Monday, July 14, 2014

Palo Colorado Canyon Rd, Big Sur California

image: Mine - Palo Colorado Canyon Road, Big Sur California
Back in the 1970s when I became more and more interested in California native plants as a viable means of replacing exotics, I realized that many of the plants of the lower elevations of SoCal were of a rangy type and would never go over well with most folks and the prevailing traditional mindset back then of everything in the landscape having to be a rich deep green. I knew at higher elevations like Julian and the Cuyamaca Mountains there were many beautiful lush green looking plants which could be great candidates, but knew almost nothing about them. But that changed during high school.

Lawson and Lyons Peaks
I first came into contact with Mrs Bonner from Jamul California at the Del Mar Fair in the summer of 1974 where I was showing my sheep and she was promoting the effective use of Southern California native plants along with other vendors at the Garden Show. Her nursery was the first I visited up in Lyons Valley east of Jamul. The other early pioneers I knew of in Jamul California and further up the road on Lawson Valley Rd, was the Lawson Valley Nursery owned and run by Clyde and Ann Wall. Both families had survived the infamous 1970 Laguna Fire, but had a love of the native chaparral backcountry of San Diego County. Both started their native plant Nurseries out of love for the native flora which they believed had potential for urban landscaping and they were correct. But it was mostly Clyde and Ann Wall down in Lawson Valley who had the biggest influence on me. The Walls helped me the most in developing deeper appreciation for the backcountry and potential chaparral cultivators and other trees native to California. They recommended some books for plant identification and I was curious about both Big Leaf Maple and Pacific Madrone which they spoke of often. The research led me to one of the easiest southern locations for finding and viewing these native trees and it pointed to Palo Colorado Canyon Road at the north end of Big Sur California.

My Photo of Monterey Cypress
Needless to say, this is where I brought my wife on our Summer 2014 trip this year. We planned to drive down from Monterey along Hwy 1 and follow the beautiful winding highway all the way to San Luis Obispo. We had spent over night in Monterey after driving most of the day from Phelan California in the high desert country with friends near Wrightwood. But I had a planned side detour on our adventure south. As you may be able to tell from the photograph at the top of this page, the road junction is not a particularly remarkable spot that jumps out at you, in fact I past it at first and had to do a U-Turn when no cars were coming. My wife's first impression was, "where are you taking us now". Understandable since there are none of the picturesque Monterey Cypress or Pines which the area is famous for, nor the southern most redwoods she was looking forward to seeing. You are greeted with a large grove of non-native Eucalyptus and some old ranch house along the way. Extremely narrow road with the appearance of not being well traveled, but alas, I knew what was back there. There is a sign about a quarter of a mile from the Cabrillo Hwy where you first enter the extremely narrow canyon that informs you that you must turn your headlights on bright before entering and watch for oncoming vehicles. You then suddenly realize that you have entered an enchanted world of Redwood old growth Forest, something only imagined in fairytale movies. Look at the gallery below.

