Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Curse That Invasive Native Chaparral !!!


Reforestation not taking hold in land burned by Station fire
This story first came to my attention from my readership connection to the California Chaparral Institute website and blog:

I don't live in Southern California anymore, but I have not been out of the loop regarding many of the horrific wildfires that make worldwide CNN News Headlines that have taken place since my moving to Sweden in May 2006. This fire here mentioned apparently happened in 2009 and the LA Times article deals with the US Forest Service restoration project to help jump start the Ponderosa Pine habitat which the fire destroyed. The planting project for the most part seemed to be a 80% failure. Some of the blame mentioned in the article went towards that evil invasive Southern California native chaparral species which moves in and takes over. But of course they forgot that this is how an the ecology of a forest regeneration works in the natural world to begin with. 

Before I explain how the processes work in nature, let me admit one thing that I myself unfortunately have as a human flaw as these foresters no doubt suffer from. Impatience!  Yes we all suffer from this same imperfect human flaw that plagues all mankind. Why ? Well we are all aware of the ever so short bubble of a lifespan we all have been cursed with from birth onward. When you are a kid, time seems to slow down to a slothful crawl. Remember when you were a child, how long time seemed to drag on through another School semester until the next summer vacation would arrive ? Then you became an adult and the weeks are like days and months fly by so fast that next year quickly overtakes you. There's simply not enough time for a healthy happy human being to do, see and appreciate all that there is in life and it's healthy potential before it all ends. And I can't think of a people who are more into life than those who love nature and the environment. With that said, Foresters & Biologists (who believe it or not are also humans with all the same failings as everyone else) sometimes try and push the ecology time clock forward by pressing ahead and going against what they know to be intellectually and factually true, but have allowed instead personal well meaning heartfelt emotions to cloud their thinking and knowledge of what they know to be the correct approach. Not to mention the US Forest Service mandates behind the scenes for pushing things ahead faster than they should progress.

Let's look at what we've all seen in those High School & College Textbooks with their illustrations of how nature regenerates itself by means of successive increments. Take a look below and can you pick out which habitat vegetation types the Angeles National Forest habitat restoration folks bypassed on their way to hoped for end result ?
 Correct! They jumped to the 5th and 6th stage plants (Coulter Pines, Big Cone Douglas Fir and Ponderosa Pine) to regenerate the community and then blamed the failure for successful establishment on plant communities #1 (annuals) #2 (brush/Chapararl) #3 (Schrub Oaks/Small Trees) .  And the facts are,  they ALL know better than to do that. 

Now look at this next graphic which is only for illustration purposes anyway. Some of the problems I see with this Habitat restoration is an ignorance of a local habitat's ecology. Many forestry practices learned from forest experiments done back in the Eastern USA or Pacific Northwest or even in Central or Northern Europe don't apply elsewhere, like on the drier west coast. Those wetter climate forest habitat restoration practices don't work in drier regions in much of the ecology of the southwest where rainfall totals are considerably far less than those areas of abundant rainfall. The illustration below shows what is called an "Overstory" tree canopy of Red Oaks with an "Understory" of White Pine. Some plants in nature actually require what are termed 'Nurse Plants' or 'Mother Trees' and it works this same way no matter what the ecosystem on Earth. Where I live presently, the Björk (Birch) trees and Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris) are actually the reverse of this illustration below. Both of these trees explode up before anything else has a chance to when an area is disturbed by clear cutting,  like the later sucessive species of European Oak (Quercus robur) & Acer platanoides (Norway Maple) Both of these actually need an overstory of the other trees to grow properly and create a nicer much taller form. Out in the open I have noticed here they tend to be stunted and shrubby.

 But getting back to the mistakes and some practical landscape applications. I myself am admittedly impatient when it comes to gardening and the landscape. But I know enough to get a handle on it before planning a layout and installation of a project. For example, when I have laid out the landscape plans and know exactly what I want and where, I go to the Nursery and pick and choose the plants most desirable. It is a huge temptation for me to select the larger 5 gallon or higher Shrubs/Trees because they are big and beautiful than it is to select and choose from the one gallon selections. Why ? Because like those foresters and also my impatient clients, we all want "instant landscaping". That's the imperfect human nature in us. I know full well from my own personal experience that the 1 gallon tree will catch up and out perform the 5 gallon or higher. Why? because the roots of that five gallon tree are usually spiraling around the inside of the container and proper growth and structure of this type of root structure can hamper the performance above ground vegetation later. Look at many of the established public parks and notice some of the large tree trunks which have an above ground  spiraled nature around the base of the trunks as a result of it's early childhood experience. LOL! The only reason it has gotten as tall as it has is because of the irrigation system. Such trees are also easily blown over in windstorms.
Shrubs you can often get away with larger than 1 gallon, no problemo. 

