Whitethorn And Its Kin

Posted in Flora, Nature Articles

IMG_2417_editedNot everyone likes whitethorn, which can form impenetrable, thorny thickets and take over your land. But when it’s in bloom, the honeybees and other pollinating insects love it.

Whitethorn is really a ceanothus. Its scientific name is (Ceanothus incanus). It blooms at about the same time as its relatives, blue blossom or California lilac (Ceanothus thyrseflorus) and tobacco brush (Ceanothus velutinus). If you happen upon the three species blooming together (for example, on land that was clearcut 10 or so years ago) the racket from the buzzing insects is amazingly loud.There are over 60 species and sub-species of ceanothus growing in California, some of them rare or endangered. Whitethorn, blue blossom and tobacco brush are three abundant species found here in SoHum. All three shrubs can grow up to 20 feet tall and look like small, multi-trunked trees. The flowers are small, about an eighth of an inch, but grow in clusters which makes them showy. Ceanothus leaves are distinctive in their veining pattern, running laterally through the leaf rather that radiating out from a central vein like a feather. When the weather dries up in late spring, ceanothus leaves shrink in size and become leathery, which helps them survive the dry summer season.

Whitethorn flowers are a creamy off-white and the leaves are grey-green with whitish undersides. Blue blossom flowers are , you guessed it, blue. They range from vivid, dark blue to palest blue, and sometimes white. Their green leaves are from ¼ to 2 inches long, depending on how much sun exposure and moisture the plants get. Tobacco brush has white flowers and shiny, somewhat sticky dark green, fragrant leaves. If you put any ceanothus flowers in water and rub them gently, a light suds forms which can be used for soap, shampoo or body wash.

IMG_4287_edited-1Ceanothus species have nodes on their roots which fix nitrogen into the soil. This makes them pioneer plants especially adapted to growing in soils that have been disturbed, such as roadbanks or clearcuts. As pioneers, they not only nitrify the soil, making it more hospitable to other plants, but also provide a sheltering ‘nursery’ for tree seeds to take hold. Once these seeds grow up into oak or fir trees, they shade out the ceanothus species and the conversion from shrubland to forest begins.

Because it attracts so many beneficial insects, whitethorn is a good shrub for the garden and looks fantastic with masses of California poppies growing at its base. It takes well to pruning, which not only keeps it in bounds, but keeps it looking healthy and vigorous. But watch out – those thorns can be painful!

Bull Kelp Grows at an Amazing Rate

Posted in Flora, Nature Articles, Uncategorized


A-bull-kelpHow amazing that something can grow up to 150 feet in one year! Bull kelp and giant kelp are the fastest growing seaweeds in the world and can grow up to 2 feet per day. Bull kelp is especially amazing because it is an annual; germinating, growing, reproducing and dying all within a one-year cycle. Bull kelp grows in large patches called kelp forests off-shore from San Luis Obispo County to the Aleutian Islands, preferring colder water than the giant kelp. It is the predominant ‘big’ seaweed along the Lost Coast.


Growing from sporophytes in the spring, bull kelp forms holdfasts that act like roots clinging tight to rocks and cobble on the ocean floor. Holdfasts must be strong in order to hold on in the rough and tumble subtidal zone. From the holdfast extends the stipe, a hollow stalk that grows all the way up to the surface. At the surface the stipe enlarges into a gas filled floatwhich keeps the seaweed upright. As many as 60 blades grow from the top of the float, absorbing nutrients and sunshine, and forming the brown ‘rafts’ of seaweed that we see from the shore or a boat. Spores form in patches on the undersides of the blades and in fall, sink to the ocean floor. By winter, bull kelp is spent. Storms wash it to shore where we humans pick it up and twirl it around like a bull whip, hence the common name.


On the surface, kelp forests calm the water and provide resting and feeding areas for sea otters, gulls, herons, shorebirds, and waterfowl. Kelp forests soften the force of waves against the shoreline, helping to reduce beach erosion. Underwater, kelp forests provide shelter and habitat for young fish, snails, crabs, sea stars, anemones, and many other creatures. When washed ashore in winter, the decomposing kelp provides food and shelter for scavengers like crabs and beach hoppers, which in turn are food for shorebirds and other life.


Bull kelp is full of vitamins, minerals and protein. It was used by the Pacific Northwest Coast Indians for food, fishing gear and storage containers. Kelp must be harvested responsibly to protect it from depletion and to preserve its ecosystem. Because it requires clean, clear water to thrive, polluted coastal runoff and warming oceans due to climate change threaten the species.


