Claremont Insider: Invasive Flora, Opportunistic Fauna

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Invasive Flora, Opportunistic Fauna

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On a recent weekend, the Insider staff decided to get away and enjoy the wonderful spring weather in San Gabriel Mountains. We drove out past Wrightwood on the Angeles Crest Hwy. and found a relatively easy path that joined up with the Pacific Crest Trail near Vincent Gap.

The trail had a pretty good elevation gain up through an oak forest for the first mile or so, then it leveled out and followed a ridgeline dotted with pines. As we walked along, we noticed, nestled in a shaded pine needle bed, a group of what looked like bright red and pink hyacinths without any green leaves. As we got closer, we saw that they were supported by thick candy cane stalks.

We returned home and later consulted the old man of the mountains. We described the fantastical plants to him, and he told us in his gravelly voice, "When we were kids, we called that snow plant."

Snow plant, we've since learned, is a fungus-like parasite called a "mycotrophic wildflower" that gets its nutrients from tree roots.


One is never quite sure what one will find when one wanders into the local mountains and foothills. A couple weeks after our mountain adventure, we decided to stick closer to home and explore some of the flatter alluvial areas around northeast Claremont. The undeveloped alluvium is home to the plant and animal community called riversidean alluvial fan sage scrub habitat, or RAFSS.

RAFSS is rapidly dwindling in southern and Baja California. Ten years ago, there was only about 2,000 acres of it left in California. It's disappearing because most of the stuff happens to be located on real estate coveted by developers (that is, until the real estate market tanked).

RAFSS is an odd sort of habitat. It's not at all liked a picturesque English woodland. Instead, if you go during the summer, you're likely to find it brown and sere. That is, in fact, why the city of Claremont had its commissioners trucked to the Padua Park site in July, 2000, to ensure that all they saw was what looked like a weedy lot desperately in need of improvements. About half of the 20-acre main park site consisted of RAFSS.

If the city's commissioners had gone to the same spot three or four months earlier, they would have seen it alive with greenery and flowers. All of which serves to underscore how diligently our town works to manipulate perception to get its projects done.

In any case, when we ventured out to take a look at an area near where the sports park has been installed, we found it teeming with wildflowers. Water percolated up in places from artesian springs (the cienegas that Claremont doyenne Marilee Scaff yearns to build below the dam near the Thompson Creek trail).

As we walked along, a couple quail that had been foraging in the brush, and they scooted off, chittering alarm calls as they took flight. We wondered about rattlesnakes, but it wasn't terribly hot the day we were out, at least, not hot enough to get the snakes stirred up.

Purples, blues, and lavenders seemed the dominant color that particular day. We saw blue-eyed grass and lupine (photo, right) with their five-lobed leaves. There was showy penstomen (below) as well, sitting in large groupings of blue jets arrayed along long, thin spears.

The generous storms of January and February brought so much water that the plain held an abundance of chamise, buckwheat, and bronze-green castor bean, too. Other flowering plants hadn't quite come into their season yet. White sage and short coastal prickly pear cactus looked as if they would burst into bloom any minute.


As we got closer to the park site, approaching it from the east, we noticed that the soil was considerably disturbed by the construction equipment. Black mustard and other invasive exotics had taken over those disturbed, more open areas. We could see the strangely out of place weeds mixed in and projecting above the RAFSS:

As we got closer, we saw that they had overrun the area completely:

And, along with the weeds that choked off the local coastal sage habitat, some even more more opportunistic and parasitic fauna appeared, blindly devastating up entire plant and animal communities from Claremont to Whittier Narrows:

From "Pave to Save," LA Weekly, April 22, 2010:

Shepherded by a group of unwieldy bureaucracies that include two water districts, the San Gabriel & Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountain Conservancy and the County of Los Angeles, the San Gabriel River Discovery Center is designed to replace the aging 2,000-square-foot Whittier Narrows Nature Center, buildings including a garage, and "non-native landscaping" with a 14,000-square-foot museum of interactive exhibits for children that would explain the existing state of the watershed, show what the natural rivers were once like and feature a covered, outdoor classroom.

"You're going to bring awareness of the sense of place where the kids sense that they're part of something much bigger," declares Sam Pedroza as he reels off interconnections between man, river and sea. "Everything that we do from the mountains and the inland cities affects the ocean. It's as small as throwing a wrapper in the street or in the parking lot — that can all end up in the ocean."

Pedroza, a Claremont city councilman, chairs the San Gabriel River Discovery Center Authority's Stakeholders Committee. "I know that we look like the Goliath here," he tells the Weekly, but "by every definition this is an environmental project that's aimed at protecting the watershed."

Others aren't so sure.

Teresa Young, who studies insects in habitats near the existing nature center, shares Pedroza's concern for the remaining open space. But she does not agree that the construction of a large building and parking lot somehow improves the environment.

Save by destroying, and then put up a commemorative bronze plaque to describe for future generations that which we've plowed under. It's a truly bizarre logic we've become accustomed to in Claremont, the City of Trees.