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Seeing Red

Crimson Knotweed, Cliff Lake, Lassen Volcanic NP (9/12/15) Shanda Ochs

One of the earliest fall colors to enjoy in California’s mountains is red.

Though if you seek it, look downward. As, the red of which I write is crawling along the ground.

In the Shasta Cascade, it is the Crimson Knotweed that carpets volcanic slopes above 7,000′ in the Northern Sierra and Southern Cascade.

Dwarf Bilberry, Cascade Lake, Hoover Wilderness (9/5/18) David Senesac

In the Sierra Nevada, Dwarf Huckleberry or Sierra Bilberry (Vaccinium nivictum) grows in subalpine fir forests and alpine fell fields usually between 8,000 and 12,000′,  John Hunter Thomas and Dennis R. Parnell write in Native Shrubs of the Sierra Nevada.

Naturalist David Senesac hiked up into the 20 Lakes Basin of the Hoover Wilderness in early September to find ruby Dwarf Bilberry (Vaccinium caespitosum), “a turf height species of the blueberry family” blushing near timberline elevations in the weeks before autumn.

This plant is often red-purple in color, but ignites when backlit with light, adding vermillion vibrance and verve to its otherwise austere environs. 

Peak (75-100%) – Bilberry and Knotweed


Indian Rhubarb’s Showy Start

Indian Rhubarb, Big Creek, Plumas County (9/16/18) Michael Beatley

Indian Rhubarb, Darmera peltata, is a showy plant that lives along streams in the Northern Sierra.

Plumas County color spotter Michael Beatley reports the plant has started to show its iridescent colors along Big Creek, between Meadow Valley and Bucks lake, in Plumas National Forest.

Michael says Indian Rhubarb leaves this year are “huge,” and should be gorgeous in two weeks.

To find it, take Big Creek Rd towards Bucks lake. 

Just Starting (0-10%) – Indian Rhubarb, Plumas County (3,600′)


Meadows and Shrubs Are Where It’s At

Kings Creek Meadow, Lassen VNP (9/8/18) Shanda Ochs

Rock Spiraea (creambush), Lassen Peak, Lassen VNP (9/8/18) Shanda Ochs

California’s best end-of-summer/beginning-of-autumn color is being found in high meadows and wherever colorful shrubs grow.

At Lassen Volcanic National Park in northeast California, Kings Creek Meadow at 7,500′ in elevation is in the process of transitioning from gold to brown, while at 8,200′ at the base of Lassen Peak, Rock Spiraea (Petrophytum caespitosum – creambush) is tinted with dusty rose blooms, LVNP color spotter Shanda Ochs reports. 

Peak (75-100%) – Lassen Volcanic National Park – Meadow grasses and shrubs above 7,500′ in elevation are at peak color, though deciduous trees are still green.


Aspen Return to Lassen NF

Aspen, Bogard Campground, Lassen NF (9/6/18) Chico Hiking Association

In 2003, Lassen National Forest began an aspen restoration project near the Bogard Campground and Susan River off Hwy 44 on the way to the Black Lake Loop trail in the Caribou Wilderness. (More about what the US Forest Service accomplished will be posted here, soon. However, in the photos above and to the left, note the mature aspen surrounded by young aspen. This shows what the forest will look like, once this grove ages.)

Aspen, Black Lake Loop, Lassen NF (9/6/18) Chico Hiking Association

Today, the aspen are growing and spreading. Arlaine Arslan of the Chico Hiking Association (CHA) reports, “There’s also very small grove along the Posey Lake Loop trail and road side along the Susan River on the way to the Black Lake Loop trailhead.”  In recognition of Lassen National Forest’s accomplishment, Black Lake Loop is honored as this week’s Hike of the Week.

The Chico Hiking Association promotes hiking trails within about two hours of Chico, providing maps, directions and the links needed to get to the Chico area’s best hiking trails, many of which have lovely fall color. In spring and summer, CHA focuses on wildflowers, while in autumn and early winter they are fall color spotters.

Aspen, Black Lake Loop, Lassen NF (9/6/18) Chico Hiking Association

Eastern Sierra aspen are legendary for their profuse color, though many smaller, though still inspirational, groves can be discovered in the Northern Sierra near Chico. Hikers often find these trails lightly tread with few worn spots where others planted their tripods or stood.

