Seasons of the San Gabriels

May 20, 1999

Lightning Ridge

On the Way
Shining in the sun, swaying in the wind, the Coulter pines (Pinus coulteri) catch your eye. Shorter and wider, they differ from the more common Jeffrey pines in other ways as well. The branches lift upward like half of the letter "U". The trunks are dark, charcoal gray with reddish-brown inside the furrows and the leaves are gray blue-green. Overall, the Coulter pine appears darker than most of the other pines in the Angeles National Forest.

The Coulter pine is a tree of superlatives, an extremist. It has the longest needles of any local three-needled pine, over ten inches in length. Its cones, nicknamed "widow-makers", are the largest and heaviest of all pines. It grows at the lowest elevation of any pine in this area, between the bigcone spruce and the Jeffrey pine zones, and is generally found with scrub or canyon oaks. An excellent viewing location occurs just south of Charlton Flat.

Now blooming, the "candles" at the end of the branches are fat and brown with new short needles poking through and pollen-laden yellow blossoms at the base. Beneath them, new yellowish-brown cones, glistening with resin, swell daily.

The Floweriest Place in the Mountains
Last fall, more flowers were concentrated on Lightning Ridge than almost anywhere else in the mountains. Now, in the second spring after the fire, flowers again abound.

But, if you want to stop and smell these flowers, you must get down on your hands and knees, for they are high country "belly" flowers. The plants here form small, dense mounds, multi-stalked and short-stemmed. The different shapes of the felty gray leaves are their only distinction--palm-like leaves of lupine, egg-shaped leaves of sulphur flower, wavy-edged leaves of a pink-flowered buckwheat. No flowers bloom on these gray mats yet.

Plants well known from lower elevations are found here shorter, under twelve inches high, and wider, with multiple stems--orange paintbrush, white popcorn flower and wallflower in varying shades of yellow from lemon to gold to orange.

Putting on a show best seen from the orchestra, that is, ground level, a relative of baby blue eyes has lavender spots on the tips of the five yellowish-white petals and stems that are prostrate on the ground. An upright gilia with a yellow throat and light red-violet petals edged in darker purple has cobwebby three-pronged leaves at its base. With flowers even smaller than the one-half inch gilia, minute yellow violets nod in the breeze and petite blue-eyed mary (Collinsia torreyi var. wrightii) with two tiny white petals pointing upward and two tiny blue-violet ones turning downward, twinkle under the oaks.

The black oaks (Quercus kelloggii), although still barren in the cold, shaded ravines, in the open sunlight, wear pink, this colorful tree's springtime dress. Green-tailed Towhees, copper crowns gleaming, call, mew and squeal atop the snow brush.

© Jane Strong, May 1999

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Seasons of the San Gabriels

May 12, 1999

Highway 2 to Islip Saddle

Elevation above 6000'
The highway is closed at Islip Saddle for winter by Caltrans. Emphatically. They have distributed a five foot high pile of rubble across the road.

On the Pacific Crest Trail (to Canada, as one wit wrote), two kinds of manzanita bloom, one with puffy white bells, the other with dainty pink ones. New growth has not yet started on the mounds of snow bush. One or two lonely wallflowers (Erysimum capitatum) bloom. All else are well-disguised, gray-leaved rosettes looking very similar to the flakes of granite on the slopes where they lodge. Even the grasses are less than four inches tall. The trail is soft, spongy, warm: a lizard lounge. Birds twitter and warble, call and sing in the tree tops.

At Buckhorn, the currant leaves are half-dollar size, the willow leaves are less than little finger length. The elderberry is barren. New yellow green growth tips the branches of the incense cedars (Calocedrus decurrens). The few puckered piles of dirty snow remaining at Cloudburst Summit melt rapidly away across the highway.

