Seasons of the San Gabriels

November 15, 2001

The Backside of Baden-Powell from the Manzanita Trail

The Mountain Mighty
Baden-Powell is a huge, hulking mountain. A snowball rolling down the north slope would fall four thousand feet from 9,399' at the summit to 5,400' at Big Rock Campground. The Manzanita Trail is one of many cuts slicing across its north face. Others are the Pacific Crest Trail, Angeles Crest Highway, San Jacinto Fault, Big Rock Creek and its associated road as well as numerous unnamed canyons.

The Weather Chilly
Snow from a recent fast-moving, hard-hitting storm covers the shady sides of the high peaks, Baldy and Baden-Powell. Temperatures hover around the fifty-degree mark in the daytime. Frigid air flows down the drainages and across the trail. Crossing these drainages is a sensual experience...the swift rush of cold air, the spicy scent of damp cool earth, the crunch of frosted leaves beneath the boot...delightful to some, painful to others.

The Stem Stands Alone
No flowers, no fruit, no seeds, no leaves. Only stems. Stems smooth and violet, stems shaggy and gray. Stems zig-zagged and orange, stems straight and gold. Stems revealed by the leaf drop. Stems in hues unique to each plant resulting from the decrease of the ubiquitous green of summer's chlorophyll. Change has come to the High Country, change brought about by diminishing daylight and declining temperatures.

The Tree Barren
Worn golden-brown leaves, discarded piles of rags, surround the undressed deciduous trees, those plants with a single, thick woody stem we know as a trunk. Despite the similarity in leaf color, each species is distinctive in bark and in silhouette. The contorted twisted limbs of California black oak have deeply-furrowed, dark gray-brown bark. This bark, even darker when wet, gives the tree its name of "black oak". Bigleaf maple, on the other hand, has smooth, light-gray bark, with upright branches. The first-year, crimson-colored twigs are erect and glossy.

The Shrub Exposed
Shrubs, in contrast to trees, have multiple, slender, woody stems. Chokecherry has upright gray stems eroded with semicircular resin pits. Lacy fringes of ice embroider the persimmon-colored leaves that have fallen into the moist drainages this plant prefers. The most subtle, the most luscious stems, though, are those of the short-twigged serviceberry which appear a lovely, luminous lavender in the low light of the afternoon.

Quite different in character are the prickled shrubs, floppy, rambling blackberry, thicket-forming rose and spreading, impenetrable gooseberry. Mounding, thorny California blackberry vines are the color of ripe purple plums even with the attendant waxy bloom. One or two crinkled, contrasting yellow, three-parted leaflets still hang on. The interior rose, densely armed with slender golden prickles on coppery stems, also has a few five-parted leaflets remaining, these in delicate amber. The scarce and totally leafless Sierra gooseberry is easy to recognize. It has brassy orange, zig-zaggedy stems with inch-long spines, three at each junction or node.

The Stem Shivering?
Perennial plants are those with stems that die down during the winter, but come back from roots, not seeds, in the springtime. Two buckwheats stand out at this season. Devoid of flower, devoid of leaf, tall and slender, the exotic-looking, claret-hued stalks of naked buckwheat line the salt-and-pepper rock sections of the trail. Shriveled leaves can sometimes be found still attached at the base. The backs of these leaves are as fuzzy and white as the frosty ground they are resting upon.

In more open areas, the dried saffron-colored bracts of sulphur buckwheat appear as persistent flowers on wine-red stalks. Intermingled with the gray sagebrush, the contrast is very pleasing, the quintessential colors of fall, Mt. Baden-Powell style.

The attractive mosaic pattern of bracken fern...tan in the sun, yellow on the edges, green in the shade...results, too, from the seasonal changes. Bright sunlight and low temperatures destroy chlorophyll. The decomposition occurs most rapidly where it is sunniest and coldest making the tan color, and slowest under the protection of the trees, the greener color. The yellow is the in-between stage on the borders between the sun and the shade or the warm and the cold spots.

