Saturday, April 22, 2017

A Land That Time Forgot: San Bruno Mountain

Or, rather, a land that "progress" has mercifully not destroyed, an unlikely island of refuge in a sprawling sea of development. 

My relationship with (and, I admit, my knowledge of) San Bruno Mountain began one foggy March day couple of years ago, when Eric and I went to visit a friend living in South San Francisco.  Our friend suggested that we go hiking at a place nearby, a mountain, he called it.  I was skeptical, and understandably so, situated as we were in a maze of suburbia on the San Francisco Peninsula.  My knowledge of the immediate area didn't extend much beyond the San Francisco airport, and I had heretofore failed to notice the 1,300 foot mountain rising above the city (probably because it is so often enshrouded by fog). 

Little did I know a glorious and unexpected wilderness awaited me atop that mountain.

Our ascent of San Bruno Mountain brought us through a thick grove of eucalyptus trees: non-native, rather weedy, entirely to be expected (unfortunately).  Before long, we broke through the trees, climbing steeply through a lovely grassland.  Were those native grasses I spied, tucked into the typical exotic mix?  There certainly was a beautiful patch of Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) along the trail! 

Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium bellum)

As we climbed, I became more intrigued, and a sort of slow dawning came over me: this was a special place, a remnant of what used to be.  Being the lone naturalist in our hiking party, the significance of the mountain was mostly lost to the others at the time.  As we reached the top of the mountain, the wind blew and the fog surrounded us, enveloping us in our own private world.  We could see neither sea nor city; not another human being, not a sign of buildings or roads (except for the trail we were on), not a blight on the natural landscape.  For all we could tell, we were on a high mountain peak in a remote wilderness, forgotten by humanity and left to progress as nature intended.

Once upon a time, all of the San Francisco Peninsula looked like San Bruno Mountain.  That is, the Peninsula once supported the vast assemblage of plant communities and wildlife that are now holding out as remnant populations on 3,600 acres of the mountain's slopes.  The mountain is home to 13 rare and endangered plant species, and three federally listed endangered butterflies: Mission Blue (Icaricia icarioides missionensis), Callippe Silverspot (Speyeria callippe callippe), and San Bruno Elfin (Callophrys mossii bayensis).

A Northern Checkerspot (Chlosyne palla): not one of the endangered butterflies, but the only one I photographed!

In 1999, famed ecologist E.O. Wilson called San Bruno Mountain one of the most important and threatened biodiversity sites in the world.  Located in San Mateo County, San Bruno Mountain is now a state park, more or less protected from development, with miles of trails open to outdoor recreationists.

San Bruno Mountain Watch is the organization largely responsible for saving the mountain.  Born in 1970, the mission of the mountain watch group is to “preserve and protect the native ecosystems of San Bruno Mountain, in perpetuity.”  This group has taken on the responsibilities of environmental stewardship, in addition to creating outreach programs that aim to engage the public in protecting the mountain for its value as public open space as well as for its native ecosystems.  And the work is not finished.  Tracts of land adjacent to the mountain, including dune habitat and pockets of native grasslands, are on private property and at risk for development.  Even the 140 acre quarry on the east side of the mountain holds the potential for restoration, as stonecrop (Sedum spathulifolium), the host plant for the endangered San Bruno Elfin Butterfly, is found growing on the rocky outcroppings of the quarry walls.

Stonecrop (Sedum sp), a host plant for the endangered San Bruno Elfin Butterfly

Much of the mountain is composed of the sedimentary rock greywacke, part of the Franciscan complex, which geologists estimate formed about 130 millions years ago during the Mesozoic era.  At that time, the present coastline was underwater, and the sedimentary rock formed as layers of sediment were deposited in oceanic trenches.  The mountain itself is a fault block that began to rise about one million years ago.  The Franciscan greywacke has formed relatively thin, rocky soils on the steep mountain slopes, with pockets of clay soils found where the slopes are more gradual.  According to the website of San Bruno Mountain Watch, there is an inland sand dune on the western slope of the mountain, a remnant from a time long ago when the coastline was farther inland.  (I haven't visited the dune area myself.)

