Where the Funny Plants Grow

by Gabi McLean

(reprinted from The Paintbrush, March - April 2004, California Native Plant Society, San Gabriel Mountains Chapter)

A vast expanse between the mountains and the ocean starts where the San Gabriel River empties into the valley. With every winter storm, the old river used to heap more sand and gravel onto the huge alluvium of the Los Angeles basin. Today, the forces of the river are reined in upstream by Morris Dam and San Gabriel Dam. Just a trickle of water reaches the valley now. The alluvial fan, the flood plain, and the ocean's beaches are no longer naturally replenished with sand from the mountains. But the lay of the land hasn't changed. The sandy soil on top of ancient layers of rocks and gravel, washed out of the mountains over thousands of years, supports a curious mix of plant species. While most of this alluvial scrub has given way to development, there are a thousand acres of this now rare habitat still intact, just north of the Santa Fe Dam Recreational Area.

Last fall when I visited, the dry shrubs all looked alike at first glance. But soon I began to notice differences in the color and height of the stems, their growth patterns, the remnants of leaves and fruit. I came to recognize the bare straight stems of poison oak with its dry berries. Sagebrush formed a messy mass of thin, brittle branchlets, often with tiny, dried fruit along the tips - its ever-present fragrance helped me identify it. Scale broom made itself known by the long, parallel, dark brown branches, and the persistent dried flower remnants looked like stenciled flowers in a picture book. Sturdy redberry gave itself away by its thorn-like branchlets, sticking out at right angles. I recognized black sage with its black, dried-up flower clusters along the squared stems. Walnuts and elderberries had lost their leaves, and only their silhouette and shaggy old bark gave me the hints of their identity. Some of the most massive elderberry trees that I have ever found are here.

Not everything was dry though. I found a variety of colors in the evergreens: the ancient juniper, the ever-present lemonadeberry, the occasional white sage and sugar bush, the different species of prickly pear cactus, and the unique and much-treasured valley cholla.

When winter brings cold, snow and ice to the North and the near-by mountains, here in the valley spring begins. The new leaves of the golden currant were the first, announcing the change of the season. Then cactus pads and the sagebrush started greening up, and in just a few weeks, we enjoyed our first flowers. The golden currant started blooming in January, followed by the lemonadeberry. Sunflowers, purple nightshade, and four-o-clock continued the bloom sequence. On Valentine's day, we discovered a few of the tiny, but oh-so-beautiful and bright, ground-pink. Black sage and the many elderberry trees started leafing out, and golden currant and lemonadeberry were still in bloom in mid-February, several weeks after they first started flowering.

Now I am looking forward to the special mix of wildflowers at the dam's natural area. I remember last year's gilias and canchalagua, gold cups and penstemon, western thistle, and the beautiful, salmon-colored prickly pear flowers. I remember the stunning profusion of dudleya flowers and scarlet larkspur in May and June when the phainopepla visits from the desert and raises its second brood here.

And I remember my young neighbor as I asked if she knew about the natural area of Santa Fe Dam. She nodded emphatically, "You mean where the funny plants grow?" This area is full of surprises. Where else do you find junipers among the alluvial scrub, or valley cholla providing nesting places for the cactus wren? Where else do you find whipple yucca's leafy rosette taller than a person, or golden currant 8-feet-high, thriving among the cactus in sunny, dry, sandy places, not in oak understory or woodland. No other place in the Los Angeles basin offers such richness of sage scrub habitat and wide-open space. Come and see for yourself what a great opportunity this area provides to enjoy and observe wildlife and wilderness so close to home and your heart.

Keywords: Gabi McLean, Cliff McLean, Gabriele McLean, Clifford McLean, Nature at Hand, Gabi Horn, Gabriele Horn, Plants of the San Gabriel Mountains: Foothills and Canyon, Interpretive Guide on CD, Plants of the San Gabriel Foothills and Canyons, California native plants, Pasadena, Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, San Gabriel Valley, Southern California, Covina, natural, nature photography, photograph, environmental education, naturalist, docent, hike, hiking, CD-ROM, California native garden, gardening, flowers, wildflowers, San Gabriel Mountains, Angeles National Forest, California Native Plant Society, CNPS, Eaton Canyon Nature Center Associates, ECNCA, Sante Fe Dam