Sunday, December 12, 2010

Octopus's Garden

Leo Carrillo State Beach

Last Sunday we spent a glorious afternoon peering into the homes of starfish, crabs, anemones and octopi.
Exceptionally low tide exposed lots of rocky reef at Leo Carrillo (pictured in video above). Tufts of eelgrass made some rocks look like punk-rocker heads, i.e. topped with green hair. Ten-foot-long strands of giant kelp (Macrosystis pyrifera) lay limp, offering a good look at their holdfasts (the bottom of the plant that anchors to the seabed).
Giant kelp, I'm told, is the largest marine plant known on earth, capable of growing to 100 feet in about a year.
My son enjoyed gently touching Pacific sea stars (Pisaster ochraceus) and anemones (Anthopleura sola), as well as observing hermit crabs.
Mom was thrilled to see two tentacles of a two-spot octopus (Octopus bimaculoides) before it wedged itself more deeply under a rock. These little guys are great camouflage artists, as well as contortionists. So look for them in crevices. This species takes its name from two, eye-like spots on its hood.
If you visit tide pools, please tread with extreme care. It's easy to squash the animals--especially soft-bodied ones such as nudibranchs--and with so many people visiting the beach, the impact is considerable. Never remove anything from a tidepool, even an empty shell--for one thing, you'll be messing with the hermit crab housing market.
Check out our previous intertidal romp at El Matador State Beach.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

This Summer I was fortunate to take a hike with Mickey Long, who supervises natural areas for LA County Parks and Recreation. I asked him to join me at one of the more depressing spots in the Angeles Forest front country--the trail from Chantry Flat to Stuartevant Falls.

Although we spotted a number of wildflowers along the fire road descending into Big Santa Anita Canyon--including indian pinks and native delphinium (both pictured below)--we sampled a Smorgasbord of weeds: annual grasses, Spanish broom, euphorbia, arundo, bladder senna, eucalyptus, even rock roses. "Aesthetically there's something missing from the landscape," said Long, "both in form and function. The danger here is,
even though we're seeing plenty of native plant habitat, if a fire comes through, the weeds will get the upper hand."

Long pointed out Western Fence and whiptail lizards, hunting for bugs in the underbrush. He said the non-native grasses don't support the variety of insects that the native plants do.

Things didn't get any more cheerful when we arrived at the stream.

English ivy blankets 3.5 miles of stream bank.

Cabin owners planted the ivy decades ago and it's run amok. To keep the alders alive, they clip it off of the trunks. But the ivy (with a little help from some Himalayan blackberry) has crowded out most of the native plants. On a subsequent trip I counted only three Humboldt lilies (pictured up top) persisting along the stream.

Long said no one has studied the effect of the ivy infestation on native animals, but "there's not too many ways this could be beneficial to a native animal." Amphibians need to be able to move from the stream where they breed and to the adjacent hillside where they burrow. "They need to feed as they move around, and I don't know what food sources are left under there."

You can learn more about garden plants that threaten wildlands in these stories I reported for KPCC-FM.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Late Fall In Our Garden

Most of our summer edibles are gone. But one wax bean plant is still producing a profusion of shiny little beans. I assume they're tasty, but can't really say. My three-year-old has claimed them as exclusively his.

It's a great strategy for getting kids to eat veggies. We steam up a batch of mostly store-bought green beans, topped with our homegrown yellow ones. My husband and I look longingly at the wax beans, but our son hordes them all.

Another great kid veg: potatoes. Need I say it? They're fun to dig up. We've planted the remains of our last year's yukon golds and they're thriving. We stored the seed potatoes in a wine fridge over the summer. It's a small, 8-bottle cellar, so there was something of a Sophie's Choice going on all summer--more potatoes, less wine.

A lot of our last fall's seed was still viable this fall. Indeed, some of the lettuce and spinach seed I'd left in the fridge (in a plastic bag), took off immediately.

We're trying a new variety of beet this year. I bought some Bull's Blood from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. I'm already enjoying these gorgeous red greens in my salads.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Roses: The Fruits of Neglect

I've finally had some time to work my garden. After some reluctance, I pruned my unruly rose bushes.

