Friday, March 27, 2009

The delights and dangers of Spring

The first day of spring was last week, and the wildflowers are putting on a great show in the hills. Although the most commonly noticed wildflowers are mustard (yellow) and radish (pink, purple and/or white), which are non-native invasive plants that cover large areas, many of our native plants are also in full bloom. Wild cucumber has clusters of small, star-like white flowers along its creeping vines, and morning glory and field bindweed are also vines but with white funnel-shaped flowers.
Some of our native coastal sage scrub species in bloom right now are California bush sunflower with its lush display of large, yellow daisy-like flowers, and purple sage with its small purple flowers in pom-pom clusters; the Arroyo Pescadero trailhead off
of Colima Boulevard is a great place to see these flowers.
Smaller wildflowers are also in full bloom, especially in areas disturbed by fires (such as upper Turnbull Canyon) or recent Habitat Authority restoration activities (such as along Harbor Boulevard near the wildlife underpass). These include our state flower, the California poppy, purple lupines including the small miniature lupine and the larger Arroyo lupine, and other small purple phacelia wildflowers, including wild Canterbury bells, common phacelia and Parry’s phacelia.

Also, with the weather warming up, rattlesnakes are coming out of their winter hibernation dens. Since they are cold blooded reptiles, they like to be out when it is warm and sunny, and so can be active during all parts of the day in the Springtime. During the summer, they can’t handle the intense heat of midday, so they are most active in the evening, nighttime, and early morning. They can be easy to spot when they are basking in the sun in the middle of a road or trail or on a pile of rocks, but they are also known to seek refuge in crevices and shady spots especially during peak heat. Their coloration allows them to blend in well with surrounding vegetation and dappled shade. Therefore, it’s always best to stay on an established trail, stay alert, and hike with a friend if possible. Never reach down into a hole or crevice or into underbrush where you can’t see, and always step on top of rocks or logs when you have to cross over them (don’t step over them if you can’t see what’s on the other side). Just remember, rattlesnakes only attack when they feel threatened, and don’t attack randomly. And also remember that they, like all of the native plants and wildlife in our hills, serve an important ecosystem function – they help to control resident rodent populations. If you are bitten by a rattlesnake, remain calm, try to keep the bite below the heart, do not overexert yourself, and get to a hospital immediately.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Poison oak - the shapeshifter

Poison oak seems like one of the hardest plants to identify, especially to those who are not botanically-inclined. But it seems like it is the one plant everyone on trails wants to be able to identify so they can avoid its agonizingly itchy effect on the skin.

But why is poison oak so hard to identify? One main reason is that, although it is a perennial vine, it is deciduous - therefore, its leaves turn colors (generally red) in the fall and then drop off in the winter. This also means that, in the winter, it just looks like a bunch of dead branches until you accidentally brush up onto one or, heaven forbid, snap one with your hands! See photo above.

This also means that in the spring, when the new leaves emerge (for many that is right now), they are very small and it is difficult to discern the typical "leaves of 3, let it be" leaf arrangement. The young leaves are also generally a reddish color, as opposed to the deep green of the mature leaves. See photo to the right.

However, even the mature leaves can look different depending on their location. Leaves that are in full sunlight are often smaller and glossy with toxic oils, while leaves in full shade are often big and sometimes lack that glossy shine. See photo to the left - this plant is in partial sun.

So, if all else fails, and you can't remember the phrase "leaves of 3, let it be" then fall back on the phrase "when in doubt, do without" and avoid it!

If you would like to learn more interesting facts about poison oak (for example, that it is related to pistachios!) please read our previous blog from July 2, 2008 in the Archives.