Seasons of the San Gabriels

December 13, 2000

Eaton Wash: A Channel Crossing

The Mule Fat Maze
The wash, the bouldery, cobbly, pebbly, gravelly, sandy wash, seems a half mile wide, bewildered as I am in the thickets of mule fat. The mule fat grows over my head; it thrives on this level gravel terrace. The trail splits presenting a dilemma: which one to take. Fallen stalks of mule fat block the way on one fork, the other goes in the wrong direction.

The wash is full of such microhabitats. I have just come up and over a rocky, channel bar, am crossing to a side canyon cut through the alluvium, and will return by way of the layered sediments deposited in the lowest spots.

Summer Leaves, Winter Leaves
On the channel bar, a sand and gravel dune, one of the many that corrugate the center of the wash, I notice that goldenaster has two sets of leaves...very small, thick, firm, gray ones on the old stems and new, soft, large, green ones starting to grow at the base.

This is characteristic of coastal sage scrub plants after winter rains....a first fast flush of growth to feed the plant as much as possible during a time when the leaves don't have to protect themselves from sun and drought.

This phenomenon is also seen in telegraph weed and California sagebrush, but no seasonal change is as dramatic as that of scalebroom. In summer, the many upright, seemingly leafless, green sticks have unnoticeable small scales. But, come winter, new stems sprout up through the old sticks. These young shoots have felty gray leaves ringing them. First time I see it, can't be the same plant, I say. Looks entirely different. I bend down to look closely at the base. Well, mmmm.., yes, they are connected.

When crossing the bar, its surface seems entirely gray-colored sand and salt-and-pepper speckled rocks. But a watchful eye catches sight of the small, gray leaves of scalebroom seedlings, blending perfectly with the granitic sand, the ultimate in cryptic camouflage. Then, magically, once found, they appear everywhere.

Flowers on the Furniture
I choose the indirect route and continue on to a side canyon where the everlastings grow. Everlastings favor these meeting places of old alluvium walls and newly-deposited shelves, also benches and bars in the middle of the stream bed.

Mounds of young leaves dress these shelves and bars like bouquets of flowers on tabletops: long, sticky, wavy-edged, bright-green leaves of California everlasting; aromatic, arrowhead-shaped, green above and white below leaves of two-tone everlasting; and newly-minted, silvery-gray, spoon-shaped leaves of felt-leaf everlasting. This last variety displays both new pearly-white buds on steely-gray stems and last seasons's winter-drab stalks with tan "flowers".

Everlasting flowers are similar to artichokes. The tight scaly bud is like the tough outer green leaves. The yellow tip which later turns brown is the choke, the thistly flower that is cut out and discarded. The brown disk in the center is the heart of the artichokes. What we see, what we call "flowers", are the disks (the hearts) with the papery pearly scales (leaves) still attached.

Willows in Winter
On the way back, I detour to a low spot with a sandy-layered bottom where the willows grow, marking the course of water underground.

The color of the wood and the way it changes with the size and age give the individual willow species distinction at this season. The multi-stemmed arroyo willow, has slender, smooth beige trunks, yellow branches, and red twigs. Cylindrical yellow buds swell near tips of twigs and a few bright leaves, yellow above and silvery-gray below, reflect the late afternoon sun.

Red willow, also a shrub here, has gray trunks with little orange puckers, anemic blood blisters; red branches and red twigs. The sparse leaves at the ends of the twigs are now yellow on both sides but greenish near the prominent mid-rib. The leaf stem and pointed bud are dark red.

Largest of the three willows living in the wash, and the only one, a tree, the black willow has a brownish-gray trunk with vertical furrows, smooth gray branches, turning light brown, then yellow-green at their thinnest. This tree is, at this season, only thinly covered with leaves of yellow green.

