Vegetation Sampling & Mapping in Castle Mountains National Monument
In the far northeast corner of the Mojave National Preserve, nestled between the Castle Peaks of the New York Mountains and the Piute Mountains, the Castle Mountains appear more modest than their neighbors. However, upon closer look at this mountain chain and its surrounding lowlands this spring, the CNPS Vegetation Program staff found a treasure trove of plant diversity. This attribute was one of many that motivated President Barack Obama to proclaim the area as a National Monument (NM) on February 12, 2016.
Managed by the National Park Service through the Mojave National Preserve, the Castle Mountains now fall within the scope of a vegetation mapping effort for the Mojave Desert Inventory and Monitoring Network (MOJN), to which the CNPS Vegetation Program has been contributing valuable data and input since 2010 and earlier. During the first week of May 2016, four CNPS vegetation ecologists set out with the goal of surveying the plant communities found there. Over the course of a week, we roamed across the cardinal regions of the area, from the (still active) mining sites to the rocky crags to the luscious bajadas covered in Joshua tree woodlands spilling out into the Lanfair Valley and the rest of the Mojave Preserve.
The surveys gathered during this expedition track some of the common vegetation types found in this area and repeating in the landscape–Joshua tree woodland (Yucca brevifolia), Mojave yucca shrubland (Yucca shidigera), and blackbrush shrubland (Coleogyne ramosissima)– as well as more uncommon types such as extensive James' galleta shrub-steppe (Pleuraphis jamesii) and a rare burrograss grassland stand (Scleropogon brevifolius). The Castle Mountains generally are celebrated for their desert grasslands, including sprawling swathes of galleta grasses (Pleuraphis spp.) beneath majestically large Joshua trees. Plot data was gathered following the standard sampling protocols established by the National Vegetation Mapping Program and will contribute to MOJN project. This project, which began in 2009, is working to create accurate vegetation maps and classification for the Mojave National Preserve, Death Valley National Park, Lake Mead Recreation Area, and now the Castle Mountains NM, for the sake of informing ongoing conservation and management efforts.
The Castle Mountains are a beautiful and important addition to our nation's monuments. Throughout the week, the breathtaking views of a thriving desert ecosystem with an abundance of plant diversity reminded us of the continued imperative to preserve our wild landscapes, to which our native plants and plant communities are foundational.
Fig. 1 Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia) woodland with various perennial grasses in the understory in the western lowlands of the Castle Mountains NM. The brilliant Cooper's goldenbush (Ericameria cooperi) was in full bloom during the CNPS visit.
Fig. 2 A barrel cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus) amidst blooming Englemann's hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus engelmannii) and Eastern Mojave buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum); nested within a Utah juniper (Juniperus osteosperma) woodland stand.
Fig 3 A Mojave yucca (Yucca shidigera) shrubland stand on the eastern side of the Castle Mountains.
Fig 4 Two color beardtongue (Penstemon bicolor) blooming at the edge of a four-wing saltbush (Atriplex canascens) shrubland stand in a disturbed southern area of the mountains, where mining has been active since the turn of the 20th century.
Fig 5 Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) with Spanish bayonet (Yucca baccata) on the Castle's western slopes. Two other shrubs in bloom during the CNPS trip are pictured here: Desert purple sage (Salvia dorrii) and apricot mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua).
Buried Treasure for Vegetation Monitoring
This spring, CNPS Vegetation Program staff went on a treasure hunt of their own, not to find rare plants, but to relocate metal nails installed in various years, from 2005-2010, to permanently mark survey locations. These 10-inch nails were pushed through large washers and pounded flush to the ground to escape the unwanted attention of curious cattle who tend to congregate around (and scratch themselves on) rebar or any other visible markers. Accurate GPS coordinates allow us to walk to the general vicinity and metal detectors are used to pinpoint 11-year old nails - sometimes buried beneath layers of soil deposited by burrowing rodents.
Once the nails are located, staff lay out meter tapes to delineate plots which have been sampled and re-sampled, some locations up to 6 times over the past 11 years. By identifying all the plant species growing in these areas across multiple years (and at different times in the season), we are tracking the variation that occurs across different vegetation types in California. From subtle shifts in the species composition of annual grasslands in Sacramento County to stand-level die-back of coastal sage scrub in the Carrizo Plain National Monument, we can track changes that are happening on the ground.
CNPS and partners have begun to install a network of monitoring plots across the state with the important goal of tracking and understanding change over time. If you are interested in learning more about this project or want to help support our monitoring work, please contact Jennifer Buck-Diaz at
New Tools to Collect GIS Location Data
Donations to the California Native Plant Society come in all shapes and sizes including annual membership fees, private donations, bequests, and hours spent volunteering. In January 2015, Esri, the innovative geographic information system (GIS) software company, generously donated a large number of ArcGIS Online subscriptions to CNPS staff. ArcGIS Online is a cloud-based mapping platform that allows users to share geographic data and create and share maps with other users. This platform is exciting because it makes GIS available to more users without the need for expensive software and extensive training in GIS.