Coast Iris (Iris longipetala) is a rare, California endemic with limited distribution; it is associated with the diminishing
coastal prairie plant community.

Microclimates on the mountain, created by varying combinations of fog, high winds and sun exposure, create the opportunity for a diverse assemblage of plant communities to share a relatively small area.  In all, ten distinct plant communities can be found on the mountain.

The most common plant community is Northern (or Franciscan) Coastal Scrub, comprised largely of coyote bush (Baccharis sp.), sagebrush (Artemisia sp.), lizard tail (Eriophyllum staechadifolium), bush monkey flower (Mimulus aurantiacus), and coffee berry (Frangula californica, formerly Rhamnus californica).  San Bruno Mountain boasts the largest remaining example of this plant community, which once covered the peninsula along with coastal grassland.

Coast Rock Cress (Arabis blepharophylla), an rare, endemic plant found on San Bruno Mountain, in association with
coastal prairie and northern coastal scrub communities.

Two types of grasslands or coastal prairies can be found on San Bruno Mountain; these plant communities contain the greatest diversity of plants, have the highest productivity, and provide habitat for all three endangered butterflies.  San Bruno Mountain preserves possibly the largest, most diverse and intact area of coastal grassland prairie left in California.

Valley Needlegrass Grassland graces the southern slopes of the mountain, a mix of purple needle grass, California melic, June grass, blue wild rye and San Francisco blue grass.  Wildflowers also abound in season, on these warmer, drier slopes.

Coastal Terrace Prairie is found on northern exposures, able to withstand a greater amount of fog and wind.  Grasses found in the Coastal Terrace Prairie community include Pacific reed grass, California oat and hair grass, and three types of fescue: California, Idaho and red.

Ceanothus, or Blue Blossom, in full bloom on the mountain - an important butterfly host plant!

Central Coast Riparian Scrub, comprised of willows, elderberry and ferns, can be found at sites of seeps and springs.  Less conspicuous communities include Blue Blossom (Ceanothus) Chaparral, the rare Valley Wild Rye Grassland, Freshwater Marsh (near Colma Creek) and Frehwater Seep, as well as Coast Live Oak Woodland in a few sheltered canyons.  A small remnant of Central Dune Scrub, a community that is rapidly disappearing in California, is tucked away on the west side of the mountain.

A variety of lupine species on the mountain are host plants for
the endangered Mission Blue Butterfly.

The small creeks, seeps and wetlands of San Bruno Mountain support Pacific Tree Frogs (Pseudacris regilla) and the rare San Francisco Forktail Damselfly (Ischnura gemina).  Historically, these wetlands have been home to endangered San Francisco Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis tetrataenia) and threatened California Red-legged Frogs (Rana draytonii).  Hopefully, with continued conservation and restoration efforts, one day the mountain will again support populations of these unique species.

According to San Bruno Mountain Watch's website, the biodiversity counts for the mountain are:
662 plant species, 42 butterflies, 195 birds, 5 bumblebees, 30 ant species, 24 mammals, 13 reptiles, and 6 amphibians.  Quite impressive for one mountain island, isolated as it has become in a sea of civilization.

Mammal inhabitants include brush rabbits and jack rabbits, rodents such as gophers, ground squirrels, mice and voles, Gray Foxes, Long-tailed Weasels, raccoons, skunks, opossums, shrews, and of course, the ever-present feral cat.  Sightings of mountain lion, red fox, badger, bobcat and coyote have also been confirmed.  A coyote population on the mountain would be an exciting thing indeed, as the presence of coyotes leads to greater biodiversity, especially in bird species, as coyotes prey on feral cats, opossums and skunks, which are leading predators of birds, fledglings and bird eggs.  One interesting paper I read suggested that the abundance of cemeteries in the nearby town of Colma has inadvertently created enough of a wildlife corridor to allow coyotes and other wildlife to reach the mountain's isolated island of habitat.