The California Coastal National Monument encompasses all the rocks and small islands off the 1100 mile California coastline, protecting their scenic beauty and wildlife habitat. The Coastal Monument is part of America’s National Conservation Lands. It is here that bull kelp thrives.



Cheryl Lisin is a landscape designer and native plant enthusiast who lives in Whitethorn.


The Planarian

Posted in Insects, Nature Articles

planaria picBliss is floating on an air mattress, drifting on the shallow waters of the Eel River. Excitement is seeing a planarian undulating across the gravel.

It stared at me. I stared at it.

The planarian is a small (1/2” or less) and simple flatworm. It lives in rivers, freshwater ponds and saltwater, gliding across the bottom as it looks for prey (small worms, crustaceans) . The two eyespots are sensitive to light, which the planarian prefers to avoid. On the sides of its triangular head, the “ears” are actually sensitive to touch and to chemicals.

On its belly is the mouth. The planarian extend its long tubular pharynx out through the mouth and secretes digestive enzymes. These begin to chemically break up the prey. The pharynx then sucks up the bits. These go into a simple gut. The intestinal cells lining the gut complete the digestion. Nutrients are dispersed throughout the body by a highly branched system of tubes. Excretory pores along the sides release the chemical waste products.

Planaria breathe through their skin, receiving oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide. They move by the beating of small hair-like projections from the cells on their bellies, or via muscle contractions. The muscles are a part of the body membrane. The nervous system is very simple: two large bodies of nerve cells (ganglions) behind the “ears”, and nerve cords and smaller ganglions in a ladder-like configuration down the body.

They are hermaphrodites, having both testes and ovaries, but they must mate to reproduce, exchanging each other’s sperm. The eggs develop internally, are shed in capsules, and several weeks later hatch into mini-adults.

So why was I excited to see one? The last time I saw one was in a biology class, in a petri dish, where it was being cut in half. Planaria have the amazing ability to regenerate missing parts. You could cut one up into over 100 pieces and each one would grow into an intact, fully functional planarian. How does this happen? About one fifth of the cells in its body are stem cells, capable of making any of the various tissues and organs, much as the cells of an early embryo (embryonic stem cells) can do.

Today, researchers studying planaria have identified a protein, TOR, which is essential for regeneration. Without it, no growth can occur. Researchers are looking for ways to inactivate TOR in cancer cells, to stop them from multiplying and to activate TOR where needed to stop degeneration caused by disease or Alzheimer’s.

Eve Broughton was educated at UC. Berkeley and lives in Whitethorn.


The California Slender Salamander

Posted in Amphibians and Reptiles, Nature Articles, Uncategorized

Slender California SalamanderIt may look like an earthworm but Batrachoseps attenuates is a miniscule salamander with idiosyncrasies. Two-thirds of its total 2 ½” to 5 ½” length is tail. Its tiny head is narrow and its brown skin is deeply grooved between the ribs, thus completing the earthworm disguise. Unlike an earthworm, they have bulging, front-facing eyes, tiny arms and legs, and a tooth-filled mouth. Batrachoseps are lungless and breathe through their thin moist skin. Unlike other salamanders they have four toes instead of five on each foot. The slander salamander ranges from Washington to Baja California, preferring cool, moist woodlands, oak or conifer, with deep leaf litter and decomposing wood and bark. However they are not too picky, as they have also been found in urban gardens and roadside greenery and valley grasslands. What is essential, especially during the dry season, is a cool moist retreat, often underground in rodent burrows or under rocks or logs. They are usually dormant during the dry season. With such tiny legs, they do not travel far, probably less than six feet from home base. This, along with the fact that they are an ancient lineage suggest what DNA studies have also indicated: What is currently classified as one species, B. attenuatus, has, over time, evolved into 5 or more distinct species by gradually being separated by the building of mountain ranges and the movement of the San Andreas Fault. As scientists learn more, the new species will likely be classified. Batrachoseps can sometimes be found on wet days above ground, but they mostly confine themselves to foraging in the leaf litter, or underground in termite tunnels, earthworm holes and rodent holes. Their forward-looking eyes focus on the prey, which is then snagged with their sticky projective tongue. Prey includes spiders, mites, snails and insects, in addition to earthworms and termites. Little can be said of the sex life of the slender salamander, other than that breeding takes place from December (in the hotter reaches of its range) through January. The females deposit 5 to 20 eggs in subterranean tunnels which may be shared by several females. The eggs are surrounded by capsules connected by strands of jelly; this is presumably to keep them moist for the two months of incubation. There is no aquatic larval phase. The hatched young are miniature adults, although long-legged, short-tailed and big-headed compared to their parents. So what’s the exciting idiosyncrasy? Fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds have large, oval nucleated red blood cells (RBCs). Mammals have small RBCs without a nucleus. Batrachoseps’ red RBCs also lack a nucleus? Why? During its maturation in the bone marrow, a mammalian RBC does have a nucleus (which contains the DNA), but this nucleus is ejected before the RBC is sent into circulation. The nucleated cell is 10x larger than the non-nucleated one, even through the amount of oxygen-carrying hemoglobin is the same. Slender salamanders are extremely small, and it is thought that nucleated RBCs would cause too much friction in the capillaries and possible circulatory problems.

