Chamise – a key chaparral plant

The chaparral ecosystem in California is comprised of a dense and diverse collection of small to mid-sized woody shrubs.   It covers the hills in a shallow cloak of gray-green vegetation just thick enough to soften the contours of the land, but not to hide them.  In some places the chaparral is dense and thick, so much so that it is nearly impossible to penetrate it, other places it is sparse and low.  Animal trails riddle the chaparral and the bones of the land show through with a dramatic abruptness.

Sandstone outcrops above a chaparral covered hillside at Red Rocks State Park in Topanga

Chaparral grows primarily in dry, hot areas, as such the plants have a number of moisture saving adaptations that are most easily seen in their leaves which tend to be either small or waxy, or both in many cases.  The ecosystem is surprisngly diverse in both plants and animals, but despite this there are a small handful that are common from Mexico through most of California and that, taken together, could be considered to be the background matrix of chaparral plants.  Sage (Artemisia) and Ceanothus both are broad genus level plants with many individual members.

These plants are common in the chaparral, and taken with another extremely common plant, Chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum), comprise what I think of as the matrix plants for the California wide chaparral.

Chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum) flowers are small and clustered in tight bundles at the tips of the branches

Chamise, also known as greasewood, is in the rose family and produces clusters of small white flowers that look much like another rose family genus, Spiraea, which includes hardhack and meadowsweet.  The flowers set seed and dry on the branch, remaining affixed to the stalk for several seasons after blooming.

The leaves of Chamise are needle-like, clustered in little bundles called fascicles, the word the scientific name derives from.  On the whole, the plant looks something like a cross between rosemary and juniper with shredding bark, gnarled limbs, and and regularly placed leaf clusters.

Old Chamise plant on a ridge in the Santa Monica Mountains

Like many chaparral plants Chamise seeds require fire to germinate.  This ensures that the seedlings will be able to take advantage of the temporary increase of nutrients and open sunlight in the plant’s early stages of growth.  Estimates of the longevity of Chamise vary, but range from 100-200 years.

Chamise is not generally considered to be good browse for animals, but it is common to find extensive patches of heavily browsed plants.  In some places the browse is so heavy that the bushes look like sculpted hedges, in other places they look like carefully trimmed bonsai trees.

Browsed Chamise branches

When it has not been browsed Chamise produces a relatively dense growth of vertical shoots.  Over time many of these will die, with the dead stalks being retained by the plant.  Some estimates of the total volume of retained deadwood on old plants reaches 60-70%, greatly adding to the potential combustibility of the Chamise.

Young Chamise branches

California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) can sometimes be mistaken for Chamise by the casual eye, but the leaves are broader and flatter and the flower structure is very different.

California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum)

Chamise is found primarily in California, though northwest Mexico and western Nevada also host populations of this plant.  Within California it is found in nearly all of the chaparral habitats as is shown on the digital Jepson Herbaria hosted by UC Berkeley.

Chaparral types with Chamise

This is a tough plant.  It grows with little water, on hard, rocky soil, and can even grow in serpentine soils, a soil type that kills many plants.  Many people do not like Chamise due to its flammability, but it is an excellent erosion control plant, provides cover for a number of birds and small animals, and serves as a last resort browse as well.

It is not the only chaparral plant by any stretch, nor even the most typical in any given area, but it is the one I have seen in the most places through California.


A Brief Stopover in the Santa Monica Mountains

I am back on the West Coast of the US for a few weeks before I fly off into tomorrow sometime in November.  The specific part of the west coast I am in is the Santa Monica Mountains, a rugged stretch of steep sided hills perched over the Pacific Ocean covered with blanket of dense chaparral.

Evening sunbeams in Topanga

The precipitous, heavily weathered mountain slopes are eroding from ancient sea-floor uplifted and broken by geologic stresses, frequently manifesting in the form of earthquakes.  The region is dry, though fog is common and periodic rainstorms can quickly drench the area, causing local flooding and landslides.  The dusty ground is colored a dull orange/tan with angular, flat, broken pebbles peeling out of shallow, soft bedrock with occasional anemonite and bivalve fossils.  Under the twelve foot chaparral canopy the gritty soil is overlain by several inches of slowly decomposing leaf-litter and twigs, loose in some places, held together by dense mycelial mats in other places, particularly under the scrub and live oaks.