Since my first visit to San Bruno Mountain, I have returned to this island a few more times, and each experience has been different.  I have witnessed the mountain in its many moods: Damp, close fog one day, keeping the mountain's secrets; billowing, rolling fog another day, tumbling over the mountain on biting winds.  Refreshing summer breezes and wisps of cloud have met me on the mountain; dazzling sunshine and crystal skies have revealed views extending across the San Francisco Bay and out to the Pacific, the Farallon Islands on the horizon.

But the mountain I like the best is the brooding mountain: thick, moody fog cloaking its slopes, swirling on the wind and blotting out the surrounding cityscape; dense, sheltering fog protecting this secret, forgotten place from the busy world.  Because it is only after a climb up the mountain and into the fog that one feels as if it is truly possible to visit the California of days gone by, to return to a land that time forgot.

More information on this remarkable mountain island can be found at San Bruno Mountain Watch's very informative website, which I read thoroughly after my initial, surprising visit to the mountain:

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Wildflowers of the Sierra Nevada Foothills: Red Hills Area of Critical Environmental Concern

Red Hills Area of Critical Environmental Concern: a big name for a special place in the Sierra Nevada Foothills.  Markedly different from surrounding areas and supporting a unique assemblage of species, this area is considered a biological or ecological island.

Bitter root (Lewisia rediviva)

Driving past the Red Hills area on highway 108/120 west of the junction with highway 49, observant motorists will notice a striking difference between the grassy, oak-dotted hills that provide rangeland for grazing cattle, and the sparsely vegetated rocky terrain of the Red Hills. 

Buckbrush and Gray Pine cover Red Hills

The inhospitable soil of Red Hills excludes the annual (and exotic) grasses of surrounding areas and instead supports an assemblage of scraggly-looking gray plants, including Gray Pine (Pinus sabiniana) and Buck Brush (Ceanothus cuneatus), with an understory of herbaceous plants which put on a striking and unexpected wildflower show in the spring. 

In the spring, Goldfields (Lasthenia californica) carpet the ground at Red Hills.

The difference between the grassy oak savannahs and scrubby Red Hills, one might guess immediately, is a product of geology.

Five Spot (Nemophila maculata)

Most people probably immediately link that precious mineral gold to the Sierra Nevada foothill region, otherwise known as the Mother Lode.  But what many don't realize, is that tucked along the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains is a belt of metamorphic rock - slate, marble and the like - which includes a fair amount of California's state rock, serpentine.  Serpentine rocks and the soils derived from them underlie the unique landscape of Red Hills.

Bird's Eye Gilia (Gilia tricolor) - one of my favorite!  Notice the blue pollen on the anthers - a unique feature of gilias.

To understand the origin of these metamorphic rocks, one must travel back through millions of years of geologic history.  Between 544 and 65 million years ago (during the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras), subduction was occurring along the western edge of the North American continent as plates converged.  As material from the seafloor, limestone reefs and even parts of oceanic crust was scraped up and "smashed" against the edge of the continent, intense heat and pressure metamorphosed or transformed this material into metamorphic rocks.  Differing occurrences of various minerals account for different types of rock.  For example, rocks from the earth's mantel, which have large amounts of the mineral olivine, form the rock serpentine. 

Bolander's Linanthus (Leptosiphon bolanderi) characteristically shows a slight affinity for serpentine soils.

The Red Hills area includes a large portion of the Tuolumne complex of ultramafic rocks, metamorphic rocks that are unusually high in magnesium and iron, as well as nickel, chromium and cobalt.  These minerals are not conducive to the growth of vegetation (magnesium, for one, causes calcium deficiency in plants); in high enough doses, they are toxic to plants.  Coupled with low amounts of the basic nutrients plants require (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium), these serpentine soils create inhospitable growing conditions. 

Ithuriel's Spear (Triteleia laxa) is endemic (limited) to California.

 Yet, remarkably, life will always find a way, and a small handful of plants, often referred to as serpentine endemics, have adapted to grow and even thrive in these impoverished soils.  Gray Pine and Buck Brush, while present in other areas, seem oblivious to the unfavorable conditions of serpentine soils, and flourish where other foothill species cannot.  Several plants occur only in the Red Hills area and surrounding Tuolumne County, such as California Verbena (Verbena californica) and Rawhide Hill Onion (Allium tuolumnense).

Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium bellum)

The first time I visited Red Hills ACEC was on a field trip for a botany class I took at CSU Stanislaus; the second and third visit were also for field trips in other botany classes!  But there is clearly a reason this place holds such appeal for botanists, with its unique assemblage of species found nowhere else sprinkled amongst more widespread species that have managed to eke out existences in an otherwise unfriendly landscape. 

Shooting Star (Primula sp.)

Much like our desert regions, the Red Hills area has been neglected over the years: it was "unproductive" from an agricultural as well as mining standpoint, useful for little else besides a dumping ground and place to recklessly drive off-highway vehicles.  Thankfully, since the early 1990's it has been protected by the federal government and this valuable ecological island will be preserved.

Showy Red Sierra Onion (Allium obtusum)

Spring is undoubtedly the time to visit Red Hills: the creeks are running (in wet years), the wildflowers are blooming.  Goldfields color the otherwise gray hillsides, and it seems everywhere one looks, delicate blooms can be found hiding among rocky outcroppings.

Cream Cups (Platystemon californicus)

About 17 miles of looping trails wind throughout the area, providing ample opportunities for the hiker and the equestrian... during the winter and spring months.  (Conditions become quite desert-like during the long, hot, dry stretch of summer and fall.)  I highly recommend bringing a trail map with you, as trail markers are not always dependable.  A map can be accessed through the Bureau of Land Management's website:

Purple Mouse Ears or Douglas' Monkey Flower (Mimulus douglasii) is a miniscule flower
(the whole plants stands a proud 2 - 3 inches tall) with an affinity for serpentine soils.

For more information on the geology of the Mother Lode region (much, much more information) a geologic guide book titled "Roadside Geology and Mining History of the Mother Lode" is available in PDF form through the Bureau of Land Management, and can be accessed through their website.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Wildflowers of the Sierra Nevada Foothills: Hite Cove Hike

'Tis the season for wildflowers!  If you live in any of California's lower elevation locations (as most of us do), now is the time to get outside and see the blooms!

White Fairy Lantern (or Globe Lily) (Calochortus albus), bedecked with raindrops

Valleys and hills are springing to life, but the window of opportunity is small; by about mid-May, most of the blooms will be gone from low elevations and we'll have to hike higher up in the mountains in search of wildflowers (not that that is a bad thing, of course!) 

Lupine (Lupinus sp.)

Hite Cove Trail, located off of highway 140 near El Portal on the road to Yosemite National Park, is one of the best places in the central Sierra Nevada foothills to see an array of spring wildflowers.

Twining Snakelily (Dichelostemma volubile)

The trail follows the south fork of the Merced river, wending along the river canyon cliffs for the first 1.5 miles before dropping down to follow the river.

River canyon, south fork of the Merced River

The roundtrip hike out and back to Hite Cove, an abandoned mining settlement, is 9 miles.  But since the trail meanders up the river canyon with no real destination (no lake, waterfall or mountain peak), hikers can turn around at any point.  The goal of this hike is to see wildflowers!

Purple Owl's Clover (Castilleja exserta)

A nice option for a shorter trip is to hike two miles out to a point where the trail drops down beside the river.  Jutting out into the river are some really neat metamorphic rock formations, with distinct fold patterns.  Turning back at this point provides a nice, flowery four mile roundtrip hike.

Folds of metamorphic rock along the south fork of the Merced River

The trail starts at just under 2,000 feet in elevation, with no major elevation gain along the trail.  The trail does have some steep, undulating hills, and the going was a little slow when we hiked it in the rain.

Golden Brodiaea (Triteleia ixioides)

However, spring rains in California's oak woodlands coax otherwise secretive amphibians out of hiding, and we saw several Sierra Newts (Taricha sierrae) along the path.  They are quick to get out of the way and hide themselves in tall vegetation or under rocks and logs, so it was tricky to get a decent photo!