CHA hopes to change perceptions that only bigleaf maple, black oak and Indian rhubarb are to be found in this lightly visited part of Upper California, and that their trails are a mind-clearing alternative to more congested fall color destinations.


Dwarf Billberry, Black Lake Loop, Lassen NF (9/6/18) Chico Hiking Association

Maps leading hikers from the highest point in the Coastal Range ( Mt Linn) to the highest point on the Pacific Crest Trail in the Cascade Range (Butt Mountain), as well as to Lassen Peak, are produced by CHA, many along routes forested with fall color. Learn more at chicohiking.org

Just Starting (0-10%) – Lassen National Forest (5,600′) – Aspen groves at Bogard Campground and along the Black Lake Loop are exhibiting some of the earliest fall color yet reported in California.


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Color Begins in the Meadows

California Corn Lillies, Spencer Meadow, Lassen National Forest (8/30/18) Chico Hiking Association

In their enthusiasm to appreciate trees, color spotters often overlook meadows. However, that’s where early, delicate color is often first seen.

Willows, Spencer Meadow, Lassen National Forest (8/30/18) Chico Hiking Association

On a hike through Spencer Meadow in Lassen National Forest, members of the Chico Hiking Association scored a First Report (the first report for a specific location on CaliforniaFallColor.com) and found such beauty among willows and California Corn Lillies in the meadow.

Chico Hiking Association reports they plan a series of fall color hikes and will be submitting photos to document what they’re seeing on their hikes. That’s such a great idea for hiking clubs that we have designated the Spencer Meadow trail as our first Hike of the Week of Autumn. 

Just Starting (0-10%) – Spencer Meadow, Lassen National Forest

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How Have Wildfires Affected Fall Color?

Dead pine at sunset, Sequoia National Park (11-12/16) Anson Davalos

Thanks to this summer’s wildfires, it’s been hazy for a month here in the Sierra Foothills.

Haze is not unusual to the foothills. Each autumn, Central Valley rice fields and other agricultural croplands are burned to dispose of leftover straw (stubble) and control disease and pest problems. For centuries before, native people burned grasses at summer’s end, to make it easier to collect oak acorns (a principal food source).

So, hazy skies have been part of California’s late summer for thousands of years. Though this summer’s many wildfires added particulates, gasses and ash in abnormally high quantities to our normally clean skies, causing people to ask, “How have the wildfires affected fall color?”

Plant scientists say smoke both benefits and harms plants.

Benefit – Smoke or haze are the product of combustion, which means higher levels of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) can exist, compared to normal. As CO2 increases, plant growth does as well, as long as there is sufficient sunlight. Nutrients in ash from a fire benefit new growth. And, fire opens a forest, eliminating mature trees and making space for young plants.

Harm – Smoke also drops ash and other particulates that reduce photosynthesis; those can clog “stomatal pores, reducing gas exchange in the leaf,” New Mexico University scientists write. Holocaustic wildfire can devastate a forest’s ecosystem, seriously depleting endangered species.

As we reported two years ago (Death of the Sierra), 100 years of fire suppression has created a catastrophe for the forest, air quality, wildlife and humanity. This year, we ate the bitter fruit of those decisions as we watched forests in Mendocino County, Shasta County, Mariposa County and countless other locations go up in smoke.

The most evident effect of a wildfire on fall color is that it will take years for stands of most species of deciduous trees to grow back. Deciduous plants that grow near water (aspen, cottonwood, willows) are the most resilient and first to recover.

Aspen Grove, San Bernardino National Forest (10/12/13) Lisa Wilkerson-Willis

It’s been three years since an oft-photographed aspen grove near Big Bear was burned in a major wildfire. At the time, we reported that the aspen would be the first trees to recover (Burnt Aspen to Recover).

Today, we spoke with Teddi Boston at the Barton Flats Visitor Center who said that within three months of that fire, the aspen were three feet tall and they’ve recovered fast since.

However, access to this grove is limited by logging which is occurring on the one-lane road that leads to the grove. So, until the logging ends access to the aspen is blocked.

One way to see aspen in the San Bernardino National Forest is to visit its Barton Flats Visitor Center where many aspen grow near the center. We also plan to send a reporter out to the Aspen Grove at peak to photograph Big Bear’s grove since the fire.

