Virtual Nature Walk: Spring Edition

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?

24 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by EcoCatLady on 04/05/2012 at 18:49

    I am totally impressed with your ecological knowledge, but please tell my you’re joking about the college mascot part. What do they yell… “go slugs!” at the football games?

    I fear I haven’t made it out into real nature in some time… the bike paths and parks have been my limit lately… I just hate having to drive in order to experience nature. But CatMan and I have plans to go down to the canyon where he spent his youth rock climbing this summer, so hopefully I’ll have some good nature photos to share then.


    • Hi Cat!

      I do tend to run off at the mouth about plants…I’ve always liked them better than I like people. Occasionally I think about going back to school for a degree in botany, but if civilization goes down, at least I know what grows wild around here and is edible, right? 😉 This park is about a 10-15 minute drive away, which I’m OK with because going there keeps me from losing my mind.

      “Go Slugs!” is precisely the rallying cry at UC Santa Cruz. We probably have the only invertebrate mascot in the whole university bestiary. That’s what I get for attending a dirty hippie non-conformist school.


      • Posted by EcoCatLady on 04/05/2012 at 23:21

        Ha! Well, I went to Colgate, and our official mascot was the “Red Raider” as in American Indians… Well, actually, it didn’t start out that way… they were the “Raiders” but then they adopted maroon colored uniforms, so the name “Red Raiders” was born… but then they adopted a Native American mascot sometime mid-century, so the deal was sealed.

        Anyhow, by the time I went there in the mid-1980’s Native American mascots were deemed politically incorrect, so in a twisted effort to be both non-offensive towards Native Americans and to appease the elderly football loving traditionalists (who, coincidentally, were the school’s largest donors) they kept the Red Raider name, but came up with a nondescript maroon colored blob called M.A. Rooney as a mascot.

        About the time I graduated, enough people had complained about the ludicrous furry blob that they decided to hold a contest for a new mascot. And thus, some friends and I started a “bring back the blob” campaign. Now, if we’d only known about the slug thing, perhaps we could have found a red one and pushed for that!


        • LOL! Your mascot story might be better than Santa Cruz’s. I think a long time ago we used to have a seal as a mascot, and then changed it to match the school’s somewhat unconventional demeanor. Also, there are banana slugs all over the wooded campus (alas, many of them dead on the trails where they have been run over by bikers). I wasn’t too crazy about the slug and didn’t buy a single piece of college gear while I was there, but in retrospect, it was probably better than the blob.


      • Posted by EcoCatLady on 04/05/2012 at 23:26

        Oh, and BTW, my desire not to drive to view nature has nothing to do with conserving energy or any other lofty goal like that. It just scares the bejeezus out of me to drive in the mountains these days now that our state has been invaded by a bazillion young “extreme sports” fanatics who seem to include screaming up and down mountain roads at 85 mph in their repertoire of extreme behavior. Yes, I am a fuddy duddy!


  2. I normally hate slugs, but that one just looks great!
    Your plant is Clematis lasiantha (or chaparral clematis, apparently one of the two native Clematis in California :D)
    Nice little walk you had here, California is definitely on my yet-to-travel list !


    • Thank you, Sophie! I asked around on Twitter, and the consensus there was also clematis. Oddly enough, it wasn’t in most of my flower guides. I was beginning to think I had stumbled upon something rare, but nope, I just have defective flower guides. 🙂

      California is beautiful, and the redwood forests (just a little west of where I live, not in this particular park) are like nothing else on the planet. The way they smell, in particular — oh, wow. I hope you make it here some day! I just followed your blog, by the way.


  3. I didn’t know about the three-leaves plant thing…thank you!! Love the mighty oak.


    • Posted by EcoCatLady on 04/06/2012 at 06:36

      I believe there’s an old Boy Scout saying that goes… “Leaves of three, let it be. Berries white, poisonous sight.” I think it’s poison oak that has the white berries.


    • Hi Cristina,

      I don’t think they have poison oak/ivy/sumac in Europe — at least I never saw any, and Wiki reports that they are ‘virtually unknown’ there. Lucky you! The only thing with leaves of three are probably blackberry brambles, and you can avoid the thorns if you’re careful. Behind my residence hall in England was a wooded area that I used to go to, full of blackberry brambles. I used to come out of there in pain, thinking that the brambles had got me, until I learned that the pretty green plant growing alongside the blackberry was stinging nettle…probably the most painful botany lesson I’ve ever learned.