Soon even the stems will wither away and perish, the snows of winter covering all, the threadbare leaves, the desiccated fruits, the scattered seeds, returning them to the earth, converting them to nourishment for the next spring's generation.

© Jane Strong, November 2001
Photos by Tom Chester unless otherwise credited in the web address.
Seasons of the San Gabriels Index | Field Guide to the San Gabriel Mountains: Plants

Seasons of the San Gabriels

November 11, 2001

Eaton Canyon

Autumn Rain
Showers fell during the night. This morning, as the ground heats up, white evaporation clouds form against the damp-dark hills and billow out of the upper canyons. The leaves are wetted, the dust calmed.

The Grays
Scale-broom, the trickster, appears in all its many guises in the rocky wash. Felty-frizzy, new gray leaves blend in with the gravel. Slick, leafless, mature green stems, some with a few yellow flowers left, but most with prolific, fluffy, tan end-of-season seeds, grow upright from gnarled trunks.

California quail families, all pretty much of a size, march, black plumes bobbing, in their peculiar stiff-jointed gait from shrub to shrub, calling "ca-cah'-co" all the while.

The California sagebrush is smelled before it is seen. A pleasant, sweet-pungent odor permeates the air, then intensifies as I pass by a huge stand and brush the dew-laden, overhanging branches with a coat-sleeve.

The Browns
Like so many wind-blown leaves, stripe-faced, milk-chocolate-colored sparrows scatter to cover at my footfall.

Scrawny, withered bronze fingers of spike moss begin to unfold, opening up more and more to welcome the moisture. Gold-backed fern uncurls and coffee-colored bird's-foot fern unrolls.

A lustrous, brown-eyed doe appears suddenly at the edge of the trail. She stills, lifts her dark nose to absorb the scents and bounds, rump held high, quickly across and into the meadow.

The Reds
At the meadow's edge, poison oak leaves glow soft and warm, like embers of red, scarlet and gold. Its berries glisten with crystal beads of water.

Flat-topped California buckwheat seeds gather mites of mist, making small reflective puddles on top of each old flower head. These have the depth and clarity of fine gems, sparkling like deep red garnets.

The canyon bottom is waterless, has been for months. But, fallen red willow leaves line the dry streambed with color, many tongues of cool flame.

Rejoice, rejoice! Fall comes gently into our sight.

© Jane Strong, November 2001
Seasons of the San Gabriels Index | Field Guide to the San Gabriel Mountains: Plants

Seasons of the San Gabriels

November 9, 2001

Angeles Crest Highway and Santa Clara Divide Road, Three Points to Sulphur Springs

Highlights along Angeles Crest Highway, La Caņada to Three Points
Fall's at its peak on Angeles Crest Highway following the season's first frost... walnuts are yellowing and thinning, turning color and dropping their leaves at the same time, around the 2,500 foot level...burnished golden domes of bigleaf maple lighten the dim east-facing canyons...vivid scarlet leaves of poison oak hang like Christmas ornaments on gray-stemmed vines...mounds of California buckwheat, currently at its finest russet-red, dot the hillsides around Ladybug Canyon...higher up at Chilao, cottonwoods have only a few, intensely bright, yellow leaves left. Ahhhhh! I'm beginning to appreciate this long drawn-out fall of ours.

A gorgeous tree around mile marker 40.62...a transplant, but nonetheless striking...the Chinese pistache shows superb fall color. Layers of leaves, bright raspberry red at the top, darken to cranberry crimson, then change to blackish-green where the sun doesn't reach them. Other smaller pistache trees, with more yellow and orange, are coloring up further east towards Shortcut Saddle.

Big Cat!!!
An animal rambles across the road in front of me. I think: Big bobcat. No. Has tail. Tail is long. Heavy. Tail has the perfect shape...long sinuous curve, slightly upturned at the tip. Little perky ears, small face, long legs. There's no mistaking that this is a young mountain lion.

It saunters up the slope on the other side of the road. The reddish-tawny color of its pelt blending perfectly with the gray mountain mahogany, russet buckwheat and orangeish granodiorite rock.

