If you’ve never ventured into a chaparral forest – as I hadn’t just a few weeks ago – it might be hard to get a good mental picture. The name is derived from chapparo, a Spanish scrub-oak resembling some of the shrubs that thrive on California’s mountains and foothills. It’s the same word from which “chaps” derives – in the past few weeks I’ve often thought a pair could be useful in navigating the dense and thorny vegetation.
Three plants are considered characteristic of California’s chaparral, and are very common in the Pine Hill Preserve where I’ve been working – Chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum), Manzanitas (Arctostaphylos spp.), and Ceanothus (Ceanothus spp.). These plants are all characterized by extensive root systems that travel far and wide in search of water. These root systems hold the soil in place on steep hillsides. The species are well-adapted to fire, readily producing new shoots after a fire destroys their above-ground portions. In a stand of chaparral, most shrubs will be roughly the same height and age, dating back to the last fire. In the first few years after a burn, herbaceous plants take advantage of the abundant sunlight and emerge in great numbers. Some of these plants even have seeds that are activated by fire. This is of special interest at the Pine Hill Preserve – herbaceous rare plants have been noted to flourish after burns, both prescribed and accidental.
In my first few weeks of exploration, I found two plants to be particularly exciting. The leaves of Yerba Santa (Eriodictyon californicum), as my mentor Graciela explained, are medicinal and can be brewed into a tea or chewed raw. When chewed, the initial taste is bitter, but slowly begins to have a cooling and sweet taste and a thirst-quenching effect. This has earned it the nickname of “mountain gum”, and after a few chews I was sold.
The second great discovery was a small, deep purple plant roughly shaped like a Christmas-tree – a native broomrape (Orobanche bulbosa). Its otherworldly appearance results from an aggressive survival strategy. It’s a parasite that doesn’t produce chlorophyll, instead relying on nutrients and water siphoned from the roots of neighboring plants.