Please Click Here: Hydraulic Lift - Redistribution & Descent)

But trees need to develop their nature for the benefit of the entire habitat, landscape or otherwise. In the failed tree planting project mentioned in that article, they listed as a species the  planting of Ponderosa Pine. This tree is way down the line to come along in nature and most often benefits from already established forest habitat, at least in the southern reaches of it's boundaries. Coulter Pine was a good choice as it usually is one of those 'Pioneer Species'. This means that it is known or seen to venture out into brush habitat ahead of other trees. The ONLY reason for this is because of this little guy.

The main reason is that the Coulter Pine seeds or nuts are rather large/heavy unlike Ponderosa which is smaller and lightweight with a wing connected to propel it away from the mother tree. The ScrubJay collects them from the rather large Coulter Pine cones. What is interesting about many of the southern drier habitat seeds is that they are all mostly a fairly good sized nut shaped, unlike some of the northern habitats. Every variety of Oak Tree , Pinyon Pine , Torrey Pine, Digger Pine , Coulter Pine , etc in the drier southern regions owes it's existence to this bird who in actuality doesn't plant these heavy seeds/nuts out in the open (like the Foresters did) , but rather under the dander(mulch) of a chaparral species which has already been long since established in the habitat to begin with. So the oaks and many of the heavier nut producing pines actually need the care of a nurse plant to be a success later down the road. Yes, it'll take a bit longer, but once established they can actually have explosive growth once conditions are right and eventually replace those nurse plants that helped them establish at the beginning.

photo: Mine
I have a confession to make.  I was once a rogue Habitat Restoration Guerilla when I was a teenager and in my early twenties. I grew up in El Cajon California. Our house was at the foot of what is called Rattlesnake Mountain. I loved Torrey Pines and took it upon myself to establish a colony up in the canyons above my mum & dad's place. Of course there were mistakes along the way, but you learn from these. I knew absolutely nothing about mycorrhizal symbiosis and it's importance to tree establishment. First plantings were a failure. So were the second & third. Finally there were a dozen six foot high healthy individuals up there in the canyon and every one of them looked as if nature had put them there, that is until a fire (almost presently a normal annual occurrence) came and gobbled them up. I was shattered. I replaced them in the winter of 1980 with six individuals. Four were planted out in the open as there was no plant competition, but I planted two inside and close to the outer reaches of the root system of  large Chaparral plant I chose.

  Laurel Sumac (Malosma laurina)

As I remember in High School Ornamental Horticulture class my Ag Instructor James Dyer explained to us about what a nurse plant was and it's function in the wild. This was actually a new thought back then. Hence I used the nurse plant approach on two to see what would happen. Five years past and everything was fine. Later long drought periods took over and the four trees in the open were dead, but the two planted in the protection of the nurse chaparral were smaller, but healthy. I left not long after and moved to the mountains of Riverside county and left all that behind. But periodically I would come back every few years and find the two were still doing well. Of course I had long since inoculated them with Pisolithus tinctorius (Ectomycorrhiza) and that seemed to help, but funny thing is I had also incoculated with the other four dead ones which were planted out in the open. But oh well. 

Coastal Cholla (Cylindropuntia prolifera)

Last year I came back for a visit to my mum's place and took my Svensklandish(Swedish)  wife up to see the trees. Incredibly they were very large. The one is almost 20-25 foot in height. I had also planted a number of other plants like the now rare because of development, fire or just plain collected out of existence - San Diego Coastal Barrel CactusIn fact this is an actual picture of the area on Rattlesnake mountain. As an interesting side point here. The cactus, though native to the lower coastal mountains along the southern California Coast was never originally a part of the Rattlenake Mountain range. I had rescued some of the arm joints from a development that was going to be created in Santee CA. Incredibly enough, the region on Rattlesnake Mountain turned into a development of it's own called "Sky Ranch Real Estate Development" where environmental studies had to be done prior to the creation of all those homes. Much land had to be set aside for the California Gnatcatcher which lives only where California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica) grows. However, this specific area was roped off with environmental sensitive area tape, and the development abruptly stopped just yards away from it. The rather large colony of very mature Coast Cholla had Coast Cactus Wren nest and those of Mourning Dove. I had never in my life seen Coast Cactus Wren there before, but here they were.

