Plants of Our Mountain Community

Plants Can Have Relationships, Too!

By Lynn Stafford, Liz Buchroeder and Bill Buchroeder
Photos by Bill Buchroeder, Liz Buchroeder, Charles Noble, Maryann Ryan, David Schindler and Lynn Stafford


   Those of us who enjoy nature tend to think of different plants and animals as discreet entities. As we walk the trails, we note the cottontail bunny, the bluebird, various flowers, different species of trees. However, there is much going on that brings these different organisms into meaningful contact with each other. One aspect of the complexity of plants and animals is their ability to form partnerships with other organisms. I am going to describe four of these relationships that occur locally in our mountains.
Photo of male phainopepla on scrub oak
Figure 1: Male phainopepla on scrub oak
Photo of female phainopepla on scrub oak
Fig. 2: Female phainopepla on scrub oak

   Phainopepla/mistletoe: An interesting bird that is found locally, but can be difficult to glimpse, is the phainopepla. It looks like a black cardinal with white wing patches (Fig. 1), (Fig. 2). The phainopepla prefers mistletoe berries for food. In our area, it frequents mistletoe on oak trees (Fig. 3). How does it help mistletoe? When it defecates, it often deposits its “poop” on branches of the oak tree. The gut of the phainopepla has softened the skin of the mistletoe berry, the “poop” acts as fertilizer and the baby mistletoe finds another foothold into the oak tree. This relationship is not doing the oak tree any good, but it is a satisfactory partnership for the bird and the mistletoe.
Photo of Mistletoe on scrub oak
Fig. 3 Mistletoe on scrub oak
   Acorn woodpecker/oak tree: Now we come to a relationship that benefits the oak tree. Acorn woodpeckers are the noisy, gregarious woodpeckers that sometimes cause damage to houses here in our mountains (Fig. 4). They don’t mean to be harmful. They simply are storing acorns for later use (Fig. 5). They are absolutely dependent on several species of oak. They return the favor by accidentally dropping acorns well away from the oak tree. Acorns are heavy and will drop straight down. The woodpecker gives them a longer ride, hopefully where they can germinate.
Photo of Acorn woodpecker
Fig. 4: Acorn woodpecker
Photo of Acorn woodpecker with its acorn cache
Fig. 5 Acorn woodpecker with its acorn cache
   Jays/pinyon pine: For another example of bird and tree helping one another, we come to loud, obvious jays and a very common pine tree. The single-leaf pinyon pine is the prominent pine tree thriving on our drier slopes, frequently on the south sides of our mountains. Both California scrub-jay (Fig. 6) and Steller’s jay (Fig. 7) are attracted to the large nutritious nuts of this pine. Having a different style of food storage than the acorn woodpecker, these jays bury their nuts in many different places in soft humus soil. This is ideal for the reproductive success of the pinyon pine, because, as smart as jays are, they will forget where they stored some of their nuts.
Photo of California scrub-jay with a pine nut
Fig. 6: California scrub-jay with a pine nut
Photo of Steller's jay in a pinyon pine with a pine nut
Fig. 7: Steller’s jay in a pinyon pine with a pine nut

   Paintbrush/sagebrush/penstemon: (Fig. 8) shows paintbrush, an attractive flower in our open woods. (Fig, 9) includes three plants, the paintbrush, the blue Grinnell’s penstemon and the gray foliage of sagebrush. Paintbrush is a partially dependent parasite on the root systems of several bush species, in this case, probably the sagebrush. It generally does not hurt the host very much. (Fig. 10) displays the penstemon again, this time in association with a pollinating native bumble bee. Here, the flower feeds the bumble bee nectar (sugar) and pollen (protein), while the bee carries fertilizing pollen from one flower to another. So, we have two relationships between these three plants and one insect. Maybe more complex relationships are hidden in there, somewhere.
Photo of Paintbrush
Fig. 8: Paintbrush
Photo of Paint brush, Grinnell's penstemon and sagebrush

Fig. 9: Paint brush, Grinnell’s penstemon and sagebrush
   These are just a few examples of the complexity of the natural world around us. Do go outside and enjoy these wonders.
Photo of Grinnell's penstemon with a California bumble bee
Fig. 10 Grinnell’s penstemon with a California bumble bee
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Showy Flowers in our High Mountains

