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.


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!)


Winter Bloomers

Posted in Flora, Nature Articles

IMG_5283Even though it is still winter, some plants are starting to bloom.

Alders are one of the first plants to bloom in winter. These trees usually start blooming in December, but some early bloomers start in November. You can see the orange-brown catkins hanging down from bare branches, a beautiful sight all winter long. The catkins are the male flowering structure, and release pollen to fertilize the female cones. The cones persist on the trees and in the fall, the winged seeds are dispersed. The alder that grows in our area is the red alder, Alnus rubra, and has red inner bark and roots. Growing along streams, seeps, and springs, this fast growing tree needsIMG_5346 plenty of water. You can see the red roots growing right out into the water in streams. Alder groves are a stunning sight, with their pale, almost white trunks mottled with black, growing tall up to their interlocking crowns. Red alders are in the family Betulaceae, along with birch and hazelnut. Since alder roots produce nitrogen, they are a pioneer species, that is, one of the first plants to come into an area after fire, flood, clearcut or other major disturbance. On disturbed sites, they can grow away from water and are short-lived, as they enrich the soil, making way for other species to move in and crowd them out.

IMG_5319Bay trees are another winter bloomer. Starting around the new year, the small creamy yellow flowers start to open. Flowers are in umbels, or umberella shaped clusters. Standing under a blooming bay tree on a sunny winter day is a sensory experience: they give off a heavenly floral scent and are noisily abuzz with pollinating insects. Once the flowers are pollinated, fruits resembling small, round avocados form. By summer, the fruit’s skin has fallen away, leaving a nut, or bayberry. On years with abundant bayberry crops, walking under a bay tree can give you a slippery ride, with your feet rolling out from under you. The California bay tree, also called pepperwood, myrtle, or laurel, is Umbellularia californica. It is in the family Lauraceae, and is related to the European bay laurel, avocado, camphor and cinnamon. Bay leaves contain many active compounds and have many uses. They can be used for seasoning foods, chewed on to relieve toothache, steeped in a hot bath to relieve arthritis pain, and can be crushed to release the aromatic oils which help relieve headaches and cleanse wounds.

Written by Cheryl Lisin


Chemise Mountain – Interesting Plants and a Great View

Posted in Flora, Hikes, Nature Articles

Written by Cheryl Lisin


IMG_3260-copyWhat a beautiful view – you can see snow on the Yolla Bollys from the top of Chemise Mountain! Located along the Lost Coast Trail in the King Range National Conservation Area, Chemise Mountain is easiest to get to by hiking up from Nadelos Campground on Chemise Mountain Road. At the campground, you cross the bridge over Bear Creek with its lush riparian plants, and head up, up, and up! It is 1.5 miles to the top of the mountain with a 778 foot elevation gain. The interesting plants along the way and the view at the top make all that huffing and puffing worth it.


As you climb the trail, you become level with and can look into the canopies of some magnificent trees – fir, madrone, tan oak and chinquapin. If you hike here in spring and early summer, you can see several species of mycho-heterotrophs blooming along the trail. These are non-photosynthesizing plants which get their food from parasitism upon fungi in the soil rather than from photosynthesis. There are red and white striped sugarsticks, yellow Indian pipes and low growing gnome plants of the heath family, and the delicate spotted coralroot from the orchid family.


After switching back and forth several times, the trail makes it up to the ridge, but there is still more uphill before you get to the Mountain top. Here the chinquapin trees are abundant and their spiny nut casings can be seen on the ground. The nut inside is like a miniature chestnut, but usually the squirrels beat the humans to them. If you are lucky, you may spot a rattlesnake plantain plant. Not a planintain at all, but an orchid, the foliage hugs the ground and is beautifully mottled in silver and green. The flowers are white and rise on a stalk in late spring. Farther along, just a few feet past the spur trail to the top, there is a rare occurance of knobcone pines. No other pines are native to this area and the knobcone is limited to just this small stretch. Here they are spindly and don’t acieve great heights, due to the nutrient poor rocky soil of the ridgetop. In more hospitable places, the trees can reach 80 feet, but here the tallest are about 20 feet. The cones are indeed knobby, staying on the tree for many years. Some cones stay so long they are engulfed in new wood as the tree grows around them. They are closed cones, needing fire to open them and release the seeds.


IMG_3280At the the peak (2958 feet), you are treated to the big view to the east, across the Mattole and Eel River watersheds to the Yolla Bolly mountain range and beyond. The view is kept clear thanks to BLM and Nick’s Interns. Once you head back down, it is surprising how fast you get to the campground after all that work it took to get up to the top.


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