Sycamore Canyon Natural History
A Report to the Riverside Municipal Museum
- N. Anderson
All gratitude above all to Oscar Clarke and Andrew Sanders for teaching me local botany and identifying particular plants. Also to Jack Bryant, Michael Fugate, John Green, Tanya Huff and others for help and advice.
Sycamore Canyon Wilderness Park preserves two major canyons and a high, rolling tableland around them. Sycamore Canyon itself drains much of Moreno Valley, and thus is a large, deep canyon with a permanent stream. The smaller canyon passes just under the Ameal Moore Nature Center and drops down to join the main canyon just outside the park.
Sycamore Canyon saves a wonderful, large sample of a seriously endangered habitat: the rolling hills and streams of interior southern California. We Californians have done a good job saving our mountains, and a fair job with deserts and coasts, but the interior valleys and rolling hill have been open to developers, with consequent loss of natural habitat.
Sycamore Canyon Park is currently a lifeline for at least three birds and one lizard that used to be common but are now rare to very rare in southern California. The birds are the Bell’s Vireo, Blue Grosbeak and Horned Lark, all common elsewhere but almost gone as breeding birds in southern California. The lizard is the orange-throated whiptail, confined to granite hills from Riverside south through Baja California. Suburbanization has taken the homes of these animals, and the park is one of their last refuges. The vireo and grosbeak depend on willow-cottonwood forest along streams, the lark on open grassland, the lizard on granite hill-and-canyon country. Those habitats are not commonly preserved in California.
Another, less endangered, local and uncommon species is the smooth tarplant (Centromadia pungens var. laevis),a bushy plant with a yellow daisy-like flower. It is confined to central-western Riverside County (and a tiny overhang into San Bernardino Co.). It is common along the middle part of the main stream.
The main canyon is well known for being far too large for its current small stream. Part of the reason is that it once drained much more of Moreno Valley and the Box Springs Mountains than it does now; earthquakes diverted several feeder streams. Another reason is that the broad valley that begins at the west edge of Sycamore Canyon Park is partly tectonic—caused by earthquakes.
The park is a notably rocky place. Huge rocks stand everywhere, cropping out from canyonsides, grasslands, and brush. The rocks are geologically fairly simple: they are granodiorite, a granitic rock that differs from granite in having more dark minerals. Almost anywhere in the park, you will see the rocks all around you are speckled with gray, white and black, or pink, white and black. The white can be either quartz (more clear) or feldspar (opaque, chalky-looking). The pink comes from iron or other minerals. The dark colors come from hornblende (crystals, usually very small but up to an inch across) and, much less often, biotite mica (flat, shiny sheets).
The granodiorite slowly cooled from a pasty melt, deep underground, about 100 million years ago (give or take a few million). Similar granitic “plutons” (huge masses of molten rock) were actively emplacing themselves all through interior southern California at the time, and on up through the Sierra Nevada and south through Baja California.
In our area, the granodiorite rose up under a thick covering of much older rock, a dark gray, somewhat layered rock known as schist. You can see little bits and lumps of it in the granodiorite,, or sticking to the tops of granodiorite boulders. The granodiorite, exceedingly hot and moving like toothpaste forced from a tube, pushed up, cracked the schist, flowed into the cracks, and slowly absorbed or partially absorbed the schist. You can see in several parts of the park how the schist lumps (technically “xenoliths,” i.e. “strange rocks”) are surrounded, invaded, and partially dissolved into the granodiorite.
It might seem that the park would be pretty dull, with basically only one type of rock around, but nothing could be further from the truth. As the rock cooled, it cracked. Also, then and since, earthquakes have constantly smashed up the pluton. Cooling cracks rapidly filled with still-molten material, or circulating water at far-above-boiling temperatures carried minerals into the cracks. The result was the broad streaks of white and pink that you now see everywhere. These are “pegmatite dykes,” pegmatite being the last stuff to cool from a granite mass—usually, sizable crystals of quartz and feldspar. Iron and other minerals, carried by that hot water, often makes it bright pink. The water often deposited gold too, so prospectors in the old days dug “coyote holes” wherever a big pegmatite vein looked promising. A very substantial amount of gold came from the Gavilan Hills just south of the park. No one found anything in the park, or even did much digging. The nearby Box Springs Mountains are full of “coyote holes,” but no “color” turned up. But what Sycamore Canyon did get is an amazing variety of rock patterns. Newer dykes and veins cross old ones. White veins cross pink, speckled, and dark gray ones. Rainbow colors include almost everything except blue; there are even green rocks, where schist partially melted and the green olivine in it recrystallized in flat layers on newer rock. A particularly scrambled and vivid rockscape makes up the sharp peak visible just southwest of the visitors’ center, and the cliffs that extend southwestward from it. Try to figure out how all those mixed and varicolored rocks came out of one granodiorite mass. Many other interesting rockscapes occur in the park. Look carefully around you and think what could have formed the patterns you see.
Earthquakes continue to shape the park. The canyons and cliffs are all basically the result of breaking and sliding along fault lines. Left to itself, the park is fairly flat—a rolling plateau surface. The canyons are dramatic, but also interesting is the lack of relief between the deep ones. This is due to the tendency of the granodiorite to weather evenly. Bushes grow in any little gully and stop erosion there, so erosion shifts to sheetwash on the broad surface of the land. If a new gully develops, bushes colonize it and slow erosion down. So the pattern continues.
The soil developed on granodiorite starts with “grus”—sandy, broken-down granite rock. It weathers to a pinkish-tan sandy loam. Erosion washes this away easily, so soil is usually shallow and very well drained. This makes it good for avocados and olives, bad for many other garden items. It is rich in mineral nutrients but very poor in nitrogen. However, car exhaust and other fossil fuel smoke is rich in nitrates and nitrites, and fertilizes the land. This has led to growth of grass and weeds over recent decades.
Fifty years ago, the Sycamore Canyon area was a beautiful, almost trackless expanse of coastal sage scrub. This vegetation type consists of short bushes: mostly sage, sagebrush, wild buckwheat, and shrubby sunflowers of several types. Sage and sagebrush are quite different things; sages are in the mint family and have large, beautiful blue flowers in spring; sagebrush is in the daisy and dandelion family and has tiny, whitish flowers in fall. They grow together, on the shadier sides of hills and rock outcrops. The commonest of the sunflowers is brittlebush, which dominates the sunnier slopes. It is two to four feet tall, with diamond-shaped fuzzy gray leaves and, in the first warm days of spring, beautiful yellow sunflowers. It is notably drought-tolerant, and is surviving the current hot dry climate. Buckwheat, covered with white or pinkish-white flowers for most of the summer, grows almost anywhere, especially on very rocky places and in newly cleared areas (including highway cuts).
In any slightly moist place, a tall, imposing green bush grows high above the sage scrub. This is elderberry (specifically, blue or Mexican elderberry—very close to the familiar food plant of the old world). Its berries, born in June, are a major wildlife food, and not bad eating even for humans. Another localized plant, but this one found only in the hottest and driest places, is California cholla cactus.
There is a pronounced sunward slope / shady slope effect: sage and sagebrush grow on the shadier north and northeast slopes; brittlebush dominates the sun-facing south and southwest slopes. Brittlebush is a desert plant reaching its northwest limit here, and it needs hot dry conditions. Most flowers prefer one or the other slope; baby-blue-eyes and its relatives, for instance, is essentially confined to north-facing (shady) slopes, California evening primrose to southwest-facing ones that get the most sun. California poppies and suncups prefer level land or gentle slopes in full sun.
Plants of the sage scrub usually have smallish, hard, nutritious seeds. These fall to the ground not far from the parent plant, get buried in the soil, and germinate in the spring, with the nutritious seed material giving the young plant the nutrient it needs in our poor, sandy soil. Often, seeds are found and collected by ants, who frequently drop and lose the seeds in the rich, soft soil that accumulates around anthills. Buckwheat and filaree in particular are good at using this method to get around. Native Americans quickly learned that the seeds of this vegetation formation, especially the annual flowers, were an amazing food resource. Many of our cultivated crops (including wheat, barley, oats, rye, chickpeas and so on) come from similar habitats in the Old World and were similarly exploited—and eventually cultivated—there.
Sage scrub used to be an amazing sight in spring and summer: a mass of flowers, visited by millions of butterflies, bees, brilliant-colored beetles, and other insects, as well as countless hummingbirds, lizards, spiders, and dozens of other beings. Unfortunately, the sage scrub has taken a terrible beating. People start fires all the time. The sage scrub is adapted to fire; in the old days, it burned regularly, and seeds promptly renewed it in a couple of years. But now several things prevent this. First, the nitrates and nitrites noted above fertilize nonnative grass, thistles, and mustards, which choke out the native plants. The natives are not adapted to fertile soil, grow less rapidly, and thus get crowded out. Second, this rampant grass and weed growth soon dies and dries out, providing fuel for much hotter and more frequent fires. Third, our climate has gotten steadily hotter and drier for decades now—the result of natural warming plus warming caused by greenhouse gases released by humans. Even in places where no fires have come and where grass is scarce, the bushes are dying from drought.
Thanks to this, most of the park is now grassland—nonnative grass, mostly brome species, and weeds.
There are two other vegetation types in the park. Most conspicuous and important is the “riparian” vegetation. The word comes from Latin ripa, riverbank, and refers to vegetation along the banks of streams. Since Sycamore Canyon Park is the place where several major drainages join, it has a lot of this vegetation. Dominant is the Pacific willow, easily recognized by its long, pointed leaves, bright green above, somewhat silvery below. It grows everywhere that water is constantly available on or below the surface. Also very common—to the point of giving its name to the whole area—is California sycamore. This tree has mottled pale-gray bark and broad leaves with five points, rather like a human hand. It grows in drier areas, where there is always some moisture at depth but no permanent surface water. Third is the cottonwood, with heart-shaped brilliant green leaves and a gray trunk with strongly ridged bark.
You always see young willows and cottonwoods along the stream, but never a young sycamore. Why not? Because sycamore requires a flood that deposits silt and then goes away and leaves the area to dry up. If it doesn’t dry up, the willows and cottonwoods crowd out the young sycamores. Thanks (again) to global warming, we no longer have widespread flooding in the dry parts of the park. Our sycamores are mostly very old, going back to cooler and wetter periods centuries ago.
An interesting addition to our riparian tree flora is the fan palm—a native plant to the general area, but not native here. Most (maybe all) of ours are Baja California fan palms, Washingtonia robusta. They are very tall, with very thin trunks. They have sprouted from seeds of the street trees in the area. The fruits of these palms are tiny dates. They are perfectly good eating. Birds and coyotes love them, and scatter the seeds everywhere—hence their invasion of the canyon. They thrive on fire, and the frequent fires are helping them move in.
Under the trees, along the streams, there are many bushes: mulefat, mugwort, threeleaf sumac, and others. The one you need to recognize is poison oak. It has three very shiny leaflets that turn reddish when the plant is at all dry. Just don’t get into any dense, tall, shiny-leaved stuff with reddish leaves at the edge of the patch.
In and beside the water are tules, cattails, sedges, rushes, cocklebur, spotted monkeyflower with beautiful red-spotted yellow blooms, and a range of other plants.
Riparian plants usually have tiny seeds attached to plumes that allow them to float in the air. Thus they can drift everywhere and settle on newly opened wet areas. The advantage of this is visible after wet winters, or when construction produces a new cleared-off wet place: little willow, cottonwood, mulefat, horseweed, cattail and other plants immediately spring up. Most of the plants that do not use this trick produce berries or other edible fruits. Thus they lure birds and mammals to eat the fruit, and excrete the seeds, conveniently packaged in fertilizer! The animals wander around and thus spread the seeds widely. Still other water plants multiply when floods tear them out, tear the clumps apart, and then replant them farther downstream; in the park, watercress and cattail use this strategy. Contrast these strategies with those of the coastal sage scrub. In the latter, only a couple of species that require rock outcrops use the long-range, plumed-seed dispersal method.
One interesting and distinctive riparian area of the park, to me the most interesting biologically, is the middle part of the main stream, just above the canyon. Here salt and possibly alkali have accumulated over the years in the soil of the flat areas near the stream. Thus a whole special community of salt-tolerant and salt-loving plants has developed: saltbush, saltgrass, alkali dropseed grass, smooth tarplant, and others. Much larger saline areas exist along the San Jacinto River drainage to the southeast. These interior saline pockets create a distinctive habitat, with at least one species—the smooth tarplant—confined to them.
The third vegetation type is rare, sparse, and confined to the south end of the park: juniper savannah. This type is about gone, thanks again to fire and grass invasion. You can see it flourishing down in Harford Springs Park in the Gavilan Hills, a few miles south of us. Very old California junipers—dense, very dark green, evergreen shrubs about 10 feet tall—are surrounded by annual plants, originally wildflowers, now mostly nonnative grass. This vegetation type exists on flat to rolling surfaces, where clay accumulates in the soil. Since the sage scrub bushes prefer sandy, well-drained soil, these more clay-rich areas remained bare except in spring, when annual wildflowers covered them. They thus did not burn well, and so the fire-sensitive junipers survived. Today, with the universal weedy grasses, fire impacts the juniper savannah. Also, the flat surfaces attract suburbs and factories. So almost none of this vegetation type, once widespread, survives today.
In addition to the grasses and weeds, several nonnative plants have become interesting additions to the flora. One common one is South American tree tobacco, with wide gray leaves and tubular yellow flowers. The leaves are deadly poison, but the nectar in the flowers is perfect hummingbird and butterfly food, so this is a very welcome plant from the hummingbirds’ viewpoint, making up for the food they lost from the death of the sage scrub. Common along the park edge, and occasional within it, are large eucalyptus trees. The “California pepper tree,” which is actually a Peruvian sumac tree, is widely seen. These “pepper” trees were probably all planted.
An interesting bit of landscape is an abandoned olive orchard in the central-east corner of the park. Olives were once commonly grown commercially in southern California, but have been replaced by suburbs; however, abandoned oliv treees can live indefinitely, and this orchard may have been abandoned in the Depression of the 1930s (as many were). Amazingly, a single commercial Persian walnut (Juglans regia) survives in this orchard. Walnuts usually need major irrigation to survive in our area, but this one somehow hangs on. Meanwhile, a sizable native southern California black walnut grows in the upper drainage, and is the presumed parent of saplings downstream. Being much more drought-tolerant, this tree flourishes.
There were probably other orchards and agricultural efforts once, but no trace of them survives. Otherwise, there are no evidences of human presence in the park except the trails, roads, power poles, recent litter and graffiti, and invasive nonnative vegetation. Yet we know the area was much used by Native Californians. One could, once, find smooth shallow depressions on flat rocks, where the Indian collectors had ground seeds for bread and seedcakes. In recent decades, rain made more acid by aerial pollutants (carbon and nitrogen compounds) has eaten these away, and they are no longer detectable. Fortunately, they were recorded before all was lost. There was no doubt a good scatter of stone tools and pottery shards in the area in the old days, but these are gone now.
Fire is a constant feature of these dryland vegetation types. In very ancient times, lightning and spontaneous combustion were common enough to provide it.
Unlike most chaparral bushes, which resprout, most sage scrub bushes are killed by burning, but rapidly grows back from seeds—or did until recently. Riparian plants usually regrow from the rootstock or stem, though some (notably, here, cottonwood) are generally destroyed by fire and have to reseed.
For the last many thousand years, till recently, Native Americans burned brush to get annual seed plants to grow. This would normally create a mosaic effect: small areas would be burned in a given year, while other areas regrew. Usually, burns were not total, so that some bushes survived and provided seed. Extensive fires were rare. Today, with introduced weedy grass to carry the fire, and fire suppression in old-growth brush with much dead wood, fires are hotter and become more extensive. Then the introduced weedy grasses invade rapidly, choking out the natives. (Thanks to Richard Minnich for this information; see Minnich 2008.)
Native American Uses before the Spanish
The present Sycamore Canyon Park is rather rocky and barren—not prime country for foraging. Even so, Native Californians used this area extensively for seed gathering, and doubtless for hunting, especially the rabbits that are so common here. On flat rocks near the Barton St. trailhead, you can find shallow depressions that are very smooth to the touch. These are “grinding slicks”: places where the Native Californians used flat stones to grind seeds into meal or flour. The ground seeds were then baked into cakes in the ashes of the fire, or made into soup by stirring them with water in a basket, dropping hot stones into the basket until the soup was cooked. The baskets were watertight and tough enough to withstand heat, but someone had to stir constantly to prevent the rocks from burning through the basket. Major foods available included seeds of chia and other sages, fiddlenecks, redmaids, brittlebush, tarweed and other plants, and also corms of wild hyacinth, wild onion, and relatives. Also used were fruit and nuts of brush cherry (assuming there were once more of them here—there is only one bush now). All the mammals and the larger birds were available, and people were willing to eat reptiles and large insects; like St. John in the Bible, they ate locusts and wild honey. They did avoid coyotes, rattlesnakes, skunks and similar marginally edible game.
There were once many more grinding slicks, and other evidences of human presence, but erosion and modern traffic have destroyed them. Acid rain collects in the grinding slicks and dissolves away the smooth surface, leaving them indistinguishable from natural shallow depressions in the rock.
Woody plants were used for construction, especially the larger trees; also for firewood. Arrows were light, and could be made of any straight tough plant, but the foreshafts and even points were often made of chamise wood, which is very hard, can be polished to a sharp point, and does not split easily. Good bow material in the area seems limited to California walnut wood. Some willows can provide bow material, but our two species have weak, easily broken wood. One could also hope to trade for bows of serviceberry or other hard woods from the high mountains, or ash from the canyons.
Native Americans did not set up regular villages in the park area—it is too unproductive—but would have built shelters there occasionally, using a framework of poles or btranches covered with a thatch of grass, brush, long twigs, or anything that would provide good cover. In the desert they favored palm fronds, but our palms here in the canyon are recent colonizers, unavailable in the old days.
Dramatic rock outcrops near canyons were often ceremonial sites, but information on this matter is not for public disclosure, since some of the sites are still used. (Native Californian culture is far from extinct, even after 250 years of European colonization.)