Three of them top out over six feet tall, in part because I like them that way. They're surrounded by native sages and Mediterranean rock roses, and thrive on the same drip irrigation system and low-water regime. (I gave them supplemental water for the first couple years.)

I hadn't pruned the roses since last fall. As a result they were loaded with persimmony rose hips. I thought of it as my fall color, and the bushes looked far happier in the hot fall than had I tried to keep them blooming.

A few years ago Emily Green, who currently writes the LA Times Dry Garden column, wrote a brilliant piece about leaving roses alone. Check it out. It will make you long for the days when newspapers gave writers the space to write like this. Or at least some of them. Few write as well as Green.

Now, if only the weeds would pull themselves.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Climate Change

Yikes! I've been away from this blog a really long time. I do have an excuse. A mountain lion ate my lap top.

Okay, seriously, I was single mom all this summer. Then I was drowning in real work (as opposed to this blog, which is just me making unpaid work for myself).

Anyway, among the projects keeping me from chattering is a new mini-gig contributing to ClimateWatch, produced by bay area NPR-station KQED. In radio reports and on it's execellent blog, ClimateWatch covers the science, politics and personal stories of global warming from a California perspective.

My first post for the ClimateWatch blog is a Q&A with David Nahai, former GM of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

I've just returned from the annual Society of Environmental Journalists Conference, held this year in Missoula, Montana. Nobel-laureate Steve Running offered a sobering overview of warming in that state over the last 40+ years: average temps up 1-2 degrees F, snow melting a couple weeks earlier, and aridification (stronger atmospheric evaporation) even though the precipitation is the same. The result, already: increased wildfires, bark beetles killing many conifers, and less water in streams in summer.

Michael Gibson of Trout Unlimited told us lower stream flows and warmer water is prompting the state to shut down trout fishing in August to protect fish. In the next 30 years, he expects trout to lose 5-30% of their Montana habitat.

I'd like to end on a cheery note, but, sorry, not this time.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont displays the ravishing beauty of California's wild plants. But the setting is so operatic, it can be hard to imagine this flora on a smaller stage, say, a patio or apartment balcony.

Unless you happen upon a nook where native plants are potted up for a more intimate performance.

On a foggy morning, a hummingbird swoops in for a sip of Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii, above). Impatiently, it probes the whorls of the petite lavender flowers. This sage is usually a sprawling shrub, but confined to a 5-gallon teal pot, the crisp reiterations of dainty leaves and blossoms have the restraint and precision of a Baroque concerto.

Many of Rancho's pots are tall. Low-growing species are raised 3 to 4 feet off the ground, offering a bird's- or bug's-eye experience of these intricate plants.

Click here to continue reading my LA Times story.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Trumpet Zucchini

What possessed me? Who slipped me the silly pill that made me decide to grow two zucchini plants this summer?

I wanted to add a new kind, while relying on an old standby. It still amazes me that someone--my aunt--could mail me a few innocuous seeds and one would turn into this:

Zucchini rampicante tromboncino. This climber produces gorgeous curved or trumpet-like fruit. Many of mine have little leaves embedded along the side of the fruit, making them especially pretty as gifts. And, yes, I've had a lot to give.

We turned a few into the best-ever zucchini bread. And we've enjoyed endless rounds of ratatouille. (Believe it or not, my kid loves it.) Any recipe requiring 3 or more cups of zucchini gets my attention these days.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Exploring with Kids

It’s late on a hot summer night. I want my 3-year-old to lie down and sleep.
He won’t — he’s busy nesting. Perched atop his scrunched-up blue blankie, he informs me “I can’t lie down, my eggs will get cold.” I suggest he keep them warm by lying on top of them. “They’ll break!” he wails.
I’m guessing he was a sea turtle that night, because a recent trip to a turtle rescue center had made a big impression on him. But he could just as easily have been a flamingo or an alligator. Could there be anything cuter than Mateo pretending he’s an animal? Well, yes

Read the rest of my story from the September, 2010 issue of Arroyo Monthly Magazine.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Recent Adventures

Would that every Southern California summer were this cool (current hot spell aside). My son and I have taken advantage of the weather to get out and about.

