Observations of Flowering Plants and the Main Vernal Pools on the Mesa de Colorado, 13 March - 10 April 2002

Chronological Observations

Introduction to this page

2002 March 13
2002 March 20
2002 March 23
2002 April 3
2002 April 10

2002 March 13: Vernal Pool Trail, Ranch Road, S. Los Santos Trail, and Granite Loop Trail. Cool conditions with a high temperature of 62°. It was quite breezy most of the day, but tolerable. When I was out of the breeze, I began to get too hot in my sweatshirt, but in the breeze, I began to get too cold. So I just left my sweatshirt on and things evened out for the most part. (;-)

Nine new species were in bloom this trip, putting us back to last year's rate of about 1.2 species beginning bloom each day. It looks like all the species that could advance their bloom have done so.

Popcorn flowers have popped out on the Vernal Pool Trail, and quite a few are blooming in the Main Pool. However, you have to look closely to see them in the Pool since their flower is so small and you are farther away from most of the ones that are blooming.

The glumes (bracts surrounding the grass flowers) are mostly gone from the needlegrass, continuing their "evaporation" to the end.

Surprisingly, a few woolly marbles are peeking out of the rocks in the perc pit! I wasn't sure if we would see any this year. If this is the total show, then the density is down by almost a factor of 100 over last year.

I couldn't find any blennosperma in bloom today. Every little gold plant I examined was a goldfields.

The Engelmann oaks have begun to lose their leaves. This is the first day they have begun to look pathetic. I've been taking pictures of the oak near the sign in the middle of the trail, to document this normal yearly process in a webpage, since this is one of the major concerns of visitors. Of course, in this drought year, I wonder if they will produce normal new leaves!

About 20 chocolate lilies have burst into bloom on the Vernal Pool Trail. I saw no traces of them nine days ago, and now they are in full bloom. Of course, 20 is only one-tenth of the 200 blooming here last year, but is still far more than the zero that might have been blooming!

I was very pleased to see the leaves of the flax-flowered linanthus for the first time! Last year I discovered this plant in only one location on the Los Santos Trail, and only saw the small blooms when there was just one or two flowers open per plant. I assumed this was the end of the bloom, but didn't know for sure. Since then, I've been carefully monitoring that location each time I'm there. This year I hope to catch the beginning of the bloom. Unfortunately, of course, this year may not be representative of what happens in a normal year.

2002 March 20: Vernal Pool Trail, Adobe Loop Trail, short portion of Punta Mesa Trail, Ranch Road, S. Trans Preserve Trail. Warm conditions with a high temperature of 82°, with a small breeze.

Nine new species were in bloom this trip, continuing the same trend as last week and last year of about 1.2 species beginning bloom each day. But unlike last year, the bloom period for many species is very short. The shooting stars were completed finished on the Vernal Pool Trail today, as were the chocolate lilies there. And there were only two individual ground pink plants total!

Just like last year in some locations, the chocolate lilies on the Vernal Pool Trail vanished without a trace. The speculation is that something eats them, which fortunately waits until they are nearly finished blooming before chomping them. Of course, I wouldn't have known about any field of lilies that was eaten before it came into bloom!

Bugs were out today, and somewhat bothersome when stopping to look at plants. In the grasslands, the little black beetles that usually don't bite decided to bite today. In the chaparral, the annoying biting gnats were more noticeable than usual. Overall, though, the bugs were quite tolerable.

I spent some time making sure of the species for all the prickly pears on the Vernal Pool Trail, and was pleased that the id was unambiguous. Often, distinguishing characteristics of plants are sometimes indistinguishable, such as "awns 0-3 mm" vs. "awns 3-12 mm" and finding that the awns are all 3 mm. In this case, one of the key characteristics was the width of the pads, over 15 cm or under 14 cm, and most of the pads I measured were 8-12 cm. Would that all identifications were so easy!

I was very pleased to see a bush lupine in essentially full bloom on the Vernal Pool Trail just past the Main Pool. I found out late in its bloom last year that another common name for this species is Grape Soda Lupine. I immediately smelled the remaining blooms last year, but they had no odor. I was hoping that this was due to the flowers no longer being fresh. Since then, I've been dying to smell a fresh bloom to see if fresh blooms would be fragrant.

Unfortunately, there was still almost no smell - rats! Apparently, our subspecies must not warrant the common name for the overall species. I've smelled a different subspecies in the San Gabriel Mountains, and they have a very heady fragrance that is just like that of Welch's Grape Soda.

