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The characteristic look of California Chaparral—a soft bluish-green blanket of vegetation gently covering the hills—is known to millions who have seen it as the backdrop in movies and television productions. This complex ecological community of plants and animals is not just a feature of the hills around Hollywood, but is a quintessential part of the entire California landscape. It is a highly resilient community adapted to life with recurring fires and droughts. Written for a wide audience, this concise, engaging, and beautifully illustrated book describes an ancient and exquisitely balanced environment home to wondrous organisms: Fire Beetles that mate only on burning branches, lizards that shoot blood from their eyes when threatened, Kangaroo Rats that never drink water, and seeds that germinate only after a fire, even if that means waiting in the soil for a 100 years or more. Useful both as a field guide and an introductory overview of the ecology of chaparral, it also provides a better understanding of how we might live in harmony, safety, and appreciation of this unique ecological community.
* Identifies chaparral’s common plants, animals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects
* Features 79 color illustrations, 56 black-and-white photographs, and 3 maps
* Examines the role of humans and fire in chaparral, covering the placement and design of homes, landscaping, and public policy
All right reserved.
CHAPARRAL IS BOTH a vegetation type and the name given to
the community of coadapted plants and animals found in the
foothills and mountains throughout California. The chaparral
vegetation is composed of a diverse assemblage of different
species of evergreen drought- and fire-hardy shrubs. Seen
from the car window or scenic lookout, chaparral looks like a
soft bluish green blanket gently covering the hills. Up close,
however, this "blanket" no longer appears soft. Instead, what
is revealed is a nearly impenetrable thicket of shrubs with intertwined
branches and twigs with hard leaves and stiff and
unyielding stems. The shrubs are well adapted to the rigors of
long, hot, dry summers and unpredictable winter rainfall that
are characteristic of California's mediterranean climate. Chaparral
is especially extensive in the central and southern parts
of the state, but it covers large areas of northern California as
well (pl. 1).
A stand of mature chaparral (10 years old or more) is usually
composed of shrubs of the same age and approximate
height, dating from the last fire. The canopy height can range
from waist level to 20 feet tall. While the shrubsmay be quite
tall, the leaves are found only in the upper portions where
strong sunlight reaches. Below the leafy canopy the shrubs
have one to several rigid, woody stems that arise from a common
base (pl. 2). These stems range in size from one to three
inches in diameter in young stands and up to 12 inches thick
in older stands. Mature shrubs grow so close together that the
branches of adjacent plants are interlaced, forming an unbroken
layer of vegetation with few openings. Beneath the shrubs
the dimly lit ground lacks any vegetation and is bare except
for a sparse litter of dead leaves and twigs. In many species of
chaparral shrub there is a burl or root crown, an enlarged
woody mass at or slightly below the soil surface at the base of
the stems. After fire, if the above-ground portion of the plant
has been killed, the burl produces new shoots fed from a deep
root system. The roots may travel 100 feet or more in search of
water. Growing both horizontally and vertically, the root systems
of chaparral shrubs form a matrix that holds the soil in
place on the hillsides (fig. 1). Despite the underlying hard nature
of the stems and leaves, the shrubs produce beautiful and
fragrant blossoms, such as those of bigpod ceanothus (pl. 3).
Mature chaparral stands may persist for a century or more,
the shrubs changing slowly over time. With the passage of time
most shed branches and leaves, while others die completely.
The overhead branches are quite dense in mature chaparral,
but with age there is often a space beneath the shrubs that is
tall enough for exploration on hands and knees. Sitting quietly
beneath these shrubs, away from the sunlit hubbub above,
a patient observer can take advantage of the unobstructed
view near the ground to see some of the unique animal inhabitants
of dense chaparral. For example, common sights are
thrashers rummaging through the litter with their long curved
bills, and California Whipsnakes, also known as Striped Racers,
hurrying about with head held high (see chapter 5). In
these natural surroundings many animals do not seem to recognize
humans as dangerous and go about their business as if
no one were present. Birds like the curious Wrentit will hop
from branch to branch until they are almost within reach, with
head cocked from side to side so that each yellow eye in turn
can look closely at the strange and clumsy visitor.