Sierra Newt (Taricha sierrae) hiding in poison oak

Since the goal of this hike is to see a profusion of wildflowers, Hite Cove trail is best hiked from March to mid-May.  By the end of May, the flowers and grasses are drying out and the trail, with its southwestern exposure, gets pretty hot for most hikers.  As the trail crosses private property, it is closed during the fire season (summer and fall).

Clematis (or Pipestem) (Clematis lasiantha)

The trailhead is 10.5 miles west of Yosemite's Arch Rock entrance, and 21 miles east of Mariposa, at the site of Savage's Trading Post.  Park off of the highway, on the north side of the road; there is a portable bathroom located here. 

Purple Chinese Houses (Collinsia heterophylla)

This is a dog-friendly hike, but beware of ticks!  It's a good idea to keep dogs leashed here, as the trail is very narrow and hugs the cliff, dropping off steeply to the river in many places.

Mountain Jewelflower (Streptanthus tortuosus)

Happy hiking and wildflower hunting!  Remember to "leave no trace" when you visit these special places.  Stay on the trail to avoid trampling vegetation; leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but photographs!

California Indian Pink (Silene laciniata ssp. californica)

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Plant Profile: Claret Cup Cactus (Echinocereus mojavensis)

Spring in California's deserts is a beautiful thing.  The wildflowers are blooming, the birds are singing, the reptiles are out sunning themselves.  And, the Claret Cup Cactus (Echinocereus mojavensis) is beginning to flower! 

I have a soft spot for cacti, especially when they burst forth into such radiant and unexpectedly brilliant bloom.  I appreciate their unassuming nature: for months cacti lie low, quietly conserving their resources, until just the right moment in spring when they astound desert hikers with their vivid flower show.  Last spring, while hiking in Joshua Tree National Park, the Claret Cup Cacti in particular caught my eye.

This cactus has a few aliases; it may be found in field guides under the common names Mojave Kingcup Cactus, Mojave Mound Cactus, and Claret Cup Hedgehog Cactus.  Its scientific name was formerly Echinocereus triglochidiatus.  (It can be a challenge to keep up with botanists and their ever-changing taxonomy.)  But thankfully, a Claret Cup Cactus by any other name is still just as beautiful.

The bloom period of Claret Cup Cacti begins in April and lasts through June.  You can see in the photo below, taken in early April, the blooms were just beginning to open, with many more to come.  Each flower lasts for three to five days, and blooms open in succession for a number of weeks.  The flowers provide a source of nectar for hummingbirds, which in turn provide pollination services for the cactus.  Later in the summer, the plants produce edible fruit.

The Claret Cup Cactus inhabits dry, rocky or gravelly sites in the Mojave Desert, often associated with Creosote Bush scrub, Joshua Tree woodland, and Pinyon-Juniper woodland.  It's range extends from southeastern California east to Utah and Colorado, and south into Texas and Mexico, between about 3,000 and 9,000 feet in elevation.  Plants are low growing, reaching about one foot in height, but can attain a spread of several feet, forming mounds of one hundred heads or more.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Wildflowers Abound at Carrizo Plain!

It's "go time" for wildflower enthusiasts across the southern half of California - and it would seem no wildflower trip would be complete this year without a stop at Carrizo Plain National Monument.  Eric and I spent last weekend camping at Carrizo Plain, just as the wildflower blooms were beginning to peak.  According to the Theodore Payne Wildflower Hotline, peak bloom at Carrizo Plain should continue for another couple of weeks.  (So you still have a chance to see it for yourself!)

To prepare you for this season of wildflower abundance, whether you get out to see the blooms for yourself or are content to admire photos from the comfort of home, I've put together a collection of the most commonly encountered wildflowers at Carrizo Plain.

Common Hillside Daisy (Monolopia lanceolata)

One of the brightest and most ubiquitous flowers you will see is Common Monolopia, or Common Hillside Daisy (Monolopia lanceolata), pictured above.  A member of the aster or sunflower family, Asteraceae, Hillside Daisy is widespread throughout Carrizo Plain as well as the Temblor and Caliente ranges.  It is the plant famously responsible for making the hills surrounding Carrizo Plain look like this:

Hillside Daisies blanket the hills of the Temblor Range in sunshine

You can't miss the Hillside Daisies.  Watch for other cars stopped in the middle of the road; gaping wide-mouthed is a common side effect of such beauty.