image mine: 
This fallen chainsawed Redwood log greets you at the beginning and other such scenes as this were here when I first came through this valley around 1985. Yes it took me awhile, even through I first knew about the area since 1976. Notice all the young Redwood sprouts coming from out of the log itself ? This journey for me this time was amazing since most other areas I have visited on this were in complete disrepair and shambles ecologically speaking. This Central California Coastal hidden Shangri La seemed almost untouched from what I remember. Oddly enough I have always experience the truth of you can't go back, but this was an exception.
photo Mine
What a contrast this was from the coast and so well hidden. It was refreshing to get off the beaten track. Absolutely no competition from other visitors.
photo Mine
Take note here that forest fire has been a historical feature of this far south Redwood Forest. Not uncommon with humans living and traveling through the Big Sur area and it's potential for fires. In fact as time goes on, more and more of this area will be threatened by human intervention. The beauty however with this road, if someone with evil intent decided to play games here, there is only one way in and one way out. So anybody would be easily identified.
photo Mine
There were mostly curvy roadways throughout this part of the drive, but I mostly took the straight shots since there was more light for photography, but below you can see some of the slight curves. Most of the extreme curves and narrows were in the deepest darkest places and slithering between large massive trees. I'll show a video which someone did through this canyon on a Motorcycle in 2010. The video is about 5+ minutes long and very well done. It will give you the full flavour of the journey.
Photo Mine
This is an example of the curves you wind through up this Canyon. Mind you, this is straight by comparison to those tight turns inside the denser darkness areas which I didn't really photograph, with the exception of the fire scared trees.
photo Mine
Houses and small cabins are all up and down this canyon on both sides of the road and stream. Below here is where the road starts moving upwards in elevation and out of the Palo Colorado creek bed.
Photo Mine
Below here is a photograph looking back at the scenery above. The view is towards the west looking back at the direction of the ocean with it's low clouds and fog coming through the canyon. At the top of this hill it is called Bottcher's Gap which opens up into a very pristine and for the most part as I truly remember it, untouched valley.
Photo Mine
Below is Bottcher's Gap at the top of the grade which opens up into that huge untouched valley. Watch the entire video and then I'll provide a gallery of the chaparral plants and trees I first came to find years ago.
Image: Bottcher's Gap Campground
Below is the motorcycle ride video in Palo Colorado
Photo Mine
Through the dark enchanted wooded corridor, climbing up the grade and through Bottcher's Gap and beyond the fire station you are treated to this scenery. Though you can see many dead trees on the mountainside, this place pretty much remains as I remember. My reason of course for coming here was to view, identify and perhaps collect seed from highly ornamental tree and chaparral plant specimens. I wasn't disappointed. For example in the center of that picture is a Pacific Madrone (Arbutus menziesii). Below is a much better close up of the tree. Believe it or not, I'd swear that same tree was here when I first came through in '85', but surely that couldn't be true.
Photo MinePacific Madrone (Arbutus menziesii)
It was the first time I had ever seen a Pacific Madrone or Madrona other than through someone else's photos. It was also a treat not to have to drive to Northern California or Oregon to see these beautiful trees. The closest I suppose I ever came was viewing it's Mediterranean cousin which is called a Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo). The other notable thing about these trees were similar characteristics they had with Manzanita (which I was familiar with) like the glossy evergreen leaves, Chinese lantern flower clusters and smooth deep red bark. A Madrone was one of those prized plant collection specimens I just had to have, but unfortunately found no seeds. 
Photo Mine

California Bay Laurel (Umbellularia californica)
This was the other tree that had got my attention again. I had told my wife about it some years back, but t´she had never heard nor experienced it's fragrant leaves. She cooks with bay leaves found in most markets, but when I cut off some leaves and gave to her, she described the essence as typical Bay Leaf, but with a hint of Peppermint and Tea Tree Oil and that's just about how I've described it in the past as well. When I lived in Idyllwild, I often stopped at Bay Tree Spring (no closed because of water container hoarders who'd line up and fill 20 giant containers at a time) and pluck off some leaves and place under the seat before going down the hill for work, so that by the end of the day the truck's interior permeated with the fragrance of this wondrous beautiful tree. 
Photo Mine

Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum)

Bigleaf Maple Seedlings
The Bigleaf Maple was another draw for me when I first came here. It was the first time I had actually seen one. Clyde and Ann Wall had told me of a woman in San Diego who had a huge one in her front yard and they grew extremely well in San Diego's climate if good deep soil and water was available. But they could never find viable seed from her tree. They were the ones who first got me interested in collecting native plant seed in the first place. So there is also an interesting story behind my visit up Palo Colorado Canyon Rd. I found no seed back then, but found thousands of two inch high Maple seedlings all along the roadside. I found an old fast food soda cup and scooped up several seedlings along with wet moist soil with organic material. Once I got them home I quickly out planted many. Only two of them made it. One I planted in Hamilton Creek down along Burnt Valley Rd near the old log cabin. It did well until County Road crews came and pulled it and other vegetation out to keep the channel clean.
The other one I planted in between a well hidden glen surrounded by large old growth Redshank or Ribbnwood chaparral trees which gave protection from drying winds and it was also below my grey water line, so there was plenty of moisture in this area as well. This was of course late June and the tree grew two feet that year. What was extraordinary was the following year when it grew another 8 foot high. The following Winter I had the stupid bright idea to replant it on the west side of my house along the chain-link fence to create a large shade for the house on it's western side. The problem was this location always had dry afternoon winds which were always quite brisk. The tree struggled with leaves becoming wind burned and eventually died as the soil was more shallow here. Well, live and learn. I've made many many mistakes, but have made fewer mistakes as I grow older. Trouble is for humans, time runs out quickly. Maybe by writing experiences down this helps other folks to not make the same mistakes I have in the past if they'll only listen. I never did get another Bigleaf Maple, but always wished I had. The closest place to get any seedlings is to drive up north Waterman in the city of San Bernardino which is Hwy 18 up to Crestline and Lake Arrowhead. Closest place in San Jacinto Mountains was Cedar Spring at the trails end above Morris Ranch Road near the Girl Scout Camp. Sadly this area burned in 2013 during the Mountain fire. The problem now is with climate change, any viable seed production and seedling emergence more than likely won't be happening since most any of the plant's food resources are now in survival mode. Hence even mycorrhizae are suffering as a result of plants and trees withholding carbohydrates the fungi needs, but I'll post about this later in another article with examples. Now for some Chaparral shrubs with high ornamental value below.
Photo Mine