Infrequent damp, cool places are home to massive coastal live oak (Quercus agrifolia) and California sycamore (Platanus racemosa) while a bewildering variety of woody shrubs make up the body of the chaparral cloaking the rest of the mountains.  Here and there small meadows, potreros in the southern California vernacular, and wind-blasted rock outcrops break up the gray/green vegetation.

Lemonade Berry (Rhus integrifolia) flower buds

Chamise, Toyon, Scrub Oak, Lemonade Berry, Ceanothus, Yucca, and various sages make up much of the more common large shrubs with Black Walnut, Elderberry, Coastal Live Oak, and California Sycamore making up the primary larger trees.  The softer vegetative plants of the understory tend be short-lived, only appearing to bloom and set seed after the rain.

The thick, leathery leaves of the Lemonade Berry (Rhus integrifolia) in the image above are fairly typical of chaparral plants in that they are mostly evergreen and have evolved to husband moisture.  Some plants steal their nutrients from other plants, Dodder (Cuscuta californica) is common in the chaparral, some years blanketing their hosts with yellow-orange leafless vines sporting nearly invisible flowers.

Dodder (Cuscuta californica) on Lemonade Berry. Dodder is most active after rains.

For such a dry region the diversity of both plant and animal life is astounding.  The most obvious animal life during the day are the birds.  Birds of all sizes everywhere, year round.  Little tiny acrobatic birds such as the Bushtit traveling in small noisy flocks.

Bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus) on scrub oak

Large birds of prey soaring overhead in search of thermals or their next meal.

Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) riding the wind

Meadowlarks, finches, wrens, thrashers, scrub jays, woodpeckers, hummingbirds quail, and a host of other birds flit about within earshot, if not within eyesight.

Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) atop a Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) shrub, a popular food bush for many birds. Toyon is also known as Hollywood, the plant Hollywood owes its name to.

Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna) perched on a non-native Tobacco Tree (Nicotiana glauca)

Mammals abound as well.  Small rabbits scatter like frogs in a pond in the evenings, and in the mornings I find fresh coyote, fox, bobcat, skunk, raccoon, deer, and mountain lion tracks on the unused dirt roads.  In the potreros badgers are not uncommon, large woodrat piles abound, bats fly through the canyons in the evening, and ground squirrels are everywhere.  Sometimes, if you have a quiet foot, a lot of patience, and good deal of luck you sneak up on these animals.  A few years back I was out here and found a coyote sleeping in the sunlight.

Coyote (canis latrans) sleeping in the sunlight

This being a dry area there are numerous lizards and snakes, mostly hidden from sight, and insects of all sorts.

I prefer wet places, places that stay green, but I do appreciate and enjoy the diversity of life here in the steep chaparral.  It is strange to be here between damp New England and my next home in Borneo where I will receive 3-4 meters of rain a year.

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Some of these photos are taken with a Nikon D80, some with a Nikon D90, and several with a Nikon D600.  I am still learning the latter camera, but if any of you out there are debating buying the D600, I can honestly say I recommend it.  The Meadowlark and Hummingbird images were taken with the D600 and are cropped from much larger images.

Fall Color, Superpowers, & Chemistry

My work here in Vermont is drawing to a close and the time is coming to make a transition.  Serendipitously, this is synchronized with one of the more dramatic and beautiful changes that takes place in New England.  Fall Color, the time when the trees reveal their hidden secrets for a brief time before dropping their leaves in expectation of a prolonged period of time when photosynthesis is impractical.

Mt Elmore, Vermont – early fall color

The color is easy to capture at the level of an individual leaf, but surprisingly difficult to capture at a landscape level.   The problem is, like so many things, one of chemistry and individuality.  Not only does each species of tree respond differently to the seasonal changes, each individual tree responds differently, indeed each individual leaf responds differently.  The soil and the weather over the past year have their own influences as well.  This time of year Vermont makes quite a bit of money from tourists, “leaf peepers” they’re called locally.  As with anything that generates money there are numerous conflicting opinions as to what the best conditions are for a good fall color.  The conversations have the flavor of farmers talking about the weather or arguing over the best shape for the bottom of a fence post.

