Seasons of the San Gabriels

March 4, 1999

Sam Merrill Trail
Loma Alta Drive through Las Flores Canyon almost to Echo Mountain

Dense fog, visibility less than fifty feet, elevation 1800 to 3000 feet

Spring Approaching
A solitary Northern Mockingbird sings from a conspicuous perch. Pairs of California Towhees fly from the trail to the brush, cinnamon undertail feathers glowing. Flocks of Golden-crowned Sparrows search for seeds on the rocky hillsides. Wild Cucumber (Marah macrocarpus), white-flowered stalks on thick ropy vines, clambers over all on its way to the tree tops. Plants that were flat rosettes--California poppy, lupine, and twiggy wreath plant--two weeks ago, are growing upright with buds appearing.

Rock Gardens
Everywhere along the lower reaches of the trail where there are overhanging oaks and decomposing granite, rock gardens flourish. The granite has a warm pinkish-orange background color with gray blotches, sometimes with veins of milky quartz, sometimes with small rusting spots. Lichens in differing colors of green--olive, jade, lime and emerald, and in differing textures--spiky, spongy, lettuce-leafy, pincushiony, dot the surfaces of the rock, even on the undersides. Brownish spike-moss, also called moss-fern, (Selaginella bigelovii) curls out of small crevices. Green fleshy rosettes of the succulent live-forever (Dudleya sp.) cling tightly to the sheer walls. Scarlet larkspur leaves, looking like small, plump maple leaves with red centers, rise out of the mossy surfaces. Ferns, bright-green, soft, new growth appearing very different from the dark, leathery old fronds, hang out over the trail.

Fog Drip
The soft-leaved chaparral plants collect water from the fog and channel it to their roots.

Collecting devices include the finely-dissected, threadlike leaves of California sagebrush and the deeply corrugated leaves of black sage (Salvia mellifera), both of which make more surface area for water to cling to, and the minute, fine hairs which hold the drops of moisture on the leaves of white sage.

Channeling mechanisms include bending over with the weight of the water thus directing the drops onto the ground below (sagebrush), upward-pointing top leaves funneling the drops toward the center to the stem and down to the downward-pointing lower leaves, which channel the drops to the earth beneath (white sage), and leaves with finely pointed tips which curl under guiding the drips under the plant (sugar bush).

Silvery beads of fog expose the abundance of spiders by delineating the webs--irregular webs at tips of plants, large, loose jumbled cobwebs, a few small orb webs, webs with tightly woven funnels in the corners, but mainly sheet webs hung between branches of brush.

Some laurel sumac bushes are sparkling crimson mounds of new leaves, others are dull green, worn, tattered and faded clumps. Galls that look astonishly like tight, squat rosebuds, green at the base, lavender at the tips, grow on wild honeysuckle. Luminescent California everlasting (Gnaphalium californicum), beaming like so many candles on a birthday cake through the dense gray fog is, by far, the brightest, most eye-catching plant in the foothills today.

© Jane Strong, March 1999

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Seasons of the San Gabriels

February 27, 1999

Grizzly Flat Trail from Angeles Crest Highway

Above the marine layer, 3000 feet, east and southeast facing slopes of the upper Arroyo Seco

Leaves of Leather
Leaves of the most common plants here--bigberry manzanita, hoaryleaf ceanothus, silk-tassel bush, black sage, yerba santa and sugar bush--are small and hard, thick and aromatic, glossy and evergreen. Some are drought (or sun or heat) evading; others are drought resisting. Drought evaders, such as bigberry manzanita (Arctostaphylos glauca) and silk-tassel bush, orient their leaves vertically to the sunlight to minimize the surface available for evaporation. Drought resisters such as thickleaf yerba santa (Eriodictyon crassifolium) and hoaryleaf ceanothus (Ceanothus crassifolius), have hairy, felty, gray or whitish leaves, rather than dark green, to reflect sunlight, wavy or rolled edges to reduce exposed surface area, and waxy upper sufaces to prevent or retard evaporation. Many of these chaparral shrubs feature a combination of adaptations.

Sounds of the Chaparral
Calling birds are constant trail companions at this season. The plain, brown Wrentit, known as "the voice of the chaparral", belts out a one-pitch, loud ringing trill, syllables starting off separately, picking up speed and running together. Some liken this call to a bouncing ping-pong ball. The red-sided, black-headed Spotted Towhee also trills loudly, but more hoarsely and with less variation, "Chup, zreeeeeeeeeeee". A glossy, shaggy coal-black Common Raven raps out his music like a low-pitched clatter from a xylophone or "bones" atop a dead, also shaggy, spruce snag. Soft breezes swish through the bay leaves. Rocks scrunch under my boots on the trail.