The name chaparral, from chaparro, was given by Spanish
colonists to refer to the place where scrub oaks grow. The California
chaparral reminded them of the similar-appearing
vegetation of southern Spain (see chapter 2 for more on other
mediterranean climate areas). "Chaps," leather leggings worn
by riders on horseback to protect against scratches from
thorny vegetation, is a word that derives from the same Spanish
Chaparral is built into the visual image of outdoor California
even for those who have never visited the state. It forms
the backdrop for thousands of movies, television productions,
and videos because it is the common vegetation of the
hills and mountains around Los Angeles. One chaparral
plant, California holly, is, in fact, responsible for giving Hollywood
its name (pl. 4). Everyone who sees filmed car chases on
mountain roads, advertisements for SUVs taking on the
tough hills, or the televised mountain vistas above the Rose
Bowl on New Year's Day has seen chaparral.
Chaparral is a place full of life. It is an ancient and exquisitely
balanced community of many kinds of plants and animals,
each with its own special stories. For example, it has rain
beetles that stay hidden underground for years, outlasting
drought (pl. 5), fire beetles that mate only on burning
branches, plant seeds that require fire to germinate, lizards
that shoot blood from their eyes when threatened, kangaroo
rats that never drink water, and wood rats that collect seeds,
forks, tire treads, and a host of other strange objects to build
up their nests. We include these and other stories throughout
Fire and Chaparral
Chaparral has always existed with fire. It is this natural "disaster"
that often brings chaparral to public attention, but it is a
normal and natural part of life in the chaparral. A cycle of recovery
and new birth is initiated by the burning off of the
shrubs that make up the mature chaparral. The seeds produced
by many chaparral shrubs require fire to germinate.
Specialized short-lived plants, called fire annuals, appear only
in response to fire even if they have to wait more than 100
years between blooms! Similarly, deer, birds, lizards, and insects
use the lush new growth that appears after fire for food
and reproduction. Fires do not touch all chaparral areas in a
single year, and some areas may be missed by fire for a century
or more. This does mean that very large fires as well as many
smaller ones may happen apparently randomly in different
parts of the state. The irregularity of fires is natural as well.
Fire frequency depends on the condition of the vegetation
and the interaction of factors such as ignition source, winds,
season, topography, and time elapsed since the previous fire.
This unpredictability creates a patchwork of recently burned
and long-unburned chaparral across the state.
Shrubs surrender the ground to lower and softer plants for
a brief period after fire. At this time some of the most beautiful
wildflowers in the state appear in great numbers, forming
a brilliant and colorful carpet quite different from the tangle
of shrubs that preceded them. California is known for its poppies,
but in addition to these, after a chaparral fire there are
also whispering bells, lilies (pl. 6), snapdragons, phacelias,
and dozens of species of small flowering plants found at no
other time or place. Chaparral recovers quickly after fire,
spreading a fresh mantle of shrubs upon the hillsides within a
few years. The chaparral has existed for many thousands of
years in California, and fire has always been an integral part of
this community. In short, no fire, no chaparral.
Life in chaparral is unpredictable. It is a place that is fierce
and unrelenting, fabulously beautiful, and prone to disaster
and yet has persisted for countless millennia. The juxtaposition
of the natural processes of the chaparral ecosystem with
growing urban areas produces difficulties on both sides.
Many of us live in intimate association with chaparral, for better
or worse, so it is important that we come to understand it.
The modern era of urban-wildland chaparral fire holocausts,
so prominent in news stories each fall, opened with the
Bel Air fire of November 1961 when Santa Ana winds drove a
fire out of the chaparral of the Hollywood Hills into an enclave
populated by the rich and the famous. In a few hours almost
500 of some of the most expensive houses in the state were
gone. Aldous Huxley lost a lifetime collection of books and papers
that might have become the pride of a research library.
After that event he called himself "a man without a past."
One celebrity is reputed to have remarked, "Things like this
shouldn't happen in such a nice neighborhood." Indeed, they
should not. But despite this sentiment, things like this do happen
in all kinds of neighborhoods and will continue to do so
as long as we persist in building flammable houses in fire-prone
settings, such as chaparral-covered hillsides and canyons (pls.
7, 75, 78). A house perched on a ridge atop a chaparral-filled
canyon is almost sure to be threatened by fire at some point,
especially if it has large wooden decks, overhanging eaves, and
a wooden roof. While many communities now make fire-resistant
roofing a requirement and others insist on low-flammability
vegetation surrounding a house, the overall
effect is imperfect. The natural functioning of the chaparral
includes the potential for catastrophic mudslides, as well as
fire. Mudslides may result from the combination of heavy
rains and steep hillsides recently denuded of chaparral by fire.
