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Observations on the Plants at Santa Fe Dam

Seems there is always something blooming at Santa Fe Dam, usually in yellow, but often in cream. In winter begin the first yellow flowers with golden currant, next California bush sunflower, Encelia, then suncups and deerweed, soon to be followed by the prickly pears in spring. Next come the cream-colored flowers ... vines like virgin's bower and wild cucumber; tall shrubs like lemondade berry and sugarbush; and, in certain years, 20-foot tall spikes of yucca. A bit later, California croton begins and elderberry continues.

The next big burst is buckwheat, buckwheat on the ridges, buckwheat on the flats, buckwheat occupying endless vistas, buckwheat everywhere. After a short summer hiatus while the buckwheat flowers turn from vanilla to marbled orange sherbet to pumpkin pie colored, the late-blooming yellow flowers begin ... delicate snakeweed, spindly scalebroom, astringent vinegarweed and scented pine goldenbush on into the fall.

These characteristics make the plant community at Santa Fe Dam unusual:

  • extremely large size of shrubs
  • intermingling of coastal, mountain and interior desert species

The most common plants fall into these groupings:

  • drought-deciduous
  • year-round evergreen
  • succulent
  • winter-deciduous

Drought-deciduous Shrubs

"The character of the vegetation changes markedly with the seasons depending on the availability of moisture, both in the soil and in the atmosphere. In late winter and spring much of the vegetation assumes an almost succulent appearance. Many of the dominant plants have a white pubescence (a hairy covering of the leaves and stems that reduces water loss). Between succulence and pubescence, the vegetation has an overall gray-green appearance in Spring. But as the summer drought begins, the soft leaves of most plants curl and wither. If the drought is severe and long-lasting, stems become bare and die back. The general appearance of the vegetation in late summer to fall is brownish-gray."

Excerpted and abbreviated from an old history page of the Bernard Field Stations web site.

Plants that give the community its name, the true sages, Salvia apiana and S. mellifera, white and black sage, and the California sagebrush, Artemisia californica, are drought-deciduous and have differently shaped leaves in the wet and dry season. This is known as seasonal leaf dimorphism.

April 2003
California sagebrush
showing both kinds of leaves
December 2002
California sagebrush
winter leaves

Scalebroom, Lepidospartum squamatum, sometimes know as the indicator species for alluvial sage scrub, also shows many leaf variations. Clearly, the timing of the rain makes a difference when the new leaves appear.

Its late-blooming yellow flowers are attractive to insects

Continued ...

Web Page by Jane Strong for CNPS-SGM, April, 2004; revised April 2009