I am fooled by a small willow, three feet tall, in the middle of the trail. All the branches are red, shooting up from base, with no side twigs. The leaves are green on top and gray underneath; none are lost. Immediately I say to myself "red willow". Then I see a red willow, ten to twelve feet tall, and realize my mistake. The small one is an arroyo with only one year's growth, frost kissed like a young child with rosy cheeks and a red nose.

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


Seasons of the San Gabriels

April 11, 2000

Millard Canyon

Somebody has been taking care of this place! I thank them wholeheartedly. Earlier hike descriptions tell of the litter and debris of crowded weekends. It is impressively clean today. What a pleasure to hike a foothill canyon and not come across graffiti and garbage!

Sand and Boulders
The trail is almost all big boulders and sandy-bottomed streambed. At times there are trails on both sides of the canyon, elevated ones for use during high water and low trails through the dry streambed. A useful staircase of rocks enclosed in wire has been built at the beginning.

Although the trail is short and somewhat level, that is, no steep places, it is not always easy. Some of the boulder climbs are two to three feet. Quite a scramble! Exciting, too, when I almost land on a California mountain kingsnake with bands of ivory, scarlet and black wanting to share the dry, dusty section of the trail above the boulders. Further along, I come across two southern alligator lizards in a dramatic stare-down; one was a whooping 16" long, the other about 12". Guess who turned tail and scurried off?

Stream Crossings
Stream crossings present little problem today; the creek is so dry. In fact, after a while the water disappears completely! Millard Canyon is drying up! The waterfall is a big disappointment. I get an inkling of the problem early on when I strain to listen for the roar of the falls and hear--nothing. Immediately before the last turn to the waterfall, where there is a sign saying "No Shortcutting" on what looked like a "use" trail, a pitiful trickle begins again. There are a few pools, the largest, less than 12" deep, under the falls itself. The falls, poor things, have barely enough water for a shower!

And, to make matters worse, a small boy stands at the top of the falls throwing rocks down. I backtrack pretty quickly.

Textbook on Aquatic Ecology
A variety of entertaining small animals live in or near the stream offering a mini-course on aquatic ecology.

In the stream itself I find a giant water bug, in this case, giant means one and one-half inches, with eggs on his back--a fascinating creature more colorfully called "toe biter"; water striders skating on top of the water, with their shadows of bubbles on the bottom of the stream; caddis fly larva looking like small bundles of twigs on top of the underwater rocks; and, most happily because I don't often find them, a California newt with reddish-orange limbs and tail, dark body and bulging white eyelids swimming underwater, looking very streamlined, pushing little insects like fallen gnats before it, trapping them in the shallows, making easy pickings for its supper.

Along muddy edges I watch pairs of mated electric-blue damselflies, called vivid dancers wheeling over the water and iridescent-blue spring azure butterflies sipping mineral water at the moist spots.

In the Soft Moist Air
Little black flies take their supper from the blood from a scrape on my arm. I am completely unaware of their presence, ugh! A red velvet-ant male, alternatively named "cow killer" because of the sting, weaves back and forth on the trail before me. Cream and black pale swallowtail butterflies float regally down the canyon. Canyon wrens call, their songs echoing like a cascading waterfall.

In the Deep Shade
Broadleaf trees are the main plants--the evergreen California bay tree and the canyon live oak on the canyon sides, and the deciduous bigleaf maple and white alder in the streambed. A large hawk swoops out of a tall tree grabbing a screaming, bushy-tailed western gray squirrel with its talons.

The most common flower is the creamy-colored, moustache-brush-shaped bloom of eupatory. By the end of summer, this plant with its triangular-shaped leaves and red stems will be over four feet high covering most of the boulders on the streambed.

Other small white flowers with more evocative names are bitter cress, mouse-ear chickweed, nightshade and miner's lettuce. The miner's lettuce grows in two forms, the common one with the white blossom and succulent, round, green leaf encircling the stem and the other with a purplish-pink flower and pointed, purplish-green leaves with white splotches and red-purple edges.

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