What is wrong with this sign?

I took a slow and relaxed walk with Toni and the camera at Black Mountain Open Space Preserve this morning. A deep marine layer nicely cooled the area, there was a light drizzle, and at the highest point of the Miners Ridge Loop trail, we literally had our head in the clouds.

Chamise Info Sign, Black Mountain Open Space Preserve, San Diego, CA. June 2015.
Chamise Info Sign, Black Mountain Open Space Preserve, San Diego, CA. June 2015.

The chaparral in the area is amazing, and beautiful. In some ravine there is Mission Manzanita that is 10 feet high, maybe even more. A complex chaotic mess of dense undergrowth, impassable to humans (unless you love getting severe scratches), huge plants. Some Black Sage is using Chamise as a climbing aid, and was at least 7 feet tall. Again, amazing. The more I learn about the chaparral through the class I took with the California Chaparral Institute, the more I realize how precious these areas are.

I walk on the trail and my brain isn’t fast enough to process the sights and names of all the plants that I see and recognize. Ceanothus, Monkey Flower, Montain Mahogany, Mission Manzanita, Laurel Sumac, Lemonade Berry, Soap Plant, Black Sage, Golden Yarrow, Mule Fat, Toyon, Mariposa Lily, Buckwheat, Ferns, Snapdragon, Lichen and Chamise, Chamise, Chamise…

And then you come upon a sign like this (above), that blames Chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum) on burning fast, and “contributing” to the spread of wildfire. Bad, bad Chamise! After all that I’ve learned about chaparral, it left me speechless at first, and I made this photo with my phone to remember it later, while I collected my thoughts. Because this is a weird take on nature education.

I think these interpretive signs along the trail should educate people about the natural and native environment, make them appreciate it – and not scare them and single out individual plants as “bad.” – when shrublands without any Chamise burn (which would be most of the Coastal Sage Shrubs of lower elevations, and on south-facing slopes) and houses and property are lost, which plant will we blame then? The bone-dry California Buckwheat, perhaps?

In Southern California’s mediterranean climate, there’s hardly any significant/measurable rainfall from May through October/November. So in the summer months, everything dries up, and we have the largest and worst wildfires in October and November. Those are the months with the hot & dry Santa Ana winds, which take away what little moisture may be left in the vegetation (humidity levels can be as low as 3-4% during Santa Ana wind events).

I don’t know how much the flammability of a single plant can really matter to the forward spread of a fire. Chaparral rarely consists of “pure” stands of a single plant – there are patches where one or the other is more dominant, but in general, it’s a mix of all kinds of plants (at least that’s what I’m seeing on my hikes).

When there’s a fire in the chaparral, everything will burn. The flying embers, driven by the wind, precede the fire by up to a mile (!) and ignite houses and vegetation alike. Chaparral only knows one fire regimen: high-intensity crown fire – it will take out everything. There’s nothing left but torched earth and blackened twigs: http://www.alex-kunz.com/2014/07/fire/

So… what this sign really should read is:

“Chamise (Adenostema fasciculatum) is the defining plant of the chaparral. When you have Chamise, you have chaparral. It is one of the three iconic plants in the chaparral. Find out what the other two are! And look at the tiny Chamise leaves – they help the plant to conserve water in our mediterranean climate. Chamise belongs to the Rosaceae family, together with Apples, Roses, Apricots and about 3000 other species. Next time you eat an Apple, or see a Rose, think of their relative, the Chamise – a defining plant of the chaparral ecosystem of California.”

6 thoughts on “What is wrong with this sign?

  1. Excellent commentary.

    With all the fires we have here in SoCal, an insidious blame game mentality has slowly evolved even among those who should know better, like the park and wildlife services. Send them a copy of your sign replacement text!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this very informative blog. As a new California Naturalist I appreciate learning a little more about the Chaparral. I grew up in Orinda with lots of “greasewood” all around. Not so much these days. Now I live in the Sierra at 3K feet…different environment but have those wildfire problems here too because it is we, humans, who are the cause of most of the blazes.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Unfortunately, I think it’s a losing battle, Alexander. I don’t mean to be pessimistic, but as I approach 50 and see almost every bit of the chaparral community within the San Diego County boundaries has been lost to development or fire, I don’t see much reason for hope. I enjoy what is left in my hikes, but feel much of it will be gone within the next century. Pity. It’s such a beautiful landscape. Glad I got to enjoy it while I was here.

    Chris Hendrickson

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Chris, thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment!

      Whenever I look around at the overly optimistic development that is going on all around here (most recently directly below the north-eastern side of Black Mountain Open Space Preserve) it is indeed hard to not become pessimistic.

      Who knows what will happen in the future. I try to look at the beauty of the chaparral optimistically, and share that beauty through my photos (I don’t know if you clicked through to my main website, I’ve begun a long-term project to portrait chaparral plants: http://www.alex-kunz.com/portfolio_category/chaparral-plant-portraits/), hoping that it will inspire others to appreciate this native environment.


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