May 13, 2017

Wildflowering Among Weeds

Normally, you don't see much in the way of wildflowers in Southern California as late as May.

But this hasn't been a normal year. (Frankly, this hasn't been a normal six years—for any of us.)

So I was surprised / not surprised to stumble on a bright yellow bloom as I headed north on the 330 towards Big Bear on Thursday.

The yellow flowers in bush-like clusters along the roadside sure are pretty—.but, being one of the "broom" species (probably Spanish, though it could be Scotch) and therefore invasive, their proliferation isn't exactly celebrated by native plant societies.

Originally introduced to North America by Europeans as an ornamental plant, the U.S. federal government soon discovered that the broom was uniquely resistant to insect invasion and could prevent erosion—which explains why the yellow streaks can be found by the side of the road in the San Bernardino Mountains, but not beyond it.

They planted these flowering bushes extensively to prevent erosion—which makes sense, knowing that they thrive in disturbed areas (like near roads) and in areas of mining (like Big Bear, which was part of the Gold Rush).

But why are there so many of these bushy flowers just on this strip of highway, and nowhere else? Blame the Old Fire of 2003. Species of broom are one of the plants that literally explode in burn areas.

Now, the reason these non-natives typically get villainized is because they don't just go about minding their own business wherever their seeds happen to have spread—they take over the habitat and choke out the native ones. They steal all the water, and they provide habitat for invasive bugs and bacteria that don't bother them but totally destroy the natives that haven't built up a resistance to them.

And because they've been relocated to an area where they've got no predators to control their population, they just keep growing... and spreading... and seeding... and germinating... and pollinating... and becoming so indestructible that no weedkiller can even touch them.

And then sometimes, for some reason, some rare native plants manage to—against all odds—survive.

Case in point: the Colby Trail in Glendora, in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains...

...where sunflowers rise high out of the grassland...

...and the knee-high oat grasses protect the rare, endemic Brodiaea filifolia, a "cluster lily" that's not only native to California but also seriously endangered.

In the late spring, you'd normally be lucky to catch sight of a blossom or two, but this spring we're experiencing a bloom that reportedly only happens once a century—or, as some are saying now, once in a lifetime.

It's, in fact, the city flower of Glendora—probably because of its rarity, since there are only a handful of significant populations found around the world. And the Colby Trail is the last place in Los Angeles County where you can see the flower, whose color ranges from lavender to blue.

When you go off-trail through the stone-walled entrance to see the brodiaea in Glendora, at first you might only see the oat grass. The purplish petals are so low-lying that you can't see them from a distance—you basically have to stand right over them and look down. And it might take a few moments for your eyes to adjust.

When I took a detour coming home from Big Bear to see this rare occurrence, I encountered a guy on the pathway who said, "It's too bad all this grass is here."

Sure, the oat grass makes the Brodiaea harder to see. But, as I said to the guy, "at least it protects the flowers."

"Yeah but it wasn't originally here..." he said, clearly a nativist—though some oat grasses are, in fact, native to some areas of Southern California.

"Yeah but neither were the people," I snarked.

And that's an important point—because the biggest threat to the thread-leaved brodiaea is development. Even the 2014 Colby Fire didn't destroy this small population—in fact, the falling ash might've actually helped it.

And in an interesting twist, the thing that kept the Colby Trail from becoming a housing development back in 1989 was the discovery of the brodiaea, which is the only city flower in Calfornia that's endangered.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Birding Anza-Borrego During the Superbloom
What a Difference a Superbloom Makes

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