Discover the Indian Warriors, Shooting Stars and other native species in our midst

In the hallway, at my Great Aunt’s house, there was a beautiful picture of an Indian woman dressed in traditional attire. “That’s the Indian Squaw in our family,” I was told. Nobody said much more and I didn’t think to ask. It took me years to realize just what that woman meant to me and how she affected the culture of our family.

Early spring was a time of adventure for our family as we all piled into the back of trucks and jeeps (this was before the days of seatbelts) for an Easter picnic outside the town of Healdsburg in the hills of Dry Creek Valley. Winding up to what seemed like the heavens, a panoramic view of open meadows and various plots of wildflowers—a carpet of red here, a sea of purple there—was breathtaking. Once we finally made it to the “homestead” (I’m not sure how we ever found it), my Great Aunt would lead us on walks, naming all the plants as we went along. Many of them were wildflowers, and she’d point out what was edible and what was not. She also identified medicinal and poisonous plants. Sometimes we gathered flowers and greens (miner’s lettuce, she called it) and made a salad that would be enjoyed along with the other foods we brought from home.

I learned it was possible to live off that land, and this is what my great grandparents had done… in a tent on that very property. Although this was a long time ago, it still wasn’t exactly normal, so I like to think “it was that Indian squaw” in the family who had colored their perspective. Just for the record, my great grandparents did move to the town of Healdsburg once they started a family, but the tradition of traveling to that remote property, year after year for Easter, remained intact.

Those hills offered plenty of adventure and other sights and experiences but it was the sprawling meadows that etched their identity in my heart and mind forever. These were the kind of landscapes that just make you stop in your tracks. Although those meadows of wildflowers look so peaceful, quiet and serene from the sidelines, a trek through the heart of it all reveals a busy hub of activity with butterflies, bees, jackrabbits, birds and even grazing deer. At least that has been my experience, and I believe meadows like this have the power to initiate a deep sense of gratitude and well-being. Biologically every cell in the body screams, “All is well, there’s beauty and magic in the world!” This may also be known as spring fever.

I’m not the only one, moved by a special walk in nature. Liza Weaver Brickey, founder of Sunrise Walkers in Sebastopol, values similar experiences and gathers with others to walk at sunrise at various locations throughout Sonoma County. “When you walk together like this, there is a bonding that happens. It’s an ancient tradition to walk towards sacred sights together,” said Brickey, who leads a Vernal Equinox walk annually at Laguna de Santa Rosa. One of her favorite plants to view along the way is a wild radish, but she’s also a fan of mustard flower and Queen Anne’s lace.

“California has more plant diversity than most other states,” said Botanical Consultant and former National and State Parks ecologist Peter Warner, who leads wildflower walks in Sonoma County. It’s no secret that people travel here from near and far to admire the natural landscape on bikes, wine roads, horses, hiking trails and so much more. Wildflowers are a focal point of the Sonoma County canvas, dressing up vineyards with yellow mustard flowers and lining the roadsides with bright orange California poppies. Unassuming heritage roadways offer a diversity of showstoppers in the wildflower department, if your timing is just right and you know where to look.

Warner does, and some of his favorite spots in the months of March and April include:
* Kortum Trail, Sonoma Coast State Beach
* Pinnacle Gulch, trailhead in Bodega Harbour subdivision, Bodega Bay
* Jenner Headlands (which is not open to the public, but The Wildlands Conservancy offers public guided hikes)
* Austin Creek State Recreation Area
* Lake Sonoma trails

Warner has mapped the vegetation and performed biological inventories for Austin Creek State Recreation Area and others parks in Sonoma County and beyond. It’s curiosity that keeps him coming back for more. “I’m always looking for something new,” he said. What he appreciates about Austin Creek State Recreation Area is the diversity of grassland and various habitats that support different groups of plant species. It also has a lot of wide open space, so there is room for a big display. According to Warner, what impresses people most about a wildflower viewing is the size or range of the display. Although surface area is impressive, what always seems to amaze me is the vibrancy of color, and the arrangement. The way Mother Nature might combine purple lupine with orange poppies or the emergence of dainty white milkmaids that brighten a dark forest of West Sonoma County sometimes as early as November. The amount of rainfall can play a significant role in the quality as well as the length of time the flowers stay in bloom.

An Ecological Island
Due to its climate, coastal influence and topography, Sonoma County is unique. “It’s somewhat of an ecological island,” said Warner, who explained that Sonoma County mimics the state with a representation of 40 percent of plant species.

Sonoma County’s diversity of soil types and microclimates not only make for good winegrapes and a plethora of produce, it opens the door to a wide range of wildflowers. Coastal hills, valleys, big river alluvial basins, redwood forests and oak groves each offer a unique soil composition featuring varying levels of minerals and nutrients, not to mention differences in temperature and light. Semi-secret places, like “The Cedars,” are home to plant species not found anywhere else in the world. The largely inaccessible area north of Cazadero is a mysterious world of serpentine canyons and rare and unusual plants that has scientists and conservationists excited. While this destination is not open to the public, there are a few groups leading tours in the area.