Our biggest recent adventure was a trek up the stream bed at Eaton Canyon. We were hoping to see frogs because there were so many tadpoles here in early summer.

Once we made it to the water, there was no stopping my three-year-old. Wearing his aquasocks (amphibious shoes), he trekked upstream, all the way to the bridge.

We didn't see any frogs, but were surprised by what appeared to be a couple of aquatic snakes, and oodles of dragon- and damselflies. We also scooped up aquatic bugs for a closer look with a magnifying glass.

My son was less keen on the terrestrial trek back to the car. But little doggies and girls commenting on his Kermit shirt kept him moving.

Once again, it was really hard to tear him away from the animal puppets at the nature center.

In late July we also enjoyed a visit to the Audubon Center at Debs Park. We spread a blanket next to a pond, and had a simple picnic. My son dug in the sand and climbed rocks; I enjoyed the birds and insects. Together we pretended to be bears in the little cave. Baby bear gave mom bear a time-out.

"Some people say personification of animals is a bad thing," says the Audubon Center's director Jeff Chapman, "but at a young age that kind of feeling and connecting with wildlife is a really good thing in my opinion. It’s a natural empathizing thing that young children have with animals."

Chapman encourages kids to share their discoveries on a board at the Center and on the nature website eBird (a joint project of Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology). "Audubon prides ourself on taking science and bringing it to regular people," he explains. "And allowing them to have a personal stake in feeding the world with information."

Find out about the other side of Debs Park.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Kern County Emerges as Powerhouse

If you drive about half an hour north of Palmdale, you’ll find yourself in the foothills of Kern County ’s Tehachapi Mountains. They’re studded with Joshua trees, that sparse icon of the Mojave. But a new symbol is also rising, reaching its limbs into the desert sky.

Planted amidst the Joshuas: more than 3,000 wind turbines, resembling large white pinwheels. The older models are about six-stories-high. The newest are taller than the statue of liberty. Standing next to the turbines, Kern County planner Lorelei Oviatt says, “You’re actually in the middle of a 223,000 acre wind area that Kern County has set aside, where we hope we can site enough wind for over 3 million households.”

Read the rest of my story on

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Gold Rush of Green Power?

In reporting a forthcoming radio story on the rush of alternative energy projects in California’s Kern County, I spoke with V. John White, director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies.

The story takes listeners to the Tehachapi-Mojave Wind Resources Area, and airs tomorrow on KPCC-FM. Meantime, here’s a slice of my conversation with White.

Q: How’s California doing in its quest to tap renewable resources, ASAP?

A: We’re getting steadily better, I think. We spent a lot of time talking about doing renewables, but the fact is we’re still at roughly 15% renewable statewide.

That’s up a little bit from 12%. But we need to go much greater, to 20%-33% and beyond. That’s going to take significant effort, and I think we’re starting to get there. California had this big boom in the 80's and early 90's and then we stopped. And we learned a lot, but most of that experience went elsewhere and now we’re just getting back into it.

Q: How Does Kern County figure in this picture. I believe the California Energy Commission a few years back projected the county would provide about 40% of the energy needed to meet the Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS)—the alternative energy mandates for investor-owned utilities.

A: They [Kern] have some of the best wind resources in the state that have yet to be developed--in the Tehachapi Mountains area. They also have, in parts of the county, very, very good solar resources. They also have proximity of transmission lines that bisect the wind and solar areas. So they have some very important advantages in terms of the resources they were blessed with.

They have some expertise from having built, operated and planned these resources, so they’re also becoming leaders and innovators in the planning of these project.

Q: What’s the county’s environmental record?

A: [County planners have] looked at where impacts might occur and added some requirements for the developers to protect species--it's a sign of some leadership. Also, in the solar area they have given a lot of thought to the best places.

Q: Are California's strict environmental laws slowing the pace of alternative energy development?