In contrast, deciduous forests in areas overrun by this past summer’s wildfires weren’t fire-resistant aspen, and were incinerated. Most of the deciduous trees lost to this year’s fires were maple, oaks and alder, which will take years to recover.

Fortunately, as expansive as this summer’s fires were, the number of trees destroyed still represent a fraction of the entire forest. Areas that were not burned will continue to display fall color, as they have in past years. For example, Yosemite’s fires occurred mostly outside the National Park. None of the black oak, bigleaf maple, or dogwood in Yosemite Valley were damaged.

Western dogwood, Plumas County (8/27/18) Jeff Luke Titcomb

Big Leaf Maple, Plumas County (8/27/18) Jeff Luke Titcomb

Nevertheless, color spotters have been reporting signs that haze and overcast may have reduced photosynthesis, triggering earlier displays of autumn color.

Jeff Luke Titcomb reports from Plumas County that Western Dogwood are showing early rose and Big Leaf Maple are beginning to turn yellow.

Chinese pistache, El Dorado Hills (8/28/18) John Poimiroo

Elsewhere in Sierra Foothill suburbs, exotic Chinese Pistache are showing early change of color, becoming splashed with yellow and orange.

Offering an optimistic view is Butte County color spotter Cindy Hoover who reports, “The one thing I have really been watching are the aspen. I think this year may be a phenomenal year since there’s been so much rain. The aspen leaves are darker green this year. I can only imagine the bounty of yellow, deep gold and red they’re going to share.”

Reports like Cindy’s indicate that a normal autumn is more likely than an accellerated one.

So, do not confuse today’s reintroduction of the Pumpkin Spice Latte at Starbucks, the feel of autumn in the air or a scattered number of trees and shrubs turning color early as proof that autumn has arrived.

Autumn has not arrived significantly earlier than in past years. Fall will happen just about as it has in previous years, regardless of the year’s many wildfires. 

Pumpkin Spice Latte (8/28/18) Starbucks

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Christmas Quail

California Quail (12/23/17) Robert Kermen

California’s most beloved bird is the California quail, Callipepla californica.

Seen above, a male California Valley Quail stands watchful guard, protecting his covey (family) of several chicks and his lady.

Male quail will scout ahead of their broods, scurrying along the ground and calling to them with loud pips to encourage them to follow or warn them to take cover until the coast is clear. Ever social, quail will greet each other with their distinctive call, “Chee-ca-go.”

California toyon (12/26/17) John Poimiroo

California toyon berries are a favorite food source for California quail. In December, toyon are laden with bright red berries, giving the shrubs the nicknames: Christmas berry and California holly. Toyon is what gave Hollywood its name.

Toyon is common among coastal sage scrub plants, though it also grows in the Sierra foothills. Easy to grow, Toyon does well in partial shade and is drought-tolerant.

As urban areas have expanded, the forage area for California quail has diminished. Planting toyon is a good way to provide additional native sustenance for these beautiful birds.

While expansion of urban areas has not helped California quail, it has caused Anna’s hummingbirds to proliferate.


Annas humingbird (12/23/17) Robert Kermen

As late as the early 1900s, Anna’s hummingbirds were only found in Baja and Southern California. However, the planting of exotic ornamental plants in gardens expanded the Anna’s hummingbird’s range throughout California, Cornell University reports.

This week, color spotter Robert Kermen found California quail and Anna’s hummingbirds adding Christmas color to field and garden.


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Dreary Day, Yet Still Colorful


Gingko biloba, Esplande, Chico (12/2/17) Robert Kermen

Crowned sparrow, Esplanade, Chico (11/2/17) Robert Kermen

Robert Kermen spent a “dreary day” in Chico on Saturday, though photographs he took along the Esplanade show otherwise. That’s because though overcast looms, color is intensified on dreary days.

And, with leaves off many of the branches, songbirds are easier to photograph as they search for food and sing about the weather.


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Orange Friday

Napa Valley (11/19/17) Tracy Zhou

Color spotters across California will avoid waiting in lines today, on Black Friday. Instead, they will be appreciating an Orange Friday at Peak to Past Peak locations like these. GO NOW! You almost missed it.