Big Toothed Aspen (Populus grandidentata) leaf against Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) bark

There are several aspects of fall color I find particular interesting.  The first is that some of the color you see is always there, it is just hidden from view within the leaf by the photosynthesizing portions for much of the year.  I mentioned chemistry.  This is not because I am a chemist, or even particularly knowledgeable about chemistry, but because it is important for understanding much of the world around us.  Chemistry and physics.

Sunlight comes in all colors and some colors (wavelengths) carry more energy than others.  A plant needs to harvest that energy to produce sugars for growth and metabolism.  One of the difficulties the plant experiences is that energy comes in discrete packages, called quantum (quanta plural), and cannot be divided.  I realize that at this point some people will bring up the wave/particle duality issue; very loosely speaking color can be though of as wavelength and quantum can be thought of as the energy each particle carries.

In any event, plants store energy by breaking phosphorous bonds and recombining the atoms in new combinations, especially as ATP.  ATP, adenosine triphosphate, is the battery plants run upon.  Breaking apart molecular bonds takes a specific amount of energy and phosphorous is a particularly energy intensive fuel to use.  This also means that it can store a lot of energy, hence the plant’s use of it.  The degradation of ATP to ADP releases some of that stored energy and powers the plant.  The tricky part is that the light energy the plant has available to it, in the form of discrete quantum packets, does not line up exactly with the energy required to break apart and recombine phosphorus.  And, as previously mentioned, this process takes a lot of energy.

Remember, wavelength is color.  Shorter wavelengths carry more energy, quanta, and longer wavelengths carry less energy (incidentally, measuring this is one of the ways we tell if a star is moving towards or away from us).  Think of a rainbow for a minute…

Summer thunderstorms bring evening rainbows

The red light is low energy, the blue light high energy. Evolution is generally smart and not wasteful, within the limits of the resources it has to work with.  The phosphorous bonds cannot be broken down directly, the plant must convert CO2 and H2O into glucose sugars, metabolize those, and use that energy to create ATP.  All this costs energy, and plants harvest it all from the sun, using much of the red and blue light, and most of the rest of the spectrum except for green (with a few exceptions – purple leaved plants for example use green light).  Blue light causes something of a problem, it is extremely high energy, more than the plant can actually use in most cases.  Excess energy becomes heat, fine if you are in a cold climate, but the bane of existence if you are already in a hot climate.  Too much heat and plants close their stomata to avoid water loss, this also limits the plant’s ability to metabolize or photosynthesize.  One idea of why plants reflect the green light, also high energy, is to avoid overheating.  Green leaves may be a safety mechanism.

Glucose, the initial fuel and energy storage system of the plant, is a relatively relatively simple sugar and sweet to our taste buds.  During fall the plant pulls the important and complex chlorophyll compounds back into the main body, abandoning the leaf, sealing it off with brittle cork-like cells so that the leaf dies and drops away.  As the green chlorophyll leaves carotenoids in the leaves reveal some of the previously obscured color, but something else happens as well.  The glucose remaining in the leaf suffers damage from the sunlight and chemically changes, becoming anthocyanins.  The colors of anthocyanins are influenced by a complex host of factors, but the end result is that they produce fall color.

The second thing I find fascinating about fall color is due to the complexity of factors influencing anthocyanin production and the resultant colors.  Below is an ugly selection of the first Mt Elmore photo I’ve extracted and over-saturated to demonstrate this second interesting aspect of fall.

Note the distinct bands of color

The distribution and pattern of colors reveal soil types and moisture content.  Notice how the colors are not randomly distributed, there are definite bands and patterns?  Color hits first and most intensively where there is some sort of environmental stress.  The two micro-habitats I see changing color first in Vermont are wetlands and well-drained, dry soils.  The upper band of color, below the rock outcrop, is on a slight ledge with extremely shallow soil, land that stays dry and goes through more moisture fluctuations than the land surrounding it.  Each of those patches of color tells you something about the environmental conditions of that area, both seasonally and geologically.