photo: Mine
 Okay, here are the is a photo of the other Torrey Pines and it's  present growth from within that still old growth Laurel Sumac. The upper Torrey Pine I posted above is tallest of the two and the lower one was a bit more crowded, but still has several strong multi-trunk branches sticking out of the shrubby Laurel Sumac. I't probably 10'-15 ' high. This particular one was much a older than the other Torrey Pine I planted inside the Laurel Sumac by about a couple years. The top upper Torrey was out planted from a one gallon container and the lower one in this picture I had in a five gallon container. Interestingly however, the one gallon out performed the lower five gallon container tree by far, which told me that earlier establishment of a good healthy root system which is not bound out by a container is to be preferred. Sine this experience, I have always chosen one gallon sized trees over larger trees on bigger sized containers. Every single time they have out performed larger containerized trees because of that root structure development issue. And of course a good mycorrhizal blend is always necessary at time of planting. 

photo: Mine
Here is how close to the actual development came within view of these Torrey Pine Trees. In the beginning of the development when brush clearing was being accomplished prior to road and other infrastructure construction, I had actually seen some of the environmental tape just before I left for Europe. There were no houses or roads at the time, just large areas cleared of native coast chaparral down to the bare soil. Seeing that tape and the signage blew me away. The residents weren't exactly pleased at my taking photos of the trees, but oh well. At least I can document these for any future Reference. But it had been a privilege to help establish these trees and the rather extensively large Coastal Cholla Cactus colony which has attracted Coast Cactus Wrens to nest in as the photo below here shows an example of the colony.

photo: Mine
Well to close things off before everyone gets bored here. The point is Southern California ecosystems should be managed specifically for their needs and requirements. Climate Change and other strange unusual weather anomalies, plus the huge increase of human population is going to continue to disrupt the natural ecosystems here and no amount of rules, regulations and petition signing is going to change that. Everyone has seen just how devastating these later day fires have been. Such fires never occurred with this ferocity on such a large scale and on a regular basis before. More and more forested land is going to be destroyed and ultimately there is nothing that can be done to stop it. At best perhaps manage it and try to protect life and property, but even that is a gamble with these environmental changes occurring. 

Globally humans have made mistakes. Introducing European/North American style/type of Agriculture is one of the problems for many countries around the globe. In some cases local agriculture and resources should have been researched, understood and developed instead of bringing in outside western applications and practices which were and presently failures and hurting the ecosystems of those areas. No doubt that's the fault of the original ignorant early pioneers to the new land. I still almost can't blame the foresters for wanting to bring back what was lost. I like many in San Diego County felt devastated when the pristine old growth forest system of  Rancho Cuyamaca State Park (the Yosemite of Southern California) went up in flames in 2003 Cedar Fire. One act of carelessness and ignorance, then everything went up in flames in the span of little over a couple of weeks. The reality for all of us is that all present generations and many beyond will never again experience the old growth ecosystem of that park and surrounding areas.

The gut felt instinct here or heartfelt desire here is to force things along when it comes to habitat restoration. I do get that. In some cases I agree that nature alone now cannot be counted on to rebuild, especially when almost all of the modern day problems are the result of human error. Things in nature DO NOT function as they have traditionally done so for thousands of years in the past. Humans have made the changes, but that's for a later post. Hopefully at least some folks reading this have learned something and can make practical applications within their own environmental habitat called

(April 6, 2013 - An unfortunate Update to the above)

photo taken on April 6, 2013
The trees established up on Rattlesnake Mountain in El Cajon California have been deliberately cut down by the residents of the Sky Mountain Housing Development because they insisted such trees caused wildfires to happen with their spread. This is a lie and was never true of any plant. Common sense would dictate this, The Native Trees do not cause or start fires, people do. Needless to say the trees references some couple years back here are now history. Shows the value of taking photographs for historic teaching purposes within science and ecology. Sad, but still, this was an incredible success story in habitat building and tree establishment where the experts insist it will never work.
Massacre on the Mountain


  1. Excellent post here. Lots of great information....and yes!!! It does take time to reforest a burned/damaged area. We have Mt. Lemmon here as a reminder. Large forests covered the tops before the fire. Today the Aspens are slowing making a return and everything is in the early stages....but you can see it happening....SLOWLY:) Humans can help move it along but tossing seeds out their helicopters and planes, but the growth is definitely slow.
    I'm so sorry for getting back to you late on your question. I was out of the country this past weekend on the ocean doing some wildlife photography and just came back into the world of full internet again. You asked about Oleander Scorch and if we were affected here in Tucson. The answer is not yet. I have a post on that from a while back. Phoenix, San Diego and many parts of California have lost many of their oleander to the insect, but Tucson seems to be primarly untouched. There are a couple suspected cases but nothing to be concerned about as they are very isolated. I just hope it doesn't happen down here. They make beautiful barriers between properties and can take a lot of sunny and drought abuse. Hope you are well. Chris

