Recently I visited North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve, located in Butte County several miles north of Oroville, for the first time. The reserve has a well-deserved reputation for spectacular spring wildflowers, as well as beautiful seasonal waterfalls and unique geology.
Perhaps this image can serve to illustrate the essence of two of the three major features of the reserve. It shows a carpet of colorful wildflowers – primarily lupine, owl’s clover, and poppies – below a small lava cliff. And, although not shown in the photo, one of the major waterfalls is only about 100 meters away.
Colorful wildflowers below a small lava cliff in North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve
Table Mountain was formed from extensive lava flows that occurred about 15 million years ago, eventually building up a layer of basalt several hundred feet thick. It is one of the oldest land forms in California. Most of the flow area was subsequently disrupted by geological forces, but Table Mountain remains as an isolated island, rising above the floor of the Central Valley. Due to the hard-pan nature of the lava, the soil thickness varies from zero to thick enough to sustain grasses and wildflowers. On the top of Table Mountain there are only sparse trees, mainly oaks, though there are more trees around the edges as well as in the many canyons that have been formed over time. A special type of vernal pool, called Northern Basalt Flow Vernal Pool, is found on Table Mountain. There are numerous micro-environments, many with specialized flora and fauna.
In addition to areas of relatively dense wildflowers as shown in the picture, I encountered numerous other wildflowers in more of a one-at-a time mode. The variety was quite lovely. This post shows many of the wildflowers I found, while a separate post describes my somewhat wandering hike. For the most part there are not well-defined trails, and I ended up making two larger loops with a couple of smaller excursions. The informal GPS track from the earlier post is reproduced here for reference. Altogether I hiked nearly 7 miles, with relatively little elevation gain/loss.
There is just one public access point to the 3300-acre reserve, which is managed by the Department of Fish and Wildlife. It is worth noting that, a couple of years ago, the DFW expanded a Lands Pass program to include Table Mountain. Currently all visitors to the reserve are required to have in their possession a valid pass to enter the property; there is a prominent sign next to the gate that serves as the public access point.
An informal use trail leads west from the parking area toward the nearest waterfall, which is usually called Hollow Falls and is only about 0.6 mile away. The walk can easily take 30 minutes in the spring when the wildflowers are in bloom and they, as well as the scenery, compete for attention. The day of my visit had been preceded by several days of rainy weather, and the use trail was wet in many places. Fortunately, I’d brought an older pair of hiking boots that I didn’t mind getting wet.
Many of the wildflower identifications for this post have been informed by a nice book about the wildflowers of Table Mountain. In addition, the Chico Hiking Association has information about Table Mountain, including illustrated time-based wildflower guides.
Along the way to Hollow Falls I found several wildflowers right away. In addition to what I presume to be Western buttercups (Ranunculus occidentalis) I found lupine, goldfields, and bluedicks (Dichelostemma capitatum ssp capitatum).
I also found Douglas’ violets (Viola douglasii), shown on the left in this picture. Until the day became somewhat sunnier later in the morning, I had to look carefully to find a blossom that wasn’t facing downward. The oakwoods violet (V. purpurea ssp quercetorum) on the right has different leaves, different purple streaks, and grows in a different micro-habitat; I found it near Hollow Falls. In addition the oakwoods violet petals are a lemon yellow, while those of the Douglas’ violet are a bit more gold-orange in color.
Douglas’ (left) and oakwoods (right) violets
Of course there was lots of filaree (Erodium sp) throughout much of the reserve. There was a large yellow carpet of wildflowers – several different species – sprinkled with lupine and other color spots, as well as small rocks and low bare rock outcrops. Soon I recognized johnnytuck, or butter-and-eggs (Triphysaria eriantha ssp eriantha), with cheerful yellow and white flowers and reddish leaves and/or bracts. (I’m not sure I have the plant parts correctly described for these members of the broomrape family.)
Johnnytuck, or butter-and-eggs
Almost immediately after passing a sign indicating the boundary of the Ecological Reserve – I think the use trail from the parking area actually crosses private land, presumably on an easement – there was a blue carpet of sky lupine (Lupinus nanus), a relatively low-growing species with characteristic white-tipped blossoms.