Blossoms along the trail
Imagine a mortarboard with many cream-colored tassels strung with little upside-down cups of flowers and you have the unusual blossom of the silk-tassel bush (Garrya veatchii), a plant with hard leaves, shiny olive-green on the upper side and white with matted hairs underneath, oriented vertically to the sun; it is easily ignored or overlooked the rest of the year. Hoaryleaf ceanothus, looking like misty white clouds against the hillside now, is easily picked out, but also nearly invisible at other seasons. The brightest plant along the trail, the brilliant yellow tree poppy (Dendromecon rigida), seemingly sprouts out of rocks. It has four shiny butter-yellow petals and grows on thin gray stems about three to six feet high with grayish-green pointed leaves that feel like fine sandpaper. Manzanita blooms,finishing up, form little apple-like fruits for which the plant is named in Spanish.

Western Scrub Jays stand sentinel over the chaparral on yucca stalks way up on the ridge tops....lizards bask on the sunny rock faces, scurrying into crevices upon iridescent blue butterfly flashes in the sun, the blue deeper near the body, the forewing edged in black with white dots, the upper side with a bright orange-red spot and three smaller black ones, this uncommon Sonora blue sips nectar from the white flowers of the ceanothus, also known as California lilac .... buds bulge on bigleaf maples.

© Jane Strong, February 1999

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Seasons of the San Gabriels

February 13, 1999

Mt. Wilson Toll Road
From Pinecrest Drive most of the way to Henninger Flats

This day's weather brings an unbeatable combination of deep blue skies, temperatures in the low seventies, and the long views of winter: far to the west, the peaks of the higher, western Santa Monicas, in the near west, the concrete towers of Century City, then those of downtown Los Angeles and, nearby, those of central Pasadena. Palos Verdes Peninsula looms in the southern distance, the higher portions of Santa Catalina Island faintly visible behind, and, to the southeast, atop Santiago Peak, an array of antennae glint in the morning sun.

Down to the Bridge
Ferns and lichens, refreshed by the recent rains, sprout from the flaky, frangible hillside just after the gate from Pinecrest Drive. California polypody (Polypodium californicum), soft green fronds growing from creeping rhizomes, overhang the rocks along with coffee fern (Pellaea andromedaefolia), hard dark leaflets with the edges tightly rolled under, California lacefern (Cheilanthes californica) that looks dead when dry but revives when wet, and a lettuce-like foliose lichen with a small smooth green leaf and a tiny green ball set upon it, all sitting on a spongy black mass.

Not Yet Spring
Although some plants are flowering, most are in the rosette stage, a compact whorl of flattened leaves hugging the ground. Ascending the mountain, the rosettes which may have begun at the bridge as small upright plants, get shorter and flatter and closer to the ground, most of them growing in the sandy talus spills or along the edge of the trail--gray-green lacy leaves of California poppy, yellowish-green sharply pointed swords of twiggy wreath plant, roundly lobed prickly leaves of mustard, dainty fern-like red-edged leaves of redstem filaree (Erodium cicutarium) and deep green leaflet trios of deerweed.

The Birds and a Butterfly
Heard from the bridge over Eaton Wash, bright yellow Lesser Goldfinches chatter in the still leafless white alders. Mourning cloak butterflies flutter around the moist places. While, on the steep and dry, rocky mountainside, the sedentary Rufous-crowned Sparrows hop about like mountain goats and, when disturbed, hide under the sagebrush, revealed only by wiggling stalks. Red-tailed Hawks circle in the skies above the canyon.

Early Bloomers
Rattlesnake weed (Euphorbia albomarginata) grows out of rocks with a greenish cast. A spectacular, albeit diminutive, plant, it has milky sap like a poinsettia, gray felty heart-shaped leaves, white-margined crimson-cupped "flowers", and forms small mats over the rocks. Solanum douglasii, nightshade, white star-shaped flowers with a downward pointing yellow pistil, already has small jade-colored fruits like shiny peas. Sugar bush (Rhus ovata), its shiny oval leaves smelling sweetly fragrant when crushed, has tight pink buds on branches just beginning to bloom.

© Jane Strong, February 1999

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Seasons of the San Gabriels

January 9, 1999

Coyote Canyon, a tributary of Eaton Canyon

Dazzingly blue skies, temperatures in the low 80's, Santa Ana winds

Here, in the foothills, cycles of growth intermingle: dry leaves rattle on nearly empty branches, spears of new grass pierce the forest floor, wreaths of fresh crinkly leaves encircle broken gray stalks, leathery evergreen leaves remain firmly attached to gnarled old limbs. Here is no sudden cessation, no exuberant bursting forth, but rather a continuous unfolding of small miracles.

On a Shaded Slope
New bluish green shoots of wild oats (Avena fatua) carpet the ground beneath the high shade of the venerable survivors of fire and drought, the coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia), whose magnificent limbs form an airy ceiling against blue skies. Clusters of bright yellow flowers of golden currant (Ribes aureum) adorn the sides of this open air room.

Audubon's warblers, although still in winter drab, flash yellow rumps while hawking for the already bothersome gnats. House wrens hide in thickets of phacelia, old flowers looking like a crawling mass of translucent caterpillar skeletons, new leaves peering through at the base.