Common Goldfields (Lasthenia gracilis)

A second, smaller common yellow composite (member of the family Asteraceae) you are likely to encounter is Common Goldfields (Lasthenia gracilis), above. 

Common Goldfields carpeting the ground near Soda Lake

As might be expected, they turn the ground into fields of gold.  Excellent examples of these golden carpets can be found around the Soda Lake area.  Common Goldfields are also found throughout grassland and vernal pool habitats across the Great Central Valley and foothills.

Munz's Tidy Tips (Layia munzii)

Tidy Tips, lovely yellow composite flowers with white-tipped petals, are also blooming in profusion around Soda Lake.  In addition to the common Coastal Tidy Tips (Layia platyglossa), the more rare but similar-looking Munz's Tidy Tips (Layia munzii) can be found at Carrizo Plain (pictured here, mingling with goldfields).

Fields of Tidy Tips

Another extremely prevalent wildflower at Carrizo Plain is Fiddle Neck (Amsinckia intermedia), in the borage or forget-me-not family, Boraginaceae.  Whole fields have turned orange with their little curled heads of blooms.  And yet, I barely photographed them at all.  It seems that I find Fiddle Neck too common or "boring;" it was one of the very first weed wildflower species I learned to identify as a kid, where it grew thick in the vacant lots by our house.

Fiddle Neck (Amsinckia intermedia)

Nevertheless, it's still a pretty flower, and most people aren't as jaded by Fiddle Neck as I am.  I found it far more interesting to photograph the sparrows that were feasting on the Fiddle Neck seeds.

Savanah Sparrow and Fiddle Neck

A far more exciting discovery was that of little patches of Cream Cups (Platystemon californicus).  These are beautiful, delicate little flowers in the poppy family (Papaveraceae) that are a pretty buttery yellow color.  Eric is learning to understand why some flowers make me giddy (like Cream Cups) while others inspire little more than a cursory glance (Fiddle Neck).

Cream Cups (Platystemon californicus)

Another flower that fills me with delight every time is Baby Blue Eyes (Nemophila menziesii), surprisingly also a member of the borage family (Boraginaceae) to which Fiddle Neck belongs.  A lovely patch of these beauties can be found blooming on the side of Overlook Hill at Carrizo Plain.

Baby Blue Eyes (Nemophila menziesii)

You can actually see the little "bee runways" on these flowers, dotted paths or landing strips directing bees toward the center of each flower to encourage an exchange of nectar and pollen.

Baby Blue Eyes (Nemophila menziesii)

Though yellow is the predominant wildflower color across the hills and plains, a number of contrasting purple flowers can be found as well.  A couple of these species are in the Phacelia genus (in the family Boraginaceae once again, along with our good friends Fiddle Neck and Baby Blue Eyes).  The first is Great Valley Phacelia (Phacelia ciliata), below.

Great Valley Phacelia (Phacelia ciliate)

The second Phacelia you might come across is slightly larger: Tansy Phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia).  But those two species are really just the tip of the phacelia ice berg in terms of species found in California, with many growing in arid regions.

Tansy Phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia)

Like our two phacelias, there are also two similar larkspur species to be found here: Parry's Larkspur (Delphinium parryi) and Recurved Larkspur (Delphinium recurvatum).  (There are actually three others, but for the sake of simplicity, we'll stick with these two common species.)  Parry's Larkspur, pictured below, is commonly associated with desert and grassland plant communities and is nearly endemic to California, with just a few occurrences outside the state.

Parry's Larkspur (Delphinium parryi)

Recurved Larkspur is associated with alkali sink and saltbush scrub communities, and can be found in the area of Soda Lake.  This species is endemic to California, occurring no where else, and is listed as rare or endangered by the California Native Plant Society.

