems super sharp, and he says everywhere they pull up iceplant/sea fig (Carpobrotus spp.), a tenacious non-native coastal foe...

(it's the yellowy-orange! hiss!)

... sea dahlia pops up. So it's there--it just needs a little sun. Go, sea dahlia!

(note the super eroding habitat in the background...its glory and its doom)

Next, the plant that is capable of effecting behavior modification in human beings: Euphorbia misera, a.k.a. cliff spurge. That link (to Calflora) lists under "toxicity" "MINOR, DERMATITIS."

Uh, minor. As in SCARRING FOR YEARS. =)

I was doing vegetation monitoring one year at Cabrillo NM, well before I knew about Euphorbia in general (most plants that have milky sap are poisonous), and cliff spurge in particular re: its effects. Minding my own business doing a transect, I looked down 'cause the backs of my hands hurt a little.

Hm... they're covered in white liquid. That's weird.

So, I wiped it off onto my pants. Done. Or, so I thought.

Later I had tiny tiny blisters wherever the white sap was, and then it scarred (was a darker color than the rest of my hand). Apparently (head hanging in shame) one of my volunteers ALSO experienced this effect. I scarred one of my volunteers due to my own ignorance. =( ! (Happily, when I left, she got my job, so I think she's forgiven me. =) )

Cliff spurge, Euphorbia misera (red & white flowers, cute little taco-shell green leaves), 
cuddled up next to deerweed (yellow pea flowers, in focus in next shot)

Now, the behavior modification story:

That week, days after being burned by that plant, I was getting ready to sit down on a hill for my lunch break between reading plant transects. I looked behind me before sitting (one does this in cactus-populated habitat), was already squatting to sit, then spotted Euphorbia misera, froze, reversed engines, and sat elsewhere.

Me, big ol' smarty Homo sapiens, cowed by a plant.

Plant commands respect. And I LOVE it's freaky little flowers!

I don't think I've ever seen this flower with what I suppose is the Euphorbia equivalent of flower buds--might wanna zoom in on that 1st picture.

Lotus scoparius, deerweed, the yellow pea-sorta flower on the right,
with cute little groups of 3 tiny, flat tongue-shaped leaves.

Here's the same shot, but focused on Lotus scoparius, deerweed. A native plant species that is a nitrogen-fixer, it contributes to soil fertility. And has sweet little pea flowers. A real good guy.

Some other old friends I saw:

Ground pink (Linanthus dianthiflorus), check out it's super narrow distribution, here (scroll to bottom of page).

A very sweet little flower.

Another pink beauty, Mirabilis californica, a.k.a. wishbone bush or California four o'clock.

Apparently it's native to California and ONLY found in California (endemic).

That's one thing I love about Cabrillo. SO many rare and ultra-local plants.

Dudleya edulis, lady finger dudleya, or "fingertips."

Coastal sage scrub has such an interesting mix of cacti, other succulents (Dudley spp.), evergreen plants, and drought deciduous plants.

SO many different strategies to deal with very little and rather sporadic rain (average is about 9"/year), mild temperatures, and LOTS of sun.

It looks humble, but trust me, this knee-grazing plant community can win you over.

But, now, I'm a Sierra foothills girl. INLAND. Far from the Pacific.

Bear just suggested I start an exploring-Yosemite-sort-of web page to enable my desire to learn up on this complex, amazing, stunning, gorgeous, and MUCH MUCH CLOSER place, and to share it with all who are interested.

I think I'll do it.

I do need to move on.

But, even while traipsing across alpine meadows miles wide,

soaking up Yosemite vistas people fly the world over to see,

or keying out spring wild flowers,

 I will never forget my beloved coastal sage scrub.

And, like the Cabrillo Superintendent said when I left, "You can always come back and visit. It will always be here."

And that, sir, is why I LOVE the NPS.



P.S. If you're interested, here's a site with lots of coastal sage scrub links to more info.


  1. I love how you're so unique in your writing style, bb. Learning about life where you currently live has also been my goal and challenge, despite extremely fond memories from elsewhere. Good luck! (Although, I don't think you need to start a new blog.)

  2. Jeepers, thanks so much, Katie. =) Yes, it's interesting when you keep moving (as I have for many years). Part of having a good experience in a new place is that when you leave it, you have something new to miss. =) Whattayagonnado?

  3. In a few weeks we're heading down to SoCal to visit some of the most likely tourist spots. I believe you may have pointed out the antidote. I want to go there...but will not touch anything the least bit spurgey. Thanks for a great post.


Cool people write inside rectangles....