We like to build our communities where we want, despite
clear indications of danger from fire and subsequent mudslides.
This is costly for all concerned (see chapter 6 for further
explanation). Fire is an intrinsic part of the chaparral, as
it has been for many thousands of years, and it is up to us individually
and collectively to take responsible action recognizing
Where Is Chaparral Found?
Chaparral is never far from sight in much of California. The
tourist at San Diego's animal parks looking to the east, the Los
Angeles commuter idly gazing to the north, a school child in
the Great Valley watching the eastern horizon for airplanes,
and the Bay Area resident on the way to Tahoe and scanning
the Sierra for signs of snow will all see hillsides covered with
chaparral. Chaparral provides the shrubby covering of the
foothills ringing the populated valleys and coastal plains of
the state. Many suburban dwellers now live surrounded by
Chaparral covers approximately 7 million acres of California.
It is found on coastal and inland mountain slopes throughout
the state west of the deserts, north into southwestern Oregon,
and south into Baja California (map 1).
Chaparral is most extensive and diverse from the Central
Coast Ranges south and inland to the interior edges of the
South Coast, Transverse, and Peninsular Ranges, and south of
the international border to the southern end of the Sierra San
Pedro Martir (map 1). Chaparral is found along coastal bluffs
and mountains, around the fringes of valleys, up foothills,
and across entire mountain ranges. Vast and continuous
tracts of chaparral cover most of the interior of the counties
of Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Orange,
and San Diego. In these places chaparral is often the
dominant vegetation as far as the eye can see (pl. 8). In northern
California, chaparral blankets the hillsides of the San
Francisco Peninsula and grows thickly in Lake and Mendocino
Counties and inland farther north. At points it may descend
to the coast, and chaparral intergrades with forests as it
moves north. Chaparral also covers much of the Sierran
foothills, as can be clearly seen on the drive from the west into
Yosemite National Park.
Chaparral Is Found
with Other Vegetation Types
California's landscape is heterogeneous, and as a result many
different local environmental conditions exist side by side.
This gives rise to much variation in plant and animal distributions
over short distances. Latitude and elevation reproduce
many of the same temperature and rainfall gradients; for
example, a high mountain in southern California may be as
moist and cool as a low-elevation area farther north. Local
topographic and soil factors also affect the environment.
Sometimes this means that vegetation types such as chaparral
(pls. 9, 10) will be juxtaposed or intermingle with elements of
pine or oak forests or border grasslands, or mingle with desert
or coastal species.
Because of this physical heterogeneity, chaparral, which is
widespread, does vary in composition from place to place. The
plant species present in each area are those best suited to the
particular local climatic conditions, soils, and topography, and
their distributions are independent of those of other species.
Chaparral shrubs may be found as occasional members of
other communities as well. The boundaries between chaparral
and other communities may be distinct, as where protruding
rock outcrops and steep ridges separate them (pl. 10),
or indistinct, as where conditions favor a mixture of species.
Thus, naming chaparral or other vegetation types is somewhat
arbitrary and can only be an approximation of natural patterns.
We create names for convenience in referring to different
Overall the chaparral is similar enough throughout the
state that it allows us to recognize this vegetation and community
type wherever it is found. However, the differences
from region to region have been recognized and given names
for geographic areas, for example, North Coast, Sierran, or
desert chaparral; for distinctive soil types, as in serpentine
chaparral; or for the most common shrub species. In this latter
case, manzanita chaparral (pl. 11), ceanothus chaparral,
scrub oak chaparral, and chamise chaparral are the most
commonly applied names. These various subclassifications of
chaparral are useful at the local level to land managers and
others in the community who deal with particular areas on a
day-to-day basis. At least 48 such chaparral classifications
have been proposed and are used by state agencies and conservation
organizations (see A Manual of California Vegetation,
in the supplemental readings section).
Coastal Sage Scrub
Is Not Chaparral
Coastal sage scrub is a low-growing drought-deciduous
shrubby vegetation type found in the southern half of California.
It is sometimes confused with chaparral and can grow
near it, but it is a distinct vegetation type in its own right.
