Wilderness in Los Angeles?! Flora and Fauna of Deukmejian Wilderness Park

When you think Los Angeles, you might think: Hollywood. Four million people. Palm trees. Celebrities. Second largest city in the US. Theme parks. Strip malls. Taco trucks... Wilderness?!

Yesterday my friend Lia Liebman took me up her childhood mountain in the Deukmejian Wilderness Park, right on the edge of LA. She warned me it would be a serious hike: 11 miles and 3,000 feet of elevation gain in the southern California sun. We packed lunches of quesadillas and avocado sandwiches and three bottles of water each.

Lia is a born plant-queen and my botanical inspiration. I hope you learn a bit about the plants of Deukmejian from this blog. Floral knowledge credit goes to Lia. (I'll take credit for the birds, but I know Lia will be a bird-queen too one day soon.)

These photos are shown in altitudinal order, from the low valley floor to the mountain peak. I was amazed to see how much the flora shifted as we hiked up switchback after switchback.

Black sage (Salvia mellifera). 

Thickleaf yerba santa (Eriodictyon crassifolum).

A mystery plant.

Hoaryleaf ceanothus (Ceanothus crassifolius).

Chaparral whitethorn (Ceanothus leucodermis).

Chaparral yucca (Hesperoyucca whipplei) on an exposed valley wall. Also known as "Spanish bayonet" and "our Lord's candle."

Chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum).

Western side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana ssp. elegans). These lizards skittered from their sunning spots on the trail as we approached, but they weren't camera shy.

Clubmoss (in the plant division Lycophyta). Did you know? Clubmoss is not a moss at all, but an ancient spore-forming plant more akin to a fern or horsetail.

White sage (Salvia apiana).

The wiggly veins in the rocks were beautiful. They reminded me of the wavy shape of the canyons themselves, on tiny scale.

California scrub oak with acorn (Quercus berberidifolia).

Liveforever (Dudleya sp.)

Leaves of manzanita (Arctostaphyllos sp.)

Another western side-blotched lizard. I thought they were all western fence lizards but the good people at iNaturalist struck all my photos down one by one and proclaimed them all to be western side-botched lizards!

Liverwort (in the plant division Marchantiophyta). Like mosses, liverworts are nonvascular (they do not use veins), and they are spore-forming (they do not reproduce with seeds). I love their green flesh, their affinity for moisture, and their dedication to sticking with the simple body plan that works!

A fire swept this canyon in 2009. Lia remembers when this hillside was blackened. The scars from that fire are evident in the tall dead wood that remains, but the regenerative power of life is just as obvious in the green bodies of oak and manzanita bursting forth from roots and ashes.

Manzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.) This area is the worldwide center for diversity of the manzanita genus, how cool! We loved the deep red color of the branches and the powder-green leathery leaves.

Another western side-blotched lizard. Their backs look smooth rather than spiny.

Los Angeles from halfway up the mountain, cloaked in smog and the remnants of marine fog. At this point we could still hear the rumble of the 210 freeway.

These radio towers marked the summit. We kept track of our progress by noting how they slowly got bigger in our vision.

Birchleaf mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus betuloides), a native plant in the rose family. It's not related to true mahogany.

The seed of mountain mahogany is an achene with a long, feathery flower style still attached. Maybe they like to be blown by the wind?

This yucca was throwing elbows to save itself from the encroaching wall of very healthy manzanita.

Manzanita bursting back after the 2009 fire.

The summit (next to the radio towers) was dotted with towering pines, but we didn't know what kind. Time to sleuth! These pines had long needles, like the Ponderosa pines we knew from eastern Washington state. They also had three needles per fascicle, like Ponderosas. We scratched off bits of the bark and smelled for the tell-tale vanilla smell of a Ponderosa... but we smelled nothing. Then we noticed the cones. They were enormous, heavy and covered with sharp hooks! Not like any Ponderosa cone we'd seen. (Ponderosa cones are the tennis-ball-sized, smooth, light cones you might be used to seeing as Christmas decorations, the classic "pine cone.") What a mystery. At this point we realized that a five-pound spiked cone falling on one of our heads would be less than ideal, so we scurried out from under the pines and went on our way.

When I got back to the internet, I came to the conclusion that we'd encountered a stand of Coulter pine (Pinus coulteri) nicknamed "widow-makers" because they produce the heaviest cones of any pine of earth. People who work under Coulter pines are recommended to wear hard hats!
Here I am at the summit, finally out of hearing range of the 210 freeway. Behind me sprawl the San Gabriel Mountains, a wilderness hidden in plain sight of America's second largest city.

California scrub-jay. These blue birds in the crow family are lanky, smart and partial to acorns.

Spanish broom (Spartium junceum). An invasive, noxious weed in the bean family, introduced from the Mediterranean.

Rufous-crowned sparrow. This bird was picking up seeds from the ground in the wedge between two switchbacks of the trail. It was hanging out with the next bird, which was a...

California towhee. Notice the cute little brown fluff under the tail!

Lia models a grove of white alder (Alnus rhombifolia) in a shady stream canyon.

California thrasher. I first noticed clods of dirt rolling down the steep slope and lots of crashing noises from the leaf litter. Then I noticed the cause: a brown bird with a long down-curved bill using its feet to kick up tasty insects and fruits. Lia thinks this bird must be named after the head-bangers at concerts who thrash their heads to the music.

Yellow-rumped warbler. Or, as I call it, a butter butt. (You can't see it, but this bird is known for a dab of bright yellow under the chin, in the "armpits," and right above the tail on the rump.) Twenty of these little birdies kept us company for several hours of the hike in all the lower elevations.

The low, 4 pm sun illuminating the mountain we'd just descended.

Interior live oak (Quercus wislizeni).

The last gem of our day was California dodder (Cuscuta californica), an orange parasitic vine. It starts as a seed, then wraps around a host plant and taps into the host's vascular system with invasive anchors called "haustoria." Once it's sucking the juices, its roots die and it becomes a complete vampire. I mean parasite.