Native Californians burned the landscape at intervals, to clear away overgrown brush and allow seed-rich annuals and young short-lived perennials to take over. Most of the park’s plant species are killed by fire, and had to re-seed and regrow. Willows, sycamores, elderberries, and a few other large woody plants can take fire well; they simply regrow from rootstocks or trunks. Many perennials would lose all above-ground tissue but would promptly regrow from the roots; coyote melon, Phacelia ramossisima, and several other spreading plants do this. Fire kept the land in its most productive stage: rapidly regrowing, with many young, seed-bearing species. Game animals also liked this flush of new growth. Juan Crespí, an excellent observer who knew plants well, noted in 1769 that the Los Angeles area and inland valleys were burned to produce flushes of new growth (Crespí 2001). Today, unfortunately, fire merely allows introduced weedy species to take over, crowding out the natives.
Riverside is near the meeting point of the Cahuilla, Serrano, Luiseno and Tongva (Gabrielino) peoples. These names refer to four closely related languages, about as close as Spanish and Portuguese. In historic times, the Cahuilla inhabited what is now Riverside, but the others all lived nearby, and there was much contact. Perhaps some sort of intermediate dialect was once spoken. Aboriginally, these entities did not exist as tribes; the tribes (or bands) were smaller, each one occupying a sizable winter village and holding a large territory around it. They would often disperse into mountain areas in summer, for coolness as well as hunting and gathering acorns and similar foods.
Culture was complex and sophisticated, with exquisite baskets and other art and with an elaborate and rich oral literature. European contact shattered these groups, with as much as 95% reduction in population from disease and violence. They have survived, regained much of their population levels, and are doing well economically and educationally, but preserving the language and culture is a major challenge, currently being met by a number of initiatives. Excellent descriptions of plant uses by Cahuilla have been provided by Lowell Bean and Katherine Siva Saubel (1972) and of uses by Serrano by Michael Lerch (1981). For general California plant knowledge, see M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild (2005), Maurice Zigmond’s Kawaiisu Ethnobotany (1981), and Jan Timbrook’s work on Chumash plant use (Timbrook 2007).
Since Euro-American settlement, the park area has not been particularly useful, hence its survival as a wild and reasonably natural area. It was too rocky and steep for easy development. An old olive orchard obviously did not succeed well enough to tempt imitators. The park was long used for rough grazing, but does not seem to have been cultivated, at least not on any serious scale. As water became valuable, the drainage came under increasing protection for its value as a water supply.
A useful guidebook that has all these critters is Bowers et al., Kaufman Fied Guide to Mammals of North America; see bibliography below.
Opossum. This tough, adaptable introduced animal became commoner, as suburbs spread, but is now less common again, probably because there is less garbage available.
California mole. Formerly common in damp soil in undisturbed canyons. Now rare.
Desert shrew (Notiosorex crawfordi). Formerly rare to uncommon. I have not seen any recently and have no idea of current status.
Western pipistrelle. The only bat I can certainly identify and still think is common (though much less so than formerly).
Larger bat: A larger bat is sometimes seen and is probably a Myotis. I am not sure if any other bat species persist. Several once inhabited the area.
Raccoon. Survives in fair numbers, but less common than it used to be. There is less food; garbage is secured in bins, litter rarer, home gardening and home orchards a thing of the past in most of the area.
Long-tailed weasel. Formerly rare, now probably locally extirpated, though surviving as close as Glen Helen Park in San Bernardino County.
Spotted skunk. Formerly common, now gone. Apparently displaced by the striped skunk.
Striped skunk. Moved in with suburbanization, became common as suburbs expanded, then became rare again with stabilization; possibly fed on mice, garbage, etc. stirred up by expanding construction. Has declined with securing of garbage in large bins, cleanup of litter, and decline of home gardening. A few still occur.
Badger. Formerly resident in open grasslands. Gone since late 1960s.
Gray fox. Formerly common, now almost gone, due primarily to dog diseases, especially parvovirus and distemper. A few survive but do not raise many young.
Coyote. This notorious survivor survives. They have one to three or four young a year. There are no “coyote packs”; one never sees more than a pair with young of the year, or, very rarely, a three-generation pack. Stories of coyotes luring dogs away to kill them are mere folklore, though if a dog takes on a coyote, of course he is taking his chances. Coyotes take a few cats, but far, far fewer than folklore relates. Worse cat-killers are great horned owls and loose dogs.
Bobcat. Formerly rather rare, now very rare, but still observed. A small female lives in Two Trees Canyon Park. Sycamore Canyon, with similar habitat, probably has at least one resident bobcat.
Mountain lion. A female lived on the Box Springs Mountains in 1991 and supposedly raised at least one cub. Sightings have been claimed since (at least one person in Pigeon Pass claims he loses sheep to them). View reports with suspicion; I have seen a friend’s Siamese cat identified as a “cougar,” and had the footprints of one of my dogs identified as mountain lion tracks!
California groundsquirrel. Formerly extremely abundant. Still common, but not in anything like former numbers (which were probably far inflated above pre-White-settler conditions, because of grain farming and predator removal). Droughts and fires have greatly decreased the numbers; fires not only kill some, but, more seriously, expose the rest to predation. It is actually surviving in the suburbs better than in the park.
Botta’s pocket gopher. Rapidly declining in areas where native vegetation has been replaced by weedy grass, which it cannot use. Common elsewhere.
Merriam’s kangaroo rat. Still astonishingly common in Sycamore Canyon Park grasslands.
Western harvest mouse. Formerly present; I have no idea of current status.
Desert deermouse. Formerly extremely common; still present in undisturbed areas, but numbers are down well over 90%.
California vole. Has always been fairly common in moist areas, and seems still to be so.
Pack rat (desert woodrat). Formerly very common. Now almost gone. Has not dealt well with droughts, fires, and loss of habitat to suburbs and cheat grass. Still, several probably survive in the park.
House mouse. All too common in houses; strays into park.
Black rat. Common in suburbs, must stray into park.
Norway rat. Occasionally seen; stays in sewers and other hiding places.
Desert cottontail. Common, though not as much as formerly; numbers fluctuate with fires and droughts. These knock it back, but it breeds like, well…. And so it stays ahead.
Black-tailed jackrabbit. Still fairly common. Sycamore Canyon Park is its last stronghold in northeast Riverside. An animal of extensive level grasslands, it has been banished by suburban development from most of Riverside, and does not live in the mountainous areas eastward.
Mule deer. Presumably once common. Now gone. Tracks and occasional sightings show deer still visit the Box Springs Mountains, but do not live there; they range widely from the badlands farther east. I have not seen tracks in Sycamore Canyon Park.
Reptiles and Amphibians (“Herps”)
A standard, thorough guide here is Robert Stebbins, A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians.
I have not seen most of the following in the park, but have seen them all nearby in Riverside (except for the night lizard and night snake).
Lungless salamander. One species used to occur under logs on UCR campus, and presumably elsewhere. I have no idea of species ID or current status.
California toad. Formerly rare to uncommon; now rare.
Pacific treefrog. This little frog, with its familiar “ribbit!” call, persists in the canyon. However, numbers are down 99%, presumably because of chytrid fungus and habitat problems.
Spadefoot toad. Formerly common after rains, in pools in open country. Now probably extirpated.
Pacific horned lizard. Formerly uncommon, now extirpated, by cats, habitat loss, and change of ant species (the hostile and non-nourishing South American species have widely taken over). Where cats come in, this species immediately disappears. Cats seem unable to resist killing it, probably in play, since they do not seem to eat it.
Side-blotched lizard. Reduction with suburbanization, but still common; abundant throughout the park.
Bluebelly lizard (western fence lizard). This survivor is as common as ever, or nearly so, surviving even in suburbia. 2014 has been a banner year for reproduction, with small ones all over the park.
Granite spiny lizard. This large dark lizard, with brilliant blue underparts, is common on rock outcrops, where it shelters in cracks in the boulders. Watch it change color. When cold, it is dark—black absorbs heat. As it warms up, it gets lighter. The melanin-containing spots on the skin shrink up. Eventually it becomes pale gray. It tends to move so that it blends in with the rock: when cold, it sits on a dark rock; when hot, on a pale one (and in the shade—of course!). When it is excited, the colors really fire up: a broad purple streak develops on the back, and the sides develop brilliant blue spots.
Western skink. Uncommon; this thin, swift-moving lizard with blue tail is hard to spot and quick to escape, but worth watching for.
Southern alligator lizard. Formerly common, now uncommon, but survives, especially in suburbs, where it loves neglected piles of lumber, crawl spaces, etc. Found in the park around logs and dead brush.
Night lizard. Reported. I have not seen it.
California legless lizard. Rare; I have not found it in the park area, but it is reported.
Western whiptail lizard. Uncommon. Commoner off the granite (the following species takes its place on the granitic landscape).
Orange-throated whiptail. This small, thin, fast-moving lizard is something of a local specialty—at the very northwest limit of its range here. It is confined to the dry granitic hills of southern California and Baja California. It is brownish, with vague stripes, and of course an orange throat—but good luck seeing that! If you see this lizard, it will probably be running away very fast, and hiding in litter. Formerly very common, then very rare for many years. Cats are at least a part of the problem. Survives in rocky, brushy areas where cats do not go. In these areas, however, a noticeable increase has taken place since 2010, and this lizard is now fairly common again, locally, including within the park.
Western blind snake (Worm snake). Apparently rare but a regular resident of the canyons, in moist soil. However, since it is tiny and lives underground, you will probably not see it.
Rosy boa. Steadily rarer over time, but persists in wildest parts of the park and is even seen at the edge of the suburbs.
Striped racer. Still around, though loss of habitat has reduced numbers.
Red racer. This open-country snake has pretty much lost out to suburbs; a few survive.
California king snake. Formerly quite uncommon, now really rare, but some seem to persist. Status in Sycamore Canyon unclear.
Night snake. I have never seen this snake, but my friend and neighbor John Green finds them now and then on his property (and elsewhere).
Black-headed snake. I have seen it only once in Riverside, near the mouth of Two Trees Canyon. This secretive burrower is probably not rare, but is very hard to find.
Ring-necked snake. Probably uncommon but regular in fair populations, in the canyons, in damp or at least occasionally damp soil. Hard to find.
Gopher snake. Still common, and ones four feet long, or even longer, are still seen.
Red-diamond rattlesnake. Another specialty of the pinkish granitic landscape from eastern Riverside south through Baja California; we are at the extreme northwest end of its range. Killed on sight, usually, so much less common than formerly, but still around. Do not bother it or even go near it if you see it! (The Pacific or Pacific Green Rattlesnake takes over once one is off the granite landscape—basically from near the edge of the park on west.)
There are fish in Sycamore Canyon stream, including the native Arroyo Chub, which was exterminated but has been successfully reintroduced, and can be seen in clear pools. Probably the ever-present South American mosquitofish (Gambusia spp.) is also there. It has been introduced everywhere in Riverside, and in fact in most of the world, to eat mosquito larvae.
Our area has a rich bird life. The best starter guide is Birds of Southern California by Kimball Garrett and Jon Dunn. Both are veteran local birders; Kim Garrett is a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. He’s amazingly good about answering phone calls and emails. For more advanced birding, the best are Charles Sibley’s various guidebooks (basic is Sibley 2000, but there are now several specialized follow-up books).
White Pelican uncommon migrant, but flocks regularly move northwest from the reservoirs and Salton Sea, flying over Moreno Valley and Pigeon Pass.
Double-crested Cormorant Erratic but sometimes common migrant; large flocks flying to and fro throughout Feb. 2010 was an unusual event. As with the other waterbirds, this species is common and regular at Perris Reservoir and the San Jacinto Wildlife Area, and the very commonly used migration routes from these to the coast or over Cajon Pass takes these birds directly over the Box Springs Mountains area. Flocks of water birds, and also migrant hawks, often avoid flying over mountains by flying over Pigeon Pass (on the east side of the Box Springs), or over Box Springs Pass and then over UCR.
Great Blue Heron uncommon migrant and drop-in, usually at ponds, sometimes flying over or in fields
Canada Goose common migrant overhead, mostly Nov.-Dec. and Feb.
Mallard ponds and streams, migration, winter, also breeds
Turkey Vulture Common migrant, but much less common than formerly. Used to breed in Riverside area; declined with sanitation, disappearing as breeder with loss of garbage, etc.
White-tailed Kite: Rare, but established in the Santa Ana river bottom. Became steadily commoner, peaking in the early 1980s. Steady decline since, and now rarer than ever. The theory in the 1980s was that new suburb construction chased lots of mice out of their holes, and then final suburbanization eliminated open habitat without chasing any more mice.
Sharp-shinned Hawk Fairly common, migration and winter; occasional summer
Cooper’s Hawk Fairly common resident; several pairs breed in northeast Riverside and hunt in Sycamore Canyon. May breed in the canyon. This species was almost eliminated by DDT in the 1950s and 1960s, but with the ban on DDT it has slowly increased again. The population of pigeons—its favorite food—has correspondingly declined, in lock-step with the Cooper’s increase.
Red-tailed Hawk: Most birds of prey are declining, but the redtail seems to increase slowly but steadily. Hunts for rats and groundsquirrels along freeways and seeks out burns to hunt mammals that cannot find much cover.
Red-shouldered Hawk: Always (since 1950s at least) a substantial breeding population on and near UCR campus. It never seems to change, but this species has become a commoner breeding bird around Riverside, evidently spreading from bases on UCR campus and in the Santa Ana river bottoms.
Swainson’s Hawk very rare migrant
Ferruginous Hawk formerly uncommon but regular migrant and rare winter; now about gone
Golden Eagle Rare wanderer. Before my time, regularly bred on Slover Mountain (which no longer exists) and elsewhere. A pair bred on the Box Springs Mountains in 1979 (?) and raised one young, female. It was fun to watch the young one following the male through the sky and begging constantly for food, even when she was almost half again as big as he was! Until recently, a regular migrant and wintering bird in wide open areas especially near water, but wind farms have almost exterminated this bird in California. It is now extremely rare.
Bald Eagle Rare migrant, mostly in late winter.
Marsh Hawk (Hen Harrier) rare migrant; formerly common migrant and fairly common winterer. This bird has declined dramatically everywhere in the west.
Peregrine Falcon Very rare. A pair breeds in downtown Riverside, however, and hunting individuals occasionally appear in our area.
Prairie Falcon. Presumably rare migrant; I have observed many migrants on the other side of the Box Springs and in the Pigeon Pass area, including the headwaters of Two Trees Canyon, but none in the Sycamore Canyon area.
Merlin: Rare migrant and winterer in area.
Kestrel: Steady decline, as in most of the US, but not so bad here as in many (or most) areas; remains fairly common resident. Several pairs breed in northeast Riverside and the species regularly hunts in Sycamore Canyon Park.
Mountain Quail: very rare wanderer to area.
California Quail: Abundant till the droughts of 2001-2 and 2006-7; now much less so, but still common in riparian and chaparral areas.
Ring-necked Pheasant: This introduced Asian bird was formerly fairly common in the orange groves of the area, but eliminating the groves has eliminated the bird. I think some remain down in Hidden Valley (on the Santa Ana toward Corona).
Killdeer: The killdeer gradually declined, becoming only casual migrants after about 1980. In general, killdeer are down probably 99% in coastal southern California since my youth, because of loss of wetlands everywhere. A few pairs still nest locally and occasionally fly through Sycamore Canyon Park.
California Gull: as for Ringbilled, but much less common
Ringbilled Gull: Abundant in the old days. Steady rapid decline (even more dramatic in Los Angeles) after about 1990. This tracks the rise of recycling and better sanitation and garbage pickup, and probably also the greater charms of Lake Perris luring them away from our (cleaner) area.
Caspian Tern rare migrant; noted very rarely over Riverside.
Rock Dove (Rock Pigeon, “park pigeon”): Always common, but less so now than formerly, because of environmental sanitation and the Cooper’s Hawk population rebound. Since 2000, has been getting less common every year.
Band-tailed Pigeon: An interesting story. Uncommon winterer as of 1966. The extreme wet year of 1968-69 drove huge flocks out of the mountains and kept them out—the snow was many feet deep—and many started breeding in oak areas all over southern California, including UCR campus and live-oak trees in yards all over Riverside city. (The birds live to a great extent on acorns.) They stayed, and are still here. Populations rapidly climbed, and one could see flocks of 50 or more. Then Cooper’s Hawk populations recovered, and the bandtails declined in lockstep with the Cooper’s increase. In my experience, pigeons and doves are the favorite food of Cooper’s. Bandtails are declining in much of their range, and I suppose the same phenomenon may be widespread. The bandtails and Cooper’s have now apparently reached an accommodation, with bandtails still common in every part of Riverside that has many large live oak trees. Combination of drought and very active Cooper’s hawk breeding in 2013 lowered numbers somewhat.
Mourning Dove: Much commoner back when barley was farmed in Moreno Valley and north Riverside was mostly orange groves. Declines well over 90%. Part of the reason is probably the recovery of the Cooper’s Hawk population. However, this hardy survivor has adjusted, and remains one of the commonest birds in the area.
Spotted Dove: This is a great mystery. Introduced from south China to Los Angeles around 1890-1900, it spread rapidly and steadily. It got commoner, spreading with suburbs. It suddenly began to decline in the early 1990s and totally disappeared by about 2000. It then disappeared from Los Angeles too, though perhaps some still exist. No one seems to have any idea what happened to it. UCR’s ornithologist Mark Chappell suggests Cooper’s hawks, which is possible, given their role in the Band-tailed Pigeon story. Disease (perhaps introduced from the bird’s China homeland) is possible.
Collared Dove: Recent invader; reached the US from Europe 60-70 years ago and has spread slowly across the country. Now uncommon and erratic in Riverside, but here.
Ground Dove: Expanded from the deserts into the Riverside area with the expanding orange groves, and contracted as the groves did. Formerly not uncommon anywhere in or near orange groves. Gone from our area since the early 1990s.
Budgerigar: Escaped cage birds show up now and then. (Assorted other odd cage birds show up in the area—from canary-winged parakeet to Cordon Bleu finch.)
Roadrunner: Formerly common in the area. Still occurs in the hills, with about one pair per canyon; easily found in Sycamore Canyon Park in spring by listening for its song, five or six “coo” notes descending the scale. It also gives a dry rattle by clacking its bill, fooling some people into thinking a rattlesnake is near. (Could the bird be deliberately scaring people away?)
Barn Owl: Still surprisingly common, hunting over the park. Nests usually in the dead leaves of fan palms, so might nest in the parks’ fan palms.