The X-Rated Banana Slug

Posted in Fauna, Nature Articles

IMG_1987Ariolimax columbianus lives in the coastal rainforests from southern Alaska to Santa Cruz. It creeps along eating mushrooms, leaves, animal droppings and dead plant material, converting these into nitrogen-rich droppings. In doing so, they enrich the soil and spread seeds and spores.

In some forests, they are bright yellow, perhaps with black spots. Elsewhere, they can be white, brown, or olive green. The color may depend on the diet.

On the “run”, fully stretched out, a slug can be 6” to 8” long. In a more sedentary mode, the slug is more compact, about 5” long. Like their snail relatives, slugs move on a muscular foot running the length of its body. A slime is secreted, chemically intriguing because it provides traction for the muscles to push against and friction-free lubrication for dragging the body.

The slime also protects the slug from dehydration, allows the exchange of carbon dioxide for oxygen through the skin, and attracts mates. Predators seldom attack slugs because the slime anesthetizes the moist interiors of their mouths. Garter snakes, ducks, geese, moles, shrews and salamanders may eat banana slugs. Raccoons will roll the slug in dirt to neutralize the slime before eating.

The slug’s head sports 4 antennae; the lower two sense chemicals and smells, the upper two, the eyestalks, detect light and movement. All are retractable, and if you watch closely, you can see tiny eyespots moving out to the ends of the eyestalks. On the underside of the head is the mouth, with many rows of teeth to grind the food.

Behind the head is a shield – the mantle. On the right side is a hole which leads into the single lung. Beneath the mantle, also on the right side, is the genital pore. And now we get to the exciting bits.

Slugs are hermaphrodites: each slug is both male and female, and has the organs to prove it. The male organ is almost as long as the slug, and is normally kept tucked inside the body, only to protrude from the genital pore during mating. The genital pore also leads to the female parts.

When two slugs meet to mate, they begin with a few love nips (vicious), and then curl up in a ball, so that each can penetrate the other, exchanging sperm. Fertilization is internal. This coupling can last for many hours. After that, sometimes, they merely decouple and go their separate ways. But other times, for reasons not understood (but easily imagined), one gnaws off the other’s male organ. Often, this mutilation is mutual. In the future, the resultant slug can act as a female, but no longer as a male.

Sometimes, sperm are stored until the eggs are ready for fertilization. After fertilization, the 20 or more translucent eggs are laid in dark moist places, in leaves or under logs. Infant banana slugs are really cute.

Written by Eve Broughton. Eve lives in Whitethorn and was educated at UC Berkeley


Western Fence Lizard aka Bluebellies

Posted in Amphibians and Reptiles, Fauna, Nature Articles, Uncategorized

Fence Lizard Bellies My brother and I filled our terrarium with blue-bellies. These lizards are alert and fast but we had a secret weapon: a fishing pole. We tied one end of fishing line to the final loop on the pole, made a noose and ran the line to the base of the pole. We sneaked up on the lizard from behind, lowered the noose over his head and gently tightened the line. Capture! This method also worked for snakes.

Sceloporus occidentalis, as the Western Fence Lizard is officially known, is a small lizard, less than 8 ½ “ long, with very rough scales on its upper surface. Their background color is light brown with blotches, bands, or ragged brown stripes. Turn the lizard over to see the amazing blue stripes on its belly and throat. Males have the deeper blue, females lighter and juveniles often none at all. During courtship and territorial disputes, the males do pushups to show off their colors. Presumably, deeper blues indicate a stronger, healthier and more virile male. Males fight to defend their territory but we never saw this behavior in our terrarium even though it was crowded with blue-bellies. Maybe this was because none of the males thought it was territory worth fighting for. Also, the terrarium lacked any suitable elevation where a male could do pushups to show off.

Fence LizardMating occurs March through June, depending on the altitude. Two to four weeks later the female digs a small pit in soft moist soil and lays a clutch of 3 – 17 eggs. She may lay several more clutches. The eggs will hatch in about 60 days, from July to September.

