Documenting Natural Phenomena

Kids need nature, and we as parents, educators, and caring adults, need to provide access to it for them. It’s a simple statement, but one that has become harder and harder to achieve in the world of standardized tests, electronics, and organized sports.

To help kids get out and enjoy nature more often, CNPS worked with nature educator John (Jack) Muir Laws a few years ago to publish his nature journaling curriculum. The book guides kids through a combination of art, writing, and science-based activities.

For years, Jack has been developing his curriculum to engage students of all ages in sharpening their observational powers through sketching in the field. He has found that this combination of visual and kinesthetic learning reaches even students who had given up on their artistic abilities long ago.
More recently, the Language Arts component completed the experience. Jack began to work with Emily Breunig, an English and writing instructor, to incorporate exercises such as writing haikus, creating narrative stories, and formulating hypotheses to complement the outdoor observational activities.

This interdisciplinary combination of art, science, writing, and observation exemplifies the California Native Plant Society’s goals in creating educational programs: to engage students of all ages in the incredible natural world of California, to inspire them to keen observations of the wild places in their own backyards, and to foster a desire to protect these unique habitats.

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Citizen Science with Mary Ellen Hannibal

Mary Ellen Hannibal

As human animals, we’re drawn to the natural world. The impulse to observe, touch, and understand begins at birth. It’s no wonder then that, throughout human history, laypeople—philosophers, gardeners, and vagabonds alike—have contributed to the most meaningful scientific knowledge we have. As Joseph Campbell said, myth is nature speaking, and the goal of human life is to align with nature.

While we now have a professional discipline we call “science,” everyday citizen scientists are needed now more than ever. As an organization founded by citizen scientists more than 50 years ago, CNPS is acutely aware and appreciative of this reality. Without the observations, painstaking work, and passion of thousands of people over decades, contributions like the Manual of California Vegetation and the Inventory of Rare and Endangered Plants would not be as rich or even possible. The work continues today through Rare Plant Treasure Hunts, chapter field trips, the Important Plant Area Initiative, and more. That’s why Mary Ellen Hannibal’s new book, Citizen Science: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction has been especially meaningful to many of us. We caught up with Hannibal recently to discuss her latest work and the personal experiences that inspired its content.

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Baja California: Renewable Energy in Natural Areas

Baja California: Renewable Energy in Natural Areas

By César García Valderrama

President of the California Native Plant Society Baja California Chapter

Photographs courtesy of Martha Pineda

Photographs courtesy of Martha Pineda

The CNPS Baja California Chapter shares the biodiversity of the California Floristic Province and the Sonoran Desert that ignores national boundaries. We also share common problems—including habitat loss, urban sprawl, and climate change. Recent proposals for renewable energy projects in Baja California exemplify how these issues are presenting new challenges on both sides of the border.

Renewable energy farms have been placed in natural ecosystems across the world. While positive results have been realized for energy production, environmental conditions and biodiversity have concurrently declined. A few years ago in Baja California a wind farm was developed by Sempra Energy, one of the world’s largest energy companies. The farm currently maintains 40 wind turbines but plans are in the works to build over 1000 more. This growth will impact over 7000 acres of mountain habitat. The project is named Energia Sierra Juarez after the Sierra Juarez Mountains—one of Baja California’s most endearing environments. The region is home to stands of chaparral, oak woodland and some of the last coniferous forests in the state.

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Plant Exploring: Mendocino County

Plant Exploring: Mendocino County

Sensitive Plants of the Jug Handle

Sensitive Plants of the Jug Handle

Throughout the Pleistocene, as the climate fluctuated, sea levels rose and fell in conjunction with the size of the polar ice caps. This process allowed oceanic wave-action to cut coastal terraces around the world. Subsequent tectonic forces then slowly pushed these terraces upward. Through other dynamic processes, beach materials like sand, gravel, clay and other rock have been deposited on the terraces at varied depths. What we now witness in coastal Mendocino County is the best preserved example of marine terraces in the Northern Hemisphere.

Directly adjacent to the Pacific Ocean on the first step, wind sculpts coastal scrub and grassland on coastal bluffs or “Bonsai” beach and bishop pine forests (Pinus muricata). Further up the staircase-out of reach of the salty air-ample precipitation, Pleistocene and Holocene sand dunes, and the deposition of conifer needles nurture trees with deep roots and tall shoots. However, the most amazing staircase story begins just to the east of the ancient dunes.