Great Horned Owl: This powerful predator maintains several nesting pairs in northeast Riverside. It is probably the main reason for cat an chihuahua disappearances that get blamed on “coyotes.” It also hunts rabbits, ground squirrels, and anything else warm-blooded and smaller than a medium-sized dog.
Western Screech-Owl: Nests (uncommonly) in northeast Riverside and hunts widely, so no doubt occasional in Sycamore Canyon Park.
Burrowing Owl: Formerly common throughout the grasslands, fields, and open areas of Riverside County, but now eliminated except in very local areas where extensive open, level areas exist. Now only a rare migrant to our area.
Common (Booming) Nighthawk: rare wanderer from San Bernardino Mountains, where it breeds (but much less commonly than formerly).
Lesser Nighthawk: Formerly common in open flat areas throughout. Disappearing even in my earliest days here; now almost gone from the Inland Empire. Occasionally seen in migration.
Poorwill: Rare migrant; slopes of the hills.
Chimney Swift: Rare migrant (noted very rarely over Two Trees Canyon). Tends to be a late migrant, or maybe earlier ones just get lost in the flocks of Vaux.
Vaux Swift: Common spring migrant. Formerly much more common. Usually seen only when heavy cloud cover forces it to fly low.
White-throated Swift: Much less common than formerly. Fairly common migrant. Uncommon but regular breeder in higher, rockier areas.
Calliope Hummingbird: Very rare migrant.
Anna’s Hummingbird: Always common resident. Now commoner than before, spreading with suburbs and feeders. Largest of hummers, it dominates these, and also dominates access to most flowers, but the blackchins and Allen’s are highly aggressive and hold their own vigorously.
Costa’s Hummingbird: Considerably less common on the Box Springs Mountains amd Sycamore Canyon area now, because fire has turned the flowering brush areas into cheat grass, and because drought has reduced the native flowers even more since 2001. Fortunately, Costa’s has taken to civilization, but Anna’s and blackchin beat it out from feeders. It survives especially where humans have created desertlike habitat. Its adaptation to suburbs has led to its meeting the Anna’s and hybridizing; hybrids were apparently extremely rare before 1970 but are not so rare now.
Black-chinned Hummingbird: This aggressive hummingbird succeeds well. Depends on sycamores for nesting. Growth of planted and wild sycamores has led to an increase, especially where planted sycamores are near households with hummingbird feeders.
Rufous Hummingbird: Far less common than formerly. Was a very common spring migrant in the 1960s. Now rare. Still a common summer migrant (July-August) around red flowers in the hills. (There is a massive decline rangewide, probably from pesticides and other pollution on the wintering grounds.)
Allen’s Hummingbird: Dramatic invader. Formerly in southern California (at least south and east of Ventura) it was confined to Channel Islands and Palos Verdes Peninsula. Spread in recent years, reaching Riverside at some undetermined point possibly in the 1990s. Now common resident of UCR campus and breeding here and there in the city, wherever there are many flowers. Abundant breeder all over the Los Angeles area now.
Flicker: Uncommon winter visitor. Formerly common resident. No change noted from 1966 to 2011, but in the spring of 2011 all the flickers in northeast Riverside mysteriously disappeared, apparently simultaneously. They have stayed away. This probably has something to do with the collapse of native ant populations. 15 years ago there was a colony of large harvester ants every few hundred yards along every open trail. There are now very few.
Downy Woodpecker: once or twice in Two Trees Canyon, formerly, in winter. It became very rare in Inland Empire, but observations on campus in 2011 indicate possible comeback. Should occur sooner or later in Sycamore Canyon. A bird of willow forest.
Nuttall’s Woodpecker: common resident; some increase with growth of suburban trees.
Acorn Woodpecker: expanding as a suburban bird, as planted oaks grow and flourish. I believe this bird did not occur in the area as a breeder when I came to UCR in 1966. It certainly was not found in the area before modern planting of oaks; there were no oaks here in the old days. It likes to drill nest holes in palm trees, so wherever planted palms are near planted live oaks, this bird now colonizes. It prefers to live in large groups but pairs can manage by themselves.
Western Kingbird: Formerly abundant in all open grassland and field areas around campus, especially Moreno Valley. Nested on campus occasionally. Now almost gone as a breeder, as it is from almost all of southern California. Statewide it survives mostly in places with extensive not-very-disturbed grassland. Survives as breeder in the wilder parts of Moreno Valley badlands, Box Springs Mountains, and elsewhere—ironically, occupying the newly created grasslands resulting from replacement of chaparral by cheat grass. Still fairly common migrant.
Cassin’s Kingbird: This is another interesting story. A few years after the Westerns largely disappeared, the Cassin’s began to expand, presumably to fill the niche. They often hunt from the very same trees the Westerns used to occupy. The expansion has occurred since the late 1990s.
Ash-throated Flycatcher: Unommon migrant, rare summer breeder in the hills. Formerly common. Replacement of chaparral and coastal sage scrub with cheat grass has cost it most of its breeding habitat here. However, most of its habitat in the western US and in Mexico is intact, and yet this bird is far less common everywhere. Pesticides somewhere along migration routes may be involved.
Black Phoebe: Abundant resident. Always near water, thus established in Sycamore Canyon. Expanding steadily in the city, with suburbanization and sprinklers.
Say’s Phoebe: Common, winter; breeds in higher dry areas nearby, including the Box Springs Mountains (now from top to bottom) and Sycamore Canyon Park, as well as UCR campus. Has actually increased, with conversion of brush to grass over most of the Box Springs Mountains and Sycamore Canyon Park.
Pacific-slope Flycatcher: common migrant; has bred in Two Trees Canyon.
Gray Flycatcher Rare migrant.
Willow Flycatcher Rare migrant. Probably once nested, but the southwestern subspecies of the willow flycatcher proved the most vulnerable to cowbird parasitism of any species, and is now acutely endangered and almost gone.
Dusky Flycatcher Rare migrant.
Hammond’s Flycatcher Rare migrant.
Western Wood Pewee: Common migrant, but much less common than formerly.
Olive-sided Flycatcher: Formerly uncommon migrant. Now very rare. The decline of this bird from one of the commonest in North America 40 years ago to rarity now has been very striking. Factors include changes in forest composition that make its nests more findable to predators, and destruction of forest on its very limited wintering grounds in South America. Also the tremendous decline of large insects everywhere, and the abundance of pesticides on the bird’s migration routes as well as its wintering area. Possibly it is given to population fluctuations; it was not scientifically described until 1831, and Audubon considered it extremely rare. Yet in the 20th century is was abundant in evergreen forests throughout North America.
Horned Lark: Formerly common resident in wide open fields; now rare. This bird used to occur in millions in southern California, but it requires extensive areas of either bare soil or very short grass, and cannot tolerate much disturbance (e.g. humans, dogs, bikes). Migrant in grassfields of Sycamore Canyon Park. Summer records in the park, including observation of small flocks in the southwest area, near the Barton Rd. entrance, raise the tantalizing probability that this increasingly rare bird breeds in the protected open areas of the water district property next door..
Barn Swallow: Erratically common migrant. Occasional in summer (a few breed in Riverside) .
Cliff Swallow: Possibly the most dramatic and tragic decline of any bird here or in southern California in general, but fortunately there is some recent recovery. Huge population as of 1966, nesting—among other places—under the cornices of the Citrus Experiment Station buildings (now the Business School) at UCR. These birds have declined with habitat loss (especially loss of reliable mud supplies for nest-building) and with loss of aerial insects. The swallows no longer come back to Capistrano. The tens of thousands of pairs that nested on the old mission buildings there are almost entirely gone. Everywhere in southern California this bird has declined similarly.
However, there are local signs of a possible recovery—very modest, but hopeful. Quite a few hunt in summer over the Sycamore Canyon area and elsewhere nearby, so evidently quite a few still breed in the area somewhere. Some nest in the higher areas of Sycamore Canyon, where there are appropriate cliffs. Others nest nearby, especially in UCR’s agricultural experiment fields. As of 2014, the birds have established a flourishing colony under the freeway bridge over University Avenue, showing that no amount of traffic can discourage them.
Tree Swallow: Common early migrant. Occasionally seen in summer, probably foraging up from the Santa Ana river bottom.
Violet-green Swallow: Common migrant.
Rough-winged Swallow: Common but erratic migrant; some breed in area.
Purple Martin Formerly very rare migrant. Now virtually gone. This bird was always rare in southern California. It has declined steadily for the last 50 years. Starlings out-competing martins for nesting holes have had at least something to do with this, but decline of large insects may be a more important factor.
Stellar Jay: Rare, erratic winter visitor.
Scrub Jay: Some reduction from West Nile in 2010, but now about as common as ever. Largely a suburban bird now; natural habitat is so degraded by fires and cheat grass that the birds have taken to the suburbs.
Northern Raven: Common permanent resident. There is almost always one, or more, soaring overhead.
American Crow: This bird has taken a terrific beating from West Nile virus. The population declined over 90% (by my count) in the first 2 years of the virus. They were actually rare for a while. However, they are rapidly recovering, and are common again. There used to be many thousands breeding in the river bottom. Many streamed over to feed at the now-closed garbage dump between Blue Mountain and Pigeon Pass. There are not that many now, and the garbage is harder to find, but they are successfully breeding widely in Riverside.
White-breasted Nuthatch: Occasional wanderer, winter.
Red-breasted Nuthatch: Occasional wanderer, winter.
Mountain Chickadee: Formerly casual, usually after winter storms with heavy snow in the mountains. Now a fairly regular winter bird in Riverside, probably tracking the growth of planted conifers. Not in Sycamore Canyon normally, but will occasionally occur.
Oak Titmouse: Very susceptible to West Nile. Probably gone or nearly so as a breeding bird in this immediate area. Wanderers may turn up.
Bush-tit: Still common everywhere that natural brush or extensive planted shrubbery occurs, but much less common after the extreme droughts of the 2000s. These birds can fluctuate in numbers dramatically year to year, depending on conditions.
Wren-tit: Still common, but drastically reduced by burning of hills and replacement of brush by introduced weedy grasses. Survives only where dense brush exists, including the canyons of Sycamore Canyon Park. It is always commonest in riparian brush. It has lost almost all its habitat on the hills.
House Wren: Common, summer. In spite of its name, it is largely confined to wild riparian areas or extensive parks like the UCR Botanic Garden, and any wren seen around houses here is almost certain to be a Bewick’s. The house wren is much more common as a migrant than as a breeder.
Bewick’s Wren: Common, but gone from pure-grass areas of the hills. Survives wherever some dense brush exists. Formerly abundant in the chaparral and sage scrub, so replacement of these by grass has meant a population reduction of around 90%. It has, however, successfully colonized suburbia, and remains one of the commonest birds in the area.
Canyon Wren: Common in canyons of the Box Springs Mtns. Very common in Sycamore Canyon.
Rock Wren: Abundant on the Box Springs Mtns., Sycamore Canyon, and indeed anywhere with extensive rocky outcrops.
Mockingbird: Commoner than ever. This bird is now purely a human commensal in southern California, and increases with suburbia.
California Thrasher: Still fairly common, but only where chaparral or riparian brush survives; fire and subsequent replacement of brush by weedy grasses has reduced the population about 90%.
Sage Thrasher: formerly rare to fairly frequent migrant, mostly April; now almost gone, due to decline of overall numbers as sagebrush disappears from the Great Basin.
Robin: Much less common in winter than it used to be. Global warming is probably letting them stay farther north. The local mountain population has declined with drought, so we have fewer of them coming down in winter. Still erratically common throughout area.
Swainson’s Thrush: Formerly common migrant, now rare. Eliminated as breeding bird from ost of southern California by riparian habitat decline and by cowbird parasitization of nests.
Hermit Thrush: Fairly common fall migrant and winterer.
Western Bluebird: Common, winter. Formerly, usually did not show up till snow closed off mountain feeding areas. Now it appears early and stays late, and since about 2011 it nests (uncommonly) on and near UCR campus, including Sycamore Canyon park area. A lovely addition to our fauna, and especially interesting given the starling situation.
Ruby-Crowned Kinglet: Common, winter.
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher: Formerly fairly common winterer and migrant, now much less common. Probably bred locally in the old days.
California Gnatcatcher: one report, early 2014, near Sycamore Canyon Park; I did not see it in spite of long search. The species was first described from “Riverside,” and occurred in our area; its nearest current breeding station is the Gavilan Hills, if it still survives there.
American Pipit: Much less common than formerly. Decline tracks loss of open fields on campus and in Riverside. Still winters in numbers on UCR campus and occurs in winter and migration in the Sycamore Canyon park grasslands.
Cedar Waxwing: Common winterer. Very much less common than before; we used to have flocks of up to hundreds feeding on berries. This bird appears to be declining all over the west.
Phainopepla: Common migrant and uncommon but widespread summer breeder in canyons and washes with elderberries and/or other small-berried bushes.
Starling: Not here in the 1950s. Showed up mid-60s and common by late 60s. Kept increasing till peak around 1980s, then slow decline. Environmental sanitation seems to be the cause; the bird forages for insects but eats much human food wastes, and may depend on the latter. It competed for nest holes with bluebirds, swallows, and other birds, and took over hanging nests from orioles, so its decline has benefited those species.
Loggerhead Shrike: Formerly common resident, now rare migrant. This bird is now almost gone from southern California, and indeed from most of its range. One of the more mysterious events of the last 20-30 years has been the worldwide decline of shrikes. Decline of large insects due to development and pesticides is certainly one cause. Direct poisoning by insecticides may be involved. Disease is a possibility.
Warbling Vireo: Formerly abundant migrant, now uncommon. This bird used to be an abundant breeding species of riparian forests in southern California. Cowbirds and habitat loss have wiped it out.
Bell’s Vireo: This attractive, sweet-singing bird was formerly very common in willow thickets everywhere. It proved one of the most vulnerable of all birds to cowbird parasitism. It was kept alive in Riverside by dedicated volunteers and Fish and Game employees actually searching methodically through the willow thickets of the Santa Ana River bottom and throwing cowbird eggs out of the vireos’ nests. However, with the decline of cowbirds, Bell’s Vireo has established a beachhead in Sycamore Canyon and is flourishing and apparently spreading there.
Solitary Vireo: Uncommon migrant. Formerly much more numerous, though never really common. This bird has suffered extreme declines in the mountains where it breeds, tracking the rapid rise of cowbird numbers there.
Tennessee Warbler: Rare migrant.
Orange-crowned Warbler: common migrant, rare winter.
Wilson’s Warbler: Common migrant.
Yellow Warbler: Formerly abundant migrant, breeding in riparian habitat. Now much less so, but apparently recovering somewhat. Like the Warbling Vireo, this bird was almost wiped out of southern California by cowbirds and riparian habitat loss. It has returned to UCR campus, being an increasingly successful breeder from 2011 on. An impressive population expansion led to its being downright common in summer 2014. Now appears to be breeding again in Sycamore Canyon in willows and cottonwoods.
Yellow-rumped Warbler: Extremely common migrant and winterer, but was even commoner before; decline from about 1990. The Myrtle type was a regular winterer in past years, especially near the Life Sciences Bldg. at UCR. Now rare, but still occurs. To be expected in Sycamore Canyon.
Black-throated Gray Warbler: Migrant. Very much less common than formerly; well over 90% decline.
Townsend’s Warbler: Regular migrant. Very much less common than formerly; overall decline over 90%. Formerly regular winterer. The wintering population here is apparently all from the Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia.
Townsend’s and Hermit seem to be second to the Yellow in extent of decline, since their habitat has been decimated by clearing and clearcut logging both on the breeding range and on their Mexican wintering grounds.
Hermit Warbler: rare migrant, formerly much more numerous though never common.
Nashville Warbler: Fairly common migrant.
MacGillivray’s Warbler: Fairly common migrant.
Yellowthroat: Fairly common migrant, rare winter.
Yellow-breasted Chat: Rare migrant, but formerly at least was a common nester in the willows of the Santa Ana River bottoms. To be expected in Sycamore Canyon, at least as migrant, possibly as breeder.
Warblers in general are all much less common than they used to be. We used to have small but sometimes impressive migrant waves. The Yellow-rumped is holding up best, being still very common; the Yellow has declined the most.
House Sparrow: Not as common as it used to be. Declining widely. This scavenging human commensal has declined steadily with environmental sanitation. Litter control and large plastic garbage bins are its doom. However, it still succeeds by eating bird seed and what crumbs still fall.
Western Tanager: Fairly common migrant. Far less common migrant than formerly. It is not clear why this bird has dramatically declined in the last two or three decades. Most of its breeding range is not too badly degraded; possibly drought, or problems on the wintering grounds, are involved.
Purple Finch: Formerly common in migration and winter, and common breeder in mountains. Now mostly gone, largely because of cowbird parasitism. Still occurs erratically in winter.
House Finch: Became commoner in early and mid 20th century, due to orchards and suburbanization. Sharp decline recently, especially since 2011 and especially in winter. This is partly because of droughts and the decline of home and commercial fruit growing, but a seriouse eye disease first noted in 1994 has spread across the U.S. among house finches, causing a sadly high level of mortality.
Pine Siskin Occasional, winter, often after storms in the mountains. Sometimes common in riparian trees.
American Goldfinch: Like other riparian birds, extreme decline in southern California. Still fairly common wintering bird but nothing like former years. With decline of cowbirds, this bird appeared to be dramatically recovering.
Lesser Goldfinch: Remained abundant till recently; still common, but sharp decline since the droughts of the 2000s.
Lawrence Goldfinch: A bird of dense trees surrounded by grasslands, so Sycamore Canyon is ideal habitat. Thus usually fairly common, but Lawrence’s Goldfinch is notoriously erratic—abundant one year, gone the next. The species suffered huge population declines due to urbanization and cowbird parasitism, but has recovered dramatically with the decline of cowbirds, and in spring 2015 was downright abundant.
Lazuli Bunting: Common migrant; usually breeds in the higher Box Springs (not every year; largely after fires).
Blue Grosbeak: This beautiful bird breeds commonly in Sycamore Canyon. Blue grosbeaks nest only in dense willow thickets near open grasslands. This habitat has been almost entirely suburbanized in southern California, leaving the Santa Ana River valley and Sycamore Canyon as a major, vital part of its surviving range. The loud, sweet song is a characteristic summer morning sound. Burning the hills has actually helped it in our area, converting brush to grasslands. Otherwise, rare migrant in most of our area. Has bred in Two Trees Canyon.