Probably the most characteristic aspect of coastal sage vegetation
is its smell, a pungent, spicy aroma that carries for great
distances. Although both vegetation types are shrubby, a notable
difference between chaparral and coastal sage is that
while chaparral plants are evergreen, coastal sage plants are
drought-deciduous, losing their leaves during the hot part of
the year. Coastal sage shrubs are also typically shorter (three
to six feet tall), with pale, soft leaves and stems, and there are
gaps between shrubs. The foliage is pale in color due to a covering
of white or gray hairs on one or both sides of the leaves.
The dominant shrubs of this vegetation type are the sages,
buckwheats, and California sagebrush. Coastal sage plants
can exist in drier areas than can the evergreen chaparral
shrubs and so are also found on dry hilltops, ridges, and outcrops
in chaparral communities in southern California. They
are also characteristic of disturbed areas along roadsides,
sometimes far inland. Because plants have individual preferences
and tolerances, occasionally a chaparral shrub such as
lemonadeberry or laurel sumac will be found in areas dominated
by coastal sage and vice versa.
How Organisms Are Named
Throughout this text plants and animals are identified by their
common name and their scientific name (fig. 2). A common
name, such as "deerweed" or "Desert Cottontail," is like a person's
nickname. It is good enough for most purposes when
used by people who are familiar with that particular species
in that particular geographical area. Since common names can
vary and are not uniformly applied everywhere, each species
of plant and animal also has an official scientific name, a genus
and species that identify it uniquely. The unique genus and
species name for human beings, for example, is Homo sapiens.
For deerweed the scientific name is Lotus scoparius, and for
Desert Cottontail it is Sylvilagus audubonii. Genus and species
names are given in parentheses after the common name of an
organism throughout the text, usually the first time it is mentioned.
The full scientific name sometimes includes a third
name, which designates a subspecies. Using one of the names
above, this might be Lotus scoparius subspecies scoparius, for
example. This trinomial identifies a particular group of organisms
as being members of a distinct subspecies confined to
a particular geographical area and having distinctive morphological
features. Scientific names are typically given in italics
because they are in Latin or are latinized and therefore are
not English words.
Excerpted from Introduction to California Chaparral
by Ronald D. Quinn Sterling C. Keeley
Copyright © 2006 by Regents of the University of California.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
1.THE CALIFORNIA CHAPARRAL
Fire and Chaparral
Where Is Chaparral Found?
Chaparral Is Found with Other Vegetation Types
Coastal Sage Scrub Is Not Chaparral
How Organisms Are Named
The Pacific High
Winds That Carry Water or Take It Away
Rain Beetles Mate Only When There Is Rain
The Fire Cycle
The Fire Regime
Sources of Ignition
Fire Patterns in the Twentieth Century
Natural Responses of Plants and Animals to Fire
An Evergreen,Shrubby Vegetation
Common Shrubs and Shrub Families
The Rose Family (Roseaceae)
The Buckthorn Family (Rhamnaceae)
The Heath Family (Ericaceae)
The Oak Family (Fagaceae)
The Sumac Family (Anacardiaceae)
Other Chaparral Shrubs
Conifers: Cypresses,Pines,and Bigcone Douglas Fir
Common Herb and Subshrub Families
The Waterleaf Family (Hydrophyllaceae)
The Poppy Family (Papaveraceae)
The Lily Family (Liliaceae)
The Legume Family (Fabaceae)
The Snapdragon or Figwort Family (Scrophulariaceae)
Other Chaparral Herbs and Subshrubs
Rodents (Order Rodentia)
Rabbits and Hares (Order Lagomorpha)
Deer and Bighorn Sheep (Order Artiodactyla)
Carnivorous Mammals (Order Carnivora)
Perching Birds (Order Passeriformes)
Hawks (Order Falconiformes)
Owls (Order Strigiformes)
Snakes (Order Squamata, Suborder Serpentes)
Lizards (Order Squamata, Suborder Lacertilia)
Insects and Arachnids
Trap Door Spiders, Ticks, and Scorpions (Class Arachnida)
6.LIVING WITH THE CHAPARRAL
Fuel Reduction and Fuel Breaks
Artificial Seeding of Burns
Fire Creates Its Own Weather
Threats to Chaparral
Options for Wise Growth
The Value of Chaparral
Supplemental Readings and References