A New Look at Old Trails

by Gabi McLean

(reprinted from Paw Prints, October 2002, Eaton Canyon Nature Center Associates)

We are nearing the end of summer in one of the driest seasons on record in our area, certainly the driest that I have experienced in the 25 years that I have lived in this county. In previous years, I have not spent much time in Eaton Canyon during the summer, due to the heat, and would rather explore the higher altitude hiking trails in search of bighorn sheep and alpine flora. This summer though, Iíve hiked to the Falls several times, together with my husband on most outings, and made new discoveries along the way.

The creek bed is devoid of water. Thatís to be expected for most of the area south of the bridge towards the end of summer. This year the little water we had dried up much earlier, and not just between the Midwick entrance and the bridge, but even north of the bridge, almost all the way to the Falls! The stream still tumbles down over the boulders and the canyon wall at the Falls, but what amazed me most was that, despite the current drought, despite the apparent lack of water, there are still plenty of plants. All is not lost. There is life! Not abundant life, but persistent, resilient, stubborn demonstrations of life adapted to the extremes of natureís follies.

Willows need water, and even though there has been no water to see anywhere, the willows are still surviving. We found Salix lasiolepis, arroyo willow, in many areas in the lower canyon. Its wide, often oblanceolate, leaves, with their white and veiny undersides, often appeared dry. Some started to turn yellow or brown, or even drop off in an effort to prevent more moisture loss. We also found Salix gooddingii, black willow, with its characteristic dark, rough bark and narrow, lanceolate leaves with their green underside, bravely withstanding the drought, and Salix laevigata, red willow, in the creek bed, distinguished by its shiny light green leaves, paler underside, and characteristic red twigs. According to the Eaton Canyon plant list, we also have Salix exigua, sandbar willow, in the Canyon, but we couldnít find it. Maybe it had lost its leaves already in self defense, maybe we just didnít recognize it, or maybe we didnít get to the hidden places of its existence.

Like the willows, the elderberry, Sambucus mexicana, the poison oak, Toxicodendron diversilobum, and a host of other winter-deciduous plants looked stressed, but were surviving, dropping their leaves earlier than usual. The sagebrush, Artemisia californica, turned brown in summer dormancy and so did a number of other plants, as we would expect. There were a number of species, though, that were not just surviving, but thriving in abundance: Lepidospartum squamatum, scale-broom, Brickellia nevinii and californica, brickelbush, and Heterotheca villosa, golden aster, were everywhere. California brickelbush accompanied us consistently from the mouth of the canyon all the way to the Falls. The golden aster appeared unaffected by the dryness.

I used to tell people on my walks that the water never runs dry north of the bridge. It turns out I have been proven wrong, and I apologize to whoever I misled with my presumptuous statement. I rather enjoy the thrill of ďboulder-hoppingĒ and I donít mind a little water cooling me off on a hot summer day, but no such treat did we encounter on these recent hikes. However, the riparian woodland is still intact; canyon oak, Quercus chrysolepis, as well as big-leaf Maple, Acer macrophyllum, and white alder, Alnus rhombifolia, were still providing us with much-appreciated shade. The distinct and refreshing aroma of the California bay, Umbellularia californica, wafted over us, with a much stronger flavor than what we remembered.

To my surprise and delight, I even discovered a plant that I hadnít noticed before in the canyon. When I first spotted the plant with opposite and velvety leaves, squared stems, and a white-flowered spike growing in a rare puddle of water north of the bridge, I thought it belonged to the genus Salvia. It turned out to be a white hedge nettle, which is not really a nettle but a mint, Stachys albens.

Troubling was the observation that the giant reed, Arundo donax, is making a comeback in the lower canyon, and north of the bridge. Together with the eupatory, Ageratina adenophora, it seems to take over all of the native vegetation in several places.

On a lighter side, I watched a tiger-swallowtail butterfly land on an arroyo willow, and I appreciated the pearl-like flower clusters on the wand buckwheat, Eriogonum elongatum. I marveled at the splendid scarlet larkspur, Delphinium cardinalis, about five feet tall and in full bloom, and I discovered a band-tailed pigeon roosting in an alder.

Where kids normally cool off in waist-deep pools of refreshing spring water, now there is nothing but dry rocks. The edge of the creek bed, though, is still inhabited by streamside flora. As stressed as it might be, life goes on. The species and individual plants most adapted to extreme drought conditions survive. Their next challenge would be the opposite extreme — a super wet season — and it might be that the next winter will bring just that.

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