Spotted Towhee: Eliminated from much of local range by replacement of native brush with Bromus and Brassica. Remains common where there is brush, but decline is close to or quite 90%. Flourishes in artificial habitats where there is sizable undisturbed shrubbery, such as the UCR Botanic Gardens and large private gardens.
California Towhee: This indestructible bird is commoner than ever. They survive by sheer toughness. After fires, they reoccupy their territories before the ground is cool. I have seen a pair drive a hungry cat away from their young one, not quite able to fly at the time; the difference in weight and armament makes this quite comparable to a human driving away a Tyrannosaurus rex.
Savannah Sparrow Common migrant, frequent winter, in extensive grasslands and open areas, including grasslands of Sycamore Canyon Park. Less common than formerly.
Grasshopper Sparrow Formerly common breeder in Moreno Valley but erratic and hard to find; now gone from at least the west and central parts of Moreno Valley, because of urbanization. Spring migrant (and presumably fall migrant, but impossible to find unless singing) in grasslands of Sycamore Canyon Park.
Chipping Sparrow: Formerly common migrant and occaional winterer; now less common migrant.
Brewer’s Sparrow: Formerly fairly common migrant, mostly in spring; now greatly diminished in numbers.
Black-chinned Sparrow: Common migrant; breeds (or at least used to breed) in the higher parts of the Box Springs range; numbers reduced by brush decline and droughts.
Bell’s Sparrow: Greatly reduced by replacement of sage scrub by Bromus, but they hang on wherever brush continues to exist in the Sycamore Canyon area. Finally gave up in Two Trees Canyon by 2011, but still exists in other parts of the Box Springs range, e.g. at the end of Manfield St. just east of campus.
Rufous-crowned Sparrow: Better able to accommodate to the vegetation change; still common on the hills. Less so than formerly, but nothing like the declines of the Bewick Wren, Wrentit, etc. One of the commonest birds in Sycamore Canyon Park.
Dark-eyed Junco: Migration and winter. Less common than formerly. Birds tend to stay in the mountains now, and are less common even there, since the droughts of the last few years.
Lark Sparrow: Fairly common migrant in Sycamore Canyon Park grasslands; rarer than in previous decades. Summer record on UCR campus, June 30, 2010, singing bird.
Vesper Sparrow Fairly common migrant. Rare winter, at least formerly. Reduced overall but still around. Easiest found in Sycamore Canyon Park’s high grasslands.
White-crowned Sparrow: Abundant migrant and winterer.
Golden-crowned Sparrow: Common migrant and reasonably common winterer wherever there is dense brush. Much more often heard than seen.
Lincoln’s Sparrow: Uncommon but regular migrant and winterer wherever there is dense riparian brush.
Song Sparrow: Abundant everywhere. This cheerful singer of riparian and garden vegetation is as common as ever.
Fox Sparrow: Rare migrant. Some occasionally winter in the Botanic Gardens and elsewhere.
Nutmeg Manakin: An odd thing to find here! A colony is established in the area, showing up rather erratically in the Santa Ana River area and UCR campus. No doubt strays to Sycamore Canyon Park.
Hooded Oriole: Common breeding bird, always in fan palms. Serious decline when starlings moved into the area and took over the palm trees, but it has survived, and now has rallied considerably, as starling population declines. Hummingbird feeders help this oriole.
Bullock’s Oriole: Always a fairly common migrant, but much less so than formerly due to loss of nesting habitat in California. However, unlike the smaller riparian birds, it is still fairly common, due to its being rather large for cowbird parasitism (cowbirds prefer smaller birds) and because this oriole has adapted itself to suburbs.
Scott’s Oriole: Very rare migrant. Extreme droughts in the desert in the last 15 years have reduced the population of this species up to 90%.
Western Meadowlark: Formerly extremely abundant winterer and frequent breeder, anywhere that was at all open. Now almost completely gone as a breeder. Conversion of Sycamore Canyon Park highlands and the higher Box Springs Mtns. to grass has brought a sizable wintering population. A few stay around through the summer and may breed. This bird has crashed all over the west, with population declines of over 99% in most areas. This decline tracks suburbanization, fencerow-to-fencerow cultivation, heavy pesticide use, and heavy stocking rates of cattle. Even “preservation” rarely helps, because grasslands grow to brush and/or burn unless they are grazed some. The only places where meadowlarks nest now are the few places with extensive grassland subject to light grazing, or with burning (as in the Santa Rosa Plateau reserve), or in protected areas that are thoroughly open, such as the San Jacinto Wildlife Area.
Brewer’s Blackbird: Far less common than formerly; in farming days, this bird occurred in flocks of hundreds in the area. Now it is rather unusual to see more than one or a very few. It has declined all over southern California. Foot pox (a serious disease affecting not only the feet, but the whole bird) is one reason. Cleaner farming is another, urban sanitation another, starling competition probably is another. There are no doubt other problems. The bird has been essentially a human commensal for decades; its natural habitat was probably damp areas near water, and in its heyday it was largely a farm and ranch bird associated with dairies and other farm environments with much water and food.
Great-tailed Grackle: Moved into San Bernardino by 1980. Notably common in the golf courses, parks, and ponds at the north end of that city. Not recorded in or near Sycamore Canyon Park, but it is spreading slowly but surely, and will probably colonize this area eventually.
Red-winged Blackbird: Rare migrant, but still common breeder not far away (Fisherman’s Retreat in San Timoteo Canyon, San Jacinto Wildlife Area, etc.).
Tricolored Blackbird: formerly occasional migrant, now gone. Eliminated from our area by elimination of marshes. Survives in Fisherman’s Retreat (at last notice) and the San Jacinto Wildlife Area.
Yellow-headed Blackbird: formerly occasional; now gone from this part of southern California. Breeds in the San Jacinto Wildlife Area, and formerly in other marshy pond environments not far away.
Brown-headed Cowbird: This bird lays its eggs in the nests of smaller birds, almost always in riparian habitat. The baby cowbird pushes the rightful nestlings out of the nest, and takes over. Thus, wherever cowbirds increase, the smaller riparian species disappear slowly but surely. Mercifully, with the decline in cattle farming in this area, the cowbird is much less common than formerly. Its decline correlates with the rebound of breeding populations of Bell’s Vireo, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Lawrence’s and American Goldfinch, indicating that there is hope!
Sycamore Canyon Park has set up a cowbird trap near the Barton Road entrance, and this is helping to save the riparian songbirds.
Bird Life in General
Overall, the biggest change has been the loss of open country, and with it the open country birds, especially grassland species; this is part of a general western-America process. Next most obvious is a dramatic decline in riparian species, including a total collapse of populations of some of them (especially russet-backed thrush, warbling vireo, Lawrence goldfinch) throughout southern California. This is due to cowbirds and habitat destruction.
Next most obvious is the decline in brush-loving birds due to fire and drought and the consequent replacement of native sage scrub and chaparral by cheat grass. Most of the hills in our area have now become grassfields. This has led to near-disappearance as breeding birds of the lazuli bunting and black-chinned sparrow, ca. 90% decline in such species as Costa’s hummingbird, wrentit and California thrasher, and lesser declines in birds that can adjust to human-planted shrubbery such as Bewick’s wrens and spotted towhees. On the other hand, the rufous-crowned sparrow, which actually prefers a brush-grass mix, has stayed as common as ever, and the Say’s phoebe has apparently increased along with the open hill grasslands.
Following that comes a general decline in long-distance migrants, especially warblers. The reasons for this are multifarious and not always clear, and are due to forces outside our region. General decline of insect life, as the world gets saturated with pesticides, is probably the major one; it is the insect-eating birds that have declined most. Northerly species may simply be staying farther north (robin being a clear case), but the neotropical migrants are simply gone. The declines in some species, such as Townsend’s warbler and olive-sided flycatcher, are horrific. Clearcutting of breeding habitat and wintering habitat has been taking place and must be involved. Insecticides on the wintering grounds are also probable.
The clearest change after this is a collapse of the large-insect-eating guild: western kingbirds, ash-throated flycatchers, loggerhead shrikes, meadowlarks, etc. This clearly accompanies a surprisingly rarely noted change: the collapse of insect populations. It is really rare to see a butterfly (especially anything other than the Cabbage White, Pieris rapae complex), where they used to swarm and occasionally go through migrations or outbreaks of thousands. Grasshoppers are uncommon where they used to swarm. Flies and mosquitoes are no longer the maddening, insufferable problem they were when I moved here. One indication of the level of decline is the lack of need to clean one’s windshield; when I first moved here, one had to clean one’s windshield every time one filled the gas tank. Now there are no “bug spots” any more. Another indication is the lack of fauna at the porch light in the evening. The amazing quantity and variety of insects attracted to lights 50 years ago was breathtaking—the weirdest forms would turn up. Almost everything in a basic insect guidebook was there to see. Now there is almost nothing.
Obviously, with no insects, insectivorous birds will die out. Only the phoebes, with their almost supernatural ability to see, chase, and capture the tiniest gnats, flourish and thrive.
Among migrants, we have few shorebirds, but it is worth noting the even more horrific decline of these species. Note the killdeer case above. The long-range migrants like sanderling and golden plovers have declined well over 90% (I think more like 95%) in my lifetime. The shorter the migration, the less the decline, which makes me think that toxins on the migration stopovers are the main cause.
A less sad reason for decline is environmental sanitation. Cleanup of dead animals, closing of garbage dumps, and dramatic reduction in human littering has led to an extreme decline in turkey vulture numbers (they no longer breed at all anywhere near here) and a sharp decline in gulls, rock pigeon, starling, house sparrow, Brewer’s blackbird, and possibly other species in our area. One can regret the disappearance of the birds, but can only rejoice at this particular reason for it.
Finally, the decline of large-scale stock farming has led to a reduction in Brewer’s blackbirds and cowbirds.
Conversely, suburban birds do well and many are increasing along with suburbs.
Major declines of breeding birds:
White-tailed kite (increased, then declined, now apparently completely gone)
American goldfinch (but recent increase)
Lesser goldfinch (ditto)
Lawrence’s goldfinch (ditto)
Totally extirpated as breeder:
Band-tailed pigeon (increased, then declined again, but still commoner than formerly)
House finch (recently reversed or stabilized)
For plant identification in our area, see Flora of the Santa Ana River and Environs, by Oscar Clarke (2007). This amazing book was the life work of Oscar Clarke (1919-2013), long curator of the herbarium at University of California, Riverside. It began when some of us got together to produce brief, popular guides to Santa Ana River natural history back in the 1960s. It grew and grew over the years, as Oscar set out to do a definitive study of the whole drainage basin from San Gorgonio Peak to the sea. He had help from many people, some remembered in the coauthorship. Also helping him and myself has been Andrew Sanders, Oscar’s student and successor as herbarium curator. I owe my knowledge of local plants largely to these two phenomenal field biologists. I also acknowledge Richard Minnich and Edith Allen of UCR for great help with my knowledge of vegetation.
Oscar’s book covers only the lowland part of the Santa Ana drainage. The upper part, in the mountains, has been covered in a companion work by Naomi Fraga et al. (2011). The combination is interesting because the Santa Ana drainage may well be the most floristically and vegetationally diverse area of its size in the entire United States. Covering everything from sea beaches to at 11,500’ mountain, and from lush forests to deserts, the Santa Ana drainage has an incredible range of plants.
The plants of Sycamore Canyon were diligently sought out, identified, and listed by Patrick Temple in the local journal Crossosoma in 1999. I have added several new species. Most are recent invaders that were certainly or probably not in the park when he wrote, e.g. Oncosiphon, Tribulus. He missed a very few established but rare items; he also omitted, clearly through accident, the two very common species of Chaenactis. I have starred * items not in his list. (Note that several items on his list are not in the list handed out at the Park gate.) Conversely, I have failed to find a large number of plants he found. Almost all of them are annuals (or rootstock-perennials) that simply aren’t germinating (or sprouting) in our current hot, dry years. Some are shrubs that are very susceptible to drought and fire and seem to be genuinely extirpated, such as the white-flowers and chaparral currants. A few are introduced weeds that appear to have died out, such as field bindweed and dimorphotheca.
Uses by Native Americans are taken largely from Lowell Bean and Katherine Siva Saubel’s book Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants. This book is another achievement. Anthropologist Lowell Bean is only one of many who worked with the brilliant and dynamic Cahuilla Indian leader Katherine Siva Saubel over her long life (1920-2011). A fully qualified independent scholar, she carried out research on Cahuilla language, plant knowledge, history, and aesthetic life. Her scholarship earned her an honorary Ph.D. from La Sierra University and a Chancellor’s Medal (UC’s equivalent to an honorary degree) from the University of California. She served many years on the California Native American Heritage Commission. This book was published by Malki Museum, a Cahuilla Indian museum founded by Jane Penn and Katherine Saubel and directed by Saubel for most of its early years. She wrote several books in Cahuilla and English.
A word about scientific names: Scientific names have to be used here, because many of the plants have no English ones. Scientific names are in Latin, but with a great deal of Greek and often bits of other languages borrowed in. The first name gives the genus (group of very closely related species), the second name is the species name. By convention, the genus is capitalized, the species is not unless it’s a proper name. Scientific names here follow the second edition of the Jepson manual (Baldwin et al. 2012), which is standard for California, but note that some classic, well-known names are changed in it.
Indeed, scientific names change often and confusingly. This is because botanists keep finding out more about relationships, and have to reclassify plants—ideally with their real relatives, not with look-alikes that are quite different underneath. The coming of genetic analysis in the last 20 years has led to revolutionary changes in this branch of science. For example, everyone knew the “lily family” (Liliaceae) was a mess—a sort of plant junkyard—but nobody could sort it out. Some people tried, but without firm evidence. Now, with genetic testing, we can do better, and we find that there are many quite distinct families that were all getting called “lilies” for lack of better evidence. Another family with many species around here was the Scrophulariaceae. It too has had to be broken up. If the family that breaks up, the Latin names may stay the same, but often the genus and species get rearranged too. So your old familiar plant guides will have some names that are now out of date.
Selaginellaceae Resurrection plant family
Selaginella bigelovii. Resurrection plant. Small fernlike plant that grows around and under rocks; dead and gray most of the time, but instantly revives and turns green after heavy rain, hence the name.
Pteridaceae Rockbrake fern family
Cheilanthes newberryi. Newberry’s lipfern. Rare and local; found on a steep shady bank in center of park.
Family Cupressaceae Cypress and juniper family
Juniperus californica. California juniper. Scattered large shrubs remain from formerly widespread juniper savannah formation that covered much of what is now southern Riverside, and on south through the Gavilan Hills. Important wildlife cover and food (berries). Native Americans also ate the berries in quantity (Bean and Saubel 1972:81), and used the shreddy bark for skirts (Lerch 1981:54, referring to the montane J. occidentalis, but probably true for this species also).
Order follows the Jepson manual, second edition. This manual separates dicots and monocots, and within those it alphabetizes the families, and within families the genera and then species.
Adoxaceae Muskroot family
Sambucus nigra var. caerulea. Blue elderberry, Mexican elderberry. A large shrub or small tree, very abundant in rocky washes and the drier parts of the riparian strips, also at the foot of large rock outcrops—anywhere that there is some extra moisture. However, no young plants occur, and the species is now basically a holdover from wetter times. Some plants are very old. The small berries are blue when young, turning blackish when ripe, and are quite good then but very seedy. They are a vitally important wildlife food, sustaining everything from phainopeplas and band-tailed pigeons to raccoons and coyotes. Native Americans ate the berries and made a medicinal tea for fever from the flowers; they also made whistles and flutes from the hollow young stems (Lerch 1981:67). Cahuilla also made flutes, and used the berry juice to make a purplish or blackish dye; the stem could produce a yellow or orange dye (Bean and Saubel 1972:138). Cahuilla even lived on them in season, and also used the flowers for medicinal tea for stomach, fever, cold, flu; said good for teeth; also, roots boiled for constipation (Bean and Saubel 1972:138). This species is common in Europe as well as America, and in Europe the flowers are not only used for medicinal tea but are eaten, often in batter as a sort of pancake. The European world also makes flutes from the stems. One early Spanish report speaks of making “wine” from the berries, and the Kumeyaay of San Diego County and Baja California did indeed make elderberry wine, at least in historic times (Wilken 2012). Elderberry wine is a common drink in England and parts of Europe. Native Americans in northern Mexico and Arizona regularly made true wine from cactus fruit, so extension of the technology to California is not surprising.
Amaranthaceae Amaranth family
Amaranthus albus. Introduced weed, found around edges of the park in watered areas. Amaranths have edible seeds and greens, much used by people worldwide; native relatives of this plant were important foods to Native Americans and are now important crops in Mexico.
Anacardiaceae Sumac family
Rhus aromatica (Rhus trilobata). Threeleaf sumac. Common shrub of relatively moist but still pretty dry areas, especially among rocks on north-facing slopes. Each leaf is divided into three smallish leaflets. Berries important wildlife food. Very important basketry plant to Native Americans of California; the twigs were debarked, split, and used as splints to wrap around a foundation of Muhlenbergia grass. The splits could be dyed black with elderberry solution or iron-rich mud. The plant naturally forms short, twisted branches, so Native American basket makers would carefully prune the plants to get long, straight shoots to grow up. (See M. K. Anderson 2005; Bean and Saubel 1972:132; Lerch 1981:41.)
Schinus molle. California pepper tree. This tree is neither Californian nor pepper; it’s a Peruvian sumac. Molle in the Quechua language, the language of the Incas, hence the scientific name. Commonly planted in the old days because of its extreme drought tolerance; even in our climate, it survives and rapidly grows into a good shade tree. Many examples all over the more level parts of the park. They were probably all planted. It does very rarely establish itself naturally in California, but usually only in its natural habitat, dry rocky gorges. In the park it is not in such places, and appears to be confined to areas of former orchards and roads. The berries are now important to wildlife. Humans often use the berries as “pink peppercorns,” but given the notorious tendency of sumacs to cause allergic rashes, the law now frowns on this. However, thousands of people have used these berries without ill effects, and the fruit is commercially sold in other countries.
Several other species of Schinus have become serious weeds (as bushes or trees) in this area and all too likely to show up in the park.