In the mid-section of the second step, and upward on each subsequent step, ancient dunes have cut off surface drainage, flushing perennial moisture onto the step. Via seepage and springs, moisture has created pooling basins that ever-so-slowly drain. Prolonged seepage leaches nutrients like calcium and potassium from the Pleistocene beach deposits, leaving behind sterile hard-pan soils. The year-round leaching, coupled with summer dryness and heating, nurtures an inhospitable layer called a Podzol Horizon (podzol is a Russian word meaning “ash soil”). This unique soil layer creates edaphic microsites.

Exploring the Pygmy Forest.

Exploring the Pygmy Forest.

Certain hardy plant species–some now endemic–survive in spatial isolation on these podzolized terraces. Mendocino cypress (Hesperocyparis pygmaea), Bolander pines (Pinus contorta spp. bolanderi), and Fort Bragg manzanita (Arctostaphylos nummularia ssp. mendocinensis) are just a few of the unique plants that can be found on these staircases.

The California Native Plant Society has had a long history of working to preserve these botanically unique areas. In fact, the Dorothy Young King Chapter (formerly the Gualala Chapter) formed in 1966 when citizens of coastal Mendocino and Sonoma counties joined together to dig up native plants that were going to be bulldozed in the region. Later, in 2006, with pygmy forests designated an Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area within the California Coastal Zone the chapter presented litigation against clearing pygmy forest for development.

Take a journey to coastal Mendocino County and visit, what Hans Jenny called the best preserved ecological showplace of coastal landscape evolution in the Northern Hemisphere.

Aricle previously published at

A Productive Season for CNPS Training Workshops

Learning in a beautiful place! CNPS Rare Plant Survey Protocols workshop, Point Mugu State Park, March 2016. Becky Reilly Photo

Learning in a beautiful place! CNPS Rare Plant Survey Protocols workshop, Point Mugu State Park, March 2016.

The CNPS Education Program is wrapping up a fantastic spring-summer season of workshops through the Plant Science Training Program. We have held seven workshops this year around California, training 120 individuals on vegetation monitoring and mapping, introductory plant family identification, and rare and wetland plant identification and assessment skills. Many workshop participants attend on behalf of their organizations, planning to bring their new skills back home to help other coworkers or volunteers become proficient in these science-backed techniques and resources, spreading the reach of this program even further to help ensure a healthy future for California’s native plants and special places.

In keeping with the traditions of this training program, locations for our core workshops are varied each year to make them more accessible to those around the state. We like to choose field sites that are particularly interesting or attractive botanically, so participants get the most education (and enjoyment!) out of their experience. Some location highlights this year have included classes in the Mojave Desert, the White Mountains, and CNPS’s birthplace, the Regional Parks Botanic Garden in Berkeley.

Sampling using nested quadrats. CNPS Measuring & Monitoring workshop, Mojave National Preserve, May 2016. Becky Reilly Photo

Sampling using nested quadrats. CNPS Measuring & Monitoring workshop, Mojave National Preserve, May 2016.

CNPS workshops support California’s native plants in many ways. Educating attendees on sound scientific techniques and resources ensures that California’s plants are being treated and accounted for properly by those collecting and utilizing data – whether they are consultants, agency staff, land managers, scientific researchers, or advocates – so that the plants and their habitats can continue to be properly managed and protected.

These workshops not only provide necessary education around the state, they often produce valuable results beyond the knowledge imparted to attendees. This March, the Rare Plant Survey Protocols workshop visited Point Mugu State Park and assessed a population of small-flowered morning glory (Convolvulus simulans), a California Rare Plant Rank 4 species, collecting data which were contributed to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s California Natural Diversity Database (CNDDB). In July, the Vegetation Rapid Assessment/Relevé workshop conducted field surveys high in the bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) forest above 10,000 feet in the White Mountains, adding the first survey data points in this area to the CNPS Vegetation Program’s rapid assessment database. Other CNPS workshops also regularly complete “practice” surveys and reporting forms in which real data are collected and submitted to other scientific resources, so that they can be utilized throughout California.

CNPS’s training workshops have spread knowledge and information to countless numbers of individuals over the past 10 years that this program has been in place, and in the next 3-5 years, we are anticipating offering even more workshops around California in conjunction with the new California Consulting Botanist Certification Program. The more people we can educate on sound science and information, the better protected our native plants will be! We are developing our 2017 training schedule now, which will be posted soon at – so stay tuned for another spectacular year!

Photos and article by Becky Reilly, CNPS Events Coordinator