A: It’s really a combination of things. In some cases it’s the transmission, interconnections, and in some cases there are federal wildlife reviews the state can’t do anything about. I think on balance CEQA [the California Environmental Quality Act] provides a means of identifying and reducing impacts from projects. CEQA is a burden for developers compared to other states, but as a result we get better projects with better mitigation and sometimes even less opposition because of the care and the time that is taken.

CEQA is a proxy for a conversation between project applicant and community. I think what you have in Kern County is a moderator for the conversation that can help [energy developments] be successful. By anticipating there are problems that have to be solved, instead of like in Texas trying to approve them as quickly as possible, you avoid adverse consequences and you learn as you go in ways that improve the projects….

Q: Kern County generally prefers to see wind and solar projects developed on private land. Sounds like good strategy economically and environmentally, yes?

A: I think that’s true. One of the problems with private land, however, is a lot of it is divide up into really small parcels. The [projects on] federal lands…it’s important they have an opportunity to get approved if they’re good projects. We have a great amount of economic stimulus money that we’re racing to try to capture by getting projects approved.

The thing about solar is you can still get a lot of energy from the land--with the right acreage--with very high solar radiation. [Public lands in] Kern County are in the Western Mojave, which has some of the best solar resources in the state and the whole country. And if projects are built there they can be smaller than comparable projects because of how good the radiation is. We have to recognize the scale of the energy we have to displace; the [vast] amount of energy we have to have to get off coal, fuel and electrical cars.

I think what’s happening now is the urgency of putting people back to work, as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel use, have combined to create a sense of urgency that’s causing all the local governments, developers, and environmentalists to raise their game.

American Energy companies are also look across the border for alternative energy. Listen to my story for The World.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


As much as I love lizards, I haven't taken the time to learn much about them. The common ones I've usually assumed to be fence lizards, and left it at that.

On a recent interview for a forthcoming radio story, I carelessly threw that label at this little reptile below. And was quickly corrected by biologist Mickey Long from the LA County Parks Department. It is, in fact, the California subspecies of slide-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana elegans).

Long also pointed out this lovely coastal whiptail lizard (Aspidoscelis tigris stejnergeri). This species moves fast.

If you've got lizards in you garden, they're likely the San Diego Alligator Lizard (Elgaria multicarinata webbii).

Finally, if you like your lizards big, head out to the desert. I saw this Chuckwalla in Joshua Tree this spring. (Definitely not a fence lizard!)

Sunday, July 11, 2010


...and the eatin' is easy. We're gorging ourselves on red baron peaches. Yesterday, peach cobbler; tomorrow peach-rosemary jam.

We're a little challenged aesthetically this year as we had to defend our food from digging skunks and at least one very healthy rat (all those blueberries he ate, no doubt).

In the bed above, Italian trombone squash (Zucchetta Rampicante Trombocino) is climbing a tomato cage and heading for a trellis. My aunt calls these "rumpa trumpas" and the name has stuck.

We also love the Romanesco zucchini we planted next to it. My 3-year-old enjoys the star shapes it makes when sliced.

Most of our seed this year came from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and Renee's Garden Seeds.

The heirloom De Bourbonne cucumber is thriving. And the sungold tomatoes are producing, despite the unseasonably cool weather.

Renee's "French Gold" beans are delish!

I've let some of my spring lettuce flower and the one above produced a lovely surprise.

Saturday, July 3, 2010


Southern California's chaparral is adapted to fire--or at least to natural cycles of fire. The progression of growth in an ecosystem is called succession. After a fire, with shrubs temporarily knocked back and more sunlight reaching the ground, annual wildflowers proliferate.

Indeed, several species are rare until a fire blows through and cues the seeds to germinate abundantly. I wrote about these fire-following flowers earlier this year for Chance of Rain. I hope you'll read the story.

I've been itching to see some fire-followers and other wildflowers, and check out how the Angeles Forest is regenerating in the wake of the Station Fire. So a couple weeks ago, I coaxed my 3-year-old into the car for a drive in the Angeles. Here's a slide show of what we saw, just from the road.

