Seasons of the San Gabriels

January 17, 2001

Brown Mountain Fire Road
Millard Campground to 2N66 Junction

Cloudless skies, Catalina Island visible, valley and basin hazy, 64° to 72° F in afternoon, about four inches of rain the previous week

Winter Arrives
Big boulders rest on top of small grains of sand on unsorted rock piles. Rivulets indent their faces. Small landslides spill from crevices. Water-gouged cavities pockmark the road. Silt deposits fill the low spots. A fallen boulder of exfoliating granite exposes layers, broken, but in place, like a shattered frozen onion. Winter's come to the rocky slopes of the San Gabriels courtesy of last weeks big rains.

The Greening of the San Gabriels
On the shaded slopes, the stable ones, succulent green-leaved dudleyas expand. Greenness returns to the spikemoss, not yet unfurled. Light green lettuce-leaf-like lichen unfold. A light frost of emerald-kelly-Irish green moss covers the walls. How does this touch-inviting, rain-induced, softness appear so magically out of rocks that are brown, barren and bone-dry nine months of the year?

Brown Birds and Bright Birds
I hear the sounds of birds in the chaparral...the double scratch of the cinnamon-rumped California towhee under this bush, the loud cascading call of the yellow-eyed wrentit in that shrub, the raspy rattle of the white eye-browed Bewick's wren hidden in those dead twigs...seldom glimpsing their generally brown forms. The winter-dull Audubon's warblers chirp as they drop into the laurel sumac.

In contrast, birds near the gurgling water in the shade of the coast live oak are quieter, smaller, but flash bright colors or patterns like the lemon-yellow breast of the lesser goldfinch, the raspberry head of the purple finch, the spotted breast of the hermit thrush, and the white tail feathers of the dark-eyed juncos.

White! White! White!
Bees, their distant thrumming the only insect sound heard today, visit the few white flowers blooming...the sweetly fragrant hoaryleaf ceanothus, which has another more descriptive name of white-back ceanothus, and a pompom-flowered form of California buckwheat.

This variety, known as gray-leaved buckwheat, has shorter, flatter leaves compared with the more familiar rosemary-leaved form which has red stems, and greener, more pointed, inrolled leaves. The flowers, tight white balls, form at the end of the gray-green main stem usually without branching. The leaves, especially the undersides, the flowers, the stems are all very hairy-feeling and whitish-looking accounting for its scientific name of Eriogonum fasciculatum var. polifolium, "polifolium" meaning gray or white-leaved.

Fourwing saltbush is so white it seems unreal. Could something this white be alive? A large bush with many intertwined stems, it has small leaves that are long and thin, but, once again, very hairy, very white, as the scientific name, Atriplex canescens var. canescens says..."canescens" meaning gray/white and hairy like an old man's beard. The seeds, or rather the remaining bracts or scales, intrigue me...two circles attached down the middle then folded and opened up making quarters, a cross when looked at edgewise. They're tan-colored, and persist on the stalk...quite fun to examine.

The leaves of these three plants are described as hoary, polifolium and canescens or white, white, white!

Blue Views
The sun's orange reflection traces a path across the faraway pale blue ocean from Santa Catalina Island, past the Palos Verdes Peninsula ending at the north end of Santa Monica Bay. I walk along the road, the whole valley and the basin beyond spread out before me, the hills highlighted in blue, outlined from behind by the haze.

© Jane Strong, January 2001
Seasons of the San Gabriels Index | Field Guide to the San Gabriel Mountains: Plants

Seasons of the San Gabriels

January 8, 2001

Mt. Wilson Toll Road, Horse Trail and Eaton Canyon Service Road

Fern Bank
The fern bank just inside the Pinecrest gate remains dry and brown, even after the past week's light rains. The skeletal fingers of the spikemoss are closed up tightly like a mummified fist.

The luminous, silvery-gray, spoon-shaped leaves of a felt-leaf everlasting at the base of the bank gather and reflect the light, seemingly having an internal light source of their own. There's a marvelous texture to these leaves...soft, furry, felty. The flowers, which never seem to fully open, are surrounded by shiny, pearly-white, papery scales called bracts. Sometimes a bright yellow tip is visible on a new flower; but, most often, one sees the older flowers that have turned tan and remain on the stalk forever, everlastingly.

Rock Slide
Just above the bridge, I hear a small sound that I think is a bird scratching and look up. The sound seems to gather momentum, getting rounder, deeper, faster. Soon I see a dirt waterfall pouring out of a gully. The larger pieces bounce off the rocks landing far from the base. Small branches take to the air, too. This is all small scale, but nonetheless awesome and slightly scary. I move to what I think might be safer place, that is, where no evidence of erosion is present, only a solid rock face. The rockfall happens repeatedly, almost rythmically. Quiet, then a slight scratch, then more rolling sounds, then a shush of a fall, then silence when the dust settles. I don't know what starts them, noise, wind or an animal. There are other small rockfalls as I walk up the road, but none as spectacular, noisy and repeated as these by the old landslide.

I chose to take the Mt. Wilson Toll Road to see if there is summer or winter erosion evident. It's still mostly summer-type, the well-sorted talus piles accumulated, grain by grain, at the base of gullies or cracks in the rocks. However, I observe something very interesting: Most of the smallest grains...those usually found at the top of the piles...had washed away leaving a shelf like a small stair step with a very high riser and a very small tread. So winter erosion has begun, but has not yet taken over.

Leaf Rose
Most plants blooming at the edge of the road have a single long stem arising from a basal rosette of leaves and small flowers turning quickly to long, very slender seedpods. Sometimes I see buds, flowers, seedpods all on the same stalk...the shy California suncup, the bold black mustard and the prostrate red-stem filaree.

Mule Fat
Down in the dry streambed of the wash, mule fat blooms; the male and female flowers growing on separate plants. The male flowers are longer with spikes like a pincushion filled with pins and many taller needles. The female flowers are shorter like a pincushion filled with just pins. After the seeds form, their bristly tops fluff out like bursting fireworks and puff out in long chains linking each piece of fluff to another, very spectacular. Big fluffy balls, but oddly only visible certain times of day when it is hottest and driest.

Buck Wheat
Climbing back up the trail to cross the bridge I pass long-stemmed and California buckwheat finding on them flowers in all forms from the tight pink buds to the newly opened white flowers to the floppy, older rosy blossoms to the seedheads in russet-brown to the headless dark-brown old stems. It's hard to name a color for their flowers because they change so with age. But what a picture they make! Especially the long-stemmed buckwheat--masses of interwoven gray-green stems with small bunches of flowers in white, pink or russet brown decorating them at intervals. Lovely!

© Jane Strong, January 2001
Seasons of the San Gabriels Index | Field Guide to the San Gabriel Mountains: Plants