Weeds and Wonders - a Country Mousely Musing

Wild radish, Raphanus raphanistrum, an invasive non-native,
in full bloom at Arana Gulch Park in Santa Cruz,

Walking in Arana Gulch Park today, Mr Woodrat and I saw two people in a fenced-off area where cows are grazed. One had a clipboard and the other a long measuring tape. I said hello. They said they were doing a vegetation survey.

We hope the cows grazing will promote a resurgence of the rare and endangered Santa Cruz tarplant  (Holocarpha macradenia). That's why they're there.

Holocarpha macradenia, Santa Cruz tarplant.
Photo: Dylan Neubauer

Cows eat down the tall non-native grasses giving the tar plants light, and their hooves disturb the soil, breaking up the sod so they have a little room to germinate. That's the theory anyway. The surveyors said practically nothing native was growing in the section they were surveying.

Tarplant won't start blooming till June. That's not what you're seeing in the foreground of the next picture.

Wild radish and smooth cat’s ears in a fenced off part of Arana Gulch Park, Santa Cruz

The field was, in its way, as pretty as goldfields and tidy tips, and they are among the lovely native annuals painting Carrizo Plains, and other amazing places up and down the state of California even now. I was very happy I got to enjoy them at Coyote Ridge Open Space Preserve recently (it's near Morgan Hill).

Native annual s-- goldfields (Lasthenia californica) and tidy tips Layia platyglossa
at Coyote Ridge Open Space Preserve

Why are these smooth cat's ear not as lovely?
(Let me count the ways!)

I wandered along on this balmy morning and mused mousely musings about my responses, aesthetic and otherwise, to the landscape around me.

How did I feel about these invasive non-native grasses?

Well, I felt angry and frustrated.

Weedy grasses. Soft brome I think or Chess, not sure

Weedy grasses. Some kind of barley in foreground. Mouse barley maybe.
Other baddies in background.

How did I feel about the big patches of our state grass - purple needle grass (Stipa pulchra)? I felt delighted.

Stipa pulchra, purple needle grass.
It's got a bigger seed than my local needlegrass Stipa cernua
(which has a bigger seed and longer awns than my other local, Stipa lepida).
Also it seems to go to seed earlier, in my garden.

Purple needlegrass en masse, swaying in the breeze

But visually, all of it was lovely to look at. It’s spring, you know, and everything is green and pulsing and luscious.

People ask me – “Why can’t you just enjoy the beauty that’s here now?” and “Anyway, aren’t they all native by now?”

And at times I almost burst with frustration because – how can I convey an entire world view in a short reply?

It's a view in which (warning: long Henry Jamesian sentence in progress...) cherishing plants that developed here as part of a co-evolved and densely interconnected web of life that is complex all the way down and is, yes, incredibly beautiful – is so much more – more vast and important and deep and amazing – than a merely pretty view comprised of plants that are disrupting and usurping all of it –and not just that, but we people just can't stop our meddling, so it’s not like evolution can even heave a sigh and pick up from here.

So yes, I feel quite angry at the messes we make.

Yet I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that these individual plants are beautiful or that the view is indeed pretty.

It's what I told my five-year-old granddaughter when she scowled at the weeds we were pulling and yelled at them, "I hate you!" - Gosh that brought me up short.

It’s so hard sometimes to reconcile it all.

But this morning, in the first warmth of the first day of May with green sap rising all around – it felt really quite easy.

A pretty view at Arana Gulch Park.
(Plus - the oaks are native!)


Town Mouse said…
Ah well, it's complicated, isn't it? If the Europeans hadn't made it to California at all, we wouldn't have the problem. But then, we couldn't look at any of the flowers ;->
Diana Studer said…
Sigh - a similar battle rages where they are 'trying' to harvest the pine plantation and restore endangered fynbos. Amazingly the seeds of plants that were thought extinct, can germinate once the trees are gone and the streams flow again.

But but but they say - we want shady pines to walk our dogs. We don't like fynbos - it hides criminals. It is, complicated.
Country Mouse said…
Ah what you say Diana reminds me of the situation at Mount Sutro where people are so attached to the eucalyptus trees planted a hundred years ago by Mayor Sutro. They call it a "cloud forest." I've posted about that in the past. The native vegetation is probably more like your fynbos - more chaparral-like. It is very difficult to be a flawed human being and trapped in value systems that are so detached from reality - and I guess we all are various ways. But still. Maybe some more than others.
David Cristiani said…
I share your dilemma and frustration - ultimately, I'm for giving the disturbed natives a leg up, like the invasives were given a leg up by whatever practice or disturbance that did that. The mention of Coyote - Open Space reminds me I drove near there years ago, (I think) on the drive between my sister's old place in Gilroy and San Jose. So many different ecosystems there, often covered in unnatural eucalyptus.
Country Mouse said…
Thanks for dropping by David. I think the leg up the invasives got was simply the absence of the predation that would be going on in their native habitats. Ice plant from Mediterranean climate zones of South Africa, for example, would be eaten by tortoises and other critters. Here it just forms mats unopposed by evolutionary checks and balances. Yes, sounds like you were in the area I hiked in at Coyote ridge. The part we walked on is grazed by cows, and has native annuals. Do the cows help? That's the theory. Today I hiked on the terraces above north Santa Cruz and the coastal prairie perennials were there in variety if not profusion - they are dwarfed by the European grasses - natives appeared more in disturbed areas e.g. along trail edges - and elsewhere more in sprinkles than in flower fields. Still - nice to see them. Another thing I learned is that the "golden hills" European grasses get a leg up from all the airborne nitrogen from traffic - and the natives don't like all that nitrogen. All interesting, if not cheering.