Thanks to Cliff McLean of the California Native Plant Society, San Gabriel Mountains Chapter for helping me identify the plants. I recommend his CD Field Guide, Common Plants of Eaton Canyon and The San Gabriel Foothills.

The flowers were beautiful, but I was troubled by some things I saw. First, despite many signs instructing people not to leave the road, people are hiking into the burn areas. Please know that if you do, you can tramp weed seeds from roadsides into not-yet infested areas.

The forest is especially vulnerable to weed colonization after a disturbance such as a fire. Weeds are no small matter; they can increase fire cycles to the point native plants can't recover. (Learn more about how human-caused fires threaten Southland ecosystems in my magazine story Sparking The Fires.)

You can see in a couple of the slides above that many weeds grow faster than native shrubs, allowing them to outcompete native plants.

The western stretch of Angeles Crest Highway (the La Canada entrance) is closed. You can access the Angeles through Big Tujunga Canyon, but the forest is closed to use, so stay on the road or face a $5,000 fine.

Click here for a larger version of the slideshow.

And check out this fun video about ecological succession:

Monday, May 24, 2010

Life Cycles

Adults often talk with kids about how they're growing, how they used to be a baby, how they'll one day be a man or woman. My 3-year-old says he doesn't want to be a man, only a boy. No worries, I say, you'll always be a boy.

It's no wonder, though, he's interested in the cycles of life.

Yesterday, we went with friends to observe the tadpoles at Eaton Canyon. The boys spent nearly 2 hours watching the little commas squiggling in the shallows. They also enjoyed wading in the creek, and examining stones and water bugs.

A couple weeks ago, Eaton Canyon docents had set up a table with magnifying viewers and rubber copies of the tadpole-to-frog cycle. My son looked at them and pronounced, "metamorphosis." (The docents said the tadpoles were either Pacific or California tree frogs.)

We'd been raising painted lady butterflies at home. They burst from their chrysalises last Friday, and we released them the next day.

This year several people told us the caterpillars they got from Kidspace did not emerge. But we've had good luck with the ones we mail ordered from Insect Lore.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Critter 'N' Kids

Last year, my son and I enjoyed the Los Angeles Zoo's Toddler Totes classes. Now that he's three, we've moved up to Critter 'N' Kids.

Our first class was "Fabulous Flamingos." In the classroom, the kids explored bird eggs, looked at flamingo feathers with a magnifying glass, strained glitter out of water simulating flamingo feeding, and created flamingo nests in a sand tray.

Then we headed out to observe the birds and discuss them.

Critter 'N' Kids runs Wednesday through Saturday mornings, about once a month. It's worth becoming a Zoo member to get the newsletter with the schedule of classes and special events (although you can find the info online too).

A single class is $18 for members, $23 for non-members.

The June class will be Amazing Alligators. Reggie has a new (girl)friend, Cajun Jane, so the class should be especially exciting.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Mourning Dove

Out back--behind our house--a mourning dove is nesting
sheltered under the 'Roger's Red' grape

Plumped, still and quiet she waits
shiny black eyes wide

Our son these days is still learning about respect
He whines
He screams
He wants his way

Then yesterday
He saw the eggs and the bird sitting so tenderly

Here mother dove, he said, here's seed for you.
Here mother dove, some water for you.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Small Wonders

One of my favorite things about gardening is the little surprises: the bulbs and wildflowers that spout up in spots you didn't expect or had forgotten about, a new bloom you hadn't noticed forming.

Among the small wonders I'm enjoying these days is this feral celery (above). Last year the deliberately planted crop was bitter and I didn't (intentionally) start any this year. Wouldn't you know it, this volunteer, which has been totally neglected, is delicious. And it's growing in decomposed granite! Not that I recommend that; it's getting seepage from a nearby pot of marjoram.

We also had lettuce crop up in unusual places, including right next to nitrogen-fixing bean plants. Those greens were quite tasty; never fertilized. (I should note my entire garden is not that wet: it cropped up in places where I was watering new plants and near a water barrel.)

I mentioned earlier that my last year's basil, moved to a pot at the end of summer, had resprouted. Below is the proof of my perennial basil.