*Schinus terebinthifolius. Brazilian pepper tree. One individual of this species occurs in a small wash in the south-central part of the park. It is a seedling from a cultivated plant; the species is not native here but very often seeds itself in semi-natural environments. It was a very commonly planted yard tree in the old days, before people found out how invasive its seedlings are. Fruit used like previous species’ fruit, as seasoning. No doubt more individuals will turn up.
Toxicodendron diversilobum. Poison oak. Very shiny leaves, divided into three lobed leaflets, notably bigger than Threeleaf Sumac’s leaflets. Leaves brilliant yellowish-green in spring, but drier ones quickly turn red and then brown. Learn this plant if it’s the only one you learn. Contact with it gives a terrible, itching rash to most people, because of an oleoresin called urushiol. Most people are violently allergic to it. A few are immune (myself included). Easterners will note resemblance to poison ivy, which is very closely related. Of course these plants are not related to oak or ivy.
Apiaceae Carrot family
*Apium graveolens. Celery. This garden plant has escaped into wet soil along canyon streams.
Apocynaceae Milkweed family
*Apocynum cannabinum. Indian hemp. Sizable population in riparian strip at far southeast corner of park. This plant has a really superior fibre, favored by Native Americans for making cordage, nets, and the like; it has been studied for commercial development in modern times; if nylon feedstock gets expensive, Indian hemp probably has a commercial future. Bitter white sap poisonous, but considered medicinal by Cahuilla (Bean and Saubel 1972:40, quoting the early explorer Edward Palmer). The name Apocynum means “away with dogs,” commemorating the use of plants of this family as poisons for unwanted animals in earlier times. A number of beautiful but deadly ornamental flowers are in this family. Milkweeds were formerly, but rather unaccountably, separated, though they seem so obviously related that it is hard to see why they were separate so long.
Asclepias fascicularis. Narrow-leaved milkweed. Some populations are established in the riparian strip in the extreme southeast corner of the park. Gum prepared and used as chewing gum by Serrano and Cahuilla (Bean and Saubel 1972:44; Lerch 1981:58).
Funastrum cynanchoides. Climbing milkweed. Uncommon, growing over bushes in rocky areas, but also very visibly on the bushes at the nature center on Central Ave. If you learned botany back in the day, you know this as Sarcostemma.
Asteraceae Sunflower, daisy, dandelion family
Ambrosia acanthicarpa. Annual bur-sage. Local invader from outside the park, as at the eastern entrance and southeast edge.
*Ambrosia artemisifolia. Ragweed. Nonnative weed of sandy dry places; not common in the park, but in many nearby areas it is very common—far too common if you are one of the many who are allergic to its pollen.
Artemisia californica. California sagebrush. The common bush of north-facing slopes. Very thin needle-like or threadlike leaves, powerfully aromatic. Tiny grayish-white flowers. Lush in wet springs, very dry and dead-looking most of the year. Very important wildlife plant. Used medicinally by Native Americans; stimulates menstruation, thus important in girls’ puberty ceremony among the Cahuilla, Serrano, and their neighbors. Girls at first menstruation were given a tea of this plant and sweated in a sweatbath lined with it. Presumably adults used it as needed. It was so important that the Serrano of the lowlands were referred to as “sagebrush people” (Lerch 1981; he provides a long description of the puberty ceremony). Used by Cahuilla “to relieve colds,” chewed or dried and smoked with other herbs (Bean and Saubel 1972:42). Scent, and tea of related species, does alleviate respiratory annoyances, at least in my experience and many others’.
Artemisia douglasiana. Closely related to the preceding, but its large, lush leaves give it a very different appearance. It is a common understory plant in the riparian areas, growing under willow and cottonwood. Used by Native Americans as a tea for killing intestinal worms and similar uses. Serrano used it in a wash for sore limbs and would chop or mash leaves for a poultice for sore areas; also used in sweat ceremony for girls at puberty (Lerch 1981:34). Used for making granaries, roofing, house walls (Bean and Saubel 1972, under A. ludoviciana but obviously including this sp.), and (under this name) for arrow shafts, among the Luiseno. It has long straight stems but they are very weak; however, southern California Native people usually used weak but straight material for arrow mainshafts, using a hardwood foreshaft and a stone point for the business end of the arrrow.
Artemisia dracunculus (A. dracunculoides). Wild tarragon. Common bush of sandy, moist areas, as along seasonally wet washes or along the edges of the canyon riparian corridors. This is the wild form of domestic tarragon, but the latter is a cool-weather variety that does not like our climate; the wild one usually tastes pretty bad, though some individuals are almost as good as domestic tarragon. The cultivated variety is from a French form of this species, widespread in the northern hemisphere.
Baccharis salicifolia (=B. glutinosa; formerly B. viminea). Mulefat. Large bush with brittle straight shoots, growing in sandy, seasonally dry places at the edge of riparian vegetation. Dominant plant in such areas. Cahuilla used it for construction and thatch, for making hair grow, for eyewash (steeped leaves), and for “female hygeinic agent” (Bean and Saubel 1972:46).
Baccharis salicina (B. emoryi). Margins of riparian woodland in the upper (southeastern) part of the drainage. Common there in moist sites.
Bebbia juncea. Rush bebbia. Big green bush with tiny leaves, so that it looks all stem. Yellow flowers that look like tiny upward-pointing brooms are followed by small dandelion-like seed heads. The flowers smell sweet and attract moths, butterflies, and many other insects; an important insect plant. Grows in moister sage scrub, for example along streamways but above and outside the actual riparian strip. Young stems edible but bitter.
Brickellia desertorum. The big, roundish, gray bush you see growing out of cracks in huge boulders—normally this is its only habitat. Common, and important to at least some insect life.
Centaurea melitensis. Malta star-thistle. Very spiny plant with bright yellow flowers in spring; weedy non-native, growing with cheat grass and mustards in the weed-dominated habitats, mostly in drier, barer areas.
Centromadia pungens var. laevis. Smooth tarplant. This pretty yellow composite is a local endemic; it is confined to salty or alkaline soils from our park through the San Jacinto river and wildlife areas and over into San Timoteo Canyon. It is common in the saline middle reach of Sycamore Canyon.
Cirsium occidentale var. californicum. California thistle, western thistle. Big thistle with grayish foliage and large purple flowers. Uncommon, in rocky areas.
Cirsium vulgare. Bull thistle. Weed; edges of park.
*Chaenactis fremontii. Pincushion flower. White-flowered annual; small flowers in small pincushion-shaped clumps. This and the next have edible seeds, used by Native Californians (Bean and Saubel 1972:52).
*Chaenactis glabriuscula. Yellow pincushion flower. Like the foregoing, but flowers bright yellow. Very characteristic flower of mid-spring on very hot, dry slopes. Prefers sandy to sandy-clay soils.
Cirsium vulgare. Bull thistle. Uncommon; southeast part of park, locally elsewhere, at edges of riparian strip.
*Cnicus benedictus. Blessed thistle. Local, near riparian strip, southeast area. The name comes from alleged medical value that, alas, does not check out with modern medicine.
Corethrogyne filaginifolia. Rock aster, California aster. This plant, inflicted with one of the most unpronounceable scientific names in the state of California, is a stiff-twigged small bush that grows among rocks. It is common in the park, wherever rock outcrops provide a suitably rough habitat. Its flowers are typical aster flowers—like small sunflowers, but with purple rays and a yellow center. They can be quite striking and beautiful in a good year.
Deinandra paniculata. Formerly Hemizonia. Paniculate tarplant (or tarweed). Grows abundantly in the heat of summer, bringing floral relief in an otherwise dismal time of year. Common everywhere, especially in open grassland environments, also in sage scrub. Dozens of beautiful small sunflowers on very thin stalks. Seeds edible, important to Native Americans in the old days. Whole plant eaten by Cahuilla, but not liked (Bean and Saubel 1972:77).
Encelia californica. Brittlebush. This big bush with very brittle stems and diamond-shaped gray fuzzy leaves dominates the sun-facing west and south slopes of the park, where it is often 100% of the sizable plant cover. It tolerates levels of sun, heat, drought, and rocky thin soil that no other local plant can handle. Its large yellow sunflowers lead to small but edible seeds, like miniature versions of commercial sunflower seeds, and were a food in the old days. Gum used as medicine by Cahuilla, and plant boiled for tea for toothache (Bean and Saubel 1972:69).
In the far south of the park, just off Alessandro, there is a small population with brown disk flowers rather than the usual yellow ones. These represent an East Mojave variety, escaped from cultivation (it is often planted as an ornamental; information from Andrew Sanders). These have hybridized a bit with the locals, producing intermediate colors.
Ericameria linearifolia. Goldenbush. A bush with very thin, “linear” leaves and beautiful yellow flowers like small sunflowers; these can cover the bush in summer. Rare now (thanks to the usual problem of fire and cheat grass), but individuals occur on hot, dry slopes. Medical uses for related plants reported for many groups (e.g. Cahuilla; Bean and Saubel 1972:76).
Erigeron bonariensis. Horseweed. Formerly Conyza. See following.
Erigeron (Conyza) canadensis. Horseweed. Tall, single stalk bearing small white flowers late in summer. Major nonnative weed of lawns and yards, but rare in the park, preferring wet disturbed habitats.
Eriophyllum confertiflorum. Rare shrub of the sage scrub. Formerly commoner, but major decline due to fires, to which it is exceptionally susceptible.
*Gazania longiscapa. Dominant roadside flower planted around the park, so a few individuals show up as escapes within the park. South African.
*Grindelia camporum. Gum plant. A population of this large, impressive, summer-flowering yellow composite is established in rich, slightly moist soil immediately south of the stream just above the start of the deep canyon.
Gutierrezia californica. Matchweed. Common shrub in the juniper savannah and nearby. A straggly, thin plant that often looks as if it were on the verge of death.
Helianthus annuus. Common sunflower. Succeeds and flourishes anywhere that there is some moisture through the spring and some open soil. This is the wild ancestor of the commercial sunflower, and as such produced good edible seeds, much used by Native Americans; the plant was domesticated thousands of years ago in Mexico and the United States. The giant sunflower of commerce was developed in Russia in the 19th century and brought to the United States by immigrants.
Heterotheca grandiflora. Telegraph weed. A locally common weedy native plant, found on road cuts, recently bared areas, and bare hard ground. Big felty graygreen leaves, small yellow daisy-like flowers, tarlike scent.
Hypochoeris glabra. Smooth cat’s-ear. Introduced weed, formerly fairly common, now about gone due to dry conditions.
Isocoma menziesii (Haplopappus venetus). Yet another small green bush with yellow daisy-like (but bunchy) flowers. Local, uncommon, near but not in the riparian areas.
Lactuca serriola. Wild lettuce. Tall, thick-stemmed annual; introduced weed. Possible ancestor of domestic lettuce, and the tender young leaves in spring are excellent eating if you like the bitterness of Romaine lettuce.
Laphangium luteoalbum. Jersey cudweed. Small introduced plant of weedy situations, as along the park’s east border.
Lasthenia gracilis (L. californica). Goldfields. The tiny yellow sunflowers that cover the otherwise bare ground in early spring, especially in the juniper savannah area. Seeds edible; gathered, ground, made into mush by Cahuilla (Bean and Saubel 1972:46) as by other California Native peoples. This plant has done well with the recent droughts, since it tolerates them better than the introduced weedy grasses usually do, and so it has regained some of its former dominance, especially on very dry, sunny, sandy exposures.
Lasthenia gracilis. Needle goldfields. Larger, somewhat branched; less common than above.
Layia platyglossa. Tidytips. This beautiful annual failed to come up or flower in 2015, when even colonies a thousand feet higher up in the Box Springs Mountains barely flowered.
Lepidospartum squamatum. Scalebroom. A tall, straggly, almost leafless shrub with smallish yellow flowers in late spring and summer. Rare in the park, but found in hot, dry, sandy areas; normal habitat is sand-filled dry washes.
Matricaria discoidea (=Matricaria matricarioides, Chamomilla suaveolens). Pineapple weed. Small non-native weed of trailsides. Small button-like flower heads look like tiny pineapples and smell like pineapples too.
*Oncosiphon piluliferum. A new invader from South Africa. Looks like pineapple weed but small, round, button-like flowers are bright yellow, not dull. Now common along the water district wall, by the road into the park from the south (Barton Rd.) entrance.
Pseudognaphalium (Gnaphalium) bicolor. Rare large perennial herb of rocky places, growing at the foot of rocks where extra water comes from runoff.
Pseudognaphalium (Gnaphalium) californicum. California everlasting. Same notes as preceding species.
Sonchus asper. Uncommon introduced weed; moist spots in upper drainage.
Sonchus oleraceus. Very common introduced weed; can be everywhere but usually in bare or thinly vegetated but fairly good quality soil, thus usually in recently-disturbed areas.
Stephanomeria exigua. Tall straggly plant with thin stems and small, purplish-pink, messy-looking summer flowers. A weedy plant of disturbed open areas everywhere.
Stephanomeria virgata. Similar to above but taller.
Tetradymia comosa. Cotton-thorn. Thorny bush with cottony seeds. Uncommon, in sage scrub.
Uropappus lindleyi. Silver puffs. A small salsify-like plant. Uncommon in open places in sage scrub and grassland.
Xanthium strumarium. Cocklebur. Rare weed in wet areas, e.g. sandy stream banks. Leaves edible. Fruit—the bur—highly irritating, especially when stuck in dog fur.
Boraginaceae Borage family
A large percentage of our common wildflowers are in this family.
Amsinckia intermedia. Fiddlenecks. The tall plant with ochre-yellow flowers that you see everywhere in early spring. The whole plant smells rank and not very pleasant, but the flowers are beautiful and not much else is in season at the time. Moreover, this is one of the few natives that can grow even in introduced weedy grassland, though not where the grass is really dense. Very important for insects and wildlife. Seeds edible but few, small, and bad-tasting, so a resource for Native Americans but not if they had much alternative.
Cryptantha intermedia. White forget-me-not. The little white flowers you see everywhere in spring; dominates open areas not taken over by introduced weedy vegetation. Often makes a fairly substantial ground cover. Seeds edible, used by Native Americans.
Emmenanthe penduliflora. Whispering bells. Leafy annual with pale yellow, hanging-down flowers in spring. In openings in sage scrub. Dry slopes, but prefers slightly moister conditions than other dry-slope flowers, so grows either in shade or in small drainage ways. Commonest in old burns; once thought to depend on burning to germinate, but it is actually fairly common even in areas not burned for decades.
Eucrypta chrysanthemifolia. Small ferny-leaved plant with white flowers. Common on shady slopes in the recently burned area east of Darkwood Drive, and occasional elsewhere.
Heliotropium curassavicum. White-flowered herb of wet, somewhat alkaline areas; rare in park but found e.g. in wet area west of the huge warehouse.
Nemophila menziesii. Baby blue eyes. Exquisitely beautiful small deep-blue flowers in mid-spring, usually in grass on north-facing slopes. Another casualty of grass invasion, but can manage the grass to some extent, and grows among cheat grass plants.
Pectocarya linearis. A tiny, briefly visible plant with extremely tiny white flowers; appears in early spring, flowers, dies, and disappears till next year.
Pectocarya penicillata. Like above but more compact with longer leaves.
Phacelia distans. Blue curls. Probably the commonest wildflower in the park; a beautiful blue flower on a stalk that grows longer as spring advances. Common largely in rocky areas with native brush. Resists the current hot, dry weather better than other wildflowers. Greens edible, used by Native Americans.
Phacelia minor. Canterbury bells. Purple-blue bell-shaped flower in spring; dries to total disappearance before spring ends. Formerly common but now getting rarer.
Phacelia ramosissima. Perennial phacelia. Large sprawling or trailing bush with dirty-white flowers in spring, growing among or at the foot of rocks or at the edge of moist areas along streams. Very common and successful.
Plagiobothrys canescens. Popcorn flower. Like a diminutive version of Cryptantha; found with it and told mainly by size.
Plagiobothrys collinus. Like above but smaller.
Brassicaceae Mustard and cabbage family
Brassica tournefortii. Sahara mustard. This large, coarse, thick-podded mustard has spread lik—and with—wildfire in inland southern California in the last 20 years. It has become a major pest. It is common but nowhere dominant in the park. Of the three common mustards, this is the large one with long thick pods; B. geniculata is small and very bright green; Sisymbrium irio is finer-leaved with much smaller pods and stems. Irio is usually short, but can be as tall as the others.
Guillenia (Caulanthus) lasiophylla. Jewelflower. Currently not coming up, because of drought, but formerly found in open areas.
Hirschfeldia incana (Brassica geniculata). Wild mustard. Extremely common weedy introduced plant. Very short seed pods and small clusters of bright yellow flowers distinguish it. Common everywhere in disturbed, open ground, especially along trails and roads. This, like almost all mustards, is edible, the tender young buds being much like cauliflower and broccoli (which are very closely related). A great trailside nibble. Illegal to pick in the park, but when outside of the park, feel free, unless the area has been sprayed with something. This is a very serious weed, and eating it is the nicest way to get rid of it. Native Americans soon learned its value, and ate the greens fresh or boiled, and the seeds ground as a spicy meal (Bean and Saubel 1972:47).
Lepidium nitidum. Shiny peppergrass. Tiny herb with shiny round pods. Locally common in rocky, sandy, sun-facing grasslands where the invasive grasses have trouble growing.
All members of the genus are not only edible but very good when young and tender, and at least one species is a commercial garden crop in England under the names “cress” or “peppergrass.” Native ones eaten by Native Californians.
Lepidium virginicum var. robinsonii. Larger than the above but with smaller, non-shiny pods. Local near west entrance.
Lobularia maritima. Sweet alyssum. Introduced garden plant, sometimes invading the park from ornamental plantings at the edges.
Nasturtium officinale (a.k.a. Nasturtium aquaticum, Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum). This wonderful-flavored herb may be native, but it probably a garden escape. It grows actually in running water, but is amazingly successful at finding the tiniest bits of permanent flow. Common in the canyon stream. Like virtually everyone else in its range, Cahuilla used it as a salad plant (Bean and Saubel 1972:90).