Later on Pacific Crest Trail I pick up deer tracks, good ones, deep and fresh. Farther on, I find mountain lion tracks, the width of my hand without the thumb, in the soft dirt. Hunted and hunter. Prey and predator.

Sulphur Springs Cross Section
After leaving Alder Saddle, this branch of Little Rock Creek turns eastward where the road is closed. Perennial plants in a cross section here show an extraordinary variety of shapes: tall vertical columns, spiky domes, upright wands, rounded clumps, ragged irregular forms, ground-hugging mats.

The chilly north-facing slope is extremely steep and rubblely. Its coarse granitic, dare-I-call-it soil supports only small-leaved, mat-forming plants. The names of the buckwheats...Wright's, Davidson's, Parish's, sulphur, and almost like a roll call of the botanical explorers of southern California.

Arroyo willow parades down the drainage bottom. With such shiny surfaces and such bright yellow color, its leaves fill the air with radiance.

Roses, in the wetter areas where streams meet, carry out the yellow, gray, and brown color scheme...older stems gray, new stems red-brown with gold prickles and leaves yellow with delicately-etched red edges.

Slightly higher on the south-facing stream terrace, the upright and parallel, tan-colored seed stalks of Great Basin sagebrush contrast gently with the soft, fluffy, creamy-colored, root-beer-like froth of those of rabbitbrush. Tall vertical columns of glossy-leaved Jeffrey pine punctuate this area.

The shrubs on the sunny south-facing slope are larger in size and more irregular in shape than elsewhere. Fremontia is raggedy and spiky, with many red-brown branches at right angles. Only a few of its fuzzy green or yellow leaves remain. Fallen, rich golden-brown seed capsules litter the ground nearby. Mountain mahogany, mostly leafless, mostly seedless, shows skeletonized, intricately twisted, light-gray branches. Backed by the bluest of skies, beige yucca stalks rise skyward above the spiky domes of its gray-green leaves along the ridgeline.

Three Points Parking Lot
Returning to the top of the divide, in the parking lot at Three Points rabbitbrush...white stems, aromatic foliage, yellow flowers, waist-high...the hololeucus form, is aflutter with insects. Painted lady butterflies, wings spread out flat, absorb the sunlight. Bees with yellow and dark-brown banded abdomens buzz. Flower flies alight briefly on the yellow blossoms and are soon off again. These arresting insects are triangular in outline, with transparent brown-veined wings, held perpendicular when at rest, and a beige body wrapped in fuzzy black pipecleaners.

© Jane Strong, November 2001
Seasons of the San Gabriels Index | Field Guide to the San Gabriel Mountains: Plants

Seasons of the San Gabriels

October 11, 2001

Lone Pine Canyon Road, Big Pines, near Islip Saddle, Chilao Road

An Overlook on Lone Pine Canyon Road, 3500'
Nearby barren Mormon Rocks, sandstones of the Cajon formation, look like stacks of giant peachy-pink Fiestaware dinner plates tilted on edge and half buried. Add to this the backdrop of blue sky, and the foreground of mounds of golden-flowered bushes, and you have a lovely, multi-hued picture of the desert chaparral community in fall.

Golden-flowered mounds of pine goldenbush, golden-flowered mounds of rabbitbrush, golden-flowered mounds of scale-broom, all have reduced leaves and upright erect branches from woody bases. How to tell them apart? Not by flowers alone. But by the leaves and stems. Scale-broom has leaves so reduced that the slick, green stems appear leafless at this season. If you look very carefully you can see the minute scale at the node. Rabbitbrush has whitish hairy stems and a linear leaf, sometimes aromatic if you crush it, the "nauseous" part of its scientific name, Chrysothamnus nauseosus, the heavily scented golden shrub. Pine goldenbush has a linear leaf, too. But at the intersection between the long, skinny leaf and the stem, there is a bundle of smaller needle-like leaves, hence, the fanciful resemblance to the pine of its common name. Members of this trio live in slightly different habitats. Pine goldenbush favors the lesser disturbed slopes, while rabbitbrush makes use of the more disturbed areas. In this case, it marks the trace of the buried petroleum pipeline. Scale-broom likes best the terraces at the bottom of the washes.

