Last summer I took you on a virtual plant walk of my favorite preserve, the Fremont Older Open Space. Unfortunately, by July, things are pretty dead in California — dead enough to make you suspect that the ‘golden’ part of our ‘golden state’ moniker is a euphemism for dried up and brown.
Totally different story in early April. Oceans of grass up to my knee, budding leaves, and damp soil underfoot that sinks just the right amount when you step on it. It’s impossible for me to be there and not think that I’m an amazingly lucky person to be alive on this planet right now. This feeling is the single most important factor in why I am an environmentalist. We’ve absolutely got something worth protecting in this small blue and green planet.
Want to join me on a virtual nature walk? Just a warning: I am neither a botanist nor a photographer. But if you don’t mind wandering around with an amateur naturalist equipped with a cheap camera, come along! We’re going to sneak in the back entrance of the park this time. The trail starts in a wooded, damp area with lots of early spring vetches (no flowers yet), clovers, and blackberry brambles. Almost immediately, we come across this little guy (actually, slugs are hermaphrodites, and this one, at 7″, isn’t exactly little):
According to Wiki, the Pacific banana slug is the 2nd largest terrestrial slug in the world. Also my college mascot at UC Santa Cruz!
There’s a bizarre tradition of licking banana slugs, which apparently causes numbing due to toxins in the slime, but I’m thinking that I can live without that particular experience. (Also, it’s not good for the slugs.) So we leave it alone and continue up the path. It’s a beautiful morning, all clean air, cloud shadows, and bright light.
As we head up the incline, puffing just a bit, we pass by some coast live oaks with their dark, shiny leaves, plenty of California sagebrush on sunnier slopes, some toyon bushes (also called California holly), distant blue blossoms, and lots of other stuff I don’t know the names of yet. Ask me again in another year. Kevin likes this back entrance to the park because it gets straight to the point — up a steep hill and into the heart of the park. I think I might prefer the gentler entrance myself.
Right, then. At the top of the hill, we swing a right on to the Hayfield Trail, which overlooks lush green hills that are currently covered in wild oat grass. When the wind blows, it sounds like the ocean. The grass is just starting to go to seed; in another few weeks, it will be drying out and dead. In the meantime, it looks lusher than the nearby golf course.
Springtime in the California hills wouldn’t be complete without a couple of these, of course. Our iconic golden poppies are late this year due to the delayed rain, but they’re the usual eyepopping shade of orange. Apparently they’re late risers: it’s almost 10am, and they’ve yet to fully unfurl. I recently learned that golden poppies are not true poppies, but they’re perfectly suited for survival in California, being self-seeding, drought-resistant, OK with poor soil (like on highway shoulders), and easy to cultivate in gardens. There are fewer of them this year because of our weirdly dry and warm winter, but more may come up later.
Continuing down the path, we pass a couple of magnificent old coast live oaks. These rugged trees have deep roots to survive the yearly May-October California drought. The coast live oak also has small, glossy leaves to conserve water — the more surface area of the leaf, the more water the tree loses through evaporation. Live oaks, as the name implies, do not shed their leaves in the winter. California’s live oaks are being threatened by Sudden Oak Death. If you hike in more than one park, be sure to rinse off your shoes so you don’t carry the disease from one area to another.
Feeling a little warm? Let’s stand in the shade of this oak for a few minutes before going on. (Just a note: compressing the soil around trees, i.e. walking on their roots, can damage root systems, especially if lots of people do it. These trees are located just off the trail, but unless I really want to take a better look at something or use a treefinder key, I usually don’t approach.)
We’re passing through several types of mini ecosystems even in a relatively short walk. The fields are turning into dryer, warmer chaparral. On both sides of us are lots of shrubs with attractive glossy leaves that start off reddish when young and then turn bright green. Can you guess what they are?
Remember, unless you’re absolutely sure you know what you’re doing, don’t touch anything with leaves of three. The same compound in poison oak that causes allergic reactions, urushiol, is also found in poison ivy, poison sumac, cashew nut shells, and mango skins (in much smaller quantities). I don’t know if I’m sensitive to urushiol or not, and today is not the day to find out. Poison oak is an important part of this ecosystem, by the way: birds and other animals rely on its berries for food. Just because we thin-skinned humans can’t touch it doesn’t make it a bad plant.
As we round the hill, the air becomes noticeably warmer and stiller. There’s a drop off to the left and something like a cliff face to the right that seems to have created a microclimate. This is my favorite plant along this stretch:
These spiky purple flowers, with their unusual arrangement (several flowers are spaced out along a single stalk like meatballs on a skewer) are a type of local sage, also known as chia. They will produce lots and lots of edible chia seeds after they’re done blooming. If you pinch a leaf, you’ll be able to smell the characteristically pungent odor associated with sages, which are actually in the mint family.
We also see lots of manroot just beginning to form its big spiky seed balls, more feathery sagebrush, and a whole lot of mystery plants. A number of the small elderberry trees are just putting out their flat flower umbels. I’m pleased that the swarms of midges that plague this stretch in the summer have not yet arrived.
At the end of the warm stretch is a shady grove of eucalyptuses. (There are lots of different types; I have no idea which these are.) Eucalyptuses
are Australian transplants that just can’t get enough of California. The unusual seedpods, spicy fragrance, and strippy bark were so much a part of my childhood that I was surprised to learn that these trees were non-native and invasive. This park has never made any claims to be a pristine native habitat, and honestly, the shade slips deliciously over us after the warmth of the hill.
We have one other major stop on this walk, and that’s Maisie’s Peak, 1100 feet above sea level. Alas, the view isn’t all that impressive. Up this high, you can see miles of suburbia at the boundaries of greenness, the cement quarry on the other side, the Moffett Field hangars all the way out, ribbons and ribbons of gray highway stretching into the distance. The wide open space seems like it goes on forever when you’re in it, but it ends all too soon.
Heading back, I see some flowers I have never seen before. (You’d think that in 12+ years, I’d have seen everything at this park, but it all changes so quickly and there are enough trails that I’m sure I miss a lot.) These big 1.5-2″ four-petaled flowers have me stumped. This is where Google images and my gads of flower guides come in. I’ll let you know when I have an answer.
This was an easy walk, no more than 2-3 miles, so we leave feeling energized and ready to take on the human world again. I hope you enjoyed our excursion!
I don’t think you need to love plants and wild things to be an environmentalist, but it’s a core part of why I care about this planet. Do you have a favorite hiking spot? What’s growing there right now?