Ten Reasons Why Chaparral is so Awesome

Take a drive (or a hike!) into the hills or mountains surrounding nearly every California metropolitan area and you are immediately immersed in chaparral, the state’s most characteristic habitat.

Maritime chaparral above Santa Barbara.

What’s out there? In addition to the 10 awesome features listed below, the chaparral is filled with an inspiring array of life including:

  • beautiful, drought-hardy shrubs like burgundy-barked manzanita with delicate, urn-shaped flowers and explosively blooming ceanothus, painting the hillside in cerulean blues and frosty whites.
  • rhythmic Wrentits calling from unknown places deep within the canopy.
  • the iconic symbol of prehistoric life – the horned lizard – basking in the sunlight.
  • the amphibian survivalist of drought – the spade foot toad – appearing only very briefly during the moistest of times.
  • the delicate checkerspot butterfly, skipping from flower to flower during the colorful explosion of spring.

Chaparral also provides spacious landscapes for the:

  • endangered California condor, the stealthy mountain lion, the marauding bobcat, and the trickster coyote.
  • ghosts of the now extinct California grizzly bear, and the absent jaguar which still haunt the shrub-encased tunnels below the leafy canopies of still thriving stands of old-growth chaparral.

Now to celebrate 10 remarkable features
that make the chaparral such an inspiring place!

1. Birthplace of Western Civilization

Mediterranean shrublands like California’s chaparral have given rise to two of the greatest civilizations of all time – Greece and Rome. Due to its Mediterranean climate (hot, dry summers, and mild, wet winters) and rich volcanic soils (some of the best in Europe), the Italian peninsula became the fertile birthplace of the Roman Empire. And although only 20% of the land in Ancient Greece was arable, it shared Rome’s climate, the key factor in the ability of both civilizations being able to produce an excess of grain, olive oil, and wine. As Rome grew, it merely looked across the Mediterranean sea to Egypt to supply the extra grain it needed. One of the perks of living in Rome itself was a free supply of grain, a remarkable achievement considering the city’s half-million population.

2. Vino Veritas and More (In wine, there is truth)

Wine. It’s a chaparral drink. Made from grapes produced by hardy vines growing in rocky, shrubland soils, the influence this remarkable Mediterranean beverage has had on human history is undisputed. Vino was the national drink for both Rome and Ancient Greece.

Not as well known, however, is Absinthe, the intoxicating beverage made from “wormwood,” otherwise known as Artemisia absinthium, a woody shrub that can be found around the Mediterranean Sea. Legions of French poets including Arthur Rimbaud were deeply influenced by this specialized and potent shrubland elixir.

3. The Greatest Bear of Recorded Time

Yes, the preferred habitat of the giant, now extinct California grizzly bear was the chaparral – not forests, but chaparral. The California griz was the largest, most gregarious griz on earth. These denizens of the shrubland would make tunnels through dense thickets of old-growth chaparral, placing their paws in the same spot, generation after generation, causing trails to look more like a row of potholes than a simple pathway. The griz would often roam in large groups, dine on beached whales, take out an unsuspecting human being on their way back inland, then relax with the fact that no other animal dared to mess with them. There is a reason the California griz is on the state’s flag – powerful, determined, fierce.

4. Sexual Diversity

Polygamy, monogamy, bisexuality, homosexuality abound in the chaparral. Grizzly bear females were known to pair bond and help raise each other’s young as a single family unit. In fact, the mothers often became inseparable companions. According to one study, about 20% of griz females participate in same-sex pair bonding and co-parenting. Male Anna’s Hummingbirds engage in same sex copulation attempts about 25% of the time. The initiating male will pursue the other male, knocking him down to the ground, grappling and tumbling together while emitting low-pitched gurgling brrrt notes. Acorn woodpeckers, while only visitors to chaparral when oak trees are near (which is often), create cooperative breeding colonies of 7 to 15 members that establish and defend collections of acorns embedded in the bark of trees or telephone poles (or the wood siding of homes and barns). The groups are composed of brothers and sisters, cousins, and parents. As many as four males may mate with one or two females, with eggs all laid in the same nest. The official “Voice of the Chaparral,” the Wrentit, mates for life (over 10 years) and establishes a territory of an acre to an acre and a half, vigorously defending it with both song and physical altercations with offending parties.