Interspersed amidst the golden bushes are mountain mahogany in feathery fruit, shrubby oaks, both interior live oak and San Gabriel Mountains leather oak, loaded with acorns, bright green now, and silk-tassel bushes.

At first glance, silk-tassel bush looks like manzanita because of the erect, oval gray-green leaves. But a quick inspection reveals that the leaves have undulating, wavy edges and are two-colored, that is, the underside is ashy gray. Peering farther inside, the stems are found to be light gray-brown, not red-brown like the manzanita. Today, the buds for the coming winter's bloom have just started to form....small, densely packed saucers. These are the nascent male catkins which will elongate to form long, slender chains of creamy, cup-shaped flowers in January and February.

A Moist Ditch at Big Pines, 6862'
A small ditch near the top of the grade, the highest point along the San Andreas Fault, is filled with silky, gray-green leaves of sandbar willow; deeply cleft pinkish-red flowers of giant Indian paintbrush; gold-fronted, silver-backed leaves of arroyo willow; and lemon and lime leaves of Fremont cottonwood. On the slope above grow Parry manzanita and chokecherry, both with heavily laden with berries. The shiny chokecherries are so ripe as to appear black, very pretty in contrast with the deep red stems and remaining yellow leaves.

Parry manzanita has bunches of berries as predicted by its names: the scientific one, Arctostaphylos, is "bear berry" in Greek and the common one, manzanita, is "little apple" in Spanish. These clusters of light chestnut-brown berries, particularly appealing at this season, fall off at the merest touch of the hand. The leathery coating can be crushed to show the dry styrofoam interior of the fruit and the large ridged seeds. Most of these solid seeds stay firmly intact, but a few can be split apart like orange segments. On the opposite slope, the rabbitbrush, a different variety than below, is finishing its yellow bloom and the pointed-lobed leaves of the black oak are beginning to wear their fall colors of golden-brown.

A Dry Slope near Islip Saddle, 6660'
Streaks of dark-gray clouds obscure the white blob of sun on a gray canvas of sky. Except for the dark yellow of corn lily foliage and the golden glow of greenleaf manzanita, the forest takes on a somber hue. A half-curl bighorn sheep pauses on the trail to stare and then returns to browse the blue-green snowbush.

For the moment, the white fir are wearing plentiful crowns of full cones. White fir, like most conifers, has both pollen-bearing male and seed-bearing female cones. The very tiny, dark-red male cones appear in May on the undersides of the outermost twigs about mid-crown. The upright, barrel-shaped female cones grow on the tips of one-year-old branches in the uppermost crown. Deciduous on the tree, that is, the scales containing the seeds blow away before the cones fall off, it is rare to see the full cone on the ground. Sometimes, squirrels will knock off partially eaten ones. These look like large, empty spindles. But now they are glistening dark brown tiaras at the tops of the spires of trees.

A Flat along Chilao Road, 5300'
In the open areas, beneath the dark green branches of the Jeffrey and Coulter pines, a muted-toned, shaggy carpet of tall beige stalks of grasses, tan skeletonized leaves of mules' ears, and fragrant gray leaves of Great Basin sagebrush, covers the land. The sagebrush has only now, at the beginning of fall, opened its tiny yellow flowers.

While the willows are still-green-but-thinking-of-yellow, dogbane shows its vivid colors in the gravelly stream bed. Dogbane, which is also known as Indian hemp, has thin reddish stems with pairs of large bright yellow leaves. Long, skinny pairs of yellow pods hang downwards. Later, the pods will turn dark red. The beautiful fall color of this plant is eye-catching!

© Jane Strong, October 2001
Seasons of the San Gabriels Index | Field Guide to the San Gabriel Mountains: Plants