In a Dry Canyon
California sycamore still has leaves of brown, even some of green, but most, having fallen to the ground, collect in cutbanks and depressions of the dry streambed, a river of brown leaves. Instead of water, crystals of mica in schist sparkle in the sunlight. California side-blotched lizards bask in the sandy bottom, invisible in their dun-colored skins dotted with bumps of beige.

Scale-broom (Lepidospartum squamatum)--scale for the shape of the tiny clasping leaves and broom for the resemblance of the rigid stalks to Spanish broom--shows all stages of growth: bare shiny-green tubular stems, small yellow daisy-like flowers, whitish starbursts of dried seeds, or just the the seed holders, looking like small hubless many-spoked wheels. Blue-gray gnatcatchers in fresh breeding plumage, smooth and shiny as steel, call and flit back and forth across the narrow canyon.

Scraggly tree tobacco (Nicotiana glauca), new yellow-green trumpet flowers drooping over the wash, attracts Anna's hummingbirds heard popping in aerial display or seen sitting on a stem, flashing their iridescent ruby-red gorgets in the sun.

At the Waterhole
Last of the water in Eaton Canyon, this pool provides an oasis for birdlife: splashing starlings in speckled winter dress, clowning acorn woodpeckers, hiccuping gray-bibbed scrub jays, and sloshing yellow-rumped warblers. Mud-stains dull the pepper-on-salt-patterned Wilson diorite boulders in the surrounding wash. Along side in crusting puddles, watercress stems grow shorter and shorter, its leaves darker and darker. In contrast, willow-like mule fat (Baccharis salicifolia), grows lush, tall and green, its tight new buds like miniature shaving brushes.

High overhead, thin wisps of cirrus clouds, precursors of an approaching cold front, stripe the sky. The cycle of seasons in the canyon continues.

© Jane Strong, January 1999

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Seasons of the San Gabriels

January 13, 1999

Arroyo Seco, Gabrielino Trail, from Windsor/Ventura intersection to beyond Teddy's Outpost

On the sunny hillside facing west
Amidst the drab gray-brown tangle of dried vines and fallen stems on the steep slope, two exceptional, and somewhat similar, plants stand out. As well as growing in the same habitat, both are grayish green, both go by the name of sage, and both are intensely aromatic. Coastal sagebrush (Artemisia californica) has feathery gray leaves, each with three long slender prongs, and fresh new growth along the stems below the old brown flower stalks still hanging on above. Rub the soft leaves between your fingers to release the best fragrance around!

The other sage from another plant family, white sage (Salvia apiana) sprouts new leaves in a very different manner. Conspicuous whorls, bouquets of large white velvety leaves, appear at the base of this plant, making it easily the lightest looking object on the hillside. When crushed, these leaves smell of menthol.

Overhead, a golden eagle glides. This subadult bird looks black overall, with some white under the wing and widespread "fingers" at the tips.

Approaching the JPL Bridge
Small gray birds, bushtits, continually calling, constantly twittering, pour in laminar flow over bushes, first one, then another, and another, all about the same speed. Identifiable at a distance, their method of flying in a flock--the spacing, the height above the bushes, the speed--tells you that those far-off specks are bushtits.

Large rounded bushes of evergreen laurel sumac (Malosma laurina) spot the slope. Remnant flower stalks, like small trees, said to be used in model train layouts, tip the branches. Crimson outlines the edges and highlights the midribs and stems of the leaves, slightly folded taco-style. Whenever the wind blows, it carries their scent, pungent and earthy, the smell of the trail. You could be anywhere, and this scent would bring you back to these foothills.

At the next bridge
The alders are blooming!

White alders (Alnus rhombifolia) are found in permanent streams; sycamores and willows in intermittent ones. Witness here along the Arroyo Seco: in Hahamongna Park to the JPL Bridge, only twisted sycamores and yellow-tufted willows; past the JPL road to the next bridge, mixed alders and sycamores; from then on almost entirely alders with a few willows and sycamores in the wider, drier spots.

Easily recognizable as the trees with the gray trunks marked by dark down-turning scars, variously described as moustaches, eyes, or eyebrows, where old branches have fallen off, alders bloom before they leaf out. Look at the twig on the end of the branch. The leaf buds, what will be leaves, are yet encased in two small pointed scales, long, thin, dark-red like witches' fingernails.

Clusters of catkins appear before the leaves. The male and female catkins form on separate twigs. The flexible, dangling male catkin has flowers and bracts. Bracts are woody parts, resembling scales, under flowers similar to the scales of a pine cone. What flowers you say? Flowers without petals. These miniscule structures produce the vast clouds of pollen, released at the slightest touch or breath of air, found on your hands, on your clothes, beneath your feet.

The female catkin resembles a small pine cone and remains on the tree after the seeds fall out. The tiny winged seed, like the nut of a pinyon, adds to the mass of litter, golden-green on the ground and golden-brown in the stream.

How much has fallen from such minute parts!

© Jane Strong, January 1999

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