An Early Fall

Leaf loss in the California floristic province is often dictated more by drought than temperature. This has been noticeable the past few months in the Sierra foothills, especially since the past two years have been exceptionally dry. The buckeyes were the first to shed their wide, almost tropical looking leaves. They prefer to wait out the Mediterranean summer without a fight, while other species keep their small waxy leaves in protest to the heat and drought. Next the abundant poison oak began to turn shades of yellow and red, and is now on its way to being completely leafless, with only its inconspicuous stems promising a rash. The California redbuds also turned various shades of autumn color as early as August. Twice a year redbuds exhibit a showiness that other chaparral shrubs shun in favor of toughness and practicability. In early spring the hills are alighted with thousands of bright pink blossoms on leafless stems, and in fall the leaves turn deep colors reminiscent of Eastern forests. Today I was able to collect redbud seed pods for the Seeds of Success program.

Redbud foliage

This pay period would have been the last for my internship, but I have been extended into early November. I now have a much more intimate understanding of the Pine Hill Preserve since I started working here five months ago. I have started calling the plants by their USDA plants code, which have been drilled into my head through repeated monitoring activities. For example, Salvia sonomensis, a ubiquitous sage that creeps underneath chaparral shrubs on long stolons, is known fondly as “SASO”. All eight of the Pine Hill Preserve rare plant species pop out at me, even late in the season when many of them have lost their above ground portions to the relentless heat. I have even been able to predict their presence a few times, when the gabbro soil turns a particularly otherworldly shade of red-brown and the chaparral becomes stunted due to the concoction of growth inhibiting chemicals in which the rare plants have undergone speciation. While seed collecting and monitoring I have army crawled through the silent, dusky under story of manzanita, and crashed through nearly impenetrable stands of unforgiving chamise. I often find that my pockets are full of chamise leaves at the end of the day. I can see why the Native Americans burned this ecosystem, if for nothing else just to be able to walk through it!

The rare Red Hills soaproot and gabbro soil

Last week I was given a respite from this difficult to navigate ecosystem. A cadre of field work hungry biologists and I were able to assist some guys from a lab at Utah State University who are working on a project to collect data on watersheds throughout BLM lands. It was extremely refreshing to be able to help collect data while half immersed in the clear, cold water of the North fork of the American river. We also ran into some interesting folks who were camping and gold mining along the river, proving there are remnants of the old West in California, once you get off the main highways.

Perhaps a bit too much sun

As the heat and drought persist, I find myself waiting, perhaps less patiently than the chaparral, for the earth to tilt away from the sun and for the Alaskan low pressure system to reassert its dominance over the Hawaiian high. Hopefully this will bring a cool, wet winter, and the Pine Hill Preserve plants can uncurl their crispy foliage, green up, and produce sprigs of fresh growth.

Joe Broberg

BLM Mother Lode field office

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