Monday, February 24, 2014

Wildflower Season Begins...

California's wildflower season is like Christmas to me. It hits its peak in March and April near the coast (a bit earlier in the desert), but it's already beginning. And I am just giddy. Here are some of the photos from my backpacking trip to Noble Canyon.

Noble Canyon Trail

The hike is a 10 mile hike near Pine Valley, CA in the Laguna Mountains. It's a popular spot for mountain bikers, which is a major downside for it for me, because I despise having to repeatedly dodge bikes as they speed toward me on the trail. We did not do the entire 10 miles, but we did do about 7 miles of it. It's a very interesting hike from a plant point of view because the vegetation changes several times. I do not know the elevation where we started, but we camped at just below 4000 feet, and we hiked up to about 5000 feet.

I began taking photos in the parking lot, when I saw a granary tree. Granary trees are trees with hundreds of holes pecked by acorn woodpeckers, each one stuffed with an acorn. In this case it was a large pine tree. If you click on the photo, you can go to Flickr and zoom in to see it in more detail.

Acorn woodpecker's granary tree
Granary tree

Another plant we saw all around us was sagebrush. This plant goes by several names, but its scientific name is Artemisia tridentata. As an Artemisia, it's related to wormwood and mugwort. I believe the tridentata refers to the serrated edge of the leaves, as each one appears to have three "teeth." We arrived at 8am and it was the "golden hour" for photography. The sagebrush appeared illuminated by the sun.

Sagebrush

Sagebrush

Sagebrush is medicinal. You can drink it as a cold tea to stimulate your digestive system. It's also carminative (helps with gas) and diuretic. When drunken hot, it's good for fevers. It's also antimicrobial and anti-parasitic. According to Medicinal Herbs of the American Southwest by Charles W. Kane, it inhibits Salmonella and E. coli, which makes it good for treating food poisoning. And you can use it for pinworms and roundworms. Also, ladies, it stimulates you to get your period.

In addition to drinking it, you can use it topically for its antimicrobial and antifungal traits. For example, it's good for athlete's foot. It's also analgesic (painkilling), so you can apply it to booboos of all kinds (including menstrual cramps) as a warm poultice. And you can pour hot water over sagebrush and inhale the steam to help clear mucus out of your airways for bronchitis or sinus infections. This is one impressive plant!!!

Also found in the parking lot: pineapple weed. Another name for this is wild chamomile. It smells like chamomile, and it's medicinally very similar too. You can make a tea with it to aid digestion.

Pineapple Weed
Pineapple weed

And then we began our hike!

Backpacking

Despite the pines in the parking lot, we were mostly hiking among oaks until we reached a much higher altitude with pines. We saw coast live oaks, interior live oaks, black oaks, and probably some others too.

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Some kind of oak

We also saw a lot of this strange-looking plant, likely something in the genus Keckiella:



The experts among us had an idea of what it was, but I cannot seem to figure out how it's spelled in order to look it up.

Then we came upon an area dominated by Red Shank (Adenostoma sparsifolium). It's common in areas transitioning between chaparral and oak woodland.

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On many trees, the bark was peeling off in long ribbons:

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We also came across a few wildflowers - paintbrush and monkeyflowers

Paintbrush
Paintbrush

Monkeyflower
Monkeyflower

Monkeyflower

We also saw a ton of mountain mahogany, a plant in the Rose family, and another plant, which the botanist on our trip thought was likely some sort of Ceanothus, in the Buckthorn family.

Mountain Mahogany
Mountain Mahogany

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Ceanothus?

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Ceanothus?

We also came across a few pools lined with "red stuff." The botanist among us (I love hiking with a botanist!) collected a sample and looked at it under a microscope after we got back. The red color came from a species of green algae that happens to be red.

Pool with Mysterious Red Stuff.

Peonies were just getting started, but weren't blooming yet:

Peony

At our camp, our botanist found a stick insect. When he first showed it to me, he also had some bits of dead grass in his hand, and the bug was indistinguishable from the grass.

Stick Bug

After setting up camp, we continued hiking. This part of the hike was from about 4000 to 5000 feet in altitude. We saw these white berries on branches without any foliage. It wasn't poison oak, but I don't know what it was.

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More paintbrush:

Paintbrush

We saw a lot of large fungi, but all of them were dried up and hard:

Mushroom

Mushrooms

Mushroom

And we saw ferns and moss (moss not pictured):

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Fern

Mushrooms, moss, and fern all tell you that this area has lots of water. Fungi tend to like wet conditions, and moss and fern require water for their reproduction.

Then, the strawberries began. I got very excited when I saw the first plants, but before long, the trail was just lined on both sides by strawberries.

Strawberries

Better yet, some plants had flowers and will soon have fruit:

Strawberries

We came across some California Coffee Berry.

California Coffee Berry

And some really spectacular phacelia:

Phacelia

Phacelia

Phacelia

This flower looks to me like Summer Snow, in the Phlox family.

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We saw a lot of California Bay Laurel. If you use bay leaves in your cooking, this is one place they come from. The other alternative is a related species from the Mediterranean.

California Bay Laurel

California Bay Laurel

As we hiked back to our camp, the late afternoon sun illuminated the California wild rose plants that lined the trail in some areas. The plants looked almost like dead sticks but they had just started to grow their spring foliage. (No flowers yet.) In the late afternoon light, they were gorgeous.

Rose in Late Afternoon Light

Rose in Late Afternoon Light
Close-up, edited for me by Eddie C

The next morning, before we left, I walked around near camp and took a few photos of the deergrass by the stream:

Deergrass

Deergrass

Deergrass

Deergrass is a cool plant. The Kumeyaay use the flower stalks (with the seeds removed) in their baskets. When deergrass gets wet, it expands, making the baskets watertight.

I also found quite a bit of mugwort. This is Artemisia douglasiana, as opposed to Artemisia vulgaris, the common form of mugwort sold in herb stores. It's said to stimulate vivid dreams, and it's medicinal for some purposes, although I've heard recommendations that you should not eat it. You are supposed to be able to get the vivid dream effect just by smelling it. My favorite use for mugwort is rubbing it on my skin to wipe off the oils of poison oak. The two plants often grow in the same places.

Mugwort
Mugwort

And, near the water, the willows were in bloom. Here are flowers from a female.

Female Willow Catkins

Another member of our group found Indian grinding stones (morteros) a few feet from here. They would have used the willows for building houses, making granary baskets, and making medicine. With the roses, strawberries, acorns, and more, this area would have been a fantastic home for the Kumeyaay.

Wild flower season has not started in earnest yet, but it's starting. I'm hiking this trail again in a month, and by then the flowers will be absolutely glorious. There might even be strawberries by then. (That is, there will be berries growing - the question is whether they will all have been eaten.)

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