California Coffeeberry (Rhamnus 
californica tomentella)
This plant here is the form of California Coffeeberry most folks see or find at the native plant nurseries. Gardeners and landscapers tend to like plants that are deep dark or bright green and this variety in Palo Colorado Canyon definitely qualifies. The variety up in Anza and other high interior mountain areas is most likely the gray or dull olive green variety called "Mountain Coffeeberry" (Rhamnus californica tomentella). Of course such choices are mere opinion as all varieties have importance in the field where they are adapted. I had these ones on my property, along with the Nursery variety I have purchased from both Tree of Life and Las Pilitas Nurseries. In fact I wrote last year of the wild gray green variety up in Anza which some have used as a hedge and/or sculpting shrub on the Cahuilla Indian Reservation on Cary Road where the Cigarette Shack is located: 
 California Coffeeberry - Rhamnus californica tomentella - in Anza California

Photo Mine

Monkey Flower (Mimulus)
Okay, so who knows what variety ? There are so many varieties as they easily crossbreed and are found scattered everywhere. They are said to come from the genus Mimulus  which is named for the Latin mimus, a comic actor or mime. Supposedly they have a funny-faced grin like that of a Monkey, hence the common name. This particular variety along the road here had a very deep rich yellow as opposed to the many paler yellows I have encountered down in SoCal. Of course there are all shades of yellows, oranges, creams and various reds. I even saw multiple other plants like another variety of Honeysuckle I have never seen previously, but appears to be the one known as Pink Honeysuckle or California Honeysuckle Lonicera hispidula which is common around Big Sur area.
Photo Mine
Pink Honeysuckle or California Honeysuckle 

Lonicera hispidula 

Photo Mine
There were so many trees other than the ones mentioned, for example the variety of oaks as well as many areas with the predominantly heavily forested Coast Redwood areas, along with more and more chaparral species like Manzanita which I didn't even photograph. One more photo however before I close and it surprised me.
Photo Mine

Rattlesnake Grass (
Briza maxima)
I'll close for the moment as there are so many more things I need to relate later on another post about this trip. What surprised me this time was something I didn't remember seeing before and this was Rattlesnake Grass. It's name is an obvious choice given the appearance of it's seed heads looking like rattlesnake rattles. This grass is originally native to North Africa, Southern Europe and Western Asia, but apparently has naturalized in the western United States. I only found it a few places along the open roadside areas where sun penetrated. To sum up the attraction of this area is it's richness in native plants with powerful ornamental value. I've never had the time to go beyond the Fee area and explore deeper. I've always wanted to see a Santa Lucia Fir, but I'm sure they are further south. What surprises me is that California Gold's Huell Howser never found this hidden gem and I always thought he knew of all the kool getaways. At the very least readers will now know of another hidden, mostly untouched (mainly by tourists) area which is truly a hidden California native plant Shangri La.
Further Reading and Resources for California Native Plants
California Chaparral Institute
 Tree of Life Nursery California Native Plants - Welcome
Las Pilitas Native Plant Nurseries
For those in San Diego County genuinely interested in obtaining native plants to landscape with on your own home project, I'm posting this link to Kniffings Nursery which is east of Lakeside California and off of old Hwy 80 within the Flynn Springs area. You'll find it up behind the Evergreen Nursery which can be seen from Interstate 8. The other reason besides closeness is Pricing. On my last trip I purchased California Holly, Lemonade Berry, Cleveland Sage and other plants for around $5 which is almost half price from the usual native plant Nurseries. And they have many many more native choices which I'll be entertaining next year.

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