Recently I learned of the existence of an open space preserve in Sonoma County that is open to the public via docent-led hikes and wildflower walks, and I signed up for a wildflower walk. The preserve is called the Modini Mayacamas Preserves, and it is one of four preserves managed by Audubon Canyon Ranch, an organization dedicated to “protecting natural and human communities through land preservation, nature education, and conservation science” (text quoted from the web site).
The Modini and Mayacamas Preserves property is located northeast of Healdsburg and roughly 10 miles northwest of Mt St Helena, which is shown in the banner picture for this post. During the visit we saw numerous wildflowers; some were familiar but many were new sightings for me. There were so many interesting species that I decided to create two posts for the visit; here is a link to the second post.
In order to learn as much as possible from our docent I tried to take complete notes, particularly about the new species. As an example, one of my new species was western spicebush (Calycanthus occidentalis). It’s actually not especially unusual, but I had never encountered it before. The color contrast between the green leaves and deep red blossoms was stunning.
For the docent-led activities the meeting point is at the junction of Pine Flat Rd and Red Winery Rd. We collected in the smallest possible number of cars – which happened to be just 2 – and basically caravanned up Pine Flat Rd into the nearby hills. Although we did several short walks away from the road to visit interesting wildflower hot spots, most of the distance we covered was by car, and I didn’t record a GPS track. However, I reproduced the driving route in Google maps since Pine Flat Rd is a public road.
Basically we stopped whenever any of the following happened: the docent, Dave, or anyone else in his car saw something that looked interesting; or we came to a known location for finding an interesting plant or wildflower. It was invaluable to be traveling with a local expert!
We stopped frequently, always using pullouts along the narrow road. At the first stop we found some Kenilworth ivy (Cymbalaria muralis) growing in cracks in a dilapidated building. This is not actually an ivy, but rather a toadflax, and the flowers resemble snapdragons.
In the same area we found western spicebush and swamp thistle (Cirsium douglasii), a native thistle. So many thistles I have seen are non-native, even considered invasive, it was nice to find an actual native thistle.
Not far away there was Indian pink (Silene lanciniata ssp. californica), which is actually red.
At the next stop there was Sonoma clarkia (Clarkia gracilis ssp. sonomensis), which is found primarily in Sonoma County with smaller populations in Mendocino, Lake, Napa, and Marin Counties. The red spots are unusual for a slender clarkia (C. gracilis), and they could easily be seen from the outside of the blossom.
At the same stop we found Fuller’s teasel (Dipsacus sativus), a non-native wildflower, in bloom. This was the first time I’ve seen teasel blooming. On some flower heads the blooms were in a narrow band, rather like a tutu. In this case the tiny flowers covered the top half of the head, a little like a fuzzy head of hair. The first time I saw a teasel I gave it a descriptive name – lampshade plant – for the long bract-like structures that resemble those used to attach a lampshade to old-style lamps.
There was also rabbit’s foot grass (Polypogon monspeliensis), another non-native, which seemed like an apt name.
Before we left this area we also saw some native dandelion and one yellow mariposa lily (Calochortus luteus) that was well past its prime.
As we got higher into the hills we came to a location where we needed to walk a couple hundred yards across a grassy hillside in order to reach a rock outcropping where we were promised a nice wildflower surprise. On the way there was a lovely view of grape vineyards below and grassy hills in the background.
As we walked across the hillside we could see a bit of native grasses amid the more predominant non-native grasses. Most of the native grasses are bunch grasses, but there were also some grasses that grow as individual plants. Near the road there was some brilliantly purple thistle, probably bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare), which is a non-native that is considered to be moderately invasive.
Yet another non-native in this area was bristly ox-tongue (Helminthoteca echioides). The flowers resemble dandelions and, like dandelions, are in the aster or composite flower family and have only ray flowers without disc flowers. The flower gets its name from the shape and texture of its leaves, which do indeed resemble ox tongues. Native to the Mediterranean basin, ox-tongue has become widespread across North America. If you see a dandelion-like flower on a tall plant with branching stems, look more closely at the leaves on the long stems: you may have found some ox-tongue.
When we approached the rock outcropping we could immediately see what had been hinted at: a nice cluster of redwood bush penstemon (Keckiella corymbosa). And there was even more around a corner of the rock, out of sight from our initial approach direction. This is just one small group of the beautiful red blossoms.
Among the penstemons I suddenly noticed a single plant, or cluster, that seemed to be growing – like the penstemons – in a crack in the rock. Evidently there was enough water and nourishment to support this plant. It was difficult to photograph, and this is my best shot. The small flower heads are about a half inch in diameter. The petals appeared to be very light purple. This flower is a mystery, and was a mystery to our docent as well.
After enjoying the penstemons we headed back to the cars and continued up Pine Flat Rd. We made a special stop to admire some red thistle (Cirsium occidentale var. venutum), also called western thistle, that was growing next to the road and caught my eye. It turns out that this type of thistle is endemic to California: it is not found outside the state. In the picture the flower head looks almost pink, but it was actually red; other flower heads looked even darker red.
At this stop we also saw yellow sticky monkeyflower (Mimulus auranticus), coyote mint (Monardella villosa), and a couple of chicory (Cichorum intybus) plants.
At one location we parked the cars and walked less than a half mile up an informal dirt road with a locked gate (but we could walk around the gate). Along this road we found several flowers we had not yet seen on our adventure. One was foothill penstemon (Penstemon heterophyllus), which is what I think of as a more typical purple color for penstemon. The petal tubes are a bit pinker on the outside, and at the mouth of the flower, if you look carefully, you can see the so-called runway markings that guide pollinator insects to the flower’s nectary.
In a shady area there was western columbine (Aquilegia formosa), somewhat common but always beautiful. How appropriate that the species name formosa, which comes from Latin via Portuguese, means beautiful.
There was also some wild blackberry, in this case Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus). As the species name suggests, it is thought to be native to Armenia (as well as northern Iran, as it turns out). It has been widely naturalized, and some consider it to be a noxious invasive.
Yet another non-native found along this dirt road was St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), which is notable for its lavish sprays of stamens that seem to burst from the center of each blossom.
In partial defense of such non-native wildflowers, I will note that they clearly serve as nectar sources for various insects. They survive, and in so many cases thrive, in part because they successfully attract pollinators. In some cases such non-native plants provide nectar sources during times of the year when native sources may not be available. In this sense they may well provide a positive contribution to the overall health of local ecosystems.
Our wildflower adventures in the Modini Mayacamas Preserves are continued in part 2.