I'm also grateful for a bounteous harvest of snap peas. I love them so, I intend to try a tip I picked up from my dad the suburban farmer. (Okay, he's a college music professor, but he grows so much food he supplies his college cafeteria.) The tip: when weather warms, extend the life of your peas by placing ice cubes on the soil in the morning.

We're also enjoying spinach, scallions, lettuces, sorrel, carrots, strawberries, blueberries, and just harvested the rest of our yukon gold potatoes.

Apples on the way!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Turbines for Baja?

The U.S. government this week approved the nation's first offshore wind project. It took nine years. Will similar projects crop up in California?

"There’s a substantial wind resource offshore of CA, fantastic wind resource," says Mike Allman, CEO of Sempra Generation, "but it’s never going to be built, it’s too sensitive. It’s a gorgeous area and people don’t want their view profile changed. The wind is strong offshore, in many cases, and you can put larger turbines offshore. But you need a lot of support to get that done."

So Sempra is looking high and low for windy sites onshore, including across the border in Baja California. Listen to my piece for PRI's The World.

Take a gander at the Sierra Juarez. Learn more about offshore wind in Nantucket Sound.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Arcadia Weed Park

Noodle around on this blog and you'll see there's a lot devoted to lovely spots to hike and learn about nature. Arcadia Wilderness Park is certainly a learning experience. But it's the kind of hard lesson I'd like to be spared.

It's one of the most depressing places I've been. As you can see above, aggressive weeds called invasive plants don't respect fences. They escape gardens and hightail it into wilderness areas. The city of Arcadia has done little to nothing to control the weeds in its park and now they threaten the adjacent Angeles National Forest.

Castor bean and fountain grass have already jumped the fence. Fountain grass is crazy-bad. Below you can see it's growing out of every crack in a stairway and a slope that's been hardscaped. It also blankets a couple acres adjacent to this stairway.

And the plant has also taken root in a creek running through the park. Click over to my weeds series to learn more about fountain grass.

Ah, isn't that a pretty sight? The kiss of light on--just kidding, this is one weed duking it out with another. Bad boy cape ivy trying to strangle His Nastiness, castor bean.

Above Drew Ready of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council cranes to see the crown of a mature elderberry, smothered by cape ivy. "This area is pretty much a dead zone," he said. "If you listen and look around, you hear no wildlife--there's no songbirds; you see no lizards. There are probably rats."

At Arcadia Park ivy's got strangle-hold at least one sycamore (above & below) as well, and is making a run for some gorgeous live oaks. "The ivy over the years has covered the [oak] seedlings, so there's no regeneration going on in this understory," Ready said. "If this oak goes, there's a good chance there won't be one to replace it."

Click below to read the final two installments of my LA Times weed series:

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Runaway Plants

If you missed my five-part series on garden plants that threaten wildlands, check out the first three installments below (with links to the full story on the LA Times website).

Ecologist Christy Brigham stands amid willows hemming Medea Creek in the Santa Monica Mountains. The trees’ amber leaves glow in the morning light. She frowns at an ivy-like plant with violet-blue flowers. It’s blanketing a large swath of the creek. “Periwinkle is a common landscape ground cover,” she says. “It’s attractive to some people. I think it’s a green menace.”

Periwinkle (
Vinca major) hails from the Mediterranean. Let loose in parts of Southern California, it smothers virtually all of the wildlife-supporting native plants in its path. California is home to many indigenous plants found nowhere else on Earth. Many are at risk of extinction. The main culprit is urbanization, but weedy exotic plants — even some that residents buy for their gardens — often share the blame. Able to rough it in the wild, runaway plants can throw entire ecosystems out of balance.

Read the rest of the story.

When many of us think of Los Angeles, there’s a palm in the picture. That palm is likelyWashingtonia robusta, the Mexican fan palm.

Mexican fans are the remarkably tall (up to 100 feet), skinny palms with fan-shaped fronds that have towered over much of the city’s built environment for more than a century. More conspicuous than stars in L.A.’s washed-out night sky, some palm constellations have even been dubbed historic-cultural monuments.

