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Irvine Regional Park

Western sycamore, Irvine Regional Park (1/7/22) Michelle Pontoni

On a recent visit to Orange County, Michelle and Ron Pontoni visited Irvine Regional Park to find autumn still happening in January.

Western sycamore (Plantanus racemosa), red willow (Salix laevigata) and Toyon  or California holly (Hereromeles abutifolia (Lindl.) were all at peak along dry Santiago Creek.

They were there to visit the Orange County Zoo which rescues injured, orphaned, confiscated and other native animals no longer releasable into the wild. They include American black bear, mountain lion, bald eagle, kit fox ocelot, beaver, great horned owl, porcupine, coyote, and turkey vulture among their decidedly native selection.

While observing a trio of goats, the Pontonis realized the goats were waiting for lunch. The South Coast breeze would rise and blow delicious sycamore leaves to them from branches, reminding Michelle  of wedding guests vying to catch a bridal bouquet, all huddled together and keeping their eyes on the prize of a fluttering leaf. She said, “the only hope for the smaller goats was if several leaves fell at once.

“On that breezy day, piles of sycamore leaves lined every pathway and pen, except theirs. They are good housekeepers,” she wrote.

Western sycamore are a gorgeous fall color tree for Southern California, but grow throughout California up to 4,000′ in elevation. They flourish near wet ground (stream and meadow edges) in valleys, foothills and mountains. Their ball-shaped fruit attract birds, including the Santa Monica Mountains’ population of naturalized Nanday conures (parrots).

Native people used the sycamore for many purposes, including their houses, utensils, to eat and to wrap bread for baking.

View of Santiago Creek from Barnham Ridge Trail (1/7/22) Michelle Pontoni

Michelle recommends the two-mile hike along the Chute Trail to Barham Ridge Trail lookout for a broad view of Santiago Creek and its golden grove of red willows, though be watchful for mountain bikers who pedal up the Chute Trail for an exhilarating ride down the steeper Ridge Chute Trail. Though they were courteous to the hikers, Michelle and Ron couldn’t help feeling like they were an unexpected concern to the riders.

Parking at the regional park is plentiful and cheap. $3 on weekdays, $5 on weekends. Add $2 for zoo admission.

  • Irvine Regional Park (587′) – Peak (75 – 100%), GO NOW!
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