Then we have the wild array of reproductive strategies of plants. Some notable chaparral plant species have separate male and female flowers on the same plant (monoeious) like wild cucumber. Others have separate male and female plants (dioecious) like chaparral broom. The most common sexual orientation, bisexuality (synoeious), can be found in both manzanita and ceanothus species.

5. Breathtaking Biodiversity

Chaparral is renowned for its biodiversity. Chaparral is the major contributor to species richness in California which on a per-area basis is about seven times higher than anywhere else in the continental United States. Of the 4,846 native vascular plant species found in the California, 24% occur in chaparral and 44% of these are considered rare. San Diego County, where chaparral covers nearly 35% of the land surface, has been cited as having more vascular plant species (2,314) than in any other comparable area in the continental US. When comparing plant communities, chaparral also leads in the total number of rare plant species, having 18% more than expected by the area it occupies.

The chaparral’s diversity is an international affair. Along with the four other Mediterranean-type climate regions of the world with similar shrubland vegetation (Central Chile, Mediterranean Basin, South Africa, and southwestern Australia), California has been designated a biodiversity hot spot (fragile habitats at high risk). Although covering only 2.5% of the world’s surface, Mediterranean-type climate regions contain 16% of the world’s plant species.

The biodiverse Mediterranean regions shown in red. The Mediterranean shrublands in California are called chaparral, around the Mediterranean basin = maquis, central Chile = matorral, South Africa = fynbos, SW Australia = kwongan). Map by Rundel and Pompelli.

6. Strong Women

A matriarchal society is the organizational theme for the premier chaparral mammal, the big-eared woodrat. The promiscuous female rules her stick pile nest and surrounding territory, giving birth to 2-3 young per litter, with up the five litters per year! The stick house is likely passed down to female offspring along with the defended territory of about a half-acre which offers the opportunity for the establishment of female kin groups. Within a couple months after after a two month weaning weaning period, offspring begin to disperse. Reflective of the woodrat’s social structure, the male youngsters disperse at greater distances from mom’s nest than their female siblings, roaming the chaparral with grumpy attitudes in search of unoccupied turf.

The number of native bees associated with chaparral is significant (most native bees have long antenna). San Diego County alone (which is dominated by chaparral) is home to over 600 species, half of which are found in shrubland plant communities. Since only female bees, wasps, and ants sting, the chaparral is therefore the home to a very large number of powerful women.

7. Wilderness Time Machine

Few places on earth can claim to be a place where one can explore a wilderness untouched by human beings. One such place is the chaparral! As you cast your eyes upon a broad mountainside covered in dense chaparral without roads or trails, you are experiencing a view identical to the first time that spot was viewed by the first humans in California thousands of years ago. How? Simple. What you’re observing is a plant community that was born after the last fire, be it 30 years ago or 150 years ago, just like it was before humans were rambling about. The shrub canopy reforms so quickly, and becomes so dense, it’s nearly impossible for humans to enter. And so it remains, untouched – wilderness.

Old-growth chaparral, untouched just like it was thousands of years ago.

8. Pyrogenic Sex

Hiding in the soil for decades are the seeds of dozens of fire-following wildflowers and the bulbs of lilies, mariposa poppies, and early onions. Waiting. Waiting for their old flames to excite their sexual natures. Once the urge is released by the flames, hillsides become a diverse collection wild, floral orgies as thousands of plants emerge from the blackened ground to produce some of the most beautiful sexual structures known to life on earth, flowers. Then it all disappears, patiently waiting for old flames to rekindle the spark.

