Showing posts from March, 2017

Plant Life of the Colorado Desert

The Colorado Desert, the portion of the Sonoran Desert that spills over into California, is a wonderfully diverse ecosystem, botanically speaking.  The Sonoran Desert extends across southern Arizona and south into Mexico and Baja California on both sides of the Gulf of California.  In the state of California, we are lucky to claim a little corner of the Sonoran Desert as our own.  The assemblage of plant life in California's Colorado Desert is markedly different from our more northerly Mojave Desert.  The Colorado Desert, like other regions of the Sonoran Desert, experiences two rainy seasons, one in winter and a second at the end of summer.  This allows for a greater diversity of species here than in the adjacent Mojave Desert.

A drive through Joshua Tree National Park allows visitors to experience both desert ecosystems.  The northern part of the park, where its namesake Joshua Trees are found, lies within the Mojave Desert.  This desert is slightly higher in overall elevation, …

Plant Profile: Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)

The Ocotillo, Fouquieria splendens, is splendid indeed!  Although, some might disagree. 

This seems to be one of those polarizing plants: you either love it or you hate it.  It seems difficult not to form an opinion of this prominent Sonoran desert plant, with its cluster of gangly branches reaching into the clear desert sky like a bundle of sticks in a vase.  (Bonus: this makes it an easy plant to identify!)  My opinion is probably not a surprise: I love this plant!  It demonstrates impressive adaptations for life in the hot desert, and its brilliant red flowers provide a valuable nectar source for hummingbirds on their northern migration.

Desert plants have many different strategies for coping with the hot, dry conditions of their habitat.  Some have small hairs on their leaves and stems, called pubescence, which provide shade for the plants' surfaces; others have waxy coatings on their leaves to prevent water loss.  Most desert plants have very small leaves to minimize surface…

Ode To The Wetland: More Than Just A Marsh

I realize this is the third post in a row I've written about California's wetlands.  But bear with me.  They are fascinating ecosystems that are both beautiful and rare (nowadays).  I'll be back to singing my praises of springtime in the desert soon! 

Yesterday, Eric and I were able to spend the afternoon exploring San Luis National Wildlife Refuge.  We drove the auto tour routes, hiked the trails and generally reveled in the beauty of spring in the Great Valley. 

In case you've never been out that way, or don't get the chance to visit any of the remaining wild corners of the valley this spring, come along with me on a little tour.

 The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex is composed of several wildlife refuges in Merced and Stanislaus counties.  The San Luis, Merced and San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuges are open to the public, but the Grasslands Wildlife Management Area, which consists of privately owned land under permanent conservation easement…

Wetland Wanderings: Exploring the Great Valley's Marshlands

In my previous post about Elkhorn Slough, I outlined some of the major environmental services wetlands provide.  I also mentioned their intrinsic value: the satisfaction of knowing these wild places exist and are protected, as well as the enjoyment that can be found in visiting such places.  California's Great Central Valley is a beautiful and biologically rich place.  Once a vast prairie crisscrossed by free-flowing rivers, this grassland was historically one of the most productive and diverse grasslands in North America. 

But the Great Valley was more than a grassland; it also supported a large system of seasonal freshwater marshes, fed by snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada.  The largest concentration of these marshes lined Tulare Lake, in the southern San Joaquin Valley.  As recently as 1900, Tulare Lake was the largest lake west of the Great Lakes.  Surrounding the lake were vast stretches of seasonal wetlands that supported great biodiversity.  Since 1900, rivers have been damm…

Elkhorn Slough: An Ecological Treasure in Central California

Elkhorn Slough, near the town of Moss Landing on the edge of California's Monterey Bay, is truly a special place.  The slough, or estuary, winds through 7 miles of freshwater and tidal salt marshes.  The Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve (ESNERR) protects 1,700 acres of habitat, while the California Department of Fish and Wildlife protects even more land in the area.  Together, the Nature Conservancy and Elkhorn Slough Foundation have set aside 3,500 acres of the watershed for preservation. 

However, the greater Elkhorn Slough watershed encompasses 45,000 acres.  This means that any water that falls as rain, is applied to agricultural fields, or runs off city streets within those 45,000 acres finds its way into the Elkhorn Slough.  The implications of this is that water running into the slough from the surrounding watershed is often contaminated with agricultural chemicals, motor oil and other toxins.  What's a slough to do with all those nasties?  Certainly …

Plant Profile: Beavertail Cactus (Opuntia basilaris)

Last spring on our desert odyssey, the first glimpse I got of Beavertail Cactus (Opuntia basilaris) in bloom was from a moving vehicle - while I was driving.  It was really just a flash of brilliant pink out of the corner of my eye, a bright splotch of color amongst the creosote scrub.  But I knew right away what plant produced those beautiful blooms.  If we had seen no other wildflowers, I think the Beavertails alone would have made the trip worthwhile! 

From first glimpse, I was smitten with the Beavertail Cactus.  Its brilliant pink rose-like flowers are about 3 inches in diameter, with lovely ruffled petals.  They bloom from March to June; as you can see from all of the buds in these photos, the blooms were just beginning to open when I photographed them last March. 

The Beavertail Cactus gets its common name from the shape of its wide, flat succulent stems, which are reminiscent of the shape of a beaver's tail.  The gray-green stems are jointed, dotted with clusters of tiny…

Hiking Trails: The Rings Trail, Mojave National Preserve

Mojave National Preserve is a hidden gem in California's Mojave Desert, located roughly south of Death Valley National Park and north of Joshua Tree National Park.  The preserve's website and brochures claim "Desert solitude in Southern California," and that is an accurate statement!  While tourists and weekenders from L.A. are waiting in line at entrance stations and jostling for available campsites at Death Valley, Joshua Tree, and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, hikers, campers, naturalists and solitude-seekers will find the peace they seek at Mojave National Preserve. The preserve is home to Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis) and endangered Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii).  Its 1.6 million acres boast a larger Joshua Tree woodland than Joshua Tree National Park, and more extensive sand dunes than Death Valley.  And I was very impressed by the spring wildflower display here! One of my favorite things to do on any outdoor adventure is to hike - just pack a daypac…