Archive | January, 2014

Protecting the Plants of the Chaparral

Chaparral is a diverse ecosystem that exists right here in our own backyard. These regions cover many areas of California and Northern Mexico on the Baja peninsula, where conditions are ‘Mediterranean,’ or mostly hot and dry in the summer with mild, wet winters. Similar regions of chaparral also exist in the Mediterranean, on the coastal cape of South Africa, Western Australia, and Western South America. Chaparral is characterized by its drought-tolerant plants which can withstand hot, dry summers and infrequent wildfires. However, the chaparral faces several threats, most of which are caused by human action and intervention.

The plants that make up the chaparral are generally dry, woody, and have thick leaves for storing moisture. Because the chaparral

California sagebrush

is subject to prolonged periods without water, the plants that grow there have adapted different ways of obtaining moisture and storing it. For example, California sagebrush releases chemicals that prevent other plants from growing nearby. This ensures that any available moisture will be absorbed by the sagebrush, and it will not have to compete with its neighbors for water. Many of the plants occupying the chaparral are evergreen broad-leafed shrubs, which have fibrous shallow root systems. This allows the plant’s roots to spread out over a larger area close to the surface of the soil so that it can absorb small amounts of rainfall. This is in contrast to other plants that have deep-extending taproot systems that survive on water tables far below the surface.

Coyote Brush is a common staple in chaparral ecosystems. After a fire or brush clearing, coyote brush is usually the first to be reintroduced and begin rebuilding the chaparral. Because of its widespread crown-like root system, it can recover easily from harsh conditions. This plant has small oblong-shaped leaves that grow in clusters. The leaves have a waxy coat which protects them from losing moisture to evaporation. The leaves also emit fragrant oils on hot days, which act as a defense by discouraging animals from eating the plant. It does, however provide shelter for some animals. The nectar brings insects like wasps and butterflies, while the dense branches and foliage provide refuge for birds, reptiles, and mammals.

Common Manzanita with green berries. Berries turn red when ripe.

One of the most common plants in the chaparral biome is the Manzanita. There are more than forty species of manzanita, which grow all over the Western United States, and thrive here in California. They can be shorter and wider like a shrub, or grow tall and thick like a tree. Manzanitas are drought-resistant evergreens with small round leaves, and are known for their reddish bark. They produce tiny, urn-shaped flowers which attract hummingbirds and butterflies. The name manzanita comes from the Spanish word manzanita, meaning “little apple.” The berries produced by manzanitas resemble apples, and are edible.

According to the California Chaparral Institute, Chamise is the most common shrub in our local chaparral. Also known as greasewood, this plant produces an oily resin that is flammable. Although it can contribute to the spread of wildfire, chamise has a burly base from which it can regenerate after a severe burn. The leaves of these shrubs are tiny and needle-like and grow in clusters along tall shoots. When the shrub is in bloom (from February to

Mature Chamise

July) it produces numerous small white flowers, giving hillsides a dense white look. Chamise root systems are a combination of shallow and taproot systems. Water is primarily absorbed through the shallow roots, and the taproot exists to give the plant extra stability. Mammals such as jack rabbits and deer will graze on the small green leaves of chamise, and use it for cover and refuge from predators.

Because of their dry, woody nature, it is sometimes assumed that chaparral environments create dangerous fire risks. With the intention of keeping our homes safe, sometimes people will clear out whole areas of chaparral to prevent it from burning too close to any buildings or structures. It is also commonly believed that chaparral needs frequent fire in order to continue as a successful ecosystem, so occasional “prescribed burns” are sometimes issued. While some chaparral plants can easily bounce back from fires every 10-15 years, they are accustomed to seasonal fires, and burning off-season is often an invitation to invasive species. Human intervention can cause problems for delicate chaparral ecosystems. When we clear brush, or intentionally burn part of it, we are also displacing many animal species and taking the risk that the native plants may not grow back. The best thing we can do to help the chaparral is to leave it alone.

Listed above are just a few of the shrubs common in the chaparral. There is also a variety of flowers, trees, and vines which make up the diverse biome. If you are thinking of exploring the chaparral, The California Chaparral Institute has a very helpful checklist of plants that you may find there. Print out the list, and check off each species as you find it. You can also read about adventuring in the chaparral in our book, My Adventure in the Chaparral geared toward children who are interested in exploring our natural ecosystems. Before you go exploring, it is wise to make sure you can identify dangerous plants like poison oak. Remember to be safe, drink lots of water, and eliminate risks of setting accidental fires by reading this action plan for hikers, put together by the Ventura County Fire Department.