I told Warner one of my favorite wildflowers is purple lupine, and he asked, “Which one?” I quickly learned that there are more than 20 different species in California alone. His favorite Lupine is called Sky Lupine. “I like it because it smells like grape Kool-Aid, and I grew up on that stuff,” he said.

Family Adventures
Wildflowers are something that can be fun for the whole family, especially kids, who are inquisitive and natural explorers. The experiences of roaming the woodlands, hillside and riverbanks as a child tend to implant on the brain—becoming writing topics, relaxation exercises or places we vow to share with others as adults. Take The Buttercup Game, for example. The simple fun of picking this shimmering golden wildflower and holding it under the chin to “see if the person likes butter” is a timeless tradition that never gets old. Apparently everyone likes butter.

People who like plants usually have a favorite wildflower and, for Warner, that flower was actually a “hook” that sold him on a botanical career. It was a plant called “Indian warrior” but his reasons for loving it went well beyond its dramatic name and intense spikey maroon bloom. Warner explained that the plant is semi-parasitic, attaching to the roots of other plants to obtain nutrients and water. In this case, it’s the manzanita that hosts, but other plants in the heath family will also provide the support Indian warrior needs to thrive.

Well, this is definitely more advanced thinking than The Buttercup Game, and the moral of the story is that some native plants and wildflowers depend on one another for survival.

Today’s generation of kids may not have the same opportunities to frolic in the wildflower meadows simply due to rural development and habitat loss, so the relationships between plants is an important concept to grasp for conservationists and scientists. People like the late Bill Kortum, environmental activist and founder of the Kortum Trail, have worked hard for the preservation of open space where wildflowers grow.

Louise Hallberg is another local authority that has dedicated much of her life to learning and sharing not only about native plants and wildflowers but native pollinators—another relationship that can’t be overlooked when it comes to wildflower preservation. Our beloved wildflowers simply wouldn’t exist without the equally adorned pollinators. It’s really quite romantic. Thousands of school-age children have visited Hallberg’s Butterfly Garden to learn about the connection between plants, pollination, wildlife and butterflies.

“Over the years I’ve been very saddened to see the loss of so much wild habitat and wildflowers around this area,” said Hallberg, a member of the California Native Plant Society since 1960. Her hope is to inspire the next generations’ interest in native habitats and wildlife. Hallberg’s favorite wildflowers are ones that attract butterflies. Not a surprise. She likes honeysuckle, asters, stinging nettle, lupine, native milkweed, baby blue eyes, five spot, mallows, sticky monkey bush, coyote bush, and ocean spray, just to name a few.

If wide open spaces and pollinators don’t provide a hook strong enough to snag your interest in a wildflower tour, then perhaps the “name nerds” will. I did not come up with the term, but I use it affectionately, along with Warner, who has awarded himself the title. I can relate. The names of wildflowers are indeed interesting, some of them genius, in fact, and you’ll know for sure you are a “name nerd” when those eclectic titles stick with you.

Inspired by the walks with my aunt, I did a science fair project that required collecting the various flowers, identifying them and then pressing them in books. I’m not sure why I didn’t use photos, but to this day I still remember the fun names of many wildflowers, like buttercups, shooting stars, forget-me-knots, Indian Warrior, cowslips and more. By the way, the shooting stars really look like shooting stars.  SD

WILDFLOWER HIKES

The Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods offers the following hikes. For details, contact Jazzy Dingler, 707-869-9177 ext. 1# or go online to stewardscr.org.

March 18, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Austin Creek with Peter Warner

April 23, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The Wonders of East Austin Creek for Intrepid Hikers with Dr. Laura Morgan (challenging)

May 13, 9:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Introduction to the Coastal Prairie (Shell Beach) with Jim Coleman

June 3, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Wildflowers of the Sonoma Coast (Shell Beach) with Peter Warner

Liza Weaver Brickey offers Vernal Equinox Sunrise Walks along the Laguna de Santa Rosa Trail. Dates are March 18 through 20, when when the light of the day is equal to the darkness of the night. Meet 15 minutes before sunrise. For more information, visit sunrisewalkers.com.

FIND YOUR OWN WILDFLOWERS

Sonoma County’s Regional Parks feature trails and meadows full of native plants and wildflowers throughout spring. Some local favorites are Shiloh Ranch (Healdsburg), Riverfront (Windsor), Foothill (Windsor) and Ragle Ranch (Sebastopol). A few of Sonoma County’s heritage roadways also feature show-stopping wildflower displays in May through June. Sweetwater Springs Road, King Ridge Road and Stewarts Point Road can be breathtakingly wild and beautiful.