Winter is a special time in one of California’s most distinctive and widespread plant communities. Whether you travel to the dusty hillsides of southern California, to the fog drenched slopes of the northern California coast, or to almost anywhere in the Sierra Nevada, you will encounter chaparral. This plant community is comprised of different species in each region, but at all times it is recognized by its thickets of low, dense trees and shrubs. These woody plants grow so tightly together that they are virtually impenetrable and anyone foolish enough to push through chaparral will find their clothes and skin scratched and torn.
Due to the seemingly hostile nature of chaparral it is an easily overlooked habitat. But chaparral is rich with life, and winter may be the best season to appreciate it. I lived among foothill chaparral in the Sierra Nevada for 10 years and found it a breathtakingly beautiful habitat.
Chaparral is typically a pioneer plant community that quickly takes over a site after fire or other large-scale disturbance. Chaparral plants like manzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.), chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum), ceanothus (Ceanothus sp.), and coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) are successful because they produce huge crops of seeds that blanket the landscape so they are ready to immediately germinate in newly opened sites.
With the approach of winter thousands upon thousands of robins, thrushes, waxwings, sparrows, and other birds descend on chaparral to feast on the abundant seeds and fruits. Prominent among these foods is toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), also known as Christmas berry. This plant protects its berries until they are ripe by locking two chemicals in separate plant tissues that will mix to produce highly toxic cyanide gas if the berry is bruised. When the berries are ripe, the plant withdraws the chemicals and announces that the feast is ready by turning its berries bright red.
While birds roam the chaparral in huge numbers, this is also a busy season for the dusky-footed woodrat (Neotoma fuscipes) whose homes of tall mounded sticks are abundant in chaparral thickets. These large, and apparently tasty, rodents find safety among thickets so dense that mountain lions, bobcats, and other predators can’t surprise and chase them. If you crawl in under the overhanging eaves of the chaparral and peer closely at a packrat nest you may spot the front door on the nest, complete with a little protective “roof” and small pile of recently nibbled fruit and leaves.
If you find yourself around chaparral this winter, take a moment to crawl a few feet back into the forbidding wall of branches and sit quietly. A ray of sunshine may angle into the gloomy depths and illuminate a patch of mushrooms or a sparkling spider web. You may hear the soft purring call of a wrentit or hear the scratching sound of a towhee kicking leaves aside under a manzanita bush. You may even find the ground surprisingly soft and inviting. Chaparral is a magical place when you approach it on its own terms.
David Lukas, co-author of Sierra Nevada Natural History