California Desert Plants

California’s deserts have always fascinated me. In the late 1990s and early 2000s I visited many areas of the Sonoran, Mojave, and Great Basin in California while teaching in Southern California. Since moving north, I have often dreamed of returning. In 2020 Backcountry Press was approached by Dr. Philip Rundel from UCLA about doing a book on California Desert Plants. This was an exciting prospect and an easy decision to make. After over a year of work (he has been working on the idea on and off for 15 years) we are excited to announce that the book is done.

California Desert Plants
California Desert Plants

For me, this book is amazing because it tells the story of one of the harshest environments on Earth. There are three distinct desert areas in California—the northwestern portion of the larger Sonoran Desert, the Mojave Desert which extends beyond the state, and the western margin of the Great Basin. A key feature of the California deserts is the dominance of infrequent rainfall in the cool winter months and general absence of rainfall and associated drought in the summer months when warm temperatures are otherwise favorable for growth. The combination of these harsh conditions nurture amazing plants with a complicated variety of adaptations.

If you love the California deserts and its plants, and would like to help support this passion project head on over to Backcountry Press and pick up a copy today.

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Trees in the Desert

Exploring the Mojave National Preserve

Mojave National Preserve Park Service Map

Established in 1994, the Mojave National Preserve encompasses 1.6 million acres roughly bounded by Interstates 15 and 40. Most simply pass by this region on their way to other places (Lost Wages, Nevada for example) but it is a premier desert park. This vast and varied landscape includes dunes, dry lakebeds, granites, volcanics (domes, lava flows, and cinder cones), limestones, and sedimentary deposits which support a diverse collection of plants. The preserve includes creosote bush lowlands at 880 feet near Baker all the way up to conifer woodlands at 7,929 feet on the summit of Clark Mountain. The Mojave Wilderness is 700,000 acres of the preserve.

Within the preserve is the University of California Riverside’s Sweeney Granite Mountains Desert Research Center. The University of California’s GMDRC is dedicated to academic research and teaching and access is solely through an application approval process. This was was our basecamp. I am working on a book with Philip Rundel and Bob Patterson called California Desert Plants (Backcountry Press, late 2022) so we came to experience, explore, photograph, and write about the regional wonders. In particular, we wanted to find trees in the desert.

Trees in the desert framing the Granite Mountains Desert Research Center.
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Sitka Spruce Decline in California

Where Highway 101 hugs the Pacific Coast in Humboldt County, north through Del Norte County, Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) are loosing needles at an alarming rate. This phenomenon, caused by the non-native green spruce aphid (Elatobium abietinum), grew into a noticeable problem in winter 2019-2020. The aphid thrives during winters with warmer than normal temperatures. Last year’s defoliation was especially severe in Oregon and the aphids continues to move south. Sitka spruce decline in California is in its early stages.

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All Species Grove

Exploring the remnant old-growth of the Humboldt County Headwaters

In late 1985, a family company in Humboldt County was over taken by a large corporation from Texas. Within a few months, the profit-driven Maxxam Corporation submitted (under the name Pacific Lumber) a furtive timber harvest plan with a rush order to log some of the last, largest swaths of remaining old-growth redwoods in the world. Thankfully, a small group of concerned environmentalists were watching. Leading the guard was Greg King who, along with others, organized and Headwaters Forest Campaign which soon became the largest forest protection civil disobedience demonstration in America’s history.

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Western Redcedar in California

From Alaska south to Oregon western redcedar (Thuja plicata) is the signature tree of the Pacific Northwest temperate rainforest. It has mythic importance to native people, as entire civilizations were sustained, in large part, by this species. Natives of the Pacific Northwest regarded the species as a “Long Life Maker” (Stewart 1984) because they used it for canoes, paddles, houses, roofs, clothes, bedding, rope, cooking, and even medicine. Few giant trees were actually felled before the arrival of Europeans because old snags were usable for many years after death. Highly resistant to rot, the snags or parts of live trees would be harvested instead of the entire live tree. After building a dugout canoe from a tree, Lewis and Clark named it “arbor vitae,” Latin for “tree of life” (Arno 2007).

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My other side of the Mountain

Exploring upper Copper and Indian creeks for yellow-cedar

I have been mapping and inventorying yellow-cedar (Callitropsis nootkatensis) in California for the past four years. This process could have been much more efficient if it wasn’t for the 2018 Eclipse Complex and the 2019 Natchez Fire (more below) that virtually closed the Siskiyou Wilderness for the past two summers.

Successful surveys before this year have doubled the previously known area of this rare conifer from approximately 5 hectares in 2015 to 11 hectares by 2018. One of the largest gaps in surveys was within upper Indian and Copper creeks in the Klamath River watershed. I predicted this is where the largest stands of the species would be–little did I know how large an area I would find.