Along with the web-based platform, Esri has developed applications for mobile devices that allow users to easily view GIS maps created in ArcGIS Online. These maps can be downloaded and used offline on devices such as smart phones and tablets. Location data can be viewed and collected in the field, even without a cellular data connection, and then easily synced-up later with the data online.
The CNPS Vegetation Program relies heavily on GIS, including navigation during field work, collecting geographic location data at survey sites, and mapping areas of natural vegetation. Last spring we tested the use of ArcGIS Online along with iPads loaded with Esri's Collector app to collect vegetation plot data across 1.6 million acres in the southern Sierra Nevada Foothills. The Collector app improved our navigation capabilities and allowed us to acquire and update data quickly. Field staff were able to sync new data as soon as they connected to the internet via a cellular or WiFi connection, and their data became instantly accessible to staff working back in the office. We have now used these tools to collect GIS data for numerous projects, including monitoring in the Carrizo Plain National Monument and ground truth surveys for sections of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan vegetation map. During times with up to six field staff collecting data simultaneously, these tools truly simplify the back-end management of data coming in from multiple sources.
We hope to use this technology in future CNPS projects including Rare Plant Treasure Hunts, citizen science projects by chapter members, and dissemination of geographic information about conservation issues of interest. A generous number of donated subscriptions by Esri are available to interested CNPS members for plant science projects. If you would like to learn more about access to ArcGIS Online and Collector, please contact Jaime Ratchford at
A display of a GIS project with vegetation survey points from 2015 and 2016 in the Southern Sierra Nevada Foothills region, using ArcGIS online.
CNPS staff using the ArcGIS Collector app in the field for determining geographic location and locating vegetation polygons.
California Botanical Landscapes
You can learn more about the ecosystems featured in this month's e-newsletter in the beautiful new photobook California's Botanical Landscapes: A Pictorial View of the State's Vegetation. With over 600 inspiring photographs as well as in-depth, naturalist prose written for the public, the work explores California through 14 ecoregions with a look at the important plant communities found within each.
California's Botanical Landscapes is also the perfect pictorial companion book to the Manual of California's Vegetation (MCV), the definitive guide to California's plant communities. The vegetation classification system found in the MCV is widely accepted as the state standard. Currently, the CNPS store is offering a special package deal for both books. See this link for more information on the books or to purchase both for a special package price.
East Bay Chapter Conservation Update: Oak Knoll (Oakland)
Karen Whitestone and Jean Robertson
Jean Robertson, East Bay Chapter's Conservation Chairperson, and Karen Whitestone, East Bay Conservation Analyst, hiked Leona Canyon Regional Open Space Preserve this month in search of Oakland star tulip, which they found along hilltops despite some invasive weed pressures. Fortunately, they also walked around some of the future Oak Knoll proposed development footprint, which has spent more than ten years in planning stages. This old Naval Hospital and base remains fragmented from leftover parking lots and roads even though most buildings were removed years ago. All trees were tagged with round metal markers as though recently surveyed and counted.
This development is moving forward with a public update meeting soon, also attended by pivotal local organizations such as the Oak Knoll Coalition. East Bay Chapter will advocate for the planted and naturally occurring large oak trees, and significant patches of needlegrass grasslands we saw there. Rifle Range Creek is a tributary of Lake Chabot and runs in all seasons. It is another gem to pay attention to on the western side of the property, as it undergoes extensive restoration. Oakland star tulip occurs on the hilltop here.
The chapter is confident that we join a cadre of partners who care about restoring this open space and have a history of protecting the knoll from leveling plans.
Upcoming CNPS Plant Science Workshops
The CNPS Education Program is gearing up for another year of exciting plant science training workshops! Full details and registration will be posted at www.cnps.org/workshops as it becomes available, or contact Becky Reilly at
for more information.
Aug 1-3, SF Bay Area
Taught by Julie Evens, Vegetation Program Director, CNPS; Todd Keeler-Wolf, Senior Vegetation Ecologist, VegCAMP Program, CDFW; John Menke, Senior Vegetation Mapping Specialist, AIS
Introduction to Plant Identification, Southern CA
Dates, exact location, and instructor TBA
Chapter Events - A Sampling from Around the State
To connect to your local chapter, or to find other events in your region, see this page for a list and map of CNPS chapters. Even more events from CNPS chapters and partners can be viewed on the Horticulture Events Calendar
Paul Wilson will lead a walk and perhaps more for the North Coast Chapter on Saturday 4 June 9:00 to maybe 3:00. Meet inside Redwood Park beyond 14th Street, into the Community Forest, in Arcata. Bring lunch, water, hand lens, paper packets or envelopes.
