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
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.
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
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.
Whole Site. California Chaparral Institute. http://www.californiachaparral.com. Accessed 1/27/14
World Biomes. Coyote Brush.
http://www.blueplanetbiomes.org/coyote_brush.htm. Accessed 1/27/14
Chamise. Chaparral Plants. Santa Barbara City College Biological Sciences. http://www.biosbcc.net/b100plant/htm/chamise.htm. Accessed 1/28/14
Fire Prevention Brochures and Fact Sheets. Ventura County Fire Department.