THE ELFIN FOREST – California’s chaparral

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Chaparral – with white-flowering ceanothus



To most people, forest means stands of pines and fires or at least deciduous trees like maples, beech and possible aspen. Entering The Los Padres National Forest, just above Santa Barbara, what do you see?  Steep slopes clothed with brush we call chaparral.

Chaparral is the name for that tough assemblage of mostly head-high drought-tolerant, evergreen shrubs that grow where heat and dryness is even too much for grasslands, and the soils are too thin for “real” forest.  Chaparral plants are superbly adapted to our region of cool, moist winters and long, hot, dry summers.  Growth and blooming occur at the end of the wet season, in early spring.  Once the rains end and the heat increases, chaparral plants shut down.  Tough, usually small leaves resist the desiccating sun, while roots reach ever deeper into the sandstone in search of remaining moisture.

You might call chaparral the quintessential California plant, appearing the length of the state from the Oregon border to a short distance into Mexico. Chaparral finds its most perfect expression in the mountains of Southern California where chaparral often extends from horizon to horizon.

Chaparral is associated with the Mediterranean climate which is characterized by short, sometimes wet, mild winters, and a long, often hot summer.  Less than three percent of the earth’s surface shares this particular climate  – most often on the west coast of a continent between 30 to 40 degrees latitude, facing on a cold ocean, with its large high-pressure air mass.  The shrubs in each of these regions have their own distinctive species and go by the names maquis, garrigue, matorral, fynbos, or heath.

Toyon in fruit
Toyon in fruit

The manzanitas are typical of our chaparral plants. To save moisture, they turn their leaves sideways to the punishing sun. Companions are other chaparral plants like toyons, ceonothus, and scrub oak.

To ride through the unyielding and sometimes spiny vegetation in pursuit of wayward cattle, Spanish vaqueros wore leather leggings called chaps, short for chaparro, the Spanish name for scrub oak, thus the name chaparral.

Chaparral plants grow in such close association that their tops are often interwoven, creating dense canopies which protect chaparral-loving animals like the shy wrentit and certain reptiles from view.

Chaparral and fire have always been closely associated.  The recent view had been that chaparral depended on fire for renewal.  But now, plant scientists, support the idea that mature chaparral can remain healthy indefinitely.  And often near populated areas where fires are frequent enough to burn recovering chaparral, the once beautiful and life-filled plant community, may be replaced by non-native grasses and weeds.

firefollowers
Fire followers

Where there are infrequent fires, chaparral plants return healthy and vigorous, covering the charred remains in a few years with new growth.  In the meantime, the first spring after a fire brings forth a beautiful display of wild flowers called poetically, “fire followers.”  Their seeds may have laid dormant for decades, sometimes centuries, waiting for their moment, when the chaparral cover is burned in a fire. Whether it’s the heat itself, or possibly certain chemicals in the smoke, the seeds awaken and a new cycle begins.

After a fire, brilliant blue and rust-colored Lazuli Buntings arrive to sing from the tallest charred branches and Lawrence goldfinches salvage unsprouted seed.  The wrentits, bushtits, and California Thrashers – the species living in mature chaparral – are weak fliers and often perish in the flames.

Some years ago, I remember driving up the San Marcos Pass and amongst the charred skeletons of manzanitas, twined white morning glories.  Out of the ashes bloomed annual flowers in a multitude of colors – orange poppies, purple phaecelia, yellow goldfields.  As the burned chaparral begins putting on new growth, certain small perennial shrubs like bush lupine appear until finally they, too, were shaded out, and mature chaparral once again takes over the mountain slopes in all shades of green.

In spite of the tough, doughty appearance of mature chaparral, in early spring comes an explosion of flowers.  On the mountainsides above Santa Barbara, the white-flowered ceonothus begins blooming in February, frosting the slopes, followed by another species with purple-blue clouds of flowers, subtly fragrant.