By Lynn Stafford, Liz Buchroeder and Bill Buchroeder

Photos by Liz Buchroeder, Bill Buchroeder, Mary McDevitt and Randy Cushman

   Spring and summer come later on the peaks and ridges above PMC than down here in our village. Residences in PMC range from 4,900' to 6,400' in elevation. San Emigdio Mountain to the north of us rises to a little over 7,000'. Immediately to the south of our community are several peaks over 8,000', with Mt. Pinos being almost 9,000'. July is a good time to visit the higher country for flowers and other outdoor enjoyments. Two paved roads lead to the Mt. Pinos and Cerro Noroeste high country. This article will focus on some of the more attractive wildflowers. A future article will discuss other aspects of our mountains.
Photo of Western Blue Flag Iris
Fig. 1: Western Blue Flag Iris
   Close to the upper end of the Mt. Pinos Road is a lush meadow, a rarity in these mountains. One of the stand-out features is the wild iris known as western blue flag (Fig. 1). Before we proceed further, why flowers? And why are they so showy? The answer is to attract insects and a few other animals. The flowers offer nutritious nectar and pollen, and the feeding animals pass the pollen on from plant to plant, facilitating reproduction of the plants. Flowering plants and insects have evolved in unison over many millions of years.
Photo of Bumblebee on Blue Flag Iris
Fig. 2: Bumblebee on Blue Flag Iris
   The bumblebee working a blue flag is an industrious example (Fig. 2). Please do not trample the meadow while observing the flowers. It is fragile.
Photo of Mexican Pink flower
Fig. 3: Mexican Pink flower
   Sometimes, plant names have interesting backgrounds. The Mexican pink (Fig. 3) is sort of pinkish in color, but that is not the source of the name. As people who work with clothes can tell us, a pinking shear cuts a zig-zag pattern in fabric, just like the tips of these flower petals. Another odd name is the western wallflower (Fig. 4).
Photo of Western Wallflower
Fig. 4: Western Wallflower
   Of course, a person is called a wallflower because he/she is shy, standing at the edge of the dance floor, not taking part. The wallflower plant is known for occurring either solitarily or in very small numbers. Their bright yellow can be seen occasionally on the sides of our mountain roads.
Photo of Sierra Snow Plant
Fig. 5: Sierra Snow Plant
   Now we come to two strange characters. Most flowering plants make their food through photosynthesis in their green leaves. But, there are exceptions. The Sierra snow plant (Fig. 5), named because it often emerges shortly after snow melt, has no greenery, produces no food and derives its nutrition indirectly from tree roots.
Photo of Paint Brush flower
Fig. 6: Paintbrush
   Paintbrush (Fig. 6) is another showy flower that, at least partially, relies on other plants for its nutrition. Paintbrushes are often found with sagebrush. Any attempt to dig up and transplant a wild paintbrush will yield only failure, because the host will not be present.
Photo of Lupine
Fig. 7: Lupine
   Two showy blue wildflowers are the lupine (Fig. 7) and the showy blue penstemon (Fig. 8). It may be tempting to think that they are being so attractive for our benefit, but, in reality, it is all about the insect pollinators.
Photo of Showy Blue Penstemon
Fig. 8: Showy Blue Penstemon
   There are several local lupine species, growing in a variety of habitats. One interesting species is named the grape-soda lupine. Sometimes, plant taxonomists can have a bit of fun. The showy blue penstemon is also named creatively. It is found throughout a range of elevations in open areas.
Photo of Seep-spring Monkeyflower
Fig. 9: Seep-spring Monkeyflower
   Next are two hard-to-overlook flowers in the yellow-to-orange color range. The seep-spring monkeyflower (Fig. 9) gives away its habitat with its name. Its feet are always wet. One of my favorite local flowers is the Kennedy’s mariposa lily (Fig. 10).
Photo of Kennedy's Mariposa Lily
Fig. 10: Kennedy's Mariposa Lily
There are several lovely mariposa species in our area. Did you know that mariposa means butterfly in Spanish?
Photo of Common Yarrow/Southern Scarlet Penstemon
Fig. 11: Common Yarrow/Southern Scarlet Penstemon
(Fig. 11) is an artistic photographer’s creation. My friend, Randy Cushman, captured this duet of color and form up on Mt. Pinos. The white comes from common yarrow. The bright red is the southern scarlet penstemon.
I hope you all find time to enjoy our High Mountain beauties. For more information on our local flora, check out the excellent book, Plants of the San Emigdio Mountains Region of California by local professional botanist, Pam De Vries. This book can be purchased at Adventure Ink, a bookstore in PMC’s Business Center.