9. Mediterranean Shape Shifters

After the ground becomes moist from the winter rains and the air is cool, up comes a single, delicate quarter-sized leaf on a fragile petiole. With the onset of summer, the leaf vanishes, dehydrated by the sun and blown away by the dry wind. Months of nothingness, until fall, late fall, when life emerges from the same spot again, but this time on a single, needle-thin black stem with a cluster of tiny buds decorating its top. Soon to open are delicate, ivory flowers, beautifully decorated with light purple veins. Then they too disappear until the soil becomes moist again, encouraging the reemergence of the mysterious single leaves from the dark, naked soil. Jepsonia parryi.

10. The Red Shrubs of Mystery!

Manzanita: in Español, little apple. The genus Arctostaphylos. No other plant defines the chaparral better, more beautifully than manzanita. Old, non-resprouting legacy manzanitas like big berry manzanita (Arctostaphylos glauca) are sensitive giants. Born from seed stimulated to germinate by the chemicals found in charred wood or smoke, these elegant symbols of the chaparral can withstand wind, drought, and heat, but not fire. With its living cambium layer so close to the surface (nothing protecting it but paper-thin bark), the giants will die when exposed to smallest amounts of flame, its legacy continued (if lucky) by its germinating offspring that had been waiting patiently as seeds, by the thousands in the soil, often protected within the hard stone-like casings of the long gone, fleshy manzanita fruit.

Once you know, you can see, and consequently, chaparral is everywhere!

So, like John Muir, get out and explore the chaparral, explore nature, explore yourself.

“The slopes are exceptionally steep and insecure to the foot, and they are covered with thorny bushes from five to ten feet high. With the exception of little spots not visible in general views, the entire surface is covered with them, massed in close hedge growth, sweeping gracefully down into every gorge and hollow, and swelling over every ridge and summit in shaggy, ungovernable exuberance, offering more honey to the acre for half the year than the most crowded clover-field. But when beheld from the open San Gabriel Valley, beaten with dry sunshine, all that was seen of the range seemed to wear a forbidding aspect. From base to summit all seemed gray, barren, silent, its glorious chaparral appearing like dry moss creeping over its dull, wrinkled ridges and hollows.

– John Muir
In Chapter 16, Bee Pastures, The Mountains of California.

To learn more about the fabulous chaparral, please adventure over to our website at the California Chaparral Institute!

8 Comments on “Ten Reasons Why Chaparral is so Awesome

  1. Rick, I think you’ve taken a wild, lovely road, a cultural reenchantment of the chaparral which celebrates its erotic aura. Muir’s quote makes a dramatic ending, connecting both an erotic swelling chaparral with a new creature, the creeping dry moss chaparral spreading everywhere.

  2. Whomever wrote the TEN REASONS WHY CHAPARRAL IS SO AWESOME did justice to the terrain and for me, yes, much more appreciated.

  3. A great read. Some beautiful photos! Love the John Muir quote re “…shaggy, ungovernable exuberance…” What a turn of the phrase. I want to be those things too!

    I love imagining networks of grizzly bear tunnel-pathways through the dense shrublands. It would take animals with the fortitude of grizzly bears to punch their way through a super dense stand of chaparral say 30-60 years post-fire. And it would have taken a whole lot of (reckless) bravery for any human to use those grizzly bear passages to travel across our prehistoric landscape with the possibility of meeting Griz around every turn. It’s kind of breathtaking to imagine.

    I spotted one conspicuous typo you might correct: “8. Pryogenic Sex”

    Keep up the good work! Chaparral forever!

  4. Rick, you are awesome, too.
    Thank you for leading me astray from the mundane day. I got carried away reading this latest and totally forgot everything that needs to be done. You reminded me that on my morning walks with the dogs there’s a four-foot stick pile just over the fence housing those unbelieveably cute big-eared wood rats! Thanks for the wonderful photos. The little bit of rain we had is already awakening some of those tiny flowering seeds.

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