Raphanus sativus. Radish. Wild radish, possibly originally escaped from cultivation but probably introduced from Spain as a weed in settler days, is much less common than formerly, but still occurs. Whitish-pink to purplish-pink flowers. Complex hybridization with the yellow-flowered relative R. raphanistrum is so common in Riverside that it has become a rather famous case study of plant hybridization. The hybrid mixes used to dominate vacant lots, but the steady march of weedy grasses and the like has largely eliminated them. It appears to be extirpated from the park, and indeed almost gone from inland southern California. It remains as common as ever in central California, apparently because of higher rainfall.
Sisymbrium irio. Rocket. A very similar, and confusing, group of wild mustards, with longer seed pods and more dissected leaves. The name has nothing to do with space travel, more to do with the plant’s fondness for rocky areas. Siymbrium irio, London rocket, is extremely common and grows to a large size (to 2’ tall).
Sisymbrium orientale. Like above but longer seed pods.
Tropidocarpum gracile. A slender native mustard, like a small version of Sisymbrium but with paler flowers (they bleach white in the sun) and a pod that splits differently. Very common in more open grasslands and sage scrub.
Cactaceae Cactus family
Opuntia californica (O. parryi). California cholla. This cactus is uncommon but conspicuous on relatively bare soil on southwest-facing slopes in grassland areas. Buds and fruit somewhat edible, used by Native Americans. Pickled cholla buds (not this species) are a delicacy in Mexico.
Opuntia littoralis. Coast prickly-pear. Very rare in the park; occurs in very dry sunny spots in the juniper savannah. Fruit and pads edible, used by Native Californians.
Atriplex canescens. Fourwing saltbush. Fairly common in the southeast part of Sycamore Canyon, in the juniper savannah vegetation. Some huge old bushes have trunks a foot thick, indicating considerable age.
Atriplex lentiformis. Common in upper (southeast part of park) creek bank areas, growing near or in the edges of the riparian strip. Seeds an important food of the Cahuilla, ground for meal. Leaves contain salt, edible; also leaves and roots contain saponins (natural soap), so can be used to wash. “Fresh leaves were chewed to relieve head colds” or dried and smoked for same (Bean and Saubel 1972:45).
Atriplex serenana. Fish plant, fish saltbush. This tall, bushy annual flowers in summer; the flowers smell like a long-dead rat or fish. At the point where the road crosses the stream in the upper (south) drainage, you will be troubled by a disgusting smell in July and August. It isn’t a dead cat; it’s this plant doing its best to get pollinated, presumably by carrion flies or carrion beetles.
Chenopodium album. Pigweed, goosefoot. Tall nonnative weed, annual. Grows in highly disturbed areas, mostly trails and areas dug up by burrowing animals. Seeds and leaves edible; young greens actually very good. Native relatives were used by Native Californians and were a major food source (Bean and Saubel 1972:53; they also report use of seeds to kill intestinal worms, but that probably refers to Dysphania). This species was evidently used after it arrived. Tender young leaves are rather like spinach (which is related) but older leaves too tough to eat. Leaves and seeds very widely used in the old days for pig and chicken feed. Not in the park, but in other parts of Riverside, this plant grows very tall and thick, and makes a good walking-stick; because of its cheapness and availability for that purpose, it became a symbol (even a cliché) of rustic simplicity in Chinese and Japanese poetry.
Chenopodium californicum. California goosefoot. This small, shrubby, perennial goosefoot is uncommon but widely distributed in the park. Seeds and probably greens used by Indigenous peoples.
Chenopodium murale. Nettle-leaved goosefoot. Fairly common but local; introduced weed.
Dysphania ambrosioides (Chenopodium ambrosioides, Teloxys ambrosioides). Epazote (Mexican Indigenous name), Mexican tea, Mexican wormseed. (The whole idea of scientific names is that they are supposed to be stable and universal, while common names are not. In this case, the common name epazote is stable and universal but practically nobody seems to agree on the scientific name.) This Mexican flavoring herb has escaped from gardens, and appears rarely in the wet sandy banks of the canyon stream. It is an excellent flavoring herb, especially for beans (the tarlike smell cooks out and the resulting taste is pleasant). A tea of the plant, and especially the seeds, kill intestinal worms, and are very widely used for this in Mexico and elsewhere.
Salsola tragus. Russian thistle. This spiny, tough annual is a nonnative weed that is becoming rapidly commoner. It thrives on heat and dryness, and is taking over rapidly as the climate changes. It is particularly successful at taking over southwest-facing slopes where even the cheat grass can no longer hang on. It loves disturbed soil, such as trails and areas dug up by burrowing animals. (Formerly misidentified as S. kali. It takes genetic analysis to be sure. Some other Salsola spp. might be present; they are very difficult to tell apart.)
Convolvulaceae Morning-glory family
Calystegia arida. Desert bindweed. A small morning-glory with white flowers, found twining round many shrubs in dry rocky areas.
Cuscuta californica. California dodder. Orange vine—parasitic, lacking green chlorophyll, unable to make its own food. Attaches to buckwheat and sometimes other shrubs, and feeds from them. Small white flowers occasionally appear. Used by Cahuilla as scouring pads (Bean and Saubel 1972:59; Lerch 1981:32).
Crassula connata. Pigmy-weed. Tiny plant, grows about an inch high; green in early winter, turning red in late winter and dying back.
Dudleya lanceolata. Live-forever. Rare in the park; north-facing steep clay arroyo banks, e.g. near the west entrance.
Cucurbita foetidissima. Coyote melon. Mostly eliminated from our part of the world in recent years, by suburbanization and herbicides, but a large population survives along the upper (southwest) part of Sycamore Canyon, growing just outside the riparian strip. This wild gourd is intensely bitter. The name is a translation of a Native American term from Arizona, based on a story that the (mythic) Coyote urinated on a squash and offended it so much that it and its descendents turned bitter and inedible. This was a cautionary tale for young children. The seeds, however, are edible, and good, basically small versions of the familiar pepitas of grocery stores. The fruit used as poultice for animals, and root and gourd for soap (Bean and Saubel 1972:58; Lerch 1981:61); they are rich in saponins, naturally occurring soaps, and make a good soap for trail use.
Marah macrocarpa. Wild cucumber. Common vine with spiny fruits.
Euphorbiaceae Spurge family
Chamaesyce albomarginata (Euphorbia albomarginata) and C. polycarpa (Euphorbia polycarpa). Prostrate spurge. Tiny plants growing flat on the ground, with tiny bean-shaped leaves. Former told by white edges of leaves. In the heat of summer it rapidly grows to become quite large, if water is available. One of the most annoying small weeds of lawns and gardens, it occurs in the park only where watering is done, as around the visitors’ center and the eastside factories. Boiled for medicinal wash for fever, chicken pox, smallpox; infusion used in mouth for mouth sores; said (wrongly) to be effective for snakebites (Bean and Saubel 1972:73).
Croton californicus. Uncommon, thin, small, gray bush of the coastal sage. Poisonous; used by Native Americans to stun or choke fish, which could then be cleaned and safely eaten.
Croton setigerus. Turkey mullein, dove weed. Very common small gray herb of disturbed places; abundant along trails, animal-burrowed sites, bike paths; not uncommon in open grassland even where there is no disturbance. One of the most pervasive plants of the park. Grows in summer when few other plants can grow.
Ricinus communis. Castor bean. This short-lived tall shrub was introduced as a medicinal plant for its violent laxative action. The plant went wild and has become one of the most damaging, dangerous and unpleasant weeds in California. The large seeds germinate with the slightest rain (but not in very cold weather), and have enough nutrient to produce a long, thick root that quickly goes deep into the soil to find any moisture there. Seeds deadly poisonous, from ricin, a toxin so deadly that an almost invisible amount can kill, and almost impossible to stop once ingested. Fortunately, nobody chews the seeds up, but animals sometimes die from them. The plant is fairly common among rocks and in dry washes, and getting rapidly commoner. It thrives on dryness and heat, and thus prospers in the new climatic regime. In the park there is a major infestation in two washes in the extreme northeast corner, and in 2014, with summer and fall rains, these led to a population explosion all along the bank and road cut bordering Central Ave. The plant is spreading into the main canyon and has recently invaded the south end of the park also.
Stillingia linearifolia. This small bush is rare among rocks in very dry places. Formerly commoner, but very vulnerable to fire.
Fabaceae Bean family
Acacia. An unidentified Australian acacia has spread into the park from ornamental plantings at the northwest corner.
Acmispon argophyllus (until recently Lotus argophyllus). Rock lotus. Small, prostrate, silver-leved bush growing in cracks in rocks. Prefers large, high, flat-topped rocks where it can sprawl over the top (as opposed to Brickellia, which takes over cracks on vertical faces). Uncommon in the park.
Acmispon glaber. Deerweed. If you know native plants, you probably know this by its old name, Lotus scoparius. It is still under that name in Oscar Clarke’s guide to Santa Ana drainage plants—a familiar name lost to genetic advances. Very common invader of dry open areas, such as road cuts and trailsides. Short-lived perennial with green stems, tiny leaves, and reddish-yellow clusters of flowers that are small but clearly bean-like in shape.
Acmispon micranthus. This tiny trefoil does not appear in very dry years.
Acmispon strigosus. Small trefoil. Tiny bean with small yellow flowers visibly similar to deerweed’s.
Astragalus pomonensis. Common in the juniper savanna vegetation type, especially in very open areas (now largely cleared of junipers).
Lupinus bicolor. Small lupine. This tiny lupine is a fairly common early-spring flower in dry areas.
Medicago polymorpha. Bur clover. Introduced weed of wet areas. Burs infuriatingly clingy and sharp.
Melilotus albus. White sweetclover. Wonderful-smelling white flowers in summer. Common introduced weed; local in the park, in moist areas, mostly southern part of the park. Greens and seeds edible, but high coumarin content makes them dangerous through preventing blood clotting.
Melilotus officinalis. Yellow sweetclover.
Fagaceae Beech and oak family
*Quercus californica. California coast live oaks are planted around the parking lot and visitors’ center. One has appeared, apparently without human help, at the west entrance; probably a squirrel or jay planted it.
Geraniaceae. Geranium family
Erodium botrys. Longpod filaree. Uncommon weed.
Erodium cicutarium. Filaree. Tiny plant with pretty pink-purple flowers, growing in otherwise bare areas; seems unable to compete with much else, but loves utterly bare, waterless, rock-hard soil, where it is the commonest and often the only plant. Nonnative. “Geranium” means “crane plant” from the crane-bill seed pods, and when this genus was split from “geranium” the scientists punned by naming it “heron plant” (erodium). Young leaves edible, used by Cahuilla as pot herb (Bean and Saubel 1972:72) and by many others also.
Erodium moschata. Large filaree. Bigger and lusher than above. Common especially near entrances and other weed-invasion points. Like the above, native to Mediterranean area.
Ribes indecorum. One large old plant in a natural firebreak near the east entrance. There may be a few others. Otherwise, this and the chaparral currant R. malvaceum seem to have been burned out of the park.
Ribes quercetorum. Golden-flowered gooseberry. A large, dense stand, among boulders, on the north-facing slope of the rocky canyon area at the southeast corner of the park.
Juglans californica. California walnut. A common tree in its very limited range (from Waterman Canyon in the San Bernardino Mountains west to Point Conception in Santa Barbara County, and from the San Gabriel and Santa Ynez foothills south through the Los Angeles area). A large specimen, about 30’ high and 2’ thick, grows near Sycamore Canyon creek just after it enters the park from the southeast, and slightly smaller ones (burned but recovering) down or across the creek. These are surely not native here; they may have been understock for commercial walnut trees (this was common in early days, and the scion would long ago have died, leaving the understock to grow up), or, perhaps more likely, they grew from walnuts produced by such understocks that grew up and died long ago. Occasional seedling walnuts down-canyon presumably have these trees as their parents. The nuts of this species of walnut are small and mostly shell, but similar in flavor and quality to commercial walnuts; they were thus heavily used by Native Americans but are now rarely harvested. Wood one of the few bow sources in the lowlands (Lerch 1981:63).
Temple notes only one individual; apparently it has sired young ones, which have sprouted or at least reached visible size since he wrote.
*Juglans regia. Domestic Persian walnut. A tree survives (almost miraculously, given their need for water) in the old olive orchard in the east-central part of the park.
Lamiaceae Mint, sage and herb family
Lamium amplexicaule. Deadnettle. Wet areas.
Marrubium vulgare. Horehound. Garden escape, uncommon in dry washes among other weedy nonnatives. Can be boiled down to a tea. If the tea is boiled down with sugar to hard-crack stage, horehound candy is produced—a common candy in my youth, but now replaced by better-tasting items! It was believed to be medicinal, ever since ancient times. It did seem to have a soothing effect on a sore throat, thanks to the bitter astringent chemicals in the plant.
Salvia apiana White sage. Big bush with whitish-gray leaves, tall flowering stalks with pale blue flowers in spring. Wonderful, powerful sage scent; usable in cooking in place of domestic sage, which is closely related. Very widely used in bundles to create sweet-scented smoke for “smudging” rooms, etc.—a Native American ceremonial use, now picked up by countless newer Californians. One of the worst sufferers from fire and grass invasion; now sadly rare. Seeds edible but sparse. Young leaves edible, and make a perfectly good sage for cooking. Peeled young flower stalks edible, tasting like sage-flavored celery; eaten by Serrano for sore throats; also, with leaves, in hot water for tea or medicinal steam for colds, sinus problems, congestion (Lerch 1981:62). Cahuilla used seeds and sometimes the leaves for food, and ate, smoked, or sweated with the leaves for colds and the like. Leaves used as poultice for armpits, for deodorant (effective). Leaves used to remove bad luck, as when menstruating woman touched hunting equipment (Bean and Saubel 1972:136). The plant is rich in menthol, still a major medicinal chemical, found in countless drug store remedies.
*Salvia clevelandii (and hybrids of it with other sages). This San Diego County native is planted as an ornamental at the Visitor Center and other areas bordering the park. Being beautiful, wonderfully fragrant, and easy to grow, this plant has become a favorite for droughtscaping and native plantings.
Salvia columbariae. Chia. This is a small annual relative of the big shrubby sages. It was a staple food of Native Americans; the seeds are small but good in flavor and extremely nutritious. You can buy seeds of the closely related S. chia in health food stores. Today, wild chia is very rare, being one of the worst victims of grass and weed takeover, but tiny plants are still findable on bare, thin soil. Formerly, when it could compete in better soil, it could grow over a metre high and produce over a thousand seeds per plant. Probably the major resource of the park area before the white settlers came. I once harvested a naturally-occurring plot of chia in Two Trees Canyon and found it yielded enough to produce only 100-300 pounds of seed per acre, but it was growing in a very poor spot. The seeds are not only an exceptionally good food; they also clean the eyes. They become quite sticky when wet, so a seed was put in the eye if dust or fuzz had gotten under the eyelid. The dust would soon stick to the seed and be removable. This was evidently a Native American trick, but settlers soon learned it and were using it within my memory. White sage seeds can be used for this too (Bean and Saubel 1972:136) but are less sticky. Mush used as poultice (Bean and Saubel, ibid.).
Salvia mellifera. Black sage. Dark green narrow leaves, powerful and wonderful sage fragrance due to many volatile oils. Deep blue flowers in spring. Still common, almost confined to north-facing (shadier) slopes. Seeds edible, leaves usable as herb (see e.g. Bean and Saubel 1972:138).
Stachys ajugoides. Common streamside plant in southern California; common along Sycamore Canyon stream. Rank, not very pleasant smell.
Trichostema lanceolatum. Vinegar weed. This pungent-scented nonnative is uncommon in our area. A population flourishes in and around the old olive orchard in the east-central part of the park. It grows in the hottest part of summer, with lovely blue flowers on a gray, furry stalk. The plant smells powerfully of vinegar and resin, and if you brush it you, too, will smell that way for hours. I love the scent, which reminds me of happy summer trails, but I admit this is very much an acquired taste.
Malvaceae Mallow family
Malacothamnus fasciculatus. Chaparral bush mallow. Fire-follower; disappears for decades, between fires, but stored seeds suddenly germinate widely, following a fire. A large population has appeared following the major fire in the early 2000s in the middle canyon.
Malva parvifolia complex. Small mallow. This introduced weed is common anywhere that people have introduced a bit of moisture, but it prefers fertile soil. Particularly common in old orchards. The leaves are extremely nutritious and are a major food throughout Asia, especially in Arabia and (mostly in old days) China. They cook up somewhat gooey and do not have much taste, but they are not bad, and certainly help nutrition. The small fruits look like tiny cheeses and taste slightly cheeselike, and are thus called “cheeses” and similar names by Riverside children and many others worldwide.
Montiaceae Miner’s lettuce family
Calandrinia ciliata. Redmaids. Tiny reddish annual plant with pink flowers in early spring. Formerly exceedingly common, now rare, since it grows in the same areas as the weedy grasses and cannot compete with them. Seeds and leaves were a major staple food of Native Americans, who burned to maximize its abundance by eliminating the competition (now, burning only makes things worse, since the brome grass loves fire).
Moraceae Mulberry family
*Ficus carica. Fig. A fig tree has established itself at the east end of the parking lot on Central Ave. This Mediterranean fruit tree is quite invasive, and more seedlings will surely turn up.
Myrtaceae Myrtle family
Eucalyptus spp. Various Australian Eucalyptus trees, planted, border the park on the northwest. Eucalyptus in general supplies oils widely used in medicine, e.g. leaves boiled for steaming (which the Cahuilla learned; Bean and Saubel 1972:73), and oils extracted for medicinal use in many drugstore preparations, though less now than in the old days.
Eucalyptus globulus. Blue gum. This large tree was planted in the 19th and early 20th centuries for shade, windbreak, and timber. It proved problematic, with highly invasive roots, almost worthless timber, and a tendency to blow over or shed huge branches in santana winds. A few have seeded themselves in drainage ways in the central part of the park.
Oleaceae Olive family
*Fraxinus velutina. Arizona Ash. A medium-aged ash tree and many seedlings from it form a small colony at the extreme south edge of the park, across Alessandro from the end of Vista Grande Drive. It is the native species, so may be an actual natural occurrence, though usually the Arizona Ash occurs in the mountains or along larger rivers, so this one may be a seeding from a yard tree. Ash trees are important timber trees, and this one was a source of bows and other wood products for Native Californians.
