My fascination with California plants started when I was about 14. My eighth grade science teacher, Mr. Atkins, taught a wonderful ecology class. He broke us into teams of 2, and assigned us a plot on the hillside outside his classroom. My plot, which I shared with my friend Frank Saffen, was a 2-meter block of oak woodland. At least once a week, the entire class was outside studying our plots - measuring the girth of trees, identifying wildflowers and other plants, and observing insects and other animal life. I'm not sure how many years Mr. Atkins had taught the class, but each plot came with a binder of information collected by previous students. Our particular plot included a pretty yellow wildflower, one which previous students had not been able to identify. With Mr. Atkins' help, we identified it as common woolly sunflower (Eriophyllum lanatum). While I'd always been interested in nature, Mr. Atkins class was my first experience in formal observation and measurement. During high school, I started a collection of pressed wildflowers I found around our home in Tuolumne County. Mr. Atkins started me on a path of amateur plant geek-dom!
My initial interest in native plants focused on the most showy plants in our foothill environment - wildflowers and trees. As I recall, my herbarium collection included valley oaks, black oaks, crimson monkeyflower, shooting stars and buttercups (among other things). But while I still enjoy seeing these "stars" of the native plant world, my interests have matured as I've aged. Perhaps this is due in part to my current vocation as a shepherd, but I like to think it represents a maturing of my tastes and sensibilities. Now that I'm enjoying extreme middle age (I'll be 49 next month), my interests have turned from wildflowers to native grasses. I would compare it, in some ways, to my taste in beer - when I was 21, my beer of choice was "cold and open" - today, I enjoy the complexity of a craft-brewed IPA or nitro stout!
The foothill rangelands that I still call home (and that I graze with our sheep) have changed tremendously over the last 300 years. With European and American settlement, the introduction of domestic livestock, and cyclical dry years and wet spells (which we still experience today), our grasslands and oak woodlands have come to be dominated by annual grasses and weeds from other continents. Some of these introduced plants are important to me as a sheep producer - annual grasses like soft chess, Italian wild rye, rose clover and filaree. Others are bothersome - invasive weeds like yellow starthistle, medusahead and barbed goat grass. And so I get especially excited when I find remnants of our native perennial grasses in the pastures where I'm grazing our sheep!
While native grass plants aren't has flashy as wildflowers, I think they are beautiful (both aesthetically and ecologically). Purple needlegrass (or state grass!), for example, has beautifully delicate, purplish seedheads - they catch the early morning sunlight unlike any other grass in our environment. California melic grows in the rock outcrops where we graze - it's a different color of green than any other grass - and it's slender seedheads are reddish colored in the early spring. And since these are perennials, they stay green longer into California's quintessential golden brown summers - I love finding a green and growing bunch grass in the midst of dead annual grasses (and so do the sheep!). These perennials seem to like well-managed grazing, too - like most grasses, they likely evolved in the presence of grazing animals. We typically graze the pastures that have perennial grasses in the early spring and again in the late fall or early winter - which means these plants have all spring and summer to recover and to produce seeds.
And so while I still enjoy finding new wildflowers and watching for when my favorites start blooming, I've grown up! As much as I like the flowers, I like the grass even more. I'm still a geek, but perhaps I'm more mature (at least in this respect)!
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