Works Cited

Whole Site. California Chaparral Institute. Accessed 1/27/14

World Biomes. Coyote Brush. Accessed 1/27/14

Chamise. Chaparral Plants. Santa Barbara City College Biological Sciences. Accessed 1/28/14

Fire Prevention Brochures and Fact Sheets. Ventura County Fire Department. Accessed 1/28/14

Coping with Drought in California

Last week, it was declared that California is officially involved in a drought emergency. You may have noticed that we didn’t get any rain throughout the holidays, and still have yet to record any precipitation in the 2014 year. This season has rounded out the driest calendar year that has been recorded in California in 119 years! That’s quite a record! While it is nice to enjoy 80 degree weather in January, it may also be problematic for local ecosystems, and for those of us whose water supply is provided by reservoirs in the drought-affected areas. We must also remember that dry conditions create big potential for wildfires, as we have seen in recent weeks.

In a drought emergency, we are all encouraged to try to conserve water in different ways. It may mean shortening your daily shower by a few minutes, watering your lawn less frequently, or repairing leaky faucets and pipes. It is recommended that each household reduce their water use by 20 percent. Here are some things you can do to help our state recover from this drought:

Think about your personal water use. You can take this test to answer a few questions and get an estimate for how much water you use in a day. I found out that I use almost 90 gallons of water every day! Think about ways in which you can reduce that number. Save Our Water has a lot of great ways you can cut your water use around the house.

Consider making your lawn drought-friendly. Lush green grass looks nice, and feels great underfoot, but maintaining a grass lawn can be a waste of water. Consider choosing shrubs and ground cover that fits in with the soil and climate in your region. Many plants can grow with little water and lots of sunlight, and if chosen properly, you could have a garden that requires less maintenance and less water. Check out this tool for choosing plants that make sense in your area. If you must have a grass lawn, consider installing an efficient watering system, such as drip irrigation or automatic sprinklers.

California buckwheat is a flowering plant that needs much less water than other common flowers.

California buckwheat is a flowering plant that needs much less water than other common flowers.

Purple sage requires no watering after it has been established in your garden.

We have a great article about drought-tolerant gardening, which you can check out here: A California Solution

Eliminate fire risks. Although winter is typically not considered to be fire season in California, officials are warning that conditions for fire danger are extremely present. There are lots of ways you can reduce the risk of starting a fire, such as practicing campfire safety, keeping equipment or machinery away from dry brush, and keeping cigarettes and their ashes safely contained. Learn more about wildfire prevention here

Keep trees around your house trimmed. During a drought, trees do not get as much moisture from the ground as usual. This may cause some species of tree (like pepper trees) to become dry and brittle. Drought weather often brings with it high winds, which can cause brittle trees to lose branches, or even fall completely. Keep your trees trimmed, and your home safe!

Droughts are a natural part of the weather cycle in California, and some plants and animals can thrive with less water. It is important, however that we reduce our water use, and conserve as much as possible so that the ecosystems around us are not damaged by too much consumption of the little water that is left. We would love to hear about ways you are conserving water!

A Closer Look: Evergreen Trees

Many of us are thankful to be living in California at this time of year. While much of the country is battling record low temperatures, we are enjoying a relatively warm and notably dry winter. No matter where you are, however, this is a wonderful time of year to notice the differences in the trees that grow in your area. Have a look outside, and you may find that some trees have become bare, while others have maintained their leafy green appeal. Those that lose their leaves when the cold weather sweeps in are known as deciduous, and those that remain green are appropriately called evergreens. Deciduous trees have adapted to lose their foliage during the colder seasons as a means of conserving energy. Evergreens, which are more common in warmer climates, also conserve energy by shedding leaves, but they lose them throughout the year a little at a time. Conifers are another group of mostly evergreens that consists of pines, spruces, hemlocks, etc. which produce spiny, needle-like foliage. Here in our local ecosystems, we have many examples of deciduous, evergreen, and coniferous trees.