Olea europaea. Olive. An old orchard of olive trees survives and still bears fruit in the east-central part of the park. A few individuals also survive in a far southwest corner. The tenacity of life of olives in this climate zone is simply incredible. Orchards abandoned in the Depression still bear fruit in odd corners of the Badlands. Southern California was a major commercial olive producer in the old days, but climate change and suburbanization have ended the industry south of Santa Barbara County.
Onagraceae Evening-primrose family
Camissoniopsis (Camissonia) bistorta. Suncups. Earth-hugging small plant with beautiful sun-yellow flowers. Bare but relatively undisturbed areas in full sun.
Clarkia epiloboides. Tiny whitish flower; not showy like many Clarkias. Very rare; local in sheltered clay-banked canyons near west entrance; possibly elsewhere.
Epilobium canum. Wild fuchsia. This gray-leaved bush has large, brilliant red flowers that attract hummingbirds. It is very rare in the park; a large bush grows near the head of the deep part of the main canyon, west of the stream, among rocks. It was probably commoner before widespread fire.
Epilobium ciliatum. Willow-herb. A weed of wet places. Rare here, but willow-herbs are all too well known to gardeners in wet, cool parts of the world. They spread by underground runners, are impossible to get rid of, and tend to take over.
Eulobus californicus (Camissonia californica). Tall, thin-stemmed plant, very drought-adapted, with beautiful four-petaled yellow flowers throughout spring and into summer. Grows in bare areas but among bushes, on south-facing slopes, usually ones that burned many years ago (not recently but not in the distant past either).
Papaveraceae Poppy family
Eschscholzia californica. California poppy. Our familiar state flower is native to the park; formerly extremely abundant, now almost totally displaced by introduced weedy grasses and mustards, and surviving only in places too rocky and barren for them. Here it is usually small and sad-looking, nothing like the displays of former years. Said to be sedative (Bean and Saubel 1972:73, also popular belief among Anglo-Americans), but perhaps only because of relationship with opium poppy.
Phrymaceae Dropseed familiy
Mimulus aurantiacus (formerly Diplacus aurantiacus). Bush monkeyflower. Green bush with yellow flowers, growing among rocks; flowers quite spectacular and beautiful in spring. Elsewhere in its range, the flowers are orange or red.
This and the following were long placed in the Scrophulariaceae, but that family proved (after genetic analysis) to be an assemblage of similar but not closely related flowers, so it has been broken up.
Mimulus cardinalis. Scarlet monkeyflower. Local along streams.
Mimulus guttatus. Spotted monkeyflower. Annual plant with bright yellow, red-spotted flowers. With a very great deal of imagination, they look like monkey faces (if monkeys had yellow faces). Grows in wet sand on stream banks.
Plantaginaceae Plantain family
Antirrhinum nuttallianum. Purple wild snapdragon. Rare, growing among rocks. Common among rocks at the easternmost crossing of the main stream.
Collinsia concolor. Blue-eyed Mary. Local, north-facing steep clay banks near west entrance.
Keckiella antirrhinoides (formerly Penstemon antirrhinoides). Yellow bush penstemon. Rather small bush with beautiful flowers, shaped like snapdragon flowers (“antirrhinoides” means “looking like snapdragons”). Now very rare. This plant used to be fairly common, though local, in the Inland Empire, usually on rocky north-facing slopes. It does not tolerate fire and is outcompeted by grass when trying to seed back, so it is rapidly disappearing.
The penstemons, long placed in the Scrophulariaceae, are now in the plantain family, thanks to genetic analyses that found the “scrophs” were a wildly disparate assemblage of plants that looked somewhat alike but were actually not closely related.
Penstemon spectabilis. Native, but I have not found it so far in natural habitat. Planted as ornamental around the parking lot on Central Ave.
*Plantago major. Common plantain. Grows along the main stream in wet soil.
Veronica anagallis-aquatica. Water speedwell. Common along streams. Introduced weed.
Platanaceae Sycamore family
Platanus racemosa California sycamore. The common tree of the canyon and the source of the name. Establishes on recently flooded clear ground or around springs, but no young trees exist in the area now. Many trees are very ancient. When burned, it comes up again from the root, and many trees in the area show evidence of repeated renewal. Black-chinned hummingbirds depend on this tree, nesting in it and using the fuzz on the leaves to line their nests. The young leaves get a fungus in spring, and tend to wilt and die if the spring is wet (and thus good for fungal growth), but the tree grows a new crop and goes right on. The sycamore is an old lineage; trees identical to ours today shaded the dinosaurs. It is, however, not a living fossil—quite the reverse; it was very advanced for its time back then. California sycamore makes a beautiful, drought-resistant shade tree, and is thus widely planted in Riverside. Wood soft and weak but used in old days. Native Americans of the area used it for bowls (Bean and Saubel 1972:105; they had to be greased to avoid splitting), mortars, and posts; Serrano used inner bark as medicinal tea (Lerch 1981:39-40).
Polemoniaceae Phlox family
Eriastrum sapphirinum. Sapphire woolstar. Summer annual with beautiful blue flowers. A small stickery plant.
Gilia angelensis. Los Angeles gilia. A very small, delicate, slender-stemmed flower, common in open areas in grasslands in late winter and very early spring. One of the few natives to profit from recent droughts, since it tolerates them better than does the weedy grass that otherwise outcompetes it.
Navarretia atractyloides. This small plant has not been coming up much in recent dry years.
Polygonaceae Dock family
Chorizanthe staticoides. Turkish rugging. Tiny, bristly plant of open dry places.
Eriogonum elongatum. Longstem buckwheat. Small perennial with very long flowering stalks. Dry rocky places.
Eriogonum fasciculatum. Bush buckwheat. The bush with tiny rice-grain-like graygreen leaves and spectacular heads of pinkish-white flowers that turn to rust-colored seed heads. Very common everywhere that has escaped fire and subsequent takeover by weedy grasses. Survives worst drought and flourishes in soil so poor that nothing else can survive, such as recently opened road cuts through solid rock or hard subsoil clay. Extremely important to butterflies, bees, many beetles, and other nectar feeders; a major, if not the major, food resource for such insects. As such, it deserves more attention and protection than it gets. The seeds are bitter but edible (cultivated buckwheat is a close relative, from eastern Asia). The plant is antiseptic and was boiled for a tea by Native Americans and early settlers, to use as eyewash and skin wash (Lerch 1981:46), and for stomach and intestinal complaints, and headaches; also a tea for mestruation problems; older plants preferred (Bean and Saubel 1972:72).
Eriogonum gracile. Tiny annual, easily overlooked; locally common in open, disturbed soil such as trailsides. The flowers are very small, but beautiful on close inspection, relieving the dull brown monotony of midsummer trailsides.
Polygonum arenastrum (sometimes included in P. aviculare). Knotweed. Common in wet places, usually with some sun. P. aviculare has been used in folk medicine. The rau ram of Vietnamese restaurants is a close relative, but I find no record of our sp. being eaten.
Rumex crispus. Curly dock. Weed; streambanks. Told from the natives by wavy leaf-edges.
Rumex hymenosepalus. Canaigre dock, wild rhubarb. Local, wet places. Tall reddish stems from cluster of big leaves with relatively straight edges.
Rumex salicifolius. Willow Dock. Rare in the park. A plant of open, rich soil in wet places. Leaves and stems edible when cooked, but sour. Stems make good pickles. Cahuilla ate the stems of a close relative (and probably this species too) and used the tannin-rich roots for tanning hides (Bean and Saubel 1972:135).
Portulacaceae Portulaca family
Calandrinia ciliata. Redmaids. Common small flower of open grasslands; cannot compete well with the grass, so found in more open areas such as trail edges.
Claytonia perfoliata. Miner’s lettuce. This excellent salad plant has virtually died out because of drought and fire, but probably persists in a few protected wet areas.
Portulaca oleracea. Purslane. Common introduced weed in irrigated areas around edges of park. Edible; selected varieties are garden crops in other parts of the world.
Primulaceae Primrose family
Anagallis arvensis. Scarlet pimpernel. Small prostrate plant with deep pink flowers like tiny roses. Common introduced plant, in moister areas, especially as weed in gardens. Considered by the Irish to be second only to the shamrock (seamar og, “young clover”) for good luck and protection. Flowers close in bad weather, leading to British folk name “poor man’s weatherglass.”
*Rhamnus (Frangula) californica. Coffeeberry. Native to southern California but not to anywhere in Riverside; planted as a “native” ornamental around the parking lot on Central Ave. Fruits laxative.
Heteromeles arbutifolia. Toyon. Planted locally along the side of the park, e.g. in far southeast by warehouses.
“Heteromeles” means “a different apple,” and indeed this is an apple relative whose fruits look like tiny apples and taste like very indifferent ones. They are better when seeded, made into cakes and dried, and as such this plant was a major food resource for Native Americans, which explains why its name is one of the very few words English acquired from Southern Californian Native languages. The plant also looks enough like holly to have inspired the transfer name Hollywood (based on several “Hollywoods” back east and in England).
Prunus ilicifolia. Brush cherry, islay. One huge old bush, possibly centuries old, has survived the fires of the last decades because it is protected on all sides by rocks. It stands in the inner canyon near the main palm grove. It was scorched in a large canyon fire recently, but survived. A small grove of magnificent old brush cherries stands in a wash entering the main canyon stream just inside the Via Cervantes informal entrance.
This member of the laurel-cherry group bears cherries that range from small and sour to just as large and flavorful as commercial cherries. The seed can be cracked to extract the large, very nutritious kernel; this releases poisonous prussic acid when chewed up raw, but grinding and cooking destroys this, and both the fruit and the seed (made into cakes) were staple foods of Native Americans (Bean and Saubel 1972; Lerch 1981:65). Islay is another of those very few words English acquired from Southern Californian peoples.
Rubiaceae Citrus family
Galium angustifolium. Small, bristly-looking shrub. Rare in sage scrub in protected areas; found in inner canyon.
Salicaceae Willow family
Populus fremontii. Fremont cottonwood. The big tree with heart-shaped, shiny leaves growing in the wettest parts of the canyons. Wood light and weak but very useful in the old days—before and after Columbus—for construction; gum medicinal. Cahuilla used the wood for mortars (Bean and Saubel 1972:106), as rural Mexicans do today. Leaves and bark used for poultice for swellings, and tea for cuts; headaches treated by handkerchief soaked in the tea being wound around head; also used on horses for sores (Bean and Saubel 1972:106). There is enough natural aspirin (salicylic acid) in the plant to make these remedies work.
Salix exigua. Sandbar willow, coyote willow. Smaller, grayer leaves and smaller inflorescences, late in season, compared to other willows. A few at the edge of the riparian strip along the main stream, well before the canyon. Uses as for other willows, but never gets large enough to have much wood; liked for ramadas in old days, because easy to cut and very leafy.
Salix Gooddingii. Goodding willow. Told from the following by solidly green, non-furry underleaf surfaces. Requires a permanently very wet place, so found only in the few places where water stands and is reliable year-round. Wood used by Native Americans, and leaves for teas for sore places, etc.
Salix lasiolepis. Pacific willow. The common tree with long, lance-shaped leaves, light green above, silvery-green below, growing everywhere that there is water. It dominates the permanently wet riparian parts of the canyons, and grows around all the small springs and even places where suburban watering drains into the park. Tolerates dryness when established, and thus old trees survive now in channels where water is rare. Like the cottonwood, it has tiny seeds with fluffy plumes, so any breath of air distributes its seeds all over the park; they germinate wherever they find wet ground. Wood soft and weak but useful as with cottonwood. Leaves and twigs rich in salicylic acid (in fact, the word “salicylic” comes from Salix), which is the basis of aspirin. (But “aspirin” honors another plant, Spiraea, also rich in the chemical.) You can relieve headache by nibbling willow leaves and twigs along the trail; don’t swallow too much though, and spit out the residue, because large doses of the acid damage stomach lining. Willow-twig tea relieves pain, but the same warning applies. (Coommercial aspirin is a salt of the acid, and this makes it less damaging, though you are still advised not to take many aspirin pills.) This, and other willow family plants, were used by Native Americans for house construction—both beams or posts and temporary thatching or shade from fresh twigs and small leafy branches.
Salix lucida. Golden willow. Like above but yellower stems, longer leaves (usually).
Scrophularia californica var. floribunda. California bee plant. Normally rather inconspicuous plant, but in spring sends up tall flower spikes with brilliant red flowers that attract bees. Grows only at the foot of large boulders, taking advantage of the extra water that runs off them.
All that remains—in our area—of the formerly huge family Scrophulariaceae!
*Verbascum virgatum. Wand mullein. This large, pretty weed occurs on the southeast edge of the park. Unreported by Temple; obviously a recent invader.
Simaroubaciae Tree-of-Heaven family
Ailanthus altissima. Tree of Heaven. Not noted in the park (yet), but has gone wild in seasonally moist spots all around it, including a population on Sycamore Canyon main stream just west of the 215 freeway, and one across Alessandro Blvd. just south of the park. It is to be expected in the park. Drought prevents it from becoming the horrific weed it has become in central California (making the name seem very ironic there).
Solanaceae Tomato and potato family
Datura wrightii. Large green bush with huge, erect, trumpet-shaped white flowers that attract sphinx moths. All parts deadly poison; causes hallucinations; used by Native Americans to induce visions, especially in initiation rites and in curing. Modern informal experimenters have died (in Riverside among other places) from trying it. Common, and both endures drought and competes successfully with cheat grass, so one of the few natives that is actually doing well. Bean and Saubel (1972:60-65) give an excellent and thorough review of its uses among Cahuilla.
Nicotiana glauca. Tree tobacco. Tall, straggly bush with broad gray leaves and gray stems; long tubular yellow flowers. An introduced weedy plant (brought in by the Spanish for ornament, from South America), but now an important part of the environment, since with native bushes mostly gone this is one of the few remaining sources of nectar. Now probably essential for survival of Costa’s Hummingbird and many insects. Does not normally invade areas with much vegetation; usually limited to bare soil, from new road cuts to trailsides. All parts deadly poison to humans; not usable as tobacco; smoking it kills. The native coyote tobacco, N. attenuata, occurs in wide sandy washes not far away and might turn up. It is less dangerous and was smoked and used medicinally by Native Americans, as tobacco species were almost everywhere. Groups that practiced no other agriculture did cultivate tobacco; e.g. in southern California the Kawaiisu (Zigmond 1981).
Nicotiana quadrivalvis (our form sometimes separated as N. bigelovii). Coyote tobacco. A small wild native annual tobacco, rare in the park. Used widely by Native Americans for smoking and other typical tobacco uses. The larger N. attenuata was usually preferred where available, and widely cultivated in aboriginal California; it does not occur in the park but occurs in sandy, seasonally-wet washes all around our area, and might turn up some day.
Solanum douglasii. White-flowering nightshade. Uncommon shrub. Juice squeezed into eye for eye diseases and eye strain by Cahuilla (Bean and Saubel 1972:140).
Solanum xanti. Purple nightshade. Small bush, green in winter and spring, with purple flowers and small black berries. Usually grows among or at the foot of large rocks. Poisonous.
Tamaricaceae Tamarisk family
Tamarix sp. Tamarisk. This worst of all weedy pests of riparian habitats is so far not established in the park, but individual seedlings appear, and should be eliminated when seen. This tree accumulates salt and drops it on the ground as exudate or in twigs that fall, and the soil quickly becomes so saline that everything dies except the tamarisk. Ones that appear are T. ramosissima or close relatives or hybrids e.g. with T. chinensis. Identification work needed.
Urtica dioica Nettle, bull nettle. The huge, common, savagely stinging nettle you should learn to avoid. Grows in very dense stands in wet areas, taking over a great deal of the understory below willows and cottonwoods. Can endure dryness when established. Serrano (Lerch 1981:43) and Cahuilla (Bean and Saubel 1972:143) shared a widespread custom of whipping their legs with nettles to take away pain; apparently the pain and inflammation of the nettles serves as counterirritant and may actually relieve pain from arthritis and the like. Stems provided a valuable fibre for string, nets and rope for Native Americans; young leaves not only edible but actually extremely good—a major food all over the Northern Hemisphere, and a classic dish in French as well as Irish and Tibetan cuisine. You pick them carefully, with gloves; fry them in butter; then add in milk or stock to make a fairly thick soup. Most of our local plants are not gourmet fare, but this is.
Verbenaceae. Verbena family
Verbena lasiostachys. Western verbena. Native relative of the common garden plant. Uncommon in moist spots.
Vitaceae Grape family
Vitis girdiana. Arizona grape, wild grape. A large tangle of grapevine, possibly only one plant, is established in the middle canyon. The grapes of this species are small but excellent eating, and are very important to wildlife. Even coyotes may live for days on end on wild grapes when they are in season.
Zygophyllaceae Caltrop family
*Larrea divaricata. Creosote bush. This desert plant does not naturally grow any closer the San Gorgonio Pass, but one bush in natural surroundings and looking thoroughly “natural” grows by the side of the road in the southern part of the park. It is near the giant old four-wing saltbushes. It probably grew from a seed accidentally brought in by people or livestock from the Pass area. This plant is so common and aromatic that people tend to conclude it must be “good for something,” and thus it is widespread as a medicinal tea among Native American and settler cultures. Cahuilla used it for many complaints, such as colds, chest problems, digestive problems, and menstruation. Decongestant (as tea or steaming plant) and soothing to throat. A persistent belief that it “cures cancer” has not held up in spite of many trials. Cahuilla mande poultices of the leaves for wounds and infections. Powder from crushed dried leaves applied to sores and woiunds. Liniment for limbs, including poor circulation. For dandruff and other skin and hair problems (see Bean and Saubel 1972:83-84). Any oldtimer in rural and desert Riverside County has heard much of the virtues of this plant. Alas, except for symptomatic relief of mouth, throat, and congestion issues, it seems not effective. Tests go on…. The bushes do not usually grow big enough to provide useful wood, but when they do the wood is extremely hard and close-grained, of a greenish color, useful for arrow shafts and fuel, and more recently for minor woodwork; it takes a beautiful polish.
*Tribulus terrestris. Puncture vine, caltrop. This introduced weed is noted for its sharp-spined fruits, which can easily destroy a bicycle tire. Grows along roads; not observed quite in the park, but follows paved road side-strips all round. It was an enormous pest 50 years ago, but weevils that eat its seeds were introduced to control it, and have maintained it as a relatively uncommon plant since.
