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Stocking Stuffer

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Plants of Northern California, Falcon Guides

Earlier this autumn, I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Eva Begley, author of Falcon Guides’ Plants of Northern California about California Fall Color. That interview follows.

On this the final day of autumn in 2018, what better gifts to recommend to fans of fall color, than guides that help identify plants?

Several are available on Amazon.com, most of which can be delivered within a day or two … plenty of time to stuff a stocking with one.

Here’s a short list of recommendations:

  • Plants of Northern California, Dr. Eva Begley, Falcon Guides
  • National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees, Western Edition, Elbert L. Little, Knopf
  • Sierra Nevada Tree Identifier, Jim Paruk, Yosemite Conservancy
  • Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada, John Muir Laws, California Academy of Sciences
  • The Sibley Guide to Trees, David Allen Sibley, Flexibound
  • National Audubon Society Field Guide to California, Peter Alden & Fred Heath, Knopf
  • National Audubon Society Field Guide to Mushrooms, Chanticleer Press
  • Southern California Nature Guide, Erin McCloskey, Lone Pine Press (Kids)
  • Northern California Nature Guide, Erin McCloskey, Lone Pine Press (Kids)
  • Sierra Nevada Wildflowers, Karen Wiese, Falcon Guides

Dr. Eva Begley: California Fall Color

Q. “What makes California’s native plants unique in the world?

A. While I can’t speak to the world as a whole, California’s vast variety of geologies, topographies and climate encourage the growth of diverse species. Similar diversity is seen in India where zones vary from tropical to the Himalaya, and in South America, from sea level to the Andes. Quite exceptional geological substrates have developed in these places where soil derived from varied rocks combine with climate and topography to encourage a variety of growth. As an undergraduate student, I planned to do a study in Illinois, pairing north and south slopes, but was told, “Don’t bother. You won’t find  much variation.” Here, on the other hand, there’s endless variety. Our mountains and  canyons show completely different vegetation even though they may be near one another. Chapparral can grow to the south, redwoods to the north.

Q. Autumn is often overlooked by Californians. Why do you believe we’ve ignored autumn?

A. I moved here from Southern Illinois in 1976 to attend graduate school. For the first couple of years, I didn’t think California had noticeable seasons, because I didn’t have car. I was stuck in Davis, which is planted mostly with evergreens. So, I saw only green during autumn.

It took a couple of years, before I got out into the mountains and realized California does have a Fall and it can be very beautiful. It’s overlooked, because it’s more nuanced and remote.

California’s calendar images of autumn aren’t even remotely like those in New England. Aspen in the Eastern Sierra are more subtle and hidden in subalpine valleys that relatively few Californians visit in autumn.

Q. What should Californians know about our autumn?

A. There is so much happening during autumn throughout California that is overlooked. Autumn happens not just in the mountains. California has beautiful urban forests full of fall color.

People tend to focus on the trees, but in doing so miss the understory plants, where much of our color is layered with beauty. It presents a really nice show. You won’t see Sugar Maple here, with its flamboyant display, but equally alluring are plants like poison oak that, despite its notoriety, has really pretty colors: soft yellow, pink to a pretty ripe red.

Our bracken fern are gorgeous in autumn … big, massive, abundant, carpeting conifer forests with bright yellow leaves that literally fill the forest with a golden glow.

Bitter Dogbane is very common in the High Sierra above 7,000 feet at Tahoe in the Desolation Wilderness; it’s seen north to Southern Oregon. It exhibits a bright, clear yellow in Fall and spreads across big patches that put on a really nice show. I’ve found it in the Carson pass area, south toward Winnemucca Lake, along trails and at Red Top Lake. My advice is to get off the beaten path and discover autumn wonders in unexpected places.

Corn Lily is one of my favorites. In some years, when the summer is dry they wither, but in wet years their leaves turn bright yellow. You’ll find subtle shadows in their leaves. They’re just gorgeous. Patches of corn lilies are just spectacular and are at peak from late August to September.

Q. How can Californians broaden their autumn experience?

A. Look down, not just up. You’ll discover mushrooms, fruit and berries. Sometimes you’ll find conspicuous, fascinating fruit, brown, not gaudy, but with amazing shapes.

Know when and where to find remarkable plants. Common madia is a California native that blooms well into Fall through early October, but to see it, you need to be out early. By 10 a.m. its delicate fringed petals start curling up. It’s really pretty and  truly intriguing.

Q. What impacts are affecting California native species?

A. There are so many impacts: habitat loss, introduction of new species, hybridization. And, sadly, it’s all bad news.

Highway construction and maintenance has been the biggest concern. Caltrans, has had a policy of actually refusing to stockpile native soil when doing widening. The Department of Water Resources uses the exact opposite policy, conserving the top 6 inches and stockpiling it.

It’s important to save and reuse native soils rather than bring in sterile ones, because native soil is full of native seeds, rhyzomes and herbaceous perennials.

California’s objective should be to save as many native plants as possible. In some areas, Caltrans has contributed to the extinction of native plant groups. They completely covered a patch of wild irises near Foresthill with a highway project that scalped the hillside. Today, there are no more irises there.

Along highway 70 between Sacramento and Marysville, a big area along the road, near a drainage canal, was once solid blue with Brodiaea laxa. No longer.

What is happening is that environmental reviews are being done with categorical exemptions/exclusions that don’t go out for public review. That’s because project geologists are under time pressure to inspect the sites, but they’re not doing the inspections during the right season to see what native plants are there. They’re rushed, do cursory review and projects get written and approved. No one was there the previous spring to see that the area was full of rare native plants.

In one case, native plants grew so densely that the site might have been a Native-American garden where native people once cultivated plants used for food. The bulbs produced solid masses of flowers. Caltrans went through one of the bogs and wiped out what was left.

Years ago at the Spenceville Wildlife Area in the Yuba Highlands, a rancher who looked at an Environmental Impact Report was horrified by a huge development planned in several phases including highways. Consultants who did the plant surveys visited in October and November and didn’t find anything of interest. Once a project is that far along there’s not much anyone can do other than notify the Native Plant Society.

Complicating this is that we need to pay greater attention to which species are the most obnoxious and invasive and avoid them. French broom is horribly invasive. Above Auburn, there’s way too much French and Spanish broom. That’s because little attention was given to what types of weeds might be in generic wildflower seed mixes used by the highway department.

Highway planners and developers think they’re doing something nice by choosing bright colors to be seeded along our highways, disregarding what might be native or invasive to an area. Further, they’ll claim to use native seed, when they’re not. There are some good, some well intentions, but also some lazy and incompetent ones. We need more informed and caring practices when grading and replanting wild lands.

In Placerville, a riparian landscape project, specified coastal red alder, instead of  native white alder (Alnus rhombifolia). I was horrified. Highway and city landscape departments need to be aware of the differences between native and non-native plants so that they don’t plant invasive ones that wipe out native trees, flowers and shrubs.

California is so isolated by mountains and deserts and our climate is so inviting to growth, that native plants are at risk of easily being overwhelmed by invasive exotic species. Government agencies and developments should give preference to native plants for restoration projects.

There are many things Californians can do in their own lives to protect native plants, too. When hiking: stay on established trails; don’t trample vegetation; do not pick plants unless you have a need for them and never pick more than you need. Learn more about identifying native plants and trees. Stay on top of private and governmental development in your area, participate in review processes and encourage protection and cultivation of native species. 

Eva Begley holds a Ph.D. in botany from the University of California at Davis. She has had a long career in research, teaching, landscape architecture and environmental planning and lives in Sacramento, California.

See you next autumn, dude.
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