1,000 Shades of Green

Keep reading if you like: native plants of Santa Cruz County, California Native Plant Society, Santa Cruz Sandhills, wildflowers of Santa Cruz County

by Jackie Pascoe

Nov. 25, 2013—Botanists are beaming in our county right now—partly because botanists are a happy tribe with a tendency to beam, and partly because of the newly available second edition of the Annotated Checklist of the Vascular Plants of Santa Cruz County, California by Dylan Neubauer, published by the Santa Cruz County Chapter of the California Native Plant Society.

Make no mistake: this 166-page, spiral-bound, 5.5 x 8 in. book is a reference volume. The only plant photo (a very nice one) is on the tough plastic-laminated cover. Botanical cognoscenti use the Checklist in conjunction with a 1,600-page book called The Jepson Manual: Vascular Plants of California, a reference that contains descriptions of all the plants that occur in California. (You can get a taste of the Jepson Manual by looking at the online entry for the Santa Cruz wallflower.)

“A local checklist helps you narrow down the possibilities,” says Neubauer. “And the notes provide helpful reminders, like, ‘Oh yeah, this has hairy lemmas.’ But you still have to go back to Jepson and key it out to make a proper identification.”

For such a tiny county, Santa Cruz has an amazing number of native plant species—some 1038. This is partly because it sits at the very southern edge of many northern plant ranges and also at the very northern edge of many southern plant ranges. Neubauer says plants on the edges of their ranges are potentially very valuable because “they may harbor differences that may help them adapt to changing climatic conditions like those we are experiencing now.”

Santa Cruz County Biodiversity Hotspots

High biodiversity in our county also arises because of the rare and special habitats and microenvironments scattered throughout the county—the interesting Introduction to the Checklist describes 11. And guess what? Our world-famous redwood forest didn’t make the list. In fact, Randall Morgan, who co-wrote the introduction, calls all of our beloved woodlands “relatively monotonous,” botanically speaking.

The hottest of the botanic hotspots occur in open, non-wooded habitats which, Morgan comments with more than a touch of wry irony, “are also the most reduced and degraded habitats, quite unlike the relatively undiminished forest environments.”

One of the rarest of these habitats is the Santa Cruz Sandhills, actually an uplifted ancient seabed. The sandhills rise from the surrounding dense forest in isolated, dune-covered botanical “islands” where many unique plant and insect species have evolved. Located around Scotts Valley, Felton, Ben Lomond, and Bonny Doon, about 40% of this irreplaceable habitat has been built over or quarried away, but nature lovers cherish what remains. Quail Hollow Ranch County Park and the Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve both contain good examples of sandhill habitat. To learn more, visit the Sandhills Alliance for Natural Diversity.

Getting to Know You: Guides to Santa Cruz Native Plants

So what if you want to learn more about trailside plants but are not ready for Jepson and the Checklist, or never want to go that deep? One way is to hike with knowledgeable people. For example, the California Native Plant Society local chapter has some wonderful guided hikes. And many knowledgeable state parks docents, like wildflower expert Scott Peden, lead free tours on a regular basis. (Check the Hilltromper Events channel for events such as the upcoming Wildflower Walk at Butano and Wildflower Hike at Rancho del Oso.)

Another way is to read. Two visual guides to the plants in our neighboring counties help you to identify plants in Santa Cruz, because of that overlap of southern and northern plant ranges.

One is Plants and Plant Communities of the San Mateo Coast by botanist Toni Corelli et al. Small enough to take hiking, it has photos of 100 coastal natives and also describes the different coastal plant communities.

The other is Wildflowers of Monterey County: a Field Companion, with 180 luscious close-ups of wildflowers by photographer David J. Gubernick, and informative descriptions by botanist Vern Yadon. This is one to enjoy when you’re putting your feet up with an après-hike beverage.

Yet another way to learn is to go on-line. The Calflora website has an app called What Grows Here that lets you list (and print) names and photos of all the plants identified in a zip code or other specified region. Be aware, however, that this is a citizen science project and not all contributions have been validated.

If you’re hungry for more after that, you may be ready for the updated Plants of the San Francisco Bay Region: Mendocino to Monterey, by Linda H. Beidleman and Eugene N. Kozloff, due out in June 2014. It is a botanic guide with identification keys, and also has photos and drawings.

You might also like to learn to “key out” plants at the California Native Plant Society’s informal Keying Club, where a botanist leads the group through the steps of identifying a plant using stereo microscopes, hand lenses—and Jepson and the Checklist! See the Santa Cruz CNPS chapter website for details.

When Dylan Neubauer moved to Santa Cruz in 1990, she had no idea that one day she’d be publishing the Annotated Checklist of the Vascular Plants of Santa Cruz County, California. So, you never know – the third edition could have your name on the cover.

The Annotated Checklist of the Vascular Plants of Santa Cruz County, California by Dylan Neubauer is available at Bookshop Santa Cruz, Norrie's gift shop at the UCSC Arboretum, the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History and Native Revival Nursery in Aptos. $15.