Recurved Larkspur (Delphinium recurvatum) near Soda Lake

Members of the onion family (Alliaceae), wild onions grow from bulbs and produce clusters of flowers similar to the flowers of familiar chives and garden onions.  The species we ran across on our hike was Purple Wild Onion (Allium peninsulare), though four other species can be found throughout Carrizo Plain.

Purple Wild Onion (Allium peninsulare)

Another plant that grows from a bulb and bears clusters of flowers is Blue Dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum).  Blue Dicks can be found across California, from the mountains, to the desert, to the coast, so it's no surprise that it should also be at home in grasslands.  This plant is a member of the family Themidaceae, which has been separated from Liliaceae (the Lily family), along with brodiaeas and triteleias.

Blue Dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum)

The flower heads of Blue Dicks appear atop long, leafless stems.  It's always a happy sight to see these pretty purple blooms poking out of the grasses.

Blue Dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum)

The lupines are another widespread group of plants, found growing from the Sierra Nevada mountains and foothills, across the valleys of the state, up and down the coast and throughout our deserts.  I've admired lupine species carpeting Giant Sequoia groves, thriving on gravelly desert slopes, and battered by salt spray along the Pacific coast.  Really, there seems to be a lupine for every plant community, and the grasslands are certainly not without their own lupine representatives.   Six species of lupines can be found in Carrizo Plain, but we'll focus on just one, Bush Lupine (Lupinus albifrons), since it's the largest and most obvious. 

Bush Lupine (Lupinus albifrons)

Lupines are legumes, in the pea family (Fabaceae), with the ability to convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that is available to other plants.  Symbiotic bacteria living in root nodules of legumes chemically alter atmospheric nitrogen into a form that can be used by plants, storing this nitrogen in the leaves of the legumes.  After vegetative parts of the plant die and fall to the ground as detritus, decomposition releases the stored nitrogen into the ecosystem, essentially fertilizing the soil.  This process is referred to as nitrogen fixation, or "fixing nitrogen," and allows legumes to be among the first colonizers of bare, disturbed or otherwise nutrient deficient ground.

Purple Owl's Clover (Castilleja exserta)

Having basically the opposite effect on its plant neighbors is Purple Owl's Clover (Castilleja exserta), which is not a clover at all (clovers are nitrogen-fixing legumes) but rather a hemi-parasitic member of the broomrape family, Orobanchaceae.  Rather than supplying valuable nitrogen to the plant community through nitrogen fixation like lupines, owl's clovers are partial parasites, deriving some of their nutrients directly from neighboring plants through a network of tiny filaments called hyphae.  The leaves of owl's clovers are very small, since their need to photosynthesize is reduced.   Other familiar members of the Castilleja genus include the widely distributed paintbrushes.

Purple Owl's Clover (Castilleja exserta), up close

Now that you're familiar with a handful of the most common wildflowers, you're ready to venture out on your own!  But if you visit Carrizo Plain this spring, the motto is "Be prepared!" 

Soda Lake Road, the main north-south road through the national monument, is unpaved for much of the way, and side roads are often impassable by regular passenger cars, especially when wet.  There are no services even close to the area.  The nearest gasoline, food, and lodging is 40 or 50 miles away, and there is no cell phone service in the area.  Drinking water is not available at Carrizo Plain.  Make sure you have a full tank of gas, as well as plenty of food and water for your trip.  There are six restrooms scattered throughout the monument, with miles of unpaved road in between; plan accordingly!  The very informative education center is open from December through May. 

Visit the website to learn more:

Camping at Selby Campground

That being said, don't let limited facilities deter you!  Carrizo Plain is a beautiful place to visit and camp during the winter and spring.  The national monument offers a choice between two established campgrounds, and dispersed camping is also allowed in certain areas.  (Whatever spot you choose, bring your own toilet paper!)  There's really no better way to experience Carrizo Plain than to fully immerse yourself: watch the sun set and the moon rise, listen to the nightlife (we heard a Long-eared Owl, Common Poorwill and quite a few coyotes at night, plus a symphony of crickets).  When morning comes, soak in the sunrise as the first rays light up the valley.  It's an experience not to be missed.