  4. Nice post, Jennifer. I enjoyed taking a walk with you. By the way, even though Eucalyptus is non-native, orig fr Australia, not all varieties are invasive! Yay! You can check on the CalFlora site and see which of your faves are okay. Also, glad they are here because the monarchs love to overwinter in them. When they can’t find Sycamores.


    • Thanks for the clarification, Kathy! Unfortunately, going by the bark and fruit, I think these are blue gums, which CalFlora says are invasive with a moderate impact. I do remember going to see the beautiful monarch butterflies at Natural Bridges in grade school — I’ve heard they haven’t been doing as well in recent years.


  5. Posted by billgerlach on 04/08/2012 at 05:59

    Jennifer — I so appreciate the time and effort you put into a post like this — AND that you understand the importance of knowing the “names” of your fellow creatures. I really believe that when we can “put a name with a face” in this way, the elements of Nature are no longer just a names commodity or nuisance.

    And my kids just loved the banana slug! Dang.


    • Hi Bill,

      Not much effort went into this at all! I go out walking there often, and I’m interested, so I look things up in field guides for my own edification. Kevin wonders why I feel the need to know the names of things, and I think it’s partly because it makes it easier for me to remember them and think about them. I don’t believe you need to have names in order to appreciate them, but I have a mind that likes to categorize. 🙂 I do think it’s a bit sad that we have so little understanding or appreciation of what grows even in suburban or urban areas. I’ve been reading up on foraging and am surprised at how useful so-called weeds can be.

      Aren’t banana slugs awesome? They’re relatively common where I live, but judging by the responses I’ve been getting about them, not so much anywhere else! This was one of the biggest I’ve seen, and maybe the first time I noticed the interesting gill-like patterns on it.


  6. How beautiful! I’m big on walking and where I live Autumn is just beginning and the leaves are starting to turn. It’s a lovely time of year to be outdoors. I am so inspired by your knowledge of the world around you – I lack that knowledge of exactly what I’m seeing. You must be the best person to hike with!


    • Hi Olivia,

      Every season is my favorite when it’s just beginning. 🙂 Now that spring is well underway here, I feel a bit nostalgic for the more somber colors and flavors of autumn. If you’re curious about the plants around you, there might be guided nature walks or a local native plant society. I’m an introvert, so I mostly go by field guides and Google image searches. It’s also fun to sketch what you see, even if you don’t know exactly what you’re seeing.


  7. Posted by Andrea on 04/09/2012 at 05:13

    What a lovely post. This makes it easier to accept the fact that I can’t afford to fly over there and go on that hike myself – not to mention avoid the carbon footprint of crossing the continent by plane!

    You know what stuck with me? Your line about plants not being bad just because humans can’t touch them. Reminds me of people resenting the plants and trees that give them seasonal allergies, or the hatred directed at beautiful flowering plants that show up in grassy lawns. It’s so unfortunate! Everything in this system belongs in this system and has a role to play.


    • Hi Andrea,

      Thank you! I’d love to see what spring looks like in your part of the world. Spending my whole life in one place has its benefits and drawbacks — I’m deeply rooted to my local ecology and know it well, but I don’t really know anything anywhere else. I remember thinking that spring in England came much more dramatically (the green shoots of snowdrops melting patches of snow, everything going from brown to green again), but I wasn’t that into plants when I was there. Too bad.

      I think the attitude that plants that aren’t beneficial to humans are bad is just another symptom of our world’s intense anthropocentrism. Maybe we’ll see some day that what’s good for the planet is good for us, even if the benefits aren’t immediately obvious.


  8. That white one looks like a wild clematis (I used to work in Nurseries and Garden centres), and so I googled it, and came up with this:

    I have spent some time in Cali (my Dad lives there, though I’m in Montreal). The west coast amazes me with it’s diversity and beauty. I hope to take my family to Muir Woods some day (kind of touristy, I know, but it really struck me).


    • Thank you, Sara! Clematis seems to be the general consensus. They’re lovely; I’m so glad I got to see them this year. There are a few flowers that I only ever seem to see once — last year it was scarlet columbines, the year before that fairy lantern lilies.

      Muir Woods (and actually any of the redwood forests) is amazing. It’s impossible to stand among redwoods and not feel awed. Just don’t go during peak tourist season. 🙂


  9. […] taken you on a number of virtual nature walks (woods, trees, poisonous plants), but now I’d like to introduce you to the most common and least […]


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  12. […] taken you on a quantity of virtual nature walks (woods, trees, poisonous plants), but now I&#8217d like to introduce you to the most widespread and […]


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