Fence lizards are common and frequently seen, as they are found in many habitats, from forests to grasslands to scrub. They love to bask in the sun in an elevated open place, such as a fence or a rocky outcrop or your woodpile. This makes them an easy target for hawks and snakes, sometimes shrews and kids with fishing poles. Speed and vigilance are their usual defenses, but they can sacrifice their tail if necessary. The tail will twitch after separation, distracting the predator. It takes energy to regrow a tail, so detaching one is not done lightly by the lizard.

Fence Lizard Dorsal ScalesLizards are cold-blooded, so they need to bask in the sun to warm up, and hide in cool places, crevices or under logs or brush, when too warm.

They eat bugs and spiders, ticks and scorpions. And they are very valuable in lowering the incidence of Lyme disease in areas where they are found. The bacterium which carries Lyme disease is carried by the western black-legged tick. Very young ticks frequently attach to fence lizards, especially around the mouth. A protein in the lizard’s blood (which the tick ingests) kills the bacterium, so the tick will be disease-free when it infects its next host. Treasure your blue-bellies!

Article by Eve Broughton. Eve lives in Whitethorn and was educated at UC Berkeley


Alligator Lizard

Posted in Amphibians and Reptiles, Fauna, Nature Articles, Uncategorized

emscincicaudask411The other morning, there were 2 alligator lizards basking in the sunlight on a window sill, and another hoping to get out the nearby door. The cat had brought them in. I decided to evict them. Two were sluggish or cooperative, but the other raced around and then hissed at me and bit me as I tried to pick him up. He held on like a pit bull. He had recently lost his tail and was probably not in a good mood. Should you wish to pick one up, grasp it behind the head.

Outside, I saw 5 or 6 within a 40’ stretch of garden. Obviously, previous years were great for alligator lizard survival and reproduction. Unlike many reptiles, alligator lizards are ovoviviparous: after mating, the eggs are retained in the female’s body. Usually there are 2 or 3 eggs. The fetuses get nourishment from the egg yolk. When they are developed, about 2 months after mating, the young “hatch” and are soon born. It will take about 3 years for females to reach sexual maturity.

The young are, about 3” long, thin and have smooth shiny unpatterned light brown skin; they look like small skinks. As adults, alligator lizards can be 10” long, with 6 of that being tail. Their heads are flat and triangular with pointed noses. Behind the eyes, their body slowly and slightly widen, without noticeable neck, until the middle of the abdomen, and then taper gently to the end of the tail. Legs are small and thin. There are 5 fine toes on each foot.young alligator lizard

In California, there are two species of alligator lizard. Both can be found in our area. The Northern species (Elgaria coerulea) can be distinguished from the Southern species (Elgaria multicarinata) by eye color and belly striping. Northern has dark eyes and a dark stripes running between the scales. Southern has light eyes and dark stripes on the middle of the scales.

Both are brownish, buff, or olive-brown on top, with darker crossbands. The scales are large, keeled, and slightly shingled. Separating the back from the belly, and running the length of the body from behind the corner of the mouth to the tail is a lateral fold of skin. The belly is usually light gray, and the scales are flat and shiny.

Alligator lizards occupy a variety of habitats, but they prefer moist areas and avoid deserts. Nor do they bask in sunlight in the open, as other lizards do. When they sun, there will be cover very close by. These pugnacious lizards are nice to have in the garden. They eat insects and grubs, snails, ticks, mites and spiders, and millipedes, and sometimes infant rodents.

Eve Broughton was educated at UC. Berkeley and lives in Whitethorn.


Garter Snake

Posted in Amphibians and Reptiles, Fauna, Nature Articles

Garter Snake 1In the late fall, as sunshine becomes rare and temperatures drop to freezing, garter snakes make their way to the hibernating den. Hundreds can gather in this hibernaculum, keeping each other warm. As garter snakes are slender and cold-blooded, they lose heat rapidly and this communal sleeping is necessary to conserve heat and fat stores.

Male and female snakes make sex-specific scents (pheromones) in their skin, allowing a snake to follow the trail of another snake. Some males make both scents, and this is an advantage, attracting both males and females to cluster around them in the hibernaculum. These “kleptotherms” also have an advantage in breeding. Maybe because they’re hotter.

Male snakes are smaller than females. In spring, when temperatures warm the hibernaculum, they wake and wander outside to feed and bask in the sunshine, returning at night to the group warmth. Soon, however, they stop feeding and allow their digestion to complete, as mating season is about to begin. When a female awakes and leaves the den, her pheromones attract many males, all trying to mate with her, swarming around her in a mating ball.