The Adobe Loop Trail was a pleasure. First, the nice field of shooting stars still had a fairly decent display this year, with some still blooming there. Second, I was thrilled to come across a number of adjacent purple nightshade bushes all in full bloom!

I walked the beginning of the Punta Mesa Trail to check out the ceanothus. I was quite surprised to see that the hoaryleaf ceanothus here had all blasted their buds. They were hanging loosely, and came off with the lightest touch of a finger. I wonder if they won't even bother to set buds for next year? I've read that the effects of a drought are often felt for a full year after the drought ends, due to residual effects like this.

No Ramona lilac could be seen in bloom, so maybe it has abandoned its bloom here, too. (I didn't see any individual plants. They are mostly away from the trail, and obvious only when in bloom.)

On the S. Los Santos Trail, there were about 20 chocolate lilies in full bloom today. So like last year, the chocolate lilies are playing tag team, with one field blooming after another has finished.

2002 March 23: Granite Loop Trail (partial), Vernal Pool Trail, Ranch Road, S. Trans Preserve Trail. Cool and then cold conditions with a high temperature of 63°, with a cold breeze.

I led a bloom tour for the Friends of the Santa Margarita River on the Vernal Pool Trail this afternoon. Eight people showed up, which was just about the maximum size for a bloom tour.

Before the tour, I checked out a portion of the Granite Loop Trail, but found it is still very poor in the number of species blooming. I found only three species blooming there, compared to 26 species blooming on the Vernal Pool Trail. This disparity is unlike anything seen last year. Perhaps the basalt clay and the flat topography helped give more rainfall to the plants on the Vernal Pool Trail.

Two new species had come into bloom, consistent with the trend seen in the last two weeks within statistics.

I was very surprised to see that the chocolate lilies had returned to full bloom on the Vernal Pool Trail. That is, the first batch of lilies had completely finished by three days ago, but a new batch came into bloom by today. Some were in a different location (north of the oak tree at the end of the chaparral section), but some were in the same location where the first batch had bloomed. Perhaps due to the drought, specific plants responded a bit differently to the few rain events we had, spacing out the bloom.

The buttercups continue to make a pretty decent show in the grasslands below the Mesas. Surprisingly, red maids are making an excellent show along the Road opposite the Vernal Pool Trailhead! There is a bit of a ditch there, which has collected extra rainfall.

It's wonderful that even in a drought year there are some good displays of flowers.

2002 April 3: Vernal Pool Trail, S. Los Santos Trail, Hidden Valley Road, S. Trans Preserve Trail, Vernal Pool Trail. Cool conditions with a high temperature of 62° with a pretty good breeze.

This was one of those days when you're slightly warm wearing a sweatshirt and a shirt when in the sun and breeze, but slightly cold when in the shade or absent the breeze. Fortunately, those conditions alternated on fairly short time scales, so I never had to change my clothing. This was a delicate balance - a few degrees different here or there, and I would have spent most of my hiking time taking my sweatshirt off and putting it back on. (;-)

The owl's clover is blooming! I thought we might not see any this year, but the runoff from Via Volcano has given us ~30 plants along the side of the road opposite the Vernal Pool Trailhead, in a ditch that collects even more of the runoff. The display there is beautiful, even though it is but a shadow of the owl's clover display last year.

In contrast, there is but one pitiful isolated owl's clover blooming on the Vernal Pool trail itself. That flower has only a few of the pink/red parts, and so is only about one-tenth or less of a normal flower.

Smooth cat's ear was in full bloom when I started hiking, shortly after noon. In full bloom, it is much like a dandelion, and definitely pretty and easy to observe. Amusingly, the definitive manual of the flowers of California, the Jepson Manual, says that the petals of this flower are "short, inconspicuous", since apparently no collector pressed an open flower. Most of the time, the flower is closed, and the petals only stick out a little bit beyond the bracts surrounding the petals.

So if you see something that looks like a small, closed dandelion, come back around noon and see it in its full glory.

Many new flowers were blooming today. I found 13 species blooming that I hadn't seen blooming on my last hike.

However, some annual species apparently will not even grow this year. Today, I found no trace of the common phacelia that made one spot lovely along the S. Los Santos Trail last year. Last year, it came into first bloom on March 27, and of course was growing long before that. This year, today, April 3, there are no seedling plants at all.

