California Coastal Prairies - Part 1: Not your aaaaverage prairie!

Spring Wildflowers on the Carrizo Plain.
Spring 1998, after a heavy El Niño rain season. Located North of San Luis Obispo, off Highway 58 east of Elkhorn Road. Photo by Lisa Marrone. Image taken from this CalPoly page.

When I was little I'd go with my mother to the fabric store where she would root through colorful remnants in the bargain bins -- for way longer than I found enjoyable, I might add. Those bargains were surplus pieces, the ends from large bolts of cloth. All that we have left of our colorful California prairies, though, are the remnants.

Prairies once filled the huge central valley of California, and many places up and down the coast. But no more. And what is left are mostly degraded by the invasive mediterranean grasses that are now iconic of "California's golden hills." Or worse - are paved over.

You'd be wrong to think that a California prairie is made up mostly of grasses. This mistake was brought to us by the preconceptions of East Coast and Midwest botanists, whose idea of a prairie was based on those found on the Great Plains of the Midwest.  In California, it's quite the reverse. Surveys of remnant prairies found that:
"The number of native wildflower species was far greater than the number of native grass species."
This quote is taken from the CNPS quarterly, Fremontia Vol 39 No. 2 and 3 combined issue devoted to the topic "California's Prairies and Grasslands." Download a full-color PDF of this wonderful issue (or any other)  here.

Those botanists thought John Muir was smoking a non-native weed maybe -- but he was accurate in his description: 
The Great Central Plain of California, during the months of March, April, and May, was one smooth, continuous bed of honey-bloom, so marvelously rich that, in walking from one end of it to the other, a distance of more than 400 miles, your foot would press about a hundred flowers at every step. Mints, gilias, nemophilas, castilleias, and innumerable compositæ were so crowded together that, had ninety-nine per cent. of them been taken away, the plain would still have seemed to any but Californians extravagantly flowery. The radiant, honey-ful corollas, touching and overlapping, and rising above one another, glowed in the living light like a sunset sky--one sheet of purple and gold, with the bright Sacramento pouring through the midst of it from the north, the San Joaquin from the south, and their many tributaries sweeping in at right angles from the mountains, dividing the plain into sections fringed with trees.
From John Muir, The Mountains of California, Chapter 16, The Bee-Pastures. Quote taken from this page in the John Muir Exhibit section of the Sierra Club web site.

It's true that coastal prairies tend to have more grasses than inland prairies. This is because of our more sandy soil. Prairies occur more typically on clay soils, whose poor drainage favors shallow rooting plants over deep rooting ones such as bunch grasses, shrubs, and trees. Coastal prairies feature deep-rooting bunch grasses and other grasses. You'll still find an abundance of flowers in spring, though.

(Not that there's anything wrong with native grasses -- far from it. I love native grasses. Visit the California Grasslands Association to find many native grass enthusiasts, classes, and etc!) 

At the end of March, I was on a field trip to a coastal prairie area known as Marshall Field, on the UC Santa Cruz campus. We also wandered into a similar area in nearby Wilder Ranch State Park. The trip was part of the California Naturalist course I completed this spring. 

It's easy to walk past amazing things in the degraded landscape. But beauty is there - not only vegetative either - here's a lovely little garter snake someone found. 

Yours truly with garter snake. Looks just like a lot of grass in the background, but it holds jewels.
In these areas, I took photos of these flowering plants. You can find these elsewhere too. But as you can see - most forms growing in this prairie habitat are rather short.
Rare dwarf form of  Fremont's starlily, Toxicoscordion fremontii

Annual - Witch's teeth, Hosackia gracilis

In the Iris family - Blue eyed grass, Sisyrinchium bellum

California goldenbanner, Thermopsis californica

Triteleia hyacinthina, white brodiaea

Brodiaea terrestris, dwarf brodiaea 

Triteleia ixiodes, prettyface

Owl's clover, Castilleja exserta

I forget what this is!!
I'm interested in developing prairie type areas in my native plant garden. I plan to write more about this, and related thoughts on how native people managed California prairies, in future posts. In the meantime, you might enjoy an excellent series of posts documenting a High Sierra gardener's meadow - Sierra Foothill Garden blog's Meadow category of posts.


Jason said…
A prairie with more flowers than grasses - now that's my kind of prairie. And I'm from the Prairie State. Love your wildflower pics!
Rylahn said…
I just loved the Owl's clover as flowers are in dense terminal spikes subtended by bracts which are 5-7 palmately lobed, greenish and hairy at the base, greenish-purple in the middle, and velvety rose-purple at the tips.