This, to me, is fascinating, it is as though for a short time I have been granted superpowers and have Landsat-like multi-spectral vision.

This time of year in new England is magical.  The nights are cool and the days can be warm, fog rises and the colors are bright.  In the right place mornings feel like something from a fantasy novel, mysterious and beautiful, a place where knights, dragons, elves, or gods might be just around a corner.

Misty lake waters in a New England fall

As the seasons change so does my future.  I have accepted a position in Borneo and will be learning a whole new ecology, a new cycle of seasons, and a new set of environmental cues to pick-up on.  As I make the transition my posts may be a bit rocky and infrequent, and, once at my post, I will be relying on a patchy satellite up-link for a few years, but please bear with me.  Borneo is a rapidly changing place not many people have the opportunity to spend any time in and I intend to share the experience with those who are interested.

Dr. Seuss in Ecuador: the Frailejón, a strange Asteraceae

A number of years ago I spent some time working in South America.  I started in Ecuador and slowly made my way down to Bolivia, participating in a variety of interesting projects in remote areas, interspersed with travels between projects.  When my project in Ecuador was completed I and my then girlfriend headed up to a northern town high in the Andes called El Angel where an unusual plant was said to grow in the páramo, the high elevation grassland of the Andes.

We had heard that the frailejón were rare and only grew in a few limited places in Ecuador, Columbia, and Venezuela.  We didn’t know what to expect and I recall saying, “I hope we get to see one,” thinking that, like many rare plants, we would have to hunt for them.

Frailejón (Espeletia grandiflora) high in the mountains

We need not have worried.  These large, palm tree-like asters are what would would be called globally rare, locally abundant.

Everywhere we looked the land was stippled with these strange plants, many of them in bloom.

We were above the cloud (or fog) forest, the bosque nebuloso, and well into the páramo, a place that is sometimes described as tropical alpine tundra.  A land of grasses, cool weather, harsh sun and winds, clouds, and occasional freezing temperatures despite being in the middle of the tropics.  As such, plants here have developed a variety of environmental coping mechanisms to deal with the particular stresses they endure.

Frailejón leaf cluster

The thick, fleshy leaves are covered in dense, pale fur that retains moisture, reflects sunlight, and insulates from the cold.  The thick mat of fur creates a boundary layer of still air, acting much like the downy feathers of a bird or the thick fur of a beaver.  The closely spaced leaves have a similar effect, the larger outer leaves protecting the younger and more sensitive inner leaves.

Frailejón are in the Asteraceae family (aka. Compositae), as such they are related to an enormous variety of flowers we are familiar with; sunflowers, daisies, dandelions, artichokes, marigolds, chrysanthemum, coneflowers, fleabane, and about 23,000 other species.  All of these plants share a similar flower structure, and a look at the flowers of the frailejón clearly reveals this family association.

Frailejón flowers close-up

Like many grasslands the páramo is a fire prone region and plants must be able to cope with this stress as well.  The grasses in the páramo tend to be bunch-grasses, perennial clumping grasses with long-lived root-masses.  The nubby texture they give to the landscape must be very like what California looked like before the Columbian Exchange led to the replacement of perennial grasses with annual ones.  In the Andes the bunch-grasses remain, perhaps in part because the local people still practice fire based land management.  The tops of the bunch-grasses burn off, leaving the roots intact to resprout.

Frailejóns take a different approach to fire protection.  They grow above it, raising themselves up on tall stalks, appearing like shrubby palm trees.

Frailejón field with person for scale

The largest I saw was close to 4 meters tall.  The stalks are a straight cylinder, the same diameter no matter the height, and the leafy heads are also the same size no matter how tall the plant is.  Old leaves dangle down, insulating the base of the active growing head from the fire below.  The dead leaves felt a bit spongy, they may gather moisture from the fog as added protection.

The Andean spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus), which usually eats bamboo pith, has been known to tear down frailejóns to eat the interior of the stalk.

Frailejóns and bunch-grasses are not the only interesting plants in this region.  Large agave relatives with narrow, sharply toothed leaves and tall flower spikes infrequently dot the landscape.

Spiky agave relative with an immature inflorescence

Tough cycad-like ferns grow in mossy areas where the grasses do not.