Elevation between 4000' and 6000'
Beyond Charlton Flat on to Red Box, profuse chains of brownish-yellow blossoms dangle from scrub oak. The light-blue flowered chaparral whitethorn, recognizable on the distant mountainsides as patches of sky, lines the side of the road between the oaks. Beneath them, glowing embers of red paintbrush, lupines, some violet, some indigo, and bright white popcorn flowers catch your eye.

At the big switchback around Ladybug Canyon, chia and mountain mahogany chime into this chorus of color with their flowers, deep blue and light tan. Sycamore's big hand-like leaves are fuzzy and light green now. The peak bloom, the most variety, is at this elevation--you can see here the last of the hoaryleaf ceanothus and some of the less common plants like a white-flowered oval-leaved phacelia (Phacelia longipes) with deep purple veins and stems.

Elevation between 2000' and 4000'
Below Clear Creek Vista, tree poppies' brilliant yellow flowers shine even in the shade. Like green umbrellas, the leaves of bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) shade the red samaras. Black sage is in bloom everywhere.

Near Woodwardia Bridge, orange paintbrush bursts out of the rocks along with a few neon-pink prickly phlox. Yerba santa's (Eriodictyon crassifolium) light purple blooms are opening up on top of the thick, sticky leaves. The best picture of all is, however, the intermingled bushes of tall blue lupine spikes and stalks of sweet-smelling yellow-flowered Spanish broom (Spartium junceum).

© Jane Strong, May, 1999

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Seasons of the San Gabriels

May 5, 1999

Eaton Canyon

With the lengthening daylight and the increasing temperature, the differences between the habitats become more apparent.

In the deep green shade of the oaks
The magnificent coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) is an apartment house for birds, dim and green inside. At the top, in the penthouse, active warblers flit about, indistinguishable from one another, silhouetted black against the sky and leaves. Below them, in the boughs and near the gray, furrowed trunk, peak-capped Oak Titmice scoot around. Red, white and black Acorn Woodpeckers dart in and out, calling loudly. Scrub Jays head into the brushy lower limbs upon approach, uncharacteristicly silent now in breeding time. On the ground, russet-tailed, spot-breasted Hermit Thrushes peck at the seeds and grains, hopping back to sheltering thickets or playing chase your mate on the fallen branches.

Under the trees, the trail is walled with lacy, fernlike leaves of poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) branching into umbels of frothy white flowers, and edged with bright green grasses.

On the bright sunlight trail
A pallid-breasted Rock Wren and a rough-skinned Western Fence Lizard, companions on a pale beige rock, do calisthenics together, push-up, hiccup, push-up, hiccup. In unison.

Wildflowers, like broken fragments of the rainbow, glitter along the edges of the trail--nodding heads of red-violet brome grass, indigo whorls of chia, silky, lemon-yellow petals of sun cups, golden-yellow heads of pincushion flowers (Chaenactis glabriuscula), sherbet-orange dodder and monkeyflower, light violet clover heads, blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum).

A speckled Western Rattlesnake twists its glistening body into figure eights, tongue flickering rapidly back and forth, its cryptic coloration like the colors of the trail, big spots and small spots like pebbles and gravel. Sinuous curving tracks across the sandy parts of the trail show evidence of others.

At the pools
Olive-green algae strands bulge and billow as the pools of brown water shrink with the coming of summer. Black-headed, wiggly-tailed tadpoles squirm in the mud at the edges. White-flowered masses of watercress (Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum), tall purple-stemmed eupatory, and bright-eyed, blue-lined flowers of water-speedwell crowd the banks. Song Sparrows rush through the light green corridors of mule fat on the way to their nests.

© Jane Strong, May, 1999

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Seasons of the San Gabriels

April 7, 1999

Las Flores Canyon after the Storm

On the Edge
At the entrance to the old estate, patches of brome grass (Bromus diandrus), bent over with the weight of the water, paint broad strokes of bright green over the big meadow. Eucalyptus shiver in the brisk breeze and shake off large drops of water from globose blue-green leaves. Fragrant acacia blossoms, like small yellow powderpuffs, sweeten the air. On the pebbly old road, puddles of dark water reflect the scudding clouds above.