Chaparral
Chaparral covering the Santa Ynez Mountains

In the late afternoon, I remember approaching the Santa Ynez Mountains from the north.  The chaparral-covered mountains looked as if they were covered with a deep purple velvet, with even deeper color in the canyons. But the illusion is dispelled on close approach when you are confronted with a wall of stiff, unyielding vegetation, discouraging further investigation except possibly on hands and knees.

Close to the coast, often growing on the sand dunes, is another assemblage of plants sometimes called “soft chaparral.” The preferred name is coastal sage scrub.  The plants are smaller, softer, pungently fragrant and unlike true evergreen chaparral are deciduous, losing their leaves in the dry summer.  It’s here you’ll find various sages, buckwheats, and California sagebrush.  I often bring home a sprig of sagebrush in my pocket to tuck under my pillow.

 

A GIANT IN AN ELFIN FOREST

Lester Rowntree
Lester Rowntree

For a conventional wife and mother who helped with homework and had nourishing meals on the table by 6 pm, I harbored very unconventional thoughts.  I was drawn to books by women who lived eccentric lives, often pursuing a passion for the natural world.  Lately, I had been rereading the two books by Lester Rowntree who spent nine months of the year traveling the state of California in her old Ford touring car, specially adapted to carry tools and the necessary equipment for preserving plants and collecting seeds.  In the high Sierra, she walked beside her faithful burro who carried her gear.

In the late fall, she returned to her mountainside home south of Carmel where she had built a cabin on a slope, surrounded by her native plant garden, overlooking the sea.  Even in somewhat domesticated surroundings, she slept with windows and doors open to encourage visits from the foxes and to listen to the changing tides and the sound of pounding waves on the rocks below.

What Lester Rowntree especially loved was chaparral — that most California of all plant communities — which makes us sisters of sorts.

Maybe it was thinking of Rowntree that made me put on my boots,  sturdiest trousers, gather up field guides and plenty of water.  I planned on driving up over the top of the Berkeley Hills and head east for Mount Diablo in the inner coast range of Contra Costa County.

I needed to go inland for hard chaparral like the Manzanita and its companions.  My Berkeley Hills are mostly open grasslands with a scattering of soft, but durable shrub called coyote bush.  On a few isolated slopes, coyote bush teams up with fragrant sages, and becomes what we call “soft” chaparral, which prefers the moister hills near the ocean.

Crawling under manzanita
Crawling under chaparral

I was looking for a mature stand of chaparral tall enough for me to crawl under.  I had read somewhere that this was the only way to penetrate the thickets.  I found a promising hillside, parked my car along the edge of the road, hoping to find my way back after an hour or so.  I looked both ways to be sure no one would witness me dropping to my knees and crawling into the brush.

I found myself in a dim and silent world, out of the wind and the strong sun.  The tight interweave of leaves, stems, and twigs made an almost impenetrable roof above.  I had no difficulty skirting the leafless lower branches.  With no under story plants, I had an almost unrestricted view in all directions.  The going was easy. It occurred to me that I needed to surface now and then to determine my location.  After pushing up through the tangle of abrasive leaves and punishing stems, I was relieved to see my car on the road below.

Submerging again, I felt more confident.  I knew of the unique creatures that live in the chaparral.  I’d hoped to see a stripped racer, head held high hurrying about on some secret mission, or a California Thrasher scything through the litter with its long curved bill.  It appears that an unexpected presence like myself would be largely ignored.  Even a shy bird like a wrentit might come close, cocking its head to fix me with its yellow eye.

But today, I had the chaparral world to myself.  Remembering that I had to retrace my route downhill, I came out at the edge of the chaparral a few yards up the road from my car.  My exhilaration had masked my fatigue. Tired, I stretched out on the back seat aware now of rich, redolent smell of wild plants clinging to my clothes.

 

SANTA BARBARA’S SUNDOWNERS

The publication “The Names of Winds” describes Sundowners as follows:  “Warm downslope winds that periodically occur along a short segment of the Southern California coast in the vicinity of Santa Barbara.  Their name refers to their typical onset in the late afternoon or early evening, though they can occur at any time of the day.  In extreme cases, winds can be of gale force or higher, and temperatures over the coastal plain and even the coast itself can rise significantly above 100 degrees F.”