The bush lupines along the S. Los Santos Trail mostly look dead from the presence of last year's flower stalks, but one plant is trying to bloom. The buds are showing color on one stalk, but another stalk has made a U-turn on its path upward, with the tip drooping toward the ground from lack of water.

While walking along Hidden Valley Road between the Los Santos and Trans Preserve Trails, I saw something I had never noticed before in the many times I have walked this way. The needlegrass forms a pretty abrupt edge ringing the lowland between two of the ridges. The lowlands have a dense stand of tarweed, which replaces the needlegrass. I wonder if this was an effect of grazing, or simply the environment, or both.

I saw a single big healthy coyote here. Coyotes have continued to be seen at an average rate of about one per hike, since they reappeared in the daytime last December. Last year, however, at this time I would typically see 2-3 coyotes together. Has the drought thinned the coyote population, or have they just changed their hunting pattern?

I was pleased to see two button celery plants have produced leaves in the Main Pool. This continues the pattern for most species, of having 1-10% of their normal population attempt to grow this year.

The wild sweet pea still has no further blossoms on it. I observed a single blossom on March 23, but that seems to be the extent of the bloom this year. Imagine that: full bloom this year consists of when the single flower was blooming!

The chocolate lilies are down to eight plants on the Vernal Pool Trail.

I came back out the Vernal Pool Trail. While in the chaparral section, which is small here, I was startled by coyotes suddenly beginning their hunting yelps and yips right next to me. I couldn't see them, but I sure could hear them. I imagined that I'd see them crashing through the brush any second, but it never happened.

I've heard the hunting sounds of coyotes many times, both here in the late afternoon and in my yard or nearby in Fallbrook at night, but I've never gotten to see the pursuit. Judging from the sounds, the pursuit surely must be something interesting to see. I could hardly believe I was so close, yet could see nothing of this spectacle.

A badger has dug its large underground hole right next to the Vernal Pool Trail, just beyond the end of the pea gravel beyond the Main Pool. Don't miss looking at the home it used for a few nights.

2002 April 10: Vernal Pool Trail, S. Los Santos Trail, Ranch Road; Granite Loop Trail. Pleasant conditions with a high temperature of 73°, with a breeze.

Via Volcano near the Vernal Pool Trailhead continues to show some of the best bloom at the SRP. It has the only display of owl's clover, deerweed, red maids, Bishop's lotus and sand spurrey on the SRP that I know of now. Red maids bloomed sparsely earlier on the trails, but are nearly completely done now, and there was only a single pathetic owl's clover on the Vernal Pool Trail, which is now gone. And the dwarf lupine there is by far the best display I've seen at the SRP this year.

Getting the extra bit of water from the runoff from the road makes all the difference. The owl's clover is blooming in a rut that collected even more runoff. Shortly after beginning the hike on the Vernal Pool Trail, turn around and look at the ribbon of green along the roadside.

Near the beginning of the VP Trail, I saw a pretty common banded skipper on a common lomatium flower. The butterfly appeared to have its gold/brown wings laid on top of its back, with the black middle of its back showing between them. At the base of the back was a fringe of white showing the entire width.

On the Los Santos Trail, I stopped at the location of the cottonweed to try to better identify it, and to my surprise there was another short little plant blooming amidst it that I hadn't seen before. It turns out to be the native plantain, which is a key food source for the endangered Quino Checkerspot Butterfly. I was very pleased to finally find this species!

There were no entirely-green-leaved cottonweed plants today; all the leaves except a few uppermost ones had turned reddish and were hairy. They no longer looked like California filago, and are clearly cottonweed, Micropus californicus.

The chocolate lily plants by the bench on the Los Santos Trail are not going to bloom this year. They are all either dead or dying (leaves all yellow) sans bloom. We were lucky to get any chocolate lilies on the other trails this year!

I was hoping to positively identify the prickly pear species in the middle of the S. Los Santos Trail by looking at the stamen and pistil colors, but the only open flower was in the dead middle of the large, sprawling plant, and thus was well-protected from inquisitive eyes! I realized a month or two ago that this prickly pear is likely a different species of cactus than the other two on the SRP plant list.

The lanceleaf dudleyas won't be blooming on this trail this year, either, since the leaves are now shriveled up.

