10 Mar Species spotlights: Blue wild rye, coyote brush, and California blackberry
Happy March! In my last blog I wrote about the warm, sunny weather returning to Fort Cronkhite in February. I am afraid I may have been a little overly-optimistic, because just a couple weeks later powerful winter storms brought strong winds, hail, and even snow to the Bay Area. Nevertheless, February is an important planting month here, so we braved the wild weather and planted hundreds of native plant species.
I recently read a blog written by another EFTA intern, Aiko Goldston. In it, she wrote all about the Western Snowy Plover, a species she runs into a lot as a wildlife biology intern. Her writing totally made me fall in love with the beautiful, round, little birds, and it inspired me to shine a spotlight on a few of the species I work with as well.
As a member of the Golden Gate Recreation Area’s Habitat Restoration Team, I often work with volunteers restoring native ecosystems. Specifically, we work a lot in grassland and coastal scrub habitats. Coastal scrub habitats occur primarily in dry but foggy areas along the coastal zone and inland areas. The marine layer reaches this habitat-type (the “marine layer” refers to the cold, dense air mass that develops over the ocean). The plant species who live in coastal scrub habitats are shallow-rooted, allowing them to capture water from light rain and fog. As the name suggests, grasslands are dominated by a nearly continuous cover of grasses. Low rainfall, frequent fires, and grazing animals are three factors that maintain grasslands and prevent the growth of larger trees and shrubs. These plant communities support a wide variety of insects and birds, including numerous endangered species. These habitat-types play an important role in carbon sequestration and biodiversity conservation, two major goals of modern conservation efforts. Sadly, these habitats are becoming increasingly rare in California, due in part to the introduction and unmitigated spread of non-native invasive species who displace native ones.
Some of the native species we reintroduced to these coastal scrub and grassland habitats include Blue wild rye (Elymus glaucus), Coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis), and California blackberry (Rubus ursinus). I’ll describe these three superstar plants below.
Blue wild rye
Blue wild rye (Elymus glaucus) belongs to the family Poaceae, meaning they are a grass. This species is tall, thin, slow-spreading, and grows in bunches. They are native to North America. They can grow in a variety of environmental conditions, from shaded to exposed, dry soil to moist, in meadows, prairies, riparian zones, forests, etc.. Because they aren’t picky about where they live, Blue wild rye are quite common and widespread throughout North America.
Over thousands of years of evolution Blue wild rye has developed growing patterns and other behaviors which allow them to survive and thrive in their native ranges, often by ensuring that other native species who contribute to the sustenance of their habitats do too. I like to think of this in terms of human communities. If you want to thrive in your community, you have to support those around you and your shared living space.
The presence of Blue wild rye benefits their native habitats in a myriad of ways. A few of Blue wildrye’s common plant associates include alder, maple, sagebrush, brome grasses, meadow barley, cinquefoil, strawberry, yarrow, aster, and Quaking Aspen, all of-whom are native to California. Blue wildrye is unusual in that their growth appears to be compatible with tree regeneration. They have been utilized in re-vegetation of logged-off and burned-over timberlands and oak woodlands throughout their range. They also serve as a larval host to the native woodland skipper butterfly, and are used as a grazing, foliage, and shelter/nest-building resource by wild and domestic animals. As far as the plant’s relationship with humans goes, Blue wildrye’s thick, rhizomatous (horizontally-growing with lateral shoots), deeply-penetrating roots make the plant excellent at erosion-control and soil stabilization. The seeds also may be/may have been used as a food source by some Native American groups (notably the Salish peoples of Vancouver Island).
Kathleen A. Johnson. 1999. Elymus glaucus
Calflora Database: Elymus glaucus (blue wildrye)
Jepson Manual. 1993. Jepson Manual Treatment: Elymus glaucus
The Xerces Society (2016), Gardening for Butterflies: How You Can Attract and Protect Beautiful, Beneficial Insects, Timber Press.
Utah State University Herbarium: Range Plants of Utah: Blue Wildrye https://extension.usu.edu/rangeplants/grasses-and-grasslikes/blue-wildrye
Johnson, Kathleen A. “Elymus glaucus.” fs.fed.us. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory. 1999. https://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/graminoid/elygla/all.html
Portland Plant List. Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, City of Portland, Oregon. 2016. Pgs. 3.11-1, 3.11-2, 3.16-2. https://www.portland.gov/sites/default/files/2018-12/Portland_Plant_List_2016_Update_Final2.pdf
Coyote bush is a shrub in the family Asteraceae. The species is native to California, Oregon, Washington, and Baja California. Because of the plant’s dense root crown, Coyote brush is able to survive and regenerate quickly from fire and flooding. Their adaptation to these events is evidence of their long evolution here in California, as both have naturally occurred on this landscape for thousands of years. The shrubs provide shelter for wildlife and nectar for native bees, butterflies and other insects. Coyote bush also serves as a nurse plant. Nurse plants are trees/shrubs who serve as protection to small plants growing beneath/around them. In extreme weather/temperatures coyote bushes provide small plants a shaded microhabitat beneath their canopies. Finally, having lived alongside the native coyote brush for thousands of years, Native peoples have found numerous uses for the plant. Some of these historic uses include: using the wood as a material for hunting tools, such as arrow shafts, using the fluffy female seed heads as a stuffing for toys and other items, and many parts of the plant have medicinal uses. One example I came across is the use of heated leaves to reduce pain and swelling.