This 5 1/2 mile hike with 700 feet elevation gain takes us through a forested valley, then up to oak dotted grasslands. If we are lucky, we will see soap plants blooming. We depart at 4:30pm from the dirt parking area outside Toro Park. (501 Monterey Salinas Highway 68, Salinas, CA 93908.) Call leader, Lynn Bomberger, at 375-7777 to reserve your spot. Event limited to eight participants.
Join us for our annual picnic at Lake Oroville Visitor Center on Kelly Ridge (917 Kelly Ridge Rd, Oroville, CA 95966). Please bring a dish to share you might want to barbeque, and your own utensils, drinks, and chairs. Michael Hubbartt, State Park Interpreter, will show us around the Visitor Center including its Viewing Tower above a nearly full Lake Oroville. Contact Woody Elliott, 530-588-2555.
Redbud Chapter Field Trip: Butterfly Valley Botanical Area Saturday June 11, 10:00 AM - 3:00 PM
The Butterfly Valley Botanical Area, the home of the California Pitcher Plant (Darlingtonia californica), is an Eden of natural splendor. The list of vascular plants found here exceeds 500 species. This trip will be about 4 hours long, and will involve driving to various parts of the Botanical Area and then hiking short distances. The Mt. Hough Ranger Station is located 3.5 miles north of Quincy on Hwy 70. Allow two hours from Nevada City. If you wish to carpool or can take others with you, please email Roger at
Former CNPS Rare Plant Program Director Nick Jensen will speak on the flora of the Tejon Ranch Conservancy at 7:00. First hour will have two discussion groups: Plant ID and native plant gardening. Hall Ambulance Community Room, 21st and N St, Bakersfield, CA 93301.
Speaker: Mike Evans. Functional nature-based gardens can be created in very tight quarters (even in pots!) using native plants, native elements, and design techniques that incorporate the beauty of an ecosystem. Come learn how the principles of Japanese natural gardening (Hakoniwa) can be applied to landscaping in our beautiful southern California environment. Program will begin at 7:30, but you may come at 6 to enjoy a walk in the preserve and a look at the new pollinator garden. The Duck Club will open at 6:45 for potluck refreshments. The chapter will supply drinks, utensils, and paper goods. If you're coming early for the walk bring something savory or if you're coming later, something dessert-ish. Irvine Duck Club. 15 Riparian View, Irvine, CA 92612.
Recently burned forest in the Rubicon River drainage, northern El Dorado County. We will be visiting newly discovered lava caps and areas of recovering forest. For more information, contact Shellie Perry 530-644-6335.
Lorrae Fuentes leads this CNPS Riverside-San Bernardino Chapter car tour to identify and admire the wildflowers and plants in the road cuts and road sides of Glendora Ridge. Lorrae lectures at California State University San Bernardino and produces the Theodore Payne Foundation Wild Flower Hotline. We will meet at Mt. Baldy Village (Forest Station), then carpool along Glendora Ridge from there. There are good turn-outs along this road, but we will be limiting the number of cars by carpooling. RSVP and map here, or contact Eric Diesel at 650-847-8646.
San Diego Chapter Program Meeting: How Argentine Ants Destroy Native Landscapes Tuesday, June 21, 7:00 PM
Speaker - Greg Rubin. It appears that Argentine ants and their symbiotic sucking insect partners may have been a key factor in high native mortality nearly as long as natives have been a popular gardening subject in California. The ability of ants to fan out for hundreds of feet from a main colony means that even non-irrigated landscapes risk attack from neighboring yards. This talk will cover how to recognize the problem, the damage ants do, the weeds they plant, and strategies to deal with these insidious pests. Room 101 Casa del Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego.
The bluffs from the Golden Gate Bridge to 25th Avenue were used as dumping grounds by the US Army. There were no safe trails. In the last year the removal of dump materials and beautifully designed safe and visually spectacular bridges, outlooks and trails have been installed. Hike the new trails from the GG Bridge to south Baker Beach, see the gorgeous outlooks that have been installed, the protection and stabilization of the Batteries, and of course, the gorgeous habitat that now exists, especially in the Valley of the Serpent. Carpool at 9:30 am at the east end of the under Hwy 12 Park and Ride lot (between Vet's Hall and Fairgrounds) or 9:45 am at the Park and Ride in the SW corner of Rohnert Park Expressway and Hwy 101. We will park to begin our hike at 11am at the end of the parking lot on Merchant Rd, the first exit after the Golden Gate Bridge.