Tough cycad-like fern

The landscape is… different.  Not exactly alien, but unfamiliar.  It is a little like walking through a dream or a Dr. Suess landscape.

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These photos were taken with a Canon AE-1 older than I am with a Canon 50mm f1.4 lens, developed and printed in Ecuador, mailed back to the US, eventually to be scanned on an Epson (I forget the make) all-in-one printer.

The Frontenac Arch a Critical Linkage

(this is an article I wrote for the summer 2012 newsletter of A2A – Algonquin To Adirondacks Conservation Association – a bi-national conservation association I am an adviser for – I wanted to wait until it was included in the newsletter before posting it here as well)

Between the Algonquin and the St. Lawrence a finger of the Canadian Shield, called the Frontenac Arch, reaches down from the north.  The Canadian Shield is an ancient formation of rock, heavily weathered, marked with meteor craters, and bearing the polishing scars of the ebb and flow of glaciers miles deep. Soils are shallow on the Shield, in many places nonexistent.  Nutrients are hard to come by and wetlands abound.

Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

The bedrock to the east and west of the Frontenac Arch is old seafloor with thicker soils that are rich in minerals and nutrients. Groundwater flows through breaks in the flat bedding planes and does not become trapped in pockets as easily as it does on the Canadian Shield.

When we look at a landscape we often look at the plants growing on the surface and leave our thoughts on the surface with them.  Plants grow where they do because of the chemistry of bedrock, soil, water, and temperature.

On the Frontenac Arch the chemistry of the northern and the southern Canadian forests mix.  This mix shows in the wide and unusual range of plants growing in and around the Frontenac Arch.  The diversity of plants attracts a corresponding diversity in animals. All these plant communities are separated and connected by the dense wetlands, and many animals are drawn to the wetlands.  Frogs, fish, ospreys, turtles, feeding moose, waterfowl of all sorts, beavers, blackbirds, otters, sparrows, loons, and many more.

Male Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta)

Healthy wetlands are rich in species, both in number and diversity; plant, animal, insect, and bird.  Wetlands are the kidneys of the planet; they filter water and keep it clean.  They slowly recharge aquifers with cool, pure water, they keep rivers and streams clear, they trap sediment, and they eventually fill in, becoming rich, complex soils full of nutrients.

Oddly, perhaps counter intuitively, all this life, more specifically all this diversity, of living things in wetlands is what keeps the water clean.  The water is strained at a molecular level for nutrients by all those living organisms.  Each looks for different things and uses them differently.  Toxins and chemicals are swept up and broken down by this process, but only as long as the diversity of life is present.

When that fabric of diversity is broken the health of the land suffers.  A healthy environment is like good glass, so clear you don’t see it and tough enough to withstand storms.

A large male Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) and feral biologists

The Frontenac Arch is one of the gems of the region and is critical in connecting the northern and southern forests.

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For those who are interested the Algonquin to Adirondacks Conservation Association website is here, and a map is below:

Algonquin to Adirondacks Conservation Association map of the Frontenac Arch

Meteor Impacts and Ourselves

I am fascinated and enthralled by things that fall from space and the marks they leave behind.  It’s not just my love of space, it’s is something far more profound, it is in part what those things signify.

Go to a museum, one that has meteorites.  Often there will be at least one display of a metallic body that you can touch.  Lay your hands on it, press your palms against it, feel the soft curves, the slightly nubby surface, the coolness of the blackened metal.  You are touching the core of an extinct planet.  That should give you pause and send a small shiver up your spine.

On Earth there less than 200 known, confirmed, impact structures.  Just looking at the map it is clear that the distribution is skewed to areas where there are many people (North America & Europe), exposed bedrock (Canada & Scandinavia), or regions where weathering is slow (Australia & North Africa).

Confirmed impact structures on Earth from:

Every other rocky body in the solar system is liberally coated in the scars left by impacts.  The Earth bears the history of its impacts in a different way.  Weathering, plate tectonics, and the oceans have served to hide the marks of the numerous past impacts.  Except…

The global ocean, that covers 70% of the surface of the planet to a depth of 7 miles in some places, this, the single largest surface feature of the planet, is impact derived.  It is believed that ALL the water on the planet arrived by cometary impacts soon after the planet formed.  The Moon is another large impact structure, a relict left over from  the collision of the proto-Earth and another roughly Mars sized body.