Camping with yellow-cedar.
El Capitan (6670′) looms above Copper Creek.
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Redwood Experimental Forest

Exploring the Yurok RNA

Many years back I discovered that there were little known biodiversity hotspots that had been described by a handful of ecologists. These places had been designated as Research Natural Areas for the primary purposes of maintaining biological diversity, providing baseline ecological information, and encouraging research and university natural-history education. These places are all relatively pristine and sometimes close to roads in non-wilderness areas.

It was in this way that I first learned about the Redwood Experimental Forest that also contains the Yurok RNA. But I had never visited this place despite the fact it has been on my list since the early 2000s. That all changed in June 2019.

This team is embarking on a three year study of conifer resistance to drought. Our study will involve at least six species, both common and uncommon, across the Klamath Mountain region.
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Residual Old Growth

Big Trees of the Freshwater Creek Drainage, Humboldt County

Old-growth forests are forests that have developed over long periods of time, without experiencing severe, stand-replacing disturbance—a fire, windstorm, or logging. Within the redwood forest belt, of the estimated 1.6 million acres of redwood forest remaining, only 7% is old growth. The remaining 93% is considered some level of second growth. Around Humboldt Bay where we live that number is approaching 99%. The old-growth trees that do remain are often mixed within the second growth forests. Most often, an old tree was left behind by loggers because of imperfections like broken tops or less than optimal heartwood. This post explores some of the residual old growth in my neighborhood.

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Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation, and Working Forests Act

In mid-September I had the opportunity to assist in guiding an EcoFlight across the North Coast and Klamath Mountains. I was invited by the California Wilderness Coalition to point out landmarks and important areas to Congressman Huffman’s staff and local media outlets as they relate to the Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation, and Working Forests Act. The following is a photo tour from the flight that highlights parts of the bill. If so inspired, please follow the links at the end to get involved!

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Warner Mountains — whitebark pines and beyond

Warner Mountains
Conifers of the Warner Mountains. Maps from Conifers of the Pacific Slope.

The Warner Mountains are a north-south trending fault block range in the northeastern corner of California, extending northward into Oregon. The length of the range is approximately 90 miles, with the northern California portion bounded by Goose Lake on the west and Surprise Valley on the east. In California, elevations range between 5,000-9,897 feet (on Eagle Peak). In the High Grade district, which is the extreme northern limits of the Warners in California, the range has a fairly even crest of 7500 feet, reaching an elevation of 8290 feet on Mount Bidwell. This is the area where I spent four days mapping and monitoring whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) for the US Forest Service.

The geology of the region is complex and compelled me to understand it better. Bedrock consists of sedimentary rocks of the Oligocene overlain by rhyolitic to basaltic volcanic rocks of the Miocene. The basal andesite is overlain by rhyolite and glassy rhyolite, which are in turn overlain by basalt flows. There are valuable minerals and gems found in this area that have justified a long-standing history of mining. Gold was the first and major extracted mineral soon followed by opals, petrified wood, and even obsidian. The range is a complex assemblage of interesting rocks for sure which help sculpt the regional ecology.

The northern Warner Mountains have a long history of mining.

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The Dudleya Dilemma

We are collectors

Recently, it was announced that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife caught folks poaching Dudleya farinosa from coastal Mendocino and Humboldt counties. The tip came in from a Postmaster who noticed dirt spilling from a box being shipped to China. Conversations started, one post office talked to another, and they realized poachers were moving from post office to post office shipping boxes of the charismatic Dudleya farinosa. One of the postal workers then reported the suspicious activity on CalTip and this is now an active international poaching case.

This neatly wrapped Dudleya was confiscated by Game Wardens before it left Humboldt County on its way to Asia’s thriving succulent market. Fifty volunteers soon replanted them on the steep hillside cliffs they call home.

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Marine Terraces of California

In 2012 I first visited the marine terraces of coastal Mendocino County and was captivated by what I learned. The blog and graphic I cooked up after that visit has been one of the more popular entries on this website. In fact, the United States Geological Survey recently published a document on the Marine Terraces of California that features:

  • How marine terraces form
  • Soils sequences of California’s terraces
  • Where to find marine terraces of California
  • The main graphic from my blog about Mendocino’s ecological staircases

Marine Terraces of California
Marine Terraces of California

Find the document here:

Schulz, M., Lawrence, C., Muhs, D., Prentice, C., and Flanagan, S., 2018, Landscapes from the waves—Marine terraces of California: U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet 2018–3002, 4 p.

Humboldt County Wildflowers

I spoke with Cliff Berkowitz on KHUM’s Happy Trails about places to visit–starting now–to explore spectacular Humboldt County wildflowers. Flowers start flowering early because of the temperate nature of the region. This means that you can find wildflowers starting in January near the coast, all the way to June and July inland in our mountains.