CONABIO. 2009. Catálogo taxonómico de especies de México. 1. In Capital Nat. México. CONABIO, México D.F..
Luong, Justin C. (4 March 2022). “Nonperiodic grassland restoration management can promote native woody shrub encroachment”. Restoration Ecology. 30 (8): e13650. doi:10.1111/rec.13650
Sundberg, Scott D.; Bogler, David J. (2006). “Baccharis pilularis”. In Flora of North America Editorial Committee (ed.). Flora of North America North of Mexico (FNA)
Bogler, David (2012). “Baccharis pilularis”. In Jepson Flora Project (ed.). Jepson eFlora. The Jepson Herbarium, University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved 2018-03-23.
California blackberry (Rubus ursinus) is a shrub/vine species in the family Rosaceae. The species is native to western North America. If you want to identify the species in the field, you can look out for the following key characteristics: (1) size/general shape: Rubus uranus grows to between 2 and 5 feet tall and up to 6 ft wide; (2) leaves typically composed of 3 leaflets; (3) white flowers with 5 petals; small (up to 2cm long) red, purple, or black fruits composed of many little drupes (each of those tiny bulbs composing the “berry” is called a drupe); and thin, short spines along a rounded stems. The small, skinny spines along the vines of California blackberries are what I look for to differentiate this plant from the invasive Himalayan blackberry, who has thicker spines and a square stem.
California blackberries, like many native plants, provide a myriad of benefits to their native ecosystems. Diverse wildlife eat the berries, including songbirds, deer, bears, and other large and small mammals. Native bee species pollinate Rubus ursinus and songbirds sometimes use the plant for nesting material. The species is also a larval food source for several native butterfly species, including the Western tiger swallowtail butterfly, the mourning cloak butterfly, the gray hairstreak butterfly, and the spring azure butterfly. Native Americans such as the Kumeyaay, Maidu, Pomo and Salish peoples have historically used R. ursinus as a source of food and medicine. The plant is called wân-kö-mil′-ē in the Konkow language, spoken by the Concow Indian tribe of present-day Butte County, California.
In addition to all the good Rubus ursinus does for their community, they are also a go-to plant for restoration efforts because they spread vegetatively (the branches can take root if they touch soil, allowing them to spread vegetatively and form larger clonal colonies), stabilize creek banks and prevent erosion, and are fairly tolerant of drought.
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Native Plant Information Network−NPIN: Rubus ursinus (California blackberry, California dewberry, Western blackberry)
Ecoplexity.org: Rubus ursinus; description + images.
Flora of North America, Rubus ursinus Chamisso & Schlechtendal, 1827. California or Pacific or creeping blackberry
Biota of North America Program 2014: Rubus ursinus by U.S. county distribution map
Las Pilitas Horticulture Database: Rubus ursinus
University of Michigan at Dearborn: Native American Ethnobotany of Rubus ursinus
I have just a couple more things I’d like to share before closing out this blog. First, I have been trying to learn more about the Indigenous peoples of the San Francisco Bay Area recently. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area is situated within the ancestral homeland of the Coast Miwok people, who were forcibly removed from the area in the late 18th and early 19th centuries by European settlers. Most of the work the Habitat Restoration Team does is in the homelands of the Guaulen and Huimen tribelets.
The Miwok are members of four linguistically related Native American groups indigenous to what is now Northern California. Prior to European colonization (beginning here in the 16th century), the Coast Miwok, living along the central California coast just north of the San Francisco Bay, were the second-largest of these four groups. The largest group at the time was the Plains and Sierra Miwok, whose homeland includes regions of the Sacramento Valley, San Joaquin Valley, and the Sierra Nevada. The Coast Miwok people, their cultures, and their languages are still alive today. I plan to learn more about the Coast Miwok – their history, current affairs, ecological stewardship efforts, traditional ecological knowledge, etc. – everyday. I will share more in my next blog!
Lastly, here are some highlights from my life outside of work for the month of February:
Thank you for reading! Have a nice day!