As we Cambrians have been engaging in the annual task of clearing lots and creating defensible space around our homes, we’ve come across a wide variety of grasses, weeds, shrubs and seedling trees.
It’s easy to ignore their differences in our haste to lower the understory to the requisite 4 inches, but wait — what are these things we’re chopping down? Do some have the potential to harm our local ecosystems? Are some more prone to fire? Are any of these plants rare specimens that are in danger of species collapse?
Maybe we should take a few minutes and do some plant identification to figure out which ones we should eradicate and which we should nurture.
Cambria is home to a vast number of native plants and a growing population of non-natives. Among the latter are the popular landscaping shrub genista monspessulana, or Scotch broom; Cortaderia jubata, commonly known as pampas grass, a variety of non-native grasses which have naturalized in our pasturelands; Carpobrotus edulis, the common ice plant once thought to prevent erosion on our coastal cliffs (it doesn’t do a great job); and Cape ivy (Delarea odorata), a native of South Africa that is engulfing swaths of native shrubs and trees along Santa Rosa Creek.
Not Scottish at all, broom hails from the Mediterranean area, which is why it does so well here. Green and dense, with attractive yellow flowers, it has escaped in our forest (the term for non-natives that move beyond yards and gardens) and now covers the slopes near Highway 1. Drought-hardy and fast-spreading, it functions as a “ladder fuel” in a fire and overruns habitat for native coffeeberry, rabbitbrush and others. Broom is one of the first plants we should eradicate from our yards and vacant lots.
Once used to hold soil in the road cuts along Highway 1 in Big Sur, pampas grass is another drought-tolerant non-native with highly invasive habits. Sporting tall stalks and long plumes, it makes a dramatic statement against a midcentury style entryway, but it scatters seeds with every gust of wind. Like broom, pampas grass is a ladder fuel, catching fire easily and burning rapidly.
Like broom and pampas grass, Cape ivy thrives in disturbed soil. It was introduced to the United States as an ornamental vine in the late 1800s and has escaped to spring up in areas of natural erosion or soil disturbed by housing developments. It tends to proliferate along creek systems and is the major invasive plant threatening the native habitat of lower Santa Rosa Creek.
Two other common invasives that impact open space around Cambria are the European thistle and star thistle. Tough and prolific, they can easily take over a usable pasture and successfully compete with native forage plants. Eradication is an exercise in patience, taking time, persistence and vigilance to prevent its reappearance.
The impact of so-called “exotics” on our native plant communities is significant. They reduce the number of rare wildflowers in the spring, compete with and crowd out native habitat shrubs, reduce the amount of water available to native plants and affect the wildlife that would normally live in our area. While some animals and birds adapt to the invasive species, others are forced to move for lack of suitable shelter, forage and water.
How can we help reduce the impact of invasive plant species? Broom, pampas grass and Cape ivy can still be purchased as garden ornamentals. Please don’t buy them. They can overwhelm native shrubs, grasses and even trees. Beware also of ornamental trees such as eucalyptus. The tree has become almost emblematic of the Southern California landscape, but it transmits a chemical into the soil that prevents native plants from germinating.
First, find native alternatives for home landscaping. Prime shrub candidates include ceanothus or western lilac, coffeeberry bush, California mock orange and toyon, also known as western holly, and manzanita. These plants are drought-hardy, perennially green, nicely shaped and several bear beautiful flowers and berries. They form good cover for wildlife and provide nectar for bees.
Several native grasses can provide good alternatives to pampas grass for decorative and dramatic planting — consider native oat grass (which has a purplish head, unlike the invasive European oat), or purple needle grass. Many perennial and annual native flowers are available — salvias, evening primrose, and of course, California poppies. Check the label on the latter to be sure that you are getting native poppies. Many of the bright orange poppies adorning gardens lately actually are from seeds grown and harvested in Spain.
Second, get involved with Greenspace — The Cambria Land Trust, Friends of the Fiscalini Ranch, the Forest Committee and other organizations that are actively doing or promoting eradication work in our forest, on the ocean terraces and along roadways and creeks. And third, take advantage of nature hikes and strolls through spaces such as Strawberry Canyon at Burton Drive and Kay Street, the Fiscalini Ranch, and the Greenspace Creekside Reserve to see both the impact of non-native invasives and how beautiful our native flowers, vines (yes, that gorgeous red leaf is poison oak — relish but don’t touch), shrubs and trees are.
Back to weed whacking and lot clearing: For assistance in identifying native plants in seedling stages, please drop by the Greenspace office. We have a brochure that provides
basic identification. If you’re having a brush clearing or a landscaping company do the job, be sure to flag native shrubs and tree seedlings and any native grasses or wildflowers that you identify. Use survey tape or pick up flags at the hardware store.
Some exotics, having taken root across California between 150 and 200 years ago are here to stay, such as European oat grass and eucalyptus trees. They have become part of the landscape, part of our cultural memory. But there is still time to control some of the more recent arrivals and nurture the natives they are pushing out in the competition for space, sunlight and water.
Back to Native — that’s a good motto for nurturing our local lands!