The trail at the end of the road is dry, its ritual dustiness abated by the rain, and crumbly, its alluvial composition, rapidly draining. Here the everthirsty California sagebrush sucks up moisture into its leaves growing and swelling, soft and succulent, along the stems. The slightest brush against the aromatic foliage leaves a lingering perfume. Flame-colored bracts of Indian paintbrush glow against the wet, pale-orange granite. Ceanothus display branches heavily laden with blossoms and slow, cold bees.

Into the Canyon
Entering the canyon, the trail narrows, becoming spongier upon encountering coast live oak with new glossy, lime-green leaves overlaying dark leathery older ones, dripping with water, and poison oak, similar in color and texture, but with its characteristic three-part leaflet now recognizeable beneath, now overgrown enough to need dodging past on the trail. Wallflowers (Erysimum capitatum), living up to their name, decorate the steep canyon sides, like a sculptured living wallpaper. Water gurgles below.

Oak roots provide convenient handles to cross washouts on the thinning trail. The air chills, smelling damp and earthy. Clumpy mosses, ochre and emerald, and feathery ferns, sequined with raindrops, weave a multi-textured tapestry over the rocks. More rocks, less trees: The canyon contracts.

High Water
The path descends abruptly to the stream below. Spicy bay trees scent the sharp air. The stream slides swiftly over the rocks, rushing away over a tumbling cascade. The trail ends. No boulder hopping today. The water is high, clear and cold.

Far up the canyon, encircling the yucca and manzanita, freshly fallen snow glistens and sparkles. Pristine. Pure.

© Jane Strong, April, 1999

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Seasons of the San Gabriels

March 14, 1999

Bailey Canyon
Upper Trail toward Jones Peak

White: The achromatic color of highest brilliance. From starry white flowers underfoot to filmy white clouds high above, white is the color of the day.

White flowers on shady trails
Sheltered under the shade of coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), small white flowers shine, tiny stars against the damp dark earth--miner's lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), petite pastel-pink-to-white flowers, succulent round leaves, and its frequent companion, common chickweed (Stellaria media), dainty notched petals, soft oval leaves. Purple-stemmed, triangular-leaved, with clusters of bristly milky-white flowers, the much taller eupatory (Ageratina adenophora) clogs the stream beds and covers the boulders.

White flowers on sunny slopes
Out in the sunlight, the white flowers glow larger. Honey-scented, snowy-white, sweet alyssum border the trail as it snakes steeply up the hillside. Incised, ivory blooms of the vine-like nightshade (Solanum douglasii) peep through the greenery. Papery flower heads of pearly everlasting rustle in the hand. A closer look at the rampant wild cucumber vines reveals white flowers of two kinds: males at the top of the stalk and the female attached to the small prickly fruit near the base. A female cabbage white butterfly, distinguished by the two black spots on the upper wing from the male who has only one, flutters by.

White plants on rocky cliffs
Where greenery diminishes and reflective rocks dominate, leaves and stems are white as well. Rattlesnake weed (Chamaesyce albomarginata), so named for the chalky white margins surrounding the crimson flowers, blooms now on the hottest south-facing trail cuts. The descriptively titled, chaparral whitethorn (Ceanothus leucodermis) is many times white: long bony spines, thin ghostly-greenish-white bark, leaves frosted white underneath, flower buds bluish-white like the bloom on Concord grapes. Ashy-leaf buckwheat (Eriogonum cinereum) looks fresh from a visit to Mt. St. Helens, the gray-white color and felty texture of its leaves resemble ash so closely. Bleached gray skeletons of last year's deerweed lie in mounds in the distance.

The tree swallow swooping after insects in the afternoon breeze, uses white for protective coloration called countershading. Its blue back matches the brackish water it favors, when seen from above. But when observed from below its pure white belly is almost invisible against the filmy cirrus clouds forming in the brilliant sky.

© Jane Strong, March 1999

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