The frequency of large impacts has, thankfully, fallen over time, but they still happen.  Some of you, I hope all of you, may remember the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, the comet that crashed into Jupiter in 1994 after being torn apart by Jupiter’s immense gravitational field.  The fireballs in Jupiter’s atmosphere were larger than the entire Earth, and there were multiple fireballs.

Shoemaker-Levy 9 impact on Jupiter

The energy released by each of the Shoemaker-Levy impacts was on a par with the Chicxulub impact in the northern Yucatan 65 million years ago that is implicated in the demist of all terrestrial animals larger than a piece of carry-on luggage.

On Earth impacts are still frequent, but most are small and do not survive passage through the atmosphere.  Think shooting stars, grains of sand and dust traveling at orbital speeds, around 20km/second.  Several months ago, on the last day of February, I was treated to a something more dramatic than one of these little grains of dust.  A little after 10pm on the 28th I was driving under a clear sky and the snow covered landscape lit-up with a bright blue flash.  I later found out that the flash of light had been seen from New Jersey to Quebec.  This was just one of the many fireballs that flash in the sky each year, probably something small only a few meters in diameter, an explosion not more than a few kilotons.

In a few places the scars left on the ground from large impacts are still visible.  One of my favorite ones is in NE Canada.  Canada is an excellent place for finding impact structures as much of the Canadian Shield is ancient, exposed bedrock.

Manicoaguan impact crater turned into a reservoir

The Manicoaguan impact is about 215 million years old and approximately 60 miles across.  It has been dammed and the island in the middle is now one of the largest fresh-water islands in the world.  Big impacts like this are rare, but they leave dramatic remains behind.

Small impacts are surprisingly common, the frequency rapidly trailing off the larger the impact.  This is good news, but the picture is very incomplete as we have only been able to watch carefully for a short period of time.

Impact frequency Table from

We are struggling to understand how the universe fits together and have tremendous difficulty comprehending the scales and energy involved.  We are too used to thinking on our small scales, our bodies, our houses, maybe our planet, for a few our solar system or galaxy.  Our solar system is huge, our galaxy immense, yet in the lager context of our body of knowledge and what we can see even the Milky Way galaxy is barely a microscopic speck.

Look at the ocean, lay back and watch the trails left by falling meteors, look at the background of stars, go to a museum and touch the heart of a planet, if you live near an impact crater go visit.

We often say, “We are all connected,” and this is true, and that web of connection is far greater, wider, and deeper than most of us realize.

Quaker Ladies in the field

We rarely ever take the time to look at the smallest things.  We, very understandably, ooh and ah over vast landscapes, priding ourselves on climbing a mountain for the view that extends to the increased horizon.  All too often we overlook the smaller horizons, those under our feet, those that the vast majority of life with eyes sees.  The nearby, the up close, the things easily flattened under our feet in our quest for the big, the far, the distant.

Right now the Houstonia caerulea are blooming.

Field of Houstonia caerulea

They are known to most of us as Bluets and to some as Quaker Ladies. They grow in small cluster on the edge of meadows and in rich woods on well drained soils that get filtered light or short periods of direct sun. The flowers are often less than a centimeter across.  Most of the time we briefly admire them from where we stand, glancing down at these delicate flowers barely standing above the moss, leaf-litter, or short grass.  From our height the blue can be a mere suggestion of color, dominated by white.  The bright yellow star-like centers are barely visible.

From a little closer more details become apparent, but this invloves lying on the ground, thus most of us rarely see these little gems up close.

Small clump of Houstonia caerulea

It’s worth doing so, they are very pretty.

With a hand lens more detail becomes evident.

Houstonia caerulea iPhone with hand-lens

The vast majority of life with eyes on earth is tiny.  Their view of the world is more like the last photo than the first.  What we barely notice is a deep, dense forest to other living things.  When I can, I like to explore the world from this perspective, it reminds me of where we stand in the wider cosmos.