Although other palms have sneaked into the scene, Nicholas Staddon, director of new plants for Monrovia Growers, says Mexican fans are still popular and “very valuable — it’s fast-growing and has a wonderful tropical look.” No primadonna, aptly named robusta thrives in a couple square feet of dirt amid a sea of concrete, even roots in sidewalk cracks.

But the region’s palmy past is seeding trouble. Click over to read the rest of my LA Times story.

Part 3
Grasses are among California’s most prolific weeds. Exotic bromes and other annual grasses now carpet millions of acres, displacing of native wildflowers, bunch grasses and shrubs.

Most arrived with 19th century settlers and livestock (as contaminants in feed or lodged in animals’ coats, for example). But in recent years, ornamental grasses have joined the fray.

“Grasses are useful in a landscape,” says Jim Folsom, director of botanical gardens at the Huntington, “but by nature they are invasive; being a grass generally means being able to cover a lot territory fast.”

Friday, April 16, 2010

Camping Joshua Tree

What is it about boys and rocks? A place with rocks, sticks and bugs is a wonderland for boys small and large. All abound at Joshua Tree National Park. Especially rocks.

Thanks to our friends at Ramshackle Solid for planning this outing. It was at times--groan alert--rocky but thoroughly satisfying.

When we arrived at the park on Wednesday, all the campground were full. So we unpacked on nearby BLM land, the Dale Mining District. And were rewarded with utter quiet, a starry night, and gorgeous desert lilies blooming

The lily is the first picture in this slide show below. Click here for a full-screen version. (For slide identification, click the upper right corner and chose "Show Info.")

The drag came the next day as we packed it all up again and relocated to Jumbo Rocks campground in the park. This is a great site for kids over 5 years old. After chasing my 3-year-old around the tops of boulders, I'm ambivalent about it for younger kids. The granite is wonderfully sticky, but it won't stop a kid from taking a nasty fall. The site is especially challenging when there are older kids around who are allowed to climb higher.

Still, my son and his toddler friend seemed more likely to die at each other's grungy hands than on any granite ascent and fall. They fought incessantly--with fists, sticks, stones and gravel. The primal struggle replayed at night as my son cried out "it's MINE!" in his sleep. Fortunately, the worst was over in a day.

In addition to the big rocks, the abundance of short, flat trails make J-Tree a great spot for kids.

We hiked from Jumbo Rocks to Skull Rock, as well as around Hidden Valley, to Arch Rock and into wash near the Cottonwood oasis. Don't miss the very short Cactus Garden trail with its gorgeous cholla (pictured above).

My son hiked nearly all of the 1 mile Hidden Valley loop and was rewarded with a park pin for his cap. The presence of an older boy spurred him on. And I called it quits after this hike, so he'd be eager for the next day.

For those who don't know, the park is comprised of both Mojave (high) desert and Colorado (low) desert. Joshua tree, desert dandelion, desert paint brush, calico cactus, apricot mallow, desert rock-pea, bladder pod, indigo bush and Encelia farinosa were among the plants blooming in the Mojave.

In the Colorado desert (also called Sonoran), I was thrilled to see blooming cholla, ocotillo, desert monkey flower, desert senna, desert poppy, the teeny Wallace's woolly daisy (Eriophyllum wallacei), beavertail cactus, prince's plume, Arizona lupine, desert canterbury bells, and more.

Most of these plants are easily identifiable with a little assist from books you can buy at one of the visitor centers.

At Jumbo Rocks we were treated to a good look at Western tent caterpillars (pictured in slide show). And we happened upon a couple of chuckwalla in a wash near the Cottonwood oasis.

My big disappointment: no jackrabbits. I love, love these big bunnies.

We spent our last two nights at the fab 29 Palms Inn, which lines part of the Oasis of Mara. It's a great spot for an easy look at wildlife, including cactus wren (above), quail, and lots of cottontail bunnies.

The pool is popular with the underaged, and the restaurant and bar with the overaged. If you stay over the weekend, don't miss a grounds tour with naturalist Pat. The Inn also supplies delicious sack lunches.

More on this trip from Ramshackle Solid.