I started a plant list for this trail today, so examined the first (and perhaps only) California buckwheat along this trail to check its subspecies. Much to my surprise, it turns out to be the hairy-upper-leaf variety, ssp. polifolium, which hasn't been recorded at the SRP before. This is the twelfth new species I've added to the SRP plant list, assuming that the prickly pear is the eleventh. Don't that beat all!

While I was examining a grass, I had put down my backpack. When I went to pick it up, the largest centipede I have ever seen ran quickly away from under it! My estimate at the time was that this centipede was about 6" long, but I was so surprised that this was probably an overestimate. My later estimate at home was that it was probably about 1/4 the width of my backpack, or about 3" long. This better fits the reported size of our local giant centipede, the multicolored centipede (Scolopendra polymorpha), which is 3-4" long.

The bush lupine near the north end of the S. Los Santos Trail, just before the junction with the Hidden Valley spur road, is absolutely pathetic this year. All of the ~ten bushes still have all their dead growth from last year. One of the bushes has produced 6 anemic bloom stalks. So it is in "full bloom", but it is a very sparse bloom.

The blue-eyed grass is making decent displays along part of Hidden Valley Road, and good displays along the lower Vernal Pool Trail. Although it is slightly worse along Hidden Valley Road than last week, the display is better this week on the VP Trail. The California buttercups continue to make a good display in the grasslands below the Mesa de Colorado. But the chocolate lilies are nearly gone, with only two plants still in bloom today.

The bush monkeyflower may already be ending its bloom. Today there were a total of 13 flowers open, down from 17 last week.

I put down my backpack again to identify one of the new species blooming today. When I picked it up again, yep, there was another multicolored centipede scurrying away! Imagine that - I've put down my backpack hundreds, possibly thousands of times at the SRP, and never before even seen this centipede. And then today, TWO of them try to hide underneath my backpack????

Amazingly, the Main Pool looks greenish from a distance, due to the spike rush. It is a very different green than last year, since the spike rush plants are light green and only ~6" tall, compared to their usual dark green and height of several feet.

Earlier this year, I had tentatively identified the popcorn flower blooming at the Vernal Pool and the perc pit to be the Adobe popcorn flower (Plagiobothrys acanthocarpus), since the observed calyx length from its first blooms were far too large to match the vernal pool popcorn flower (Plagiobothrys undulatus). Today seeds were available to give the definitive id. Imagine my surprise when they showed the species to be the vernal pool popcorn flower!

Although it sounds blindingly obvious that the species blooming at the vernal pool should be the vernal pool popcorn flower, remember that conditions this year are very different. The vernal pool never contained water this year, and in fact the soil was never even moist for very long. There are plants growing in the vernal pool this year that would never have been seen if there had been water. So it was quite reasonable that perhaps the vp popcorn flower would not even germinate this year, and another species might grow there that had been waiting for years to do so. Many of the vp species did not germinate this year, such as the clover fern, water crowfoot and the downingia.

The story of what went wrong with this id is interesting. First, you have to know that botanists rarely study live plants. They instead study dried, pressed samples, which are sent off to an institution called a herbarium. When they collect the plants, they try to pick samples that show the plant in all of its various stages, with flowers and seeds.

What apparently happens with the vp popcorn flower is that it begins blooming with large flowers, but the flowers get progressively smaller at the end of its flower stalk. So what is reported in the floras is the size of the only flower that exists in the herberia samples, the smallest ones. In fact, one flora (Munz) reports what happens to the flowers backwards! It says that the calyx gets larger during the process of seed formation. (;-)

Botany is always full of such surprises, which makes the study of plant identifications both interesting and frustrating.

The Granite Loop Trail is a world apart from the trails of the Mesa de Colorado. There is a single decent display of goldfields, and a smattering of pathetic blooms, but by and large it looks just like August there, only with fewer flowers. There is virtually no growth of annuals, and the dead stalks from last year's annuals are still there.

Nonetheless, a few amazing individual plants are eking out a bloom or two. A single Chinese houses is showing two very lonely blossoms. There are a total of five baby blue eyes blossoms. There is a single bush monkeyflower blossom.

You can see evolution at work here - only the genes of these hardy plants will reproduce this year.

More typical is the story of the California peony, which aborted all its blooms this year here.

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Copyright © 2002 by Tom Chester.
Permission is freely granted to reproduce any or all of this page as long as credit is given to me at this source:
Comments and feedback: Tom Chester
Updated 29 June 2002 (url for SMR friends updated 22 October 2003).