Inland Southern California’s native plants–a brief introduction

Riversidean sage scrub in Claremont, CA

Riversidean sage scrub in Claremont, CA. Photo links to original site–I want to credit the photographer but don’t know who that is.

I’ve been trying to research what the native flora of inland southern California was like before intensive white settlement, and it’s been very difficult. Then suddenly today it occurred to me that there might be others interested in knowing more about that and also finding it really hard. Maybe I could make that a teensy bit easier. (Probably not, but it’s worth a try, right?)

Part of why it has been so difficult to find information on this subject is that the landscape has been heavily modified by humans for hundreds of years. It is the worst, ugliest kind of suburban sprawl and pretty much all traces of the original flora have been erased. While I have found a lot of info on the plants of the coast and the mountains, the lowlands have been suburban sprawl for so long no one remembers anything else.

The “Inland Empire” of Southern California occupies the western parts of Riverside and San Bernardino counties. It basically consists of valley lowlands surrounded by the Santa Ana mountains in the west, dividing the inland from the coastal lowlands (LA basin and Orange County), the San Gabriel Mountains in the north, the Santa Rosa-San Jacinto Mountains in the east, and some more mountains in the south that if they have a name I don’t know it. The Santa Ana River is the major watershed.

When the Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza reached this area in the late 1700s, he named it Valle de Paraiso (Paradise Valley), and described it as fragrant with rosemary and other herbs with rich grassland. So that is our first clue to the native flora–rosemary and fragrant herbs.

Much of Southern California consists of sage scrub (which, as you might guess, is dominated by sage–“a characteristic suite of low-statured, aromatic, drought-deciduous shrubs and subshrub species”, if you want to get technical about it [source]), but it turns out there are a bunch of different types of sage scrub. For example, around LA and Santa Barbara you’ll find coastal sage scrub. In the inland lowlands, it’s a subtype called “Riversidean sage scrub” and is mixed with some chapparal, grassland, alkali meadow, and even wetlands in patches.  You might not think it given that so much of America’s produce comes from California, but our soil is actually pretty awful in this region. It’s heavy, clayey silt which is full of nutrients, but so alkaline that most of them aren’t bioavailable to plants. Hardpan is very close to the surface. Being “drought-deciduous” means that during the summer, everything turns brown and looks dead–but it comes back to life and greenness when the rains come.

Sadly, even what little is left of this plant community is being rapidly destroyed (source). Not only has the weather been getting progressively hotter and drier, but the land is being devoured by yet more suburban sprawl.

Fragrant herbs

Specific plants that can be found in the original plant communities here include:

Artemisia Californica-GaviotaCACalifornia sagebrush (Artemisia californica). Honestly this is the best-smelling plant I have ever encountered. To me it’s like rosemary and sage with notes of peach and rose and something else that’s just magical. I can’t get enough of it.

Salvia apianaWhite sage (Salvia apiana). The stuff people smudge their haunted houses with. Except that usually people should not be using white sage because it’s not native to their region (it’s always best to use what grows in your area–it grows there for a reason, after all–not to use something just because it’s sacred to some people who live halfway around the world or across the country).

Salvia melliferaBlack sage (Salvia mellifera). Both “apiana” and “mellifera” mean that bees are attracted to these plants.

Eriogonum fasciculatum flowerCalifornia buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum). This plant has gorgeous flowers that produce a delicious honey.

Acmispon glaberDeerweed (Acmispon glaber). It is loved by hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, and deer. One of its common names is California broom. I think I may formerly have had one in a planter–it was sold as “broom,” but clearly wasn’t the European variety. It smelled absolutely wonderful. But sadly, it died. It is definitely worth trying again though.

Atriplex lentiformis silvery saltbushSilvery Saltbush (Atriplex lentifolia). Saltbush is able to capture salt and survive very arid alkaline soils where hardly anything else grows. The leaves taste, as you might guess, like salt.

Encelia farinosaBrittlebush (Encelia farinosa). The Spanish used the sap of this plant as incense in the mission churches.

Populus trichocarpaCottonwood (Populus trichocarpa). Sometimes called Black Cottonwood. I haven’t seen any examples of this growing wild and free yet, but I hope to–it is a beautiful tree.

Platanus racemosaWestern Sycamore (Platanus racemosa). As I mentioned in a previous rant post, this is a native and beautiful variety of sycamore or plane tree.

ceanothus oliganthusCeanothus (Ceanothus sp.). Sometimes known as California lilac for its blue–or white, or pink–flowers. The medicinal herb red root is a variety of Ceanothus.

manzanitaManzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.). Manzanita has always been a favorite of mine, I guess because it’s a favorite of my dad’s. When I was little and lived in Northern California, we would go for hikes in the coast range mountains and he would point out different kinds of plants and animals. Manzanita has smooth, graceful red branches that stand out against its bright green leaves. I think it looks very elegant.

California poppyCalifornia poppy (Eschscholzia californica). Last but not least, the state flower. It’s illegal to wildcraft it, so I’m hoping to start growing some of my own soon.

Please stay tuned…

I hope this brief rundown has been of use for people interested in getting to know native California plants. Obviously I have barely touched the tip of the iceberg of the diverse Riversidean sage scrub community. Next time I’ll talk about some medicinal applications further resources, and in Part 3 about medicinal applications.


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