The female incubates the young in her lower abdomen for 2 to 3 months, and gives birth to 10 to 30 live young in the late summer. The young, 6 to 10 inches long, shed their skin and begin to hunt on their own, seeking earthworms, invertebrates, small fish and tadpoles . Living on a ridge, I see many small garter snakes at this time; the birthing chamber must be nearby. Sometimes, females mate again in the fall, and store the sperm until the spring to begin another fertilization and incubation.

Garter snakes are usually 2 to 3 feet long, brownish in overall color, with lengthwise stripes of several colors: red, yellow, white or beige. In between the stripes are rows of dark blotches. The snakes are active during the day, using their eyes to spot prey and their tongue to sense taste and smell. They can also sense ground vibrations.

Garter Snake 2We usually associate garter snakes with streams and their favorite food, frogs, but they are generalist carnivores, eating earthworms, fish, lizards, slugs, ants, and small rodents. Some species are immune to the toxin in newt skins and eat them too. The prey is swallowed alive.

Garter snakes have a mild neurotoxic venom, which is produced in small amounts, and delivered via some larger teeth in the rear of the mouth during the chewing – swallowing process. So unless the garter snake tries to swallow your finger, you have little chance of getting poisoned.

Predators of garter snakes include king snakes, kestrels and kites, harrier and hawks, mink and raccoon, opossum and skunk, and domestic cats. A garter snake will coil and strike to protect itself, although the usual reaction to a threat is to hide its head and shake its tail. It will also release a nasty-smelling juice from a cloacal gland.

Written by Eve Broughton. Eve lives in Whitethorn and was educated at UC Berkeley


Autumn, She Shall At The Very Least, Be Adorned In Gold

Posted in Flora, Nature Articles


Fall Color1Autumn is such a beautiful and even bittersweet time of year; beautiful, in that the leaves of hardwood trees and deciduous vines turn flaming colors of crimson, russet, and gold; and bittersweet, in that while losing their glorious leaves, they are simultaneously embracing the needed protection provided by their now barren trunks and branches from the impending dark, and the bitter cold.

How is it that the turning of the leaves is so predictable? While we ‘Humboldtians’ are out enjoying the last music festival or camping trip of the summer; how is that the trees are already quietly and with increasing Technicolor brilliance, heralding the seasons change?

The answer is decreasing day length. After the summer solstice in June, our day lengths are getting shorter, and delicate, broad leaves take notice. Slowly, the production of the light capturing, green pigment, chlorophyll, wanes…and the resulting sugar production comes to a stop. As the green chlorophyll pigments becomes less and less, other pigments present in the leaves are unmasked and begin to show. Carotenoids are responsible for orange, yellow and brown, and anthocyanins are responsible for reds and purples.

The palette of colors that ultimately show every autumn varies with the climate preceding the decline in chlorophyll production. Temperature and moisture are the most important variables at play.

The ideal temperatures that lead to the most fiery autumnal shows of ‘reds’ first require warm, sunny days with plenty of sugar production. Since chlorophyll levels are still high in August and September, there is plenty of photosynthesis still occurring. (Photosynthesis is the process by which sunlight is turned into sugar). Second, nights must be very cool, but not freezing, so that veins in the leaves constrict somewhat, preventing the sugars from leaving. Lots of sugars combined with pulses of bright light are the perfect ingredients for anthocyanin production and our favored cardinal fall show of arboreal, scarlet fire.


Fall Color2Moisture levels have the ability to delay the onset of fall color by several weeks; and also play with levels of pigment production. The combination of temperature and moisture together, cause the greatest swings in variability. Not varying too much are the yellows and golds produced by carotenoids. Carotenoids are always present in the leaves, regardless of climate variability, and so serve as a baseline palette of autumnal beauty. Our Humboldt autumn shall always, at least, wear gold.

Meanwhile, while most of us are finally declaring fall is here based on the evidence of colorful leaves we noticed on the drive home or the fact that we fired up the woodstove for the first time in a long while, the hardwood trees and deciduous vines have made preparations to bring down the curtain for the year. In response to the chronic, declining day length and intensity of light, the veins carrying fluids into and out of leaves gradually close off as a layer of cells form at the stem base of each leaf. Once this separation layer is complete, their leaves fall.

Autumn, Fall, whatever her name. She is beautiful and bittersweet, and a gentle, annual reminder of the necessary, circle of life.

Draft by Jennifer Wheeler 10/12/12


Jennifer Wheeler is a botanist for the BLM Arcata Field Office with a passion for managing grassland and coastal dune landscapes as well as for eradicating invasive weeds, particularly French and Scotch broom. She resides in McKinleyville with her family and her 2,000 square foot garden and hopes to someday clear 1,000 pounds of produce if she can successfully convince the gophers to let her. (so far this year 808 pounds and counting!)


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