    1. Sadly in ignorance and desparation, the US Forest Service over the years has made some terrible blunders ranging from as you said, throwing annual plant seeds(most likely any type of quick fix land covering ruderal seeds)over the landscape hoping to cut back erosion, but instead created other problems. For example early fire retardants had a sort of borate mixture which was founf to sterilize the ground. Take a look at the Wiki description:

      Fire retardant
      A MAFFS-equipped Air National Guard C-130 Hercules drops fire retardant on wildfires in southern California

      Borate salts were used in the past to fight wildfires but were found to sterilize the soil, were toxic to animals, and are now prohibited.[16] Newer retardants use ammonium sulfate or ammonium polyphosphate with attapulgite clay thickener or diammonium phosphate with a guar gum derivative thickener. These are not only less toxic but act as fertilizers to help the regrowth of plants after the fire. Fire retardants often contain wetting agents, preservatives and rust inhibitors and are colored red with ferric oxide or fugitive color to mark where they have been dropped. Brand names of fire retardants for aerial application include Fire-Trol and Phos-Chek.

      They also as you suggested dropped seeds from helicopters. These seeds many of which were non-native were quick to cover the land, but created other problems later down the line. It would have been better to chance a little runoff from the following rainy season.

      I use to go up to Mt Lemon and phtograph around the Sabino Lake Resevoir for wildlife shots. I love Sabino Canyon.

  2. Wonderful post and lots of great information here. Love the Scrub Jay. It would be nice if more people read and followed your ideas. My hubby is battling the foresters here, they want to do clear cuts and take a chance on what will grow back. In the past it was non native grasses and sticker bushes. I enjoyed this post and will have my hubby read it too.

    1. Every ecosystem and geographic location has it's own unique set of rebuild of a system. It's understanding the specific needs of an area and it's natural resource history and how it functions. However, though the info above dealt with Chaparral and So-Cal forest community, the basic principles discussed should be of interest to anyone.

      Thanks Eileen

  3. On another interesting note here. At the end of my post, I explained a personal Eco Guerilla Habitat restoration project of my that had ups and downs. The outcome eventually for me was a success, but there were bumps along the way. I most surely spent around $500+ on plants and various other costs and this was mostly money I spent as a kid. I don't view it as wasted of course because the lessons learned far surpassed anything I would have spent in college tuitions.

    What is hoped for here is not that folks think I invented anything at all, but merely replicated what is out in the reality of nature itself. Once I discover something and share it with others, then we are all equal as to knowledge of how things work in the natural world and can ourselves pass on to others.

    If you want to remember these specific applications, then the best way is to get hands on involved in a local habitat restoration project of your own or some group, or even experiment in your own backyard if wanting to plant and establish a tree by using the nurse plant method I described, documenting and photographing the results every step of the way, then sharing these with the rest of us. Hands on learning has always been my way of retaining information in my brain as opposed to just reading about the work and findings of others. Don't get me wrong, I love reading about what others have done and do so continually. That helps me improve, but only if I test it out and follow the suggestions through practical applications out in the real world.

    Hopefully others reading here will offer testimonials of their own experiences.

  4. Pesky chaparral...that's the kind of selective reasoning that "professionals" and some in the native plant society locally actually believe. Not understanding where they are and what is there, favoring what they want, is such a huge problem.

    Using nurse plants of similar association sounds like a great concept...again, that I need to implement more!

  5. Desert Dweller:

    "Using nurse plants of similar association sounds like a great concept...again, that I need to implement more!"

    I can't imagine you not having your own chunk of acreage somewhere, if not living on it presently, then some future dream retirement Ranchette.

    Try your own personal experiment before laying it on a client who may not understand why they can't have their landscape cake and eat it now. Actually it's fun to experiment.

    The year I left San Diego for Sweden I looked at the area I created 3 decades previous which i wrote about above on Rattlesnake Mountain. I left on May 4, 2006 and just the week prior I hiked up there. Can you believe it was the first year since 1980 that the Desert Agave I took from the Palm Desert area and planted finally bloomed ? It was beautiful. I didn't want to leave. Oh well, my honey was waiting. But now SHE wants to move over there.

    Incredibly, nurse plants are what establish many desert plants like your Saguaro. Well, that is after the Doves and Cactus Wrens feast on the Saguaro Fruits and go to the privy later on when resting in that shady Paloverde Tree.



  6. How wonderful to feel that you personally restored habitat for Coast Cactus Wren!

    1. I was so amazed when I saw the environmental sensitive area habitat "DO NOT DISTURB" roped off area. I was blown away. You can only imagine how I felt having to leave to come over to Sweden to live. Hope to move back soon with my wife. I learned alot from that experience as a kid and it has stayed with me when I develope landscape themes and intelligently replicating how things actually work in nature.

      Thanks for the compliment - Kevin


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