Sky lupine is common in the reserve and grows in bright blue carpets
About 40 minutes and 0.6 mile from the parking area I arrived at the area immediately around Hollow Falls, in which Campbell Creek falls into Beatson Hollow. The creek had a pretty good water flow, presumably due to the recent rain as well as the season. Near the creek I found some California saxifrage (Micranthes californica), characterized by white petals, a yellow-green center, and yellow stamens.
California saxifrage near Campbell Creek at Hollow Falls
I also found white, or longhorn, plectritis (Plectritis macrocera).
White plectritis, also near Campbell Creek at Hollow Falls
Soon I noticed a field of pink – owl’s clover – on the opposite (north) side of the creek. I wanted to see it up close, so I walked a short distance upstream until I found a place to cross safely. Then I could easily view individual plants of purple owl’s clover (Castilleja exserta ssp exserta) – note that the flower heads are actually pink.
So-called purple owl’s clover, which looks pink
Among the owl’s clover were a few valley tassels (Castilleja attenuata). They are reminiscent of how a white owl’s clover would appear.
Valley tassel among purple owl’s clover
I decided to continue generally north, at times following small tributary water flows. Near one of them I noticed some seep monkeyflowers (Mimulus guttatus, recently re-named to Erythranthe guttata). Although this is a common and very widespread wildflower in California, it always seems cheerful and I enjoy seeing it.
Seep monkeyflower next to a wet spot above Hollow Falls
Farther uphill from the owl’s clover there were some poppies at the base of a small vertical basalt outcrop. I could clearly see that there were two sizes of blossom, but most of the blossoms were still in their overnight closed state. Later in my hike there was more sun, the day warmed up, and the poppies I encountered gradually opened. Here are the two species found on Table Mountain: On the left is a foothill poppy (Eschscholzia caespitosa), which is the larger, slightly darker orange, and more cup-shaped flower (when open). On the right is a frying pan (Eschscholzia lobbii), with a smaller, lighter, and flatter flower.
Foothill poppy (left) and frying pan (right)
Soon I also found some lomatium, or hog fennel (Lomatium utriculatum), with clusters of tiny yellow flowers.
Hog fennel, a type of lomatium
After a prolonged period of exploring and enjoying the wildflowers above Hollow Falls, I began to make my way farther north. Along the way I passed more goldfields: though three species are found in the reserve, the most common is California goldfield (Lasthenia californica ssp californica).
California goldfields, the most common goldfield at North Table Mountain
Suddenly I noticed some fringepod (Thysanocarpus curvipes). I’ve seen this a few times before in other places, but always later in the bloom cycle. This example demonstrates that the flowers bloom from the bottom of the stem upward. The top of the flower stalk was still buds, with active blooms a few “layers” down, and the more familiar oval-shaped seed pods that appear to have tiny windows at the bottom of the stem.
Fringepod illustrating varying stages of bloom
For a while I followed a small stream that flowed down toward Campbell Creek. Fortunately it was narrow enough that I could cross back and forth as needed to find dry footing and avoid needing to climb up and down small lava outcrops. I found (at least) two types of popcorn flower: The one on the left in the picture is taller and was in a drier grassland area, though not far from the stream; I think it is rusty popcorn flower (Plagiobothrys nothofulvus). The one on the right is a much shorter plant, with different foliage and right next to the stream in a damp area; I think it is one of the several variants of vernal pool allocarya (P. stipitatus sp) that are found at Table Mountain. I am not sure whether it is important for identification whether the centers are white or yellow; in some popcorn flowers the center is yellow when the blossom is fresh and ages to white.
Along the stream I found some Table Mountain meadowfoam, also called snow-white meadowfoam (Limnanthes douglasii ssp nivea). The other subspecies of Douglas’ meadowfoam look quite different from ssp nivea, but the yellow anthers seem to be a distinguishing characteristic.
Table Mountain, or snow-white, meadowfoam
I temporarily left the stream bank and, while exploring, found some white-tipped clover (Trifolium variegatum).
