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Field Ecology Weekend in the Malibu Creek State Park

Beneath the towering Santa Monica Mountains, a group of dedicated volunteers from the Topanga Canyon Docents gathered for their annual Field Ecology Weekend. From Friday to Sunday the grassy meadows at Malibu Creek State Park hosts some of the most enthusiastic volunteer ecologists in Southern California.

For the docents at Topanga Canyon, talking about nature comes, well… naturally! This past weekend, the Topanga Canyon Docents celebrated the 35th anniversary of this event.  Over the course of two days, environmentalists of all ages can spend a weekend in nature learning about history, conservation, and ecology.  As volunteer naturalists, this group of friendly docents has endured extensive training in environmental history taught by specialists from a variety of fields.  Once their training has been completed, docents are a liaison of sorts between humans and nature— leading informative hikes through southern California’s dense chaparral and providing visitors to the Topanga Canyon State Park with information about the environmental and cultural resources found in the landscape of the Santa Monica Mountains.

During the two day event, attendees participated in a number of interactive lectures and hikes throughout the Malibu Creek bioregion (see schedule above). Finding it hard to choose between topics such as “Fascinating World of Tidepools” and “Monkeyflower Diversity”, I began the weekend with the intention of splitting my time as often as possible. Ten minutes into Dr. Harris’s fascinating tidepool presentation (imagine 20 jars of floating tidepool creatures), I had the realization that splitting my time was not an option.

Jars from the tidepool exhibit.

Welcome to Malibu Creek State Park

Hiking through the Chaparral with docent, Tom Kaplan, whose broad knowledge of the Santa Monica Mountain terrain became apparent after just a few feet of walking, was an enlightening education in Botany 101. Accompanied by Fred Nuesca, a Malibu Creek docent with decades of wilderness experience, Tom began our hike by pointing out the brilliantly-colored wildflowers that lined our flat, rocky trail.

Fiddleneck flower (Amsinckia menziesii)

In some circles, the brightly-colored fiddleneck flower photographed below is actually considered a weed! But don’t let this categorization fool you, the beautifully curled fuzzy fiddleneck has a stunning composition.  Comprised of two rows of delicate flowers which curl into a swirl towards the top of the plant, the fiddleneck bears a striking resemblance to its instrumental namesake.  As one of the very first wildflowers to appear in the Spring, you’re likely to encounter this beauty on any stroll through the chaparral during this time.

Fiddleneck Flower–Robb Hannawacker, while working for Joshua Tree National Park

Horehound (Marrubium vulgar)

Despite a modern uptick in synthetic medicines, most prescribed medicines used in industrialized countries today are still derived from natural compounds found in plants, animals, and microbes. Cue Horehound, a flowering plant whose square stem and opposite leaf structure allow passersby to determine a link to the mint family— for whom these characteristics are dominant. Ancient Egyptian priests referred to this herb as the “Seed of Horus” and may have used it as part of an antidote formula for poison. Docent, Fred Nuesca, explains that today, many people use horehound to soothe a sore throat or stomach ache.

Horehound by Harry Rose from South West Rocks, Australia. Wikimedia.

Hemlock (Conium maculatum)

Hemlock is a poisonous plant that grows wild throughout the chaparral. If ingested, it will shut down your respiratory system. The most infamous poisoning by hemlock is attributed to the Greek philosopher Socrates, who died after drinking a tea made from hemlock and water. Socrates willingly consumed the poison after being sentenced to death for refusing to refute his controversial beliefs. The docents explained that plants with a pungent (bitter) odor should give a warning about toxicity to anyone foraging for a snack. Though many in our group reported a sour, somewhat repulsive smell, to me, hemlock smelled a bit like stale peanut butter.

Flowering in spring, location: Fredericksburg, Virginia along the Rappahannock River. Wikimedia commons.

Black Mustard (Brassica nigra)

The leaves on a black mustard plant, or as Fred Nuesca calls it “the hot dog plant of the wild,” taste exactly like spicy mustard. According to Docent, Tom Kaplan, when mixed with the enzymes in the saliva on your tongue, the chemicals inside of the plant create a heat response.  This black mustard variety is the same plant whose seed is used to make the mustard we spread on hot dogs and sandwiches, so the name hot dog plant of the wild is not too far off.

Black Mustard by Matt Lavin from Bozeman, Montana, USA. Wikimedia.

Despite growing up in the land of a 1000 oak trees (Thousand Oaks, CA), I was only made aware of the notable distinctions between oak tree varietals in Southern California by the docents. As we continued our hike through the chaparral, we stumbled upon a towering oak tree. Docent Fred Nuesca explained that the intricate root system of the oak tree can expand up to three times its height!

Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia)

After habitually surviving without rainfall for nearly nine months out of the year, the coast live oak tree has evolved a few innovative water-saving techniques. Its leaves are small, thick and cupped inward, which helps reduce exposure to the sun. Unlike the valley oak, the coast live oak tree does not shed its leaves.  Instead, it uses the shade of its giant, spanning branches to protect the water in the soil from being evaporated. Its woven root system extends deep below the surface of the ground, in search of stored water from subterranean aqueducts.

Valley Oak (Quercus lobata)

The valley oak can live for over 600 years and is a deciduous tree species— meaning each year it sheds its leaves. Found throughout the Santa Monica Mountains, the leaves of the valley oak are flatter and less sharp than the coast live oak.

Valley Oak by Eugene Zeleny. Wikicommons

After a weekend with the docents, I still feel like there are volumes more that I could learn from them. It takes a special kind of personal to dedicate their time to teaching others about the natural world.  If you are interested in getting involved, the Topanga Canyon Docents have an excellent training program that begins this fall. The Havasi Wilderness Foundation and the docents both believe that the best way to get in touch with nature is to get outside and explore your world!

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