Spring Wildflowers in the Backyard of The Oaks

By Gerry Hans

Mother Nature’s surprises always amaze me.  Just when you think you have her figured out, she throws you a new curve.  Such is the case with wildflowers.  What makes one year a better bloom year than others? Winter rainfall, no doubt, is a big part of the story, but it also depends upon what months the rain comes down and whether it saturated the ground deeply over a sustained period of time.  On the flip-side, some plants bloom more with below-average rainfall.

The May 2007 Griffith Park Fire may have been a factor in this year’s spectacular bloom of some the species in Griffith Park.  The smoke was everywhere, both in the burn area and outside the burn area.  The smoke was sustained and significant.  It’s well documented that smoke stimulates shoots and runners in some plants which can result in blooms that may not happen otherwise.  It seems as though native lilies species may have had especially favorable stimulation to bloom this spring, maybe because of last year’s fire!  It is also well-documented that some species are capable of producing a second, alternative type of seed which only germinates when stimulated by heat.  Biologically speaking, it’s called “dimorphism”.  Pretty neat trick, Mother Nature!

The following is a photo-journal of my favorite five flowers of this spring in Griffith Park.

Chocolate Lily

Between the Oaks neighborhood and Western Canyon Road, a patch of Chocolate Lily, Fritillaria biflora, was observed.  They are picky plants that need clay soil retaining even moisture, yet not so moist to allow their bulbs to rot.  Obviously the lily gets its name from the chocolate-brown flowers.  Most plants stand only 6 to 18 inches tall.  Historically, the bulbs were probably eaten by our Native American Angelinos.  They make a somewhat bitter, starchy rice-like treat that was boiled, known as “rice root”.

Chocolate Lilies

These are very uncommon plants.  Ecologist, Dan Cooper, who consulted for the Griffith Park Natural History Survey (Oaks HOA has supported this work), discovered this area of Chocolate Lilies near the Oaks in April.  Some residents have seen them there in past years, too.  Dan was extremely surprised!  They are the first Chocolate Lilies he’s seen in the Los Angeles area.

Star Lilies

Star Lily, Zigadenus fremontii,
occurs in various areas within Griffith Park.  I found significant areas of this yellow and white lily in Bronson Canyon (aka Brush Canyon) and between Griffith Park Drive and Mt Hollywood.  They seem to be found mostly in or near grassy areas and also around rock outcroppings.  Clusters of flowers are arranged on a single stalk that shoots up from the base of the plant.  Each bloom makes a perfectly symmetrical six-point star.  The close-up view shows one of the small flowers of the cluster.

Star Lilies

Unlike most other lily species once used as a food source, the entire Star Lily plant is poisonous.  It makes you wonder how Native Americans did the testing to see what was edible and what was not, doesn’t it.  Lewis and Clark didn’t know it was poisonous, and it almost cost some of the expedition party their lives, as some bulbs were once used to make flour for baking.

Apparently, deer won’t touch them.  Good thing!  Is it in their genetic coding to avoid them?   For grazing sheep and cattle, on the other hand, this plant presents a real problem. If you know some of the history of Griffith Park, you know that cattle and ostriches (yes, the big bird) grazed parts of these lands before it became the Park.  I wonder if it was a problem back then?

Catalina Mariposa Lilies

Catalina Mariposa Lily, Calochortus catalinae,
is rare, and is a gorgeous plant to encounter in Griffith Park.  I am not sure if anyone else has documented it in other parts of Griffith Park, but I first encountered a few plants of it in 2003.  Seeing one of my photos, it was Dan Cooper that first suggested what I had found.  There is a limited crop of this species in Western Canyon, just to the east of the Oaks.  However, this spring I found the motherlode, probably a 1,000+ plants in full bloom, in Brush Canyon.

Catalina Mariposa Lilies

This plant loves full sun, but because of its tall slender stature, needs the wind protection that other tall plants provide for it.  The bees and beetles love the blooms of this plant.  I wonder if any of those insects are dependant on this species alone for their vitality.  It’s almost always found in open, airy, tall grassy areas.

The three wrap-around purple-pink petals open up as the sun gets warmer in the day.  The petals are almost translucent, and I have seen the shadow of insects through them.  The stalks shoot up to two feet in height, and do so rapidly just before they bloom. 

Native Indians ate the tubers and had various methods for harvesting.  A similar species of mariposa in the state of Utah sustained many Mormons when they first moved there, as Native Indians taught them techniques for harvesting and cooking.

Blue-eyed Grass

Blue-eyed Grass, Sisyrinchium bellum,
 is not really in the grass family at all.  It’s actually an iris.  However, the only time that this plant resembles an iris at all is when this perenial first pokes up out of the ground.  At that time, when it may be only a couple inches tall, its looks like a minature version of the domesticated iris in your backyard.

Blue-eyed Grass

This plant grows in grass-like clumps, shooting off many stalks of blue blooms with yellow centers to a height of one foot or so.  They are found throughout the Park and are abundant just next to the Oaks.  Catch them from April through June, because they quickly dry out to their base after they finish blooming, not to be seen until the next year.

California Peony

California Peony, Paeonia californica, has distinctive lobed, broad leaves and occurs only in California.  Domestic varieties of peony are available all over the country, and many folks may not know that they occur in nature here in our state. 

I’ve found these in Griffith Park in various locations including Brush Canyon, North of Mt. Hollywood and in Royce Canyon.  They are so sporatic that finding a single plant or a couple of grouped plants in the Park is always a special gift.  They tend to prefer north or west facing slopes, tolerate some shade, and are easy to spot. 

California Peony

Their nodding, maroon colored flowers are large and smell like vanilla.  After they bloom in March-April, they produce a very cool conical fruit, and then die down to the ground.  The plants will reappear the following year because the large yam-like bulbs don’t go away.  These plants are considered “fire chasers” and tend to do well after a recent fire, I am told.  The ones I have photograghed, however, are from a hillside in Brush Canyon, directly north of the Oaks.

One other incrediably beautiful wildflower, the Humbolt Lily, Cilium humboldtii, was actually found in a eastern part of Griffith Park this spring, in Fern Canyon (not to be confused with Fern Dell).  The Humbolt Lily literally grew “out of the ashes”, as Fern Canyon was charcoaled in May of 2007.

Humbolt Lily most often occurs near streams, and is highly endangered because of the temptation hikers have in picking the blooms or transplanting them to their own backyard.  I wasn’t able to get over to Fern Canyon to find and photograph this one.  Maybe next year.

Nevin’s Barberry

As we accumulate more scientific knowledge about the native flora of Griffith Park, we come to realize quite a few rare, or at least uncommon species make their home here and deserve all the protection we can offer them.  Although Nevin’s Barberry, Berberis nevinii, is probably the most threatened of the plant species here in the Park (found in Western Canyon and Brush Canyon), many others I have photographed this spring put me in state of awe when I see them in real life.  I hope my photographs will do them justice.

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