Another short exploration was to a small nearby area of bare lava rock, another of the many micro-environments in the reserve. Here I found some small, just 2 or 3 inches tall, volcanic onion (Allium cratericola). Especially when the onion grows among some low mossy plants, it appears to have virtually no stem (or else the short stem is prostrate, on the ground); then there is a cluster of delicate pink blossoms. There is also a long, very narrow leaf.
Back to following the stream slightly uphill, I came to a place where it cascaded down a small (few feet high) lava cliff; there is a picture of this in the post about the hike. Near this crossing I finally stopped for pictures of a small yellow flower that, to some, looks like a goldfield. It is actually yellow carpet (Blennosperma nanum var nanum), and I saw it in many places along my route. Like goldfields, yellow carpet is in the sunflower (or aster) family and has ray flowers and disc flowers. I do not know the significance of the outer ring of disc flowers being white, but it was one of several characteristics distinguishing yellow carpet from goldfields.
Near the small cascade I found some buttercups that I had not seen before. They are called Sacramento Valley buttercup, or Hartweg’s buttercup (Ranunculus canus var canus). The blossoms are larger than California or Western buttercup, and the stamens are longer and more pronounced. The Calflora range maps show that the Sacramento Valley buttercup mainly occurs in the Sacramento Valley, while Western buttercup occurs outside the valley, perhaps in higher elevations, and the California buttercup occurs mainly in the counties along the Pacific coast.
Sacramento Valley, or Hartweg’s, buttercup
After crossing the stream I continued generally north, and a little while later I saw my first red maids (Calandrinia menziesii) of the day. As is well known, red maids are not actually red, but more of a dark pink-to-purple. My point-and-shoot cameras have all had difficulty focusing on red maids, giving my pictures an aura of dreamy, soft focus. Later in my hike I would see quite a few more.
As I explored I came across some bird’s-eye gilia (Gilia tricolor ssp tricolor), another species I would see more of later. The three colors in the Latin name are the light purple of the petals, darker purple at the base of the petals, and some yellow in the throat, hard to see in the picture.
After this, I actually walked for quite a while before I found more new species to document. I passed a vernal pool, wandered almost back to the parking area, and then hiked north past another vernal pool. I hoped to see some new flowers near the vernal pools, but perhaps the pools are not drying up quite yet. I think some of the associated species, for example downingias, appear as the vernal pools shrink after the rains have completely stopped for the season; if this is so, these species will only appear later in the spring.
After passing the second vernal pool I found Ravine Falls, sometimes called Fern Falls. Here I found some ferns that I was unfamiliar with; I think they are known as polypody ferns (Polypodium sp).
Pretty polypody ferns near Ravine Falls
I also found some spreading larkspur (Delphinium patens ssp patens) while I took a short break at Ravine Falls. The cluster of plants was only 10-20 meters away, but the slope was steep and dropped off into the ravine so I decided to just make use of the zoom on my camera, rather than try to get closer.
On the other side of the ravine I could see a patch of bright yellow on a ledge part way down the ravine wall. Using my camera as binoculars, I zoomed in and concluded that the flowers were seep monkeyflowers.
After leaving Ravine Falls I hiked generally south, with a bit of a detour to the west to enjoy the scenery. Eventually I arrived back at Hollow Falls, where I did some more exploring before returning to the parking area. As I was returning from a brief exploration on the south side of Hollow Falls, I noticed a group of few-flowered blue-eyed Marys (Collinsia sparsiflora var collina) at the base of a small rock. These pretty flowers are more purple than blue, and they are easy to miss because the blossoms are individuals rather than the many-blossom whorls found on the closely-related Chinese houses.
Few-flowered blue-eyed Marys near Hollow Falls
In this area, the base of a small lava cliff is the location where I found the oakwoods violet pictured near the beginning of this post.
Finally I made my way back to the parking area and, much later, had a chance to review my photos and try to do identifications. There are many locally specialized wildflowers at North Table Mountain, and I had also found several first-timers that are not quite as specialized. At least half of the plants pictured in this post were first-time observations. That’s a big day! And I’d like to return another time, at a different time during the wildflower season, to enjoy even more of the beautiful wildflowers.