North Coast

Napa Valley (11/19/17) Tracy Zhou

Napa Valley (11/19/17) Tracy Zhou

Napa Valley (11/19/17) Tracy Zhou

Napa Valley (11/19/17) Tracy Zhou

Napa Valley (11/19/17) Tracy Zhou

Napa Valley (11/19/17) Tracy Zhou

Napa Valley (11/19/17) Tracy Zhou

Napa Valley (11/19/17) Tracy Zhou

Napa Valley (11/19/17) Tracy Zhou

Napa Valley (11/19/17) Tracy Zhou

Napa Valley (11/19/17) Tracy Zhou

Napa Valley (11/19/17) Tracy Zhou



















Napa Valley (11/23/17) Vasu Nargundkar

Napa Valley (11/23/17) Vasu Nargundkar

Napa Valley (11/23/17) Vasu Nargundkar

Napa Valley (11/23/17) Vasu Nargundkar









Central Valley

Mathews Ln./CA-20, Tambo (11/21/17) Robert Kermen

Merlin falcon, Mathews Ln./CA-20, Tambo (11/21/17) Robert Kermen

Prairie falcon, Mathews Ln./CA-20, Tambo (11/21/17) Robert Kermen

Red-shouldered hawk, Mathews Ln./CA-20, Tambo (11/21/17) Robert Kermen








Davis (11/19/17) Phillip Reedy

Davis (11/19/17) Phillip Reedy

Davis (11/19/17) Phillip Reedy

Davis (11/19/17) Phillip Reedy







Shasta Cascade

Meadow Valley (11/12/17) Michael Beatley

San Francisco Bay Area

Japanese Tea Garden, Golden Gate Park (11/14/17) Michael Beatley

Japanese Tea Garden, Golden Gate Park (11/14/17) Michael Beatley

Japanese Tea Garden, Golden Gate Park (11/14/17) Michael Beatley

Japanese Tea Garden, Golden Gate Park (11/14/17) Michael Beatley








Fairfax (11/23/17) Al Auger

Fairfax (11/23/17) Al Auger

Fairfax (11/23/17) Al Auger

Fairfax (11/23/17) Al Auger








San Diego County

Old Hwy 80, Boulder Oaks (11/22/17) Walt Gabler

Old Hwy 80, Boulder Oaks (11/22/17) Walt Gabler

Old Hwy 80, Boulder Oaks (11/22/17) Walt Gabler

Old Hwy 80, Boulder Oaks (11/22/17) Walt Gabler



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Pushups in the Woods

Amanita spp, Anderson (11/15/17) Gabriel Leete

Recent rains have caused mushrooms to push up out of the detritus, as Gabriele Leete found in Anderson.

Amanita, Anderson (11/15/17) Gabriel Leete

Split-gill mushroom, Schizophyllum commune, Anderson (11/15/17) Gabriel Leete

Among the mushrooms emerging are Amanita, among the most poisonous mushrooms on Earth, the most toxic of which cause liver failure and death.

There are 600 varieties of Amanita, including a few edible ones, though eating them is like playing Russian roulette with five bullets in a six-shooter.

Split-gill mushrooms, or Schizophyllum commune, are the only known type of mushroom to retract when touched. They are found on decaying trees during dry periods following a rainfall. Its beautiful gills or “gillies” resemble coral.

Honey fungus, Armillaria mellea, Anderson (11/15/17) Gabriel Leete

Honey fungus, Armillaria spp, Anderson (11/15/17) Gabriel Leete

Sticky when wet, the honey fungus, Armillaria mellea, grows around the base of trees it infects. The mushroom is a plant pathogen that causes root rot in many of the plants it infects, causing discolored foliage, dieback of branches and death, according to Wikipedia.

Psathyrella is a smaller version of Psathyra, Greek for “Friable.” However, do not mistake these for being “fryable,” as they are toxic.

Psathyrella are in a large genus of mushrooms, containing some 400 types, including CoprinellusCoprinopsisCoprinus and Panaeolus.

Psathyrella spp, Anderson (11/15/17) Gabriel Leete

OK, you get the idea, they’ve all been given Greek names. Aside from that, what also is common about Psathyrella is that they’re boring.

They are often “drab-colored, difficult to identify, and inedible,” Wikipedia reports, “So they are sometimes considered uninteresting,” perhaps that’s what makes them so fascinating to Gabriel and me.

No, we’re not Greeks, just geeks.

Mushrooms, Shasta Cascade – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!