Hesperoyucca whipplei. Whipple yucca. Almost completely burned out now. A few individuals apparently persist.
Alliaceae Onion family
Allium praecox, A. peninsulare. Wild onion. Praecox is fairly common on the rather recent burn east of Darkwood Drive. Uncommon elsewhere. Unmistakable onion flavor. Prefers dark rocks; they break down into a tough clay that is hard for grass to grow in, so the onions have less competition. Bulbs and leaves edible, popular with Native Americans; onions seem to have a universal, worldwide appeal. This is interesting since the flavorful compounds are there to protect the plant, and are deadly to many animals, including dogs and cats. We have somehow not only evolved the ability to eat them, but a downright fondness for them.
Formerly in the Liliaceae, but like the Scrophulariaceae the Liliaceae has been a casualty of genetic analysis. Formerly a vast and notoriously messy assemblage, it has now been broken into component parts.
Arecaceae Palm family
Phoenix canariensis. Canary Island date palm. Common introduced ornamental all over southern California. One tree has established itself in the wild at the northeast corner of the park, in a small riparian grove. The small but good dates of this tree are extremely popular with birds and wild mammals. These animals distribute the seeds everywhere, hence its invasion of the park and many other places.
Washingtonia filifera, California fan palm, and Washingtonia robusta, Baja California fan palm. Several tall trees in the central and upper parts of the main canyon have grown from small dates carried in by wildlife from beneath the many ornamental specimens lining Riverside streets. Almost all are W. robusta, but the Southern California fan palm, W. filifera, occurs too. It is native to the desert regions just east of us, and would no doubt have occurred in the canyon naturally if it could take competition better; young trees are easily shaded out. Today, with habitat degradation, there is enough open space to allow them to flourish. Fam palms are almost totally fire-resistant, and fire clears the area for them and lets them seed abundantly. Young seedlings appear in wet ground. These trees are extremely important to wildlife. Many animals eat the small but nutritious and flavorful dates which these trees produce in incredible quantities. Many birds, including orioles, owls, kestrels, and starlings, nest in the leaves. Woodpeckers find the trunks easy to drill and thus tend to prefer them for nesting. The dates are good eating and were important to Native Americans. The fronds are such good thatch that they are still widely used, by Native Americans and others. Closely related species are still a major resource for this purpose in Latin America, and are often managed as a sort of semi-domesticated crop. Cahuilla uses of W. filifera fill four pages of Bean and Saubel’s book (1972:145-149). Palms provided thatch for houses and ramadas (and are still widely used for the latter), and the leaves were also made into sandals. The dates were an important food, and the stem pith and young leaf bases could be eaten in hard times. The seeds were used in rattles. Fire could be made by rubbing fruit-bunch stalks together, using one as a fire drill. The dead leaves sheathing the palm were burned when they built up to a large thatch; this prevented or stopped damage by fungus and insects, and is still occasionally done.
Cyperaceae. Sedge family
Sedges are grasslike, but identifiable by pronged flower head with small bunches of dull-colored flowers at the ends. Wet areas, especially sand along canyon streams. Many species could occur; all look fairly similar.
Cyperus eragrostis. Large sedge. A big, thick, coarse sedge, up to 4’ tall, in very wet areas along the main streams. Non-native.
Schoenoplectus acutus. (Formerly Scirpus acutus.) Tule, bulrush. Tall, dark green stems with the typical three-pronged flowering top. Grows in dense, large clumps in running or standing water (or in very wet sand). Found in the streams and springs. Displaced from nutrient-rich soil with standing water by cattails. A notably useful plant. Serrano used bundles of it for thatching houses, and ate the rhizomes (Lerch 1981:42). Cahuilla sed it for bedding, mats, weaving, roofing, thatch, ceremonial bundles for rituals, basket wrapping, and similar uses. Rhizomes eminently edible and used for flour. Seeds used for mush, and cakes made from pollen (Bean and Saubel 1972:139).
Juncaceae Rush family
Juncus arcticus, J. bufonis, J. dubius,J. xiphioides. Rushes. Tough, dark-green, wire-like leaves in wet areas. Various species occur and are hard to identify; three are found widely along the streams+, but bufonis seems to be rare or absent in the current drought. Used by Native Americans as basket material (M. K. Anderson 2005; Bean and Saubel 1972:80; James 1901; Lerch 1981:45). The leaves naturally vary from a deep warm brown to a pale tan, and can produce extremely beautiful shadings when used as decorative wrapping around the grass cores of coiled baskets. These had much to do with making southern Californian Native baskets among the most highly regarded aesthetically of any in the world. The baskets were also technically superior, often being used to hold water and even for cooking—hot stones were dropped into gruel or porridge in the baskets. The baskets were so well made that they would neither leak nor burn.
Liliaceae Lily family
Calochortus splendens. Mariposa lily. A pink-flowered species, fairly common in sage scrub in late spring. One of the few lilies that is left in the lily family! Bulbs edible. Cooked by Cahuilla in pit barbecue (earth oven; Bean and Saubel 1972:48). The long-continued, high, moist heat converts indigestible carbohydrates to digestible ones.
Poaceae. Grass family
Agrostis viridis (A. semiverticillata, Polypogon viridis). Medium-sized grass of wet places, usually growing in sandbanks of the main streams.
Arundo donax. Giant reed. A huge grass, locally called “bamboo” but not actually a bamboo. It is an Old World plant, invasive here, and terribly destructive to riparian habitats, crowding out natives and thus ruining the area for wildlife. A small population is established in the far southern part of the park, but fortunately it is mostly dead (someone may be actively suppressing it).
Avena barbata. Slender oat. Tall, with loose clusters of small oats. These are perfectly edible and would be good for oatmeal, but are too small and few to be worth gathering. An introduced plant closely related to domestic oats. Grows in the better-watered dry areas, mostly in disturbed places such as the edges of trails and roads. A wildlife food, but invasive, and a small but real part of the invasive-grass problem. Native Americans almost immediately discovered its value, after the Spanish introduced it, and came to use it heavily all over the state. (For Cahuilla, see Bean and Saubel 1972:46.) Domestic oats, a close relative, are the highest commonly-eaten grain in protein and are rich in minerals and soluble fibre, thus notably healthy.
Avena fatua. Wild oat. Shorter and stouter than preceding; less common; in lush grasslands.
Bromus diandrus. Ripgut grass, ripgut cheat. Almost as common as red cheat; grows on north-facing slopes and moister places. Its “seeds” (technically caryopses) are the hated “foxtails” that get in your socks and in your dogs’ fur, eyes, ears and noses. They are the source of the name.
Bromus madritensis var. rubens (B. rubens). Red cheat grass. Unfortunately, the commonest plant in the park; a vicious, destructive weed that has replaced most of the native vegetation. Now dominates level areas and south-facing slopes, except the very driest and rockiest, where native vegetation remains competitive. Red cheat has virtually no value and nothing to recommend it (the name “cheat” was not applied for nothing). Seeds are also “foxtails,” but less large, irritating and painful than those of ripgut. Possible seed use, if all else failed (Bean and Saubel 1972:48).
*Cynodon dactylon. Bermuda grass. This commonly planted ornamental non-native sometimes invades from local lawns, especially in moist spots.
Distichlis spicata. Saltgrass. Occurs in the salty flats of the middle part of the creek, where saltbushes also grow. Source of salt for Native Californians; salt could simply be licked, shaken, or beaten off the plant, or for more quantity it was burned and the ash used (Bean and Saubel 1972:66). This had the advantage of balancing out the sodium in the salt with some potassium in the plant tissues, maintaining a better Na:K balance than ordinary salt does. Stiff stems also used for brushing and rubbing.
Echinochloa crus-galli. Barnyard millet. A weedy introduced grass of fertile moist spots. Not common in the park. Domesticated and used as food or chicken feed in parts of Asia.
Elymus (Leymus) condensatus. Giant wild-rye. A huge, perennial, clumping grass. Found in moist rocky spots near the creek, just above the beginning of the deep canyon. Used for arrow shafts by Native Californians, supposedly fire-hardened (Bean and Saubel 1972:69) but this could not have been too diligently done or the stems would burn. Weak, but used with hardwood foreshafts.
Hordeum murinum. Mouse barley. Good enough cover name for the wild weedy barley that occurs in the park. Non-native and a pest, but much less common and annoying than cheat grasses. (If you learned this as H. leporinum, know that that species was split from murinum but then lumped with it again. The split just wasn’t valid.)
Lamarckia aurea. Rather rare grass growing in rocks in the canyon. Nonnative.
Paspalum dilatatum, Dallisgrass. Rarely found invasive.
Pennisetum setaceum. Fountaingrass. Planted as an ornamental in Sycamore Highlands Park and elsewhere, and has escaped across the border, producing a few stands on rocky, level surfaces.
Poa annua. Bluegrass. A lawn grass, locally escaped into park.
Polypogon monspeliensis. Rabbitfoot grass. A South European grass. Very common in wet or damp places in the southeast part of the park. (The name monspeliensis is a very common species name for south European plants, because of the enormous importance in the old days of the botanical garden at Montpelier, one of the oldest in the world. It is associated with the medical school there and used to grow medicinal herbs. It is still there, still beloved by the city folk, and still growing medicinal herbs.)
Schismus barbatus. The tiny clumps of grass you see everywhere on otherwise bare soil or mixed in with filaree. Nonnative and somewhat of a problem, out-competing small native flowers.
*Setaria parviflora (S. geniculata in older books). A grass with a very thin, long, starved-looking inflorescence. Related to foxtail millet, the ordinary millet used for human food and for bird food, a very nutritious and tasty seed. This wild introduced weed, however, is too thin on seeds to be much use.
*Sorghum halapense. Johnson grass. This cordially hated nonnative weed occurs in watered areas around factories and will probably invade the park at some point.
Sporobolus airoides. Alkali dropseed. A pretty, airy-looking grass of the salty flats along the upper (non-canyon) part of Sycamore Canyon stream. Forms a large meadow near the road crossing. Seeds of this genus were widely collected by Native Americans; presumably this species was used in our area.
Stipa (Nasella) lepida. Foothill needlegrass. This plant should be common, but fire and drought has virtually eliminated it. I have found ONE plant, in a remote part of the southwest corner of the park.
Vulpia (Festuca) myuros. Rattail fescue. Local on sheltered north-facing banks. European invasive.
Themidaceae Brodiaea family
Bloomeria crocea. Golden stars. The beautiful spring flowers look like a fireworks burst: a big head, each stem tipped with a brilliant golden six-pointed star. Fairly common in grasslands, but only where the introduced weeds are not too thick. Corm edible, used by Cahuilla (Bean and Saubel 1972:47).
Dichelostemma capitatum (D. pulchella, Brodiaea pulchella). Wild hyacinth. Common spring flower; stalk 6” to 1’ tall tipped with small cluster of blue-violet flowers. Common in less weed-invaded areas, but largely displaced by weeds from the areas where it was formerly most abundant. Corms were a major food of Native Americans, who cultivated the plant by digging up the bulbs and leaving or even deliberately scattering the small new bulbs growing from the older ones (M. K. Anderson 2005; Bean and Saubel 1972:47). The plant thus became exceedingly common, dominating areas of grassland and annual flower land. It is now much rarer.
Muilla maritima. Rare, local (formerly common but all too vulnerable to grass competition). Looks like a wild onion but has no onion scent.
Typhaceae Cattail family
Typha latifolia Cattail. Common in wet areas in upper southern parts of the park. Can occur anywhere that water is permanent or nearly so. Grows in open standing water with fertile muck. This plant (and its relatives; there are other widespread cattail species) has been described as “the Indians’ supermarket.” The leaves are ideal for mats (and still used), the stem is tough and straight and variously usable, the fluff on the seeds is ideal for stuffing into pillows or anything of the sort. The seeds themselves are ground for flour and are nutritous. The pollen is produced in enormous quantities and is a highly nutritious food, common enough to be gathered and made into cakes. The tender young growing shoots in spring have the texture of asparagus and the taste of cucumber, and are a choice food even today (but watch for polluted water when you gather them!). The rhizomes are less tasty but are produced in enormous quantities and are good nutritious food. Add to this the enormous productivity of this plant, which produces a huge amout of biomass in a short time. Moreover, it purifies water, crowds out mosquitoes, and provides a major habitat for wildlife. All in all this remains one of the world’s most useful wild plants.
Plants Found by Temple but Not by Me
Sycamore Canyon Park’s flora has changed dramatically since P. Temple’s work in the middle 1990s. Several new introduced plants have invaded, but the main change is due to drought and fire. All species of fire-sensitive, drought-sensitive bushes are now gone. Many annuals have not appeared in the last few years, because of extreme drought; they will probably reappear if normal rainfall ever comes again.
No doubt a few individuals of some of the perennial species will turn up, but many seem genuinely gone.
All the species listed here are still common at higher, cooler, moister elevations, most as close as the higher parts of the Box Springs Mountains or Gavilan Hills.
Shorthand: A: annual or rootstock perennial, not germinating because of drought but presumably still present (though some, as noted, seem genuinely dying out locally). Fully 59 species are in this category! Still more did not come up in 2015, for a total of about 65 spp. that should have been visible but were not.
B: Bush, burned out; species apparently eliminated from park. 7-8 spp., possibly 13.
D: Dying out: introduced nonnatives that Temple found but that appear to have died out since. Possibly 11 species, certainly 4.
Ferns Most fern species are gone, clearly because of drought and fire; some may survive as rootstocks that will grow leaves again if moist conditions recur. The only remaining fern (see above) is now extremely rare. A or B; I suspect several species are burned out and gone forever.
Dryopteridaceae: Dryopteris arguta
Polypodiaceae: Polypodium californicum
Pteridaceae: Pellaea andromedifolia, P. mucronata, Pentagramma trangularis.
Alliaceae: Allium peninsulare. A. Almost certainly still around as bulbs, which will revive if a wet year ever comes.
Asparagaceae: Muilla maritima. A. Same comment as above.
Cyperaceae: Bulboschoenus robustus. Uncommon plant that I may just not have noticed so far.
Poaceae: Bromus hordeaceus, B. tectorum: A or D. These two grasses are generally rare now, having been displaced by tougher bromes.
Eragrostis mexicana, A.
Hordeum vulgare, barley, D (drought-tolerant, unlikely to be missed, but no longer cultivated in the area, so has generally died out as a volunteer).
Leymus triticoides, A
Leptochloa fusca, A
Lolium perenne, A. This common lawn and landscaping grass is all too common as an escape, and will surely turn up if conditions get moister.
Muhlenbergia microsperma, A
Muhlenbergia rigens, B. I think I remember this large native bunchgrass growing in the park long ago, but it is burned out now, so far as I can find.
Poa secunda, bluegrass. A. This common lawn grass will surely reinvade occasionally in future.
Schedonorus (Festuca) pratensis, A. Another lawn grass that occasionally invades and probably will reinvade.
Stipa speciosa, B
Vulpia octoflora, A
Apiaceae: Bowlesia incana, A; Daucus pusillus, A. Both these wild carrots are small and modest, and do not appear in dry years.
Asteraceae: Acourtia microcephala, B. This uncommon shrub is gone from all the lower parts of our area, because of fire and drought. It is a fire-follower but recent extremely hot fires were too much for it.
Bidens frondosa, A. This common annual will surely reappear with moisture.
Cotula australis, D. This introduced weed has evidently been outcompeted by its relatives, and by grasses.
Dimorphotheca sinuata, Cape marigold. D. This South African plant was formerly often planted as a roadside ornamental, occasionally escaping into the park. It is hard to grow, and does not grow at all in current drought conditions. It has thus been abandoned as an ornamental planting and has died out, in our areas, though a population established decades ago survives along Highway 60 in Moreno Valley.
Erigeron foliosus, leafy fleabane. A
Filago californica and F. gallica A
Rafinesquia californica, A
Senecio flaccidus and S. vulgaris, A
Stylocline gnapaloides, A
Symphyotrichum subulatum, A
Venegasia carpesioides, B. This perennial sunflower was a very unusual find; it prefers far moister conditions than our area, and occurs mostly on shady slopes of foggy coastal mountains. It cannot possibly persist in current conditions of drought and fire.
Brassicaceae: Athysanus pusillus, A
Capsella bursa-pastoris, D. Formerly common weed, now dying out all over Riverside due to drought.
Caryophyllaceae: Loeflingia squarrosa, Silene gallica, Spergularia marina, A. Small delicate plants that do not germinate in dry years.
Convolvulaceae: Convolvulus arvensis, A, D. Weed that evidently invaded in wetter times from suburbs.
Fabaceae: Lupinus hirsutissimus, L. sparsifloruis, L. succulentus, L. truncatus, A. Common flowers that do not come up in dry years.
Triolium gracilentum, A; T. willdenovii, probably b.
Frankeniaceae: Frankenia salina, B
Geraniaceae: Erodium brachycarpum, A or D
Grossulariaceae: Ribes malvaceum, B
Onagraceae: Clarkia purpurea, A. This will surely reappear if a wet year ever comes.
Orobanchaceae: Castilleja exserta, A
Papaveraceae: Eschscholzia caespitosa, Papever heterophyllu, Platystemon californicus, A
Phrymaceae: Mimetanthe pilosa, A.
Mimulus brevipes, A.
Plantaginaceae: Antirrhinum coulterianum, A; Collinsia heterophylla, A
Nuttallanthus canadensis (Linaria canadensis, Nuttallanthus texana). A. I think I remember seeing this plant in past years.
Plantago erecta, A, D. This tiny native is dying out everywhere due to drought and competition with brome grasses.
Veronica peregrina, A
Polygonaceae: Persicaria lapathifolia, Pterostegia drymarioides, A. These two tiny plants will no doubt reappear if wet years return.
Portulacaceae: Cistanthe monandra, A
Ranunculaceae: Clematis pauciflora, B. Almost certainly extirpated by fires.
Delphinium parryi, A
Rubiaceae: Galium aparine, D. This common plant has been largely eliminated from our area by fire and drought in recent years.
Saururaceae: Anemopsis californica, B? This common wetland plant should be found in the streamways, but careful search of almost all accessible streambanks has not disclosed it so far. Probably eliminated by flooding followed by invasion by sedges and other fast-growing plants.
Solanaceae: Physalis crassifolia, A
Urticaceae: Hesperocnide tenella and Parietaria hespera, A
Violaceae: Viola pedunculata, A
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