Coast Live Oak flowering in the Spring time

Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) flowering in the Spring time

The Coast Live Oak is an evergreen tree native to the central and southern coasts of California. It flowers in the spring and produces small acorns. This oak is able to thrive in a coastal environment because it is able to tolerate the marine fog that brings sea salt. These trees vary greatly in size, and can grow to be 80 feet tall in the right conditions, and can live to be 250 years old. The Coast Live Oak can be identified by its small oval-shaped leaves which are dark green in color, and contain spiny lateral edges.

A Valley Oak Tree

A Valley Oak Tree (Quercus lobata)

The Valley Oak is a deciduous tree also found in the central and southern regions of California. It is an endemic species, meaning that it can only be found here in California. These trees can have a lifespan of up to 600 years, and can reach heights of up to 100 feet. The Valley Oak does not require much water, but can have root systems that extend farther than 60 feet, making it a tree that is resilient and suitable to thrive in various climates. The trees produce greenish-yellow flowers when temperatures become warmer and fruit with long acorns. The green, medium-sized lobed leaves change color and fall when temperatures become colder.

A Digger Pine

A Digger Pine (Pinus sabiniana)

The Digger Pine, also known as the California Foothill Pine or Gray Pine is a coniferous evergreen that is also endemic to California. It produces needles in gray-green bundles of three, along with large, heavy pine cones. Many local tribes utilized these trees for their seeds, cones, bark, and needles for food, utility, and medicinal purposes. The name “Digger Pine” may have come from those who dug into the ground to retrieve fallen pine cones. This tree is also very resilient and can thrive in areas on the edges of the Mojave Desert which receive only three inches of rain annually. Digger Pines can live as long as 200 years, and the tallest recorded height was 160 feet tall!

Remember that trees are natural resources that provide us with clean air, and they should be treasured and respected. Not only do they serve us and our community, they also provide homes for many local birds, insects, and mammals. These are just a few examples of trees that are commonly found in our area. Las Pilitas is a great resource for learning about native trees, including those listed here and many more. Each species is different and has something special to offer the community and the ecosystem in which it lives. What kinds of trees live near you? Are they deciduous or evergreen? Are there any conifers?

Happy New Year from the Havasi Wilderness Foundation

We would like to wish all of our readers a happy New Year! This is the time of year when many people resolve to make changes in themselves. Some may choose to eat healthier or spend more time with family, all in the name of starting fresh at the dawn of the new year. We hope that we can inspire some of you to make resolutions that will also help our local ecosystems. Here are a few simple changes that you can make this year to help wild animals and plants in your area:

1. Properly dispose of trash. On a recent hike through Malibu Creek State Park, it was astounding to see how much garbage there was. Candy wrappers, soda cans, even a whole plastic bag filled with garbage, all left there by humans to pollute the homes of our wild neighbors. It is important to always make sure your trash ends up in a garbage bin. Animals can be attracted to the scent of leftover food, and sometimes cannot tell the difference between what is safe to eat, and what may cause them harm. Curious animals in the wild could choke or poison themselves if they come in contact with human trash. Please remember when you go exploring in the wilderness, it is smart to pack a lunch or a snack, but it is also smart to take the wrappers and trash with you when you leave.

2. Recycle. Recycling is much simpler than most people think. Many things that we use every day like paper, plastic water bottles, aluminum cans, and grocery bags can be recycled, or used again. It can be as simple as throwing your recyclables into a separate bin. To view a list of recyclable materials, and how to dispose of them, go to . Another important part of recycling is buying products made from recycled materials. Did you know you could buy a toothbrush made from recycled yogurt cups? Or a bicycle made from recycled soda cans? When you buy items made from these materials, your money encourages the manufacturers to keep making those items, and keep recycling!

3. Go exploring. Some of us don’t realize it, but we live right in the middle of some of the world’s most diverse ecosystems. You probably don’t have to travel far to find a local park, hiking trail, beach or forest. All of these are ecosystems that we can visit and learn to appreciate. The only resolution you need to make is to go outside. Go outside and look around. What do you see? How many animals can you count? What kind of tree is that? When we explore the world around us, we gain appreciation for the plants and animals with which we share a home. Just remember, when you go exploring, always be safe. You can find some tips on how to stay safe and responsible at .

We hope that you will make resolutions this year that will help promote healthy and balanced ecosystems around you. These tips are small changes that can make a big difference. Let your friends and neighbors know what you are doing this year to change the world around you.