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MMWD Blog: Think Blue Marin

Welcome to our blog! Written by staff at MMWD, “Think Blue Marin” explores all things water in south and central Marin—water supplies, conservation, new projects, watershed management, and more.

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Sep 23

Survivors

Posted on September 23, 2016 at 11:09 AM by Ann Vallee

by Charlene Burgi

bristlecone pine
 Bristlecone pine
Native plants are survivors for the most part, especially if the plant is indigenous to the region where it is growing. We often call a plant "native" if it is found in California. While that may be true, it doesn't mean it can thrive anywhere within California's borders. The term "native" in this case is a misnomer since the growing conditions are extremely different in various parts of this state. Consider high plains desert regions compared to the damp coastal vicinities along the Pacific Ocean. Or temperatures that dip below zero in the north compared to subtropical locales found in southern California. How many California native plants can survive these extreme conditions if not indigenous?

This past weekend I had the pleasure of studying what I consider the quintessential rugged indigenous survivor of Inyo National Forest: bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva). Many of these living ancient trees exceed 4,000 years of age. Methuselah is tagged at over 4,700 years. These trees survive the harshest elements found within our great state. The native trees grow in elevations surpassing 10,000 feet. What I found fascinating is their roots are firmly planted in dolomite—a chalk-like alkaline mineral that once layered the ocean floor years before dinosaurs walked this earth. The trees' growth patterns are gnarled and twisted, as if tattooed by all the harshness they have endured. These trees are a paradise for photographers trying to capture the intensity of life in the oldest living things on earth.

mat buckwheat
 Mat buckwheat
Other plants survive in the region as well. One of the plants I first came across looked surreal. It was a flat, white pancake succulent known as Eriogonum caespitosum (mat buckwheat). At first I thought it to be a type of lichen growing on a rock, but there wasn't a rock—only a root that I discovered as I slipped my hand gently under the plant. Another that surprised me was the beautiful Chamaebatiaria millefolium, a fern-like shrub commonly known as desert sweet, which seemed to thrive in these harsh elements. The same held true for the tiny-leafed Ribes cereum (wax currant). It was interesting that some plants seemed to eke out their existence and barely hang on, while others looked lush. Even a pollen-seeking insect searched out a flower barely surviving to find some sustenance for its own existence.

Native plants are fascinating, and the right ones can thrive in our gardens. We have the good fortune in Marin to have an active and knowledgeable chapter of the California Native Plant Society. They host their annual fall plant sale October 15 and are happy to talk about these survivors and what the plants need to survive in your garden. More information on the annual event will be in next week's blog.

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