From: A Naturalist's Guide to the Santa Barbara Region by Joan Easton Lentz
From: A Naturalist’s Guide to the Santa Barbara Region by Joan Easton Lentz

The more famous Santa Ana winds are a minor player in Santa Barbara. The Santa Anas affect the regions to the south – the Santa Clara Valley and the Los Angeles basin.  Santa Anas form further inland over the Great Basin or the Mojave Desert, taking on the quality of that dry landscape.  Under certain conditions, the dry air rushes through the passes of the Southern California mountains, the wind compresses and becomes hotter and drier as it descends.

Sundowners typically originate in the Santa Ynez Valley north of Santa Barbara where the heated air rising in the afternoon or early evening is pent up behind the Santa Ynez Mountains and rushes through the mountain passes toward the coast.

I experienced a sundowner last November when I was spending the evening at my family’s house in Mission Canyon.  It was mild enough to sit outside with a light sweater.  The air was calm and sweet smelling from the blooming citrus.  Without warning, a violent gust of wind swept down upon us releasing a cascade of leaves from the tree above, slamming doors, and rising a swirl of dust from the path. And then another gust followed, and we scrambled to right the furniture before fleeing inside. The unrelenting, wrenching wind seemed to come from all directions.  I was agitated, and dry mouthed. In less than an hour, the temperature went up 20 degrees.

The lights went out as we lost lost our power.  What can be disconcerting when the lights are on, is terrifying in the dark.  A thud on the roof told us a frond had no doubt been blown loose from the big palm behind us.

Firestorm
Firestorm

With no lights, and too dangerous to venture outside, we went to bed.  Falling into a restless sleep, I woke up suddenly around 3:00 a.m. to silence.  I waited for the next gust of wind, but none came.  Even with doors and windows closed I could sense the air was now cool and moist, telling me that our normal onshore flow was back.

I knew daybreak would reveal what the wind had blown down.  Even faced with a monumental cleanup ahead, we had escaped fire, which can be a companion of these sundowners.

Each Santa Barbara season has it own wind.  In the winter, Pacific storms approaching the coast are carried on the south winds, sometimes reaching gale force. A passing storm, is most apt to be followed by cool winds from the north or west bringing sparkling clarity.

The prevailing northwest wind in the summer, passing over the colder off shore waters, often condenses into fog which is drawn inland by rising warm air in the valleys.  The fog delivers a valuable gift of moisture.  Droplets forming on leaves, drop to the ground like rainfall.

I love the wind.  For me it’s the breath of life.  If I lived in the high prairie of Wyoming where the wind never stops blowing, I would probably feel different.  But in temperate Santa Barbara, wind brings the landscape to life.  It sets the hillside grasses rippling. trees to murmur and sway, while palm fronds trash and clatter like a downpour on a tin roof.  Without wind or a least a stiff breeze, the air grows stagnant and feels over breathed.  Wind brings us our weather as high pressure rushes toward areas of low pressure.

Credits: Roger Bradfield for Crawling under chaparral cartoon and George Dumas, Webmaster

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6 thoughts on “THE ELFIN FOREST – California’s chaparral

  1. Lovely post, great descriptions. I love chaparral too, though it seems to me that once, walking through chaparral on a headland at Bodega Bay, we found a lot of wood ticks on our clothing! I wonder if ticks frequent stands of chaparral at a certain time of year, or if they’re infrequent visitors and we just happened along during a hatching….I live in Colorado now and sure miss the coast!

  2. Phila, I experienced several emotions while reading this blog -nostalgia being one of them. Seeing nature through yours eyes allows me to realize how much of the beauty of California I have missed.
    Sally

  3. Thank you, Phila, for bringing me into another part of the natural world entirely new to me. It is a delight to read something written so beautifully.

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