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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Late Bloomers Offer Wildflower Watchers a Blaze of Summer Color


Unusually cool temperatures and late rains have helped to prolong Malibu’s spring wildflower season into summer.
The Santa Monica Mountains are still ablaze with the pastel orange sticky monkey flowers, the pale blue and lavender blossoms of black and purple sage, brilliant yellow canyon sunflower, pink clarkia, royal blue larkspur and even the sky blue and mist gray of late-blooming ceanothus, also known as California lilac.
Malibu residents have many wildflower viewing options. A drive through any of the area’s canyons offers a glimpse of the living tapestry of color. Solstice Canyon, Charmlee Wilderness Park, Nicholas Flat, and Zuma Canyon are all good choices for late season wildflower walks.
Native plant enthusiasts now have a variety of field guides to assist with plant identification, including several 21st century aids.
Last year, the National Park Service introduced a free app based on park volunteer Tony Valois’ extensive Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area online plant database. The app showcases 950 plants and includes 6000 photos.
“Users can choose from several basic flower characteristics on the app’s interface like color, size and shape,” the NPS website states. “Based on those characteristics, the app presents several possible photographs to compare to the actual flower. Flowers that are more difficult to identify often come with several additional photographs so that visitors can confidently make an accurate identification.”
The app is memory intensive, requiring 600MB to store the entire database, but it can be used in locations where cell phone reception is nonexistent. There is also a mobile Internet version on the official SMMNRA site: The wildflower database is periodically updated as new flowers are added.
 Calflora, “an independent organization dedicated to providing scientific information about California plants for research, conservation, and education,”  also provides Internet-based plant ID.
 The Calflora website,, covers the entire state, but the site’s search engine is designed to allow users to narrow their search to a specific area.
The site was started in 1994 by a researcher named Ann Dennis, who was assessing how management practices might affect wildlife, plant diversity, and forest health for the U.S. Forest Service, according to the Calflora website.
In 1997, Calflora began collaborating with the UC Berkeley Digital Library Research Project to pair the Calflora database with a collection of wildflower images. The site has continued to expand to include more and more species. It also now features an app, but instead of a portable field guide it operates instead as a way to submit photos and observation information, which can be viewed by website visitors.
In January 2012, “The Jepson Manual,” often described as the bible of California plant identification, and easily mistaken for a door stop—a warning on the official UC Press website for the print edition states that  “due to the weight of this book, standard shipping charges do not apply”—was reissued in print but also, for the first time, as an e-book.
The e-book version of “The Jepson Manual: Vascular Plants of California, Second Edition, Thoroughly Revised and Expanded” costs $125,  but it’s a boon to field researchers and dedicated amateur naturalists and marks the first time in the tome’s 50-year history that it can be conveniently used in the field.
The boast that the work is “the single most comprehensive resource on California’s amazingly diverse flora,” isn’t hyperbole. The work covers 7600 species, subspecies and varieties, nearly two-thirds of which are illustrated with detailed diagnostic drawings.” It also provides “geographic distributions, elevation ranges, flowering times, nomenclature, and the status of non-natives and native taxa of special concern,” according to the UC website. “This edition also allows for identification of 240 alien taxa that are not fully naturalized but sometimes encountered. A new chapter on geologic, climatic, and vegetation history of California is also featured.”
For those who prefer a more user—friendly—and portable—wildflower field guide, several older books remain indispensable.
In 1985, self-taught botanist Milt McAuley compiled and self-published the first comprehensive field guide of plants in the Malibu area, entitled “Wildflowers of the Santa Monica Mountains.”
McAuley died in 2008 at the age of 89. His book remains one of the best resources for local flora and includes helpful information on the location of specific plant populations in Malibu and the surrounding area.
Published the same year as McAuley’s book, Nancy Dale’s “Flowering Plants of the Santa Monica Mountains Coastal Chaparral Regions of Southern California,” is less extensive than McAuley’s but offers a more in-depth look at the included plants.
Dale delves into the meaning of many plant names and includes historical notes for many species. Fascinating botanical trivia includes the fact that the Jack of Spades in early Spanish Californian playing cards was depicted holding the yellow flower called gold fields.
A much more detailed look at the ethnobotany of local native plants can be found in Jan Timbrook’s “Chumash Ethnobotany: Plant Knowledge Among the Chumash People of Southern California,” published by the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.
Timbrook includes Chumash names of many local plants, as well as medical and ceremonial and culinary uses.
One doesn’t need to know the names or taxa to enjoy the sight—and scent—of Malibu’s abundant wildflowers, but it can add an extra dimension of enjoyment to the experience.

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