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Torrey Pine Forest

Santa Rosa Island Torrey pine (Pinus torreyana ssp. insularis)

Torrey pine range map from Conifers of the Pacific Slope.

The first time Santa Rosa Island landed on my plant exploring radar screen was when I learned about the Torrey pine some time in the early 2000s. I had never even seen this tree until I took a trip to Torrey Pines State Reserve north of San Diego in early 2012. It is the rarest pine in North America with several thousand “mature” trees on both the mainland and island. My bucket list for understanding the ecology of this species is complete now that I have visited the island.

As mentioned in an early post, pigs were first introduced on Santa Rosa in the mid 1800s. By 1888 it is estimated, based on historical records, that there were only 100 Torrey pines on the island. Today, all  herbivorous megafauna have been removed (minus 5 sterile horses from the old ranch) and the Torrey pine are thriving–with an estimated 12,300 trees–one-quarter of which are saplings!

Researchers debate the arrival time of the Santa Rosa Torrey pine, estimating anywhere from 6,000 to over 1 million years. Disagreement also exists as to whether these two population represent subspecies or varieties of each other. Some argue the two populations are  genetically different enough to be considered a subspecies, others prefer distinction at the variety level. Regardless, it is a beautiful species and well worth seeing in the wild.

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The Cloud Forest

The cloud forest on Santa Rosa Island.

Santa Rosa Island

We passed five Orcas (Orcinus orca) on the passage to Santa Rosa Island

After a two hour boat ride from Ventura Harbor that included sightings of gray and killer whales, passengers disembarked onto a newly-built pier and subjacent white sand beaches. We had arrived. Once unloaded, the park ranger offered an orientation rejoicing in our good fortunes. The high winds and thick fog which had typified the previous few weeks had now subsided. The forecast for the coming days included sun, low winds, and perfect temperatures.

Fog and wind are omnipresent on Santa Rosa Island and play a major role in shaping the landscape. Any plants with a propensity for upward growth are restricted to canyons, particularly north sloping ones. Here they find refuge from the wind and often more available moisture provided by the meager 15-20 inches of annual rain. However near the highest island peaks–like Black Mountain at 1,300 feet plants have adapted to wind and fog in different ways.

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Santa Rosa Island

Santa Rosa Island

Channel Islands National Park

Santa Rosa Island overview.

In 1998 I first visited the Channel Islands. This was early in my naturalist career but I was struck,  none-the-less, by the beauty and isolation I found on Santa Cruz Island. On that trip I first saw the endemic island scrub jay (Aphelocoma insularis) and began to develop an understanding and interest in island biogeography. Twenty years later this experience brought me to Santa Rosa Island–in major part to see the Torrey pine grove–but also for the opportunity to explore one of the least visited places in Southern California.

Santa Rosa Island is separated from the mainland by over 25 miles of water. The next closest landmass is San Miguel, which is now isolated from Santa Rosa by three miles of water. Isolation has nurtured endemism on both a localized island level as well as on a unifying level between islands. Combined, all the Channel Islands are home to 150 species of unique plants and animals. Santa Rosa hosts 46 of those, including six endemic plants that grow nowhere else.

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Urban Wildlands of Los Angeles

The National Science Teachers Association conference brought me to Los Angeles and after two days, I needed to find some green space. Linking up MacArthur Park, Vista Hermosa Natural Park, and Whole Foods (to prep for a trip to Santa Rosa Island) defined a route for me to visit the urban wildlands of the city.

Stroll to the sparse urban wildlands near downtown Los Angeles .

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Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve

Albino redwood.
Albino redwood.

Hot springs and tall trees, all hidden in a remote area of Mendocino County. This was the family destination for a pre-Thanksgiving celebration. Most or our time was spent at Orr Hotsprings but an day-hiking excursion treated us with a fabulous adventure in an isolated redwood grove at Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve.

The hike was punctuated with firsts: my son’s first multi-mile hike and my my first albino redwood.  The park previously held the tallest recorded redwood — at 367.5-foot it was once declared the world’s tallest. While the Montgomery tree is still alive, the new record  is in Humboldt County. Other exciting finds in the park included an excellent expanse of giant chain ferns in a lowland basin along the trail. Read more about Montgomery Woods from Save the Redwoods League.

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Arctostaphylos nummularia

Arctostaphylos nummularia subsp. mendocinoensis

The pygmy manzanita (Arctostaphylos nummularia) is a species endemic to Mendocino County, California  where it is known from its occurrence in the pygmy forests along the coastline. I think this might just be the perfect northern coastal California shrub for a native plant garden. It has a perfectly rounded form, beautiful small leaves, and subtly hairy stems.

Arctostaphylos nummularia
Arctostaphylos nummularia subsp. mendocinoensis by Allison Poklemba

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