California Native Plant Society Memories

by Erik Jonsson, writing August 15, 1989

I remember the first time I came in contact with CNPS. It was at Silverwood. (I was in the Audubon Society that time and went to Silverwood a lot to show Frank Gander plants that I had pressed and did not know what they were. I must have been a terrible nuisance for him.) Anyhow, there was this bunch of people all interested in plants like me and looking like the kind of nice people I like, so I decided that I had better join and take part in the fun.

The field trips interested me most. All those plants and shrubs that I had been trying in vain to figure out what they were and here I got the Latin names all served like on a silver platter! Somehow I became Field Trip Chairman. I don’t remember now how it happened. I guess they must have been desperate to find a victim and I was too stupid to say NO as usual.

Chocolate Lily (Fritillaria biflora), photo by Michael Evans

We had lots of memorable field trips at that time. One of my first efforts was to the top of Fortuna Mountain just after a fire. Quite a hike. Lots of flowers. That is when somebody, I think it was Fred Sproul, found a whole bunch of Chocolate Lilies, Fritillaria biflora. Quite a treat!

One memorable trip I did not go on myself. I had a bad case of flu or pneumonia or something and was laid up when it happened. But, I had given instructions exactly where to meet, just past the gas station on DeI Mar Heights road just east of I-5, so I was confident everything would be OK. Little did I know!

From reports I found out later what happened. Carl Johnson came there first and since there was nobody in sight he went on some hundred yards further east over a tittle hill and down on the other side where he saw some interesting stuff growing so he stopped to look. While he did so the leader came, I have forgotten who it was, and he drove until he saw Carl’s car and stopped, thinking that was the meeting-place. The next car that came stopped just past the gas station as indicated in the write up for the trip. So from then on all the cars stopped by the gas station where everybody was. Everybody, except the leader, that is. I think it was Dr. Jack Bradshaw, who saved the situation by leading the field trip, after they had given up waiting for the leader. So that day there were two CNPS fieldtrips on Del Mar Mesa. One very small one with the designated leader, and one very large one, for this was a popular place, with Dr. Bradshaw taking care of it. And never the twain did meet!

That reminds me of the trip we had to the Primo Tapia dune area down in Baja. we were supposed to meet at the entrance for pedestrians at the border. I was a little disappointed with the turnout for we were only a handful waiting at the border until we finally gave up and crossed into Mexico and got the bus to the Norte de Sonora bus station. And that is where the big CNPS bunch was. They had waited somewhere else and realized there was something wrong and luckily managed to find out where the bus station was for going to Primo Tapia. So after a happy reunion we all boarded the bus. It was a Mexican bus so it did not get full it just got a little crowded. After a very interesting and thrilling hike on the dunes sometimes on narrow crests looking down into deep gullies we got back to the road and waited for the bus at a little roadside bar. There were no others waiting so I got a Iittle worried. Finally, I asked and was told that the northbound bus stop was at least 500 feet further south. So we hastily regrouped and arrived at the right spot just when the bus zoomed around a corner. Of course we would have been OK anyhow. No Mexican bus driver would have left stranded such a-nice collection of charming gringas as our group contained!

Speaking of Baja, twice I managed to talk Dr. Reid Moran into leading a trip for us down there. The first one was to Cerro EI Coronel, a mountaintop along the coast between Rosarito Beach and Cantamar which is actually visible from San Diego. I had gone there a week before, checking that the road was passable (It was, provided one closed one’s eyes and said a prayer at the worst spots!) and asking permission at the Rancho where we were going to start the hike (no problem!).

There was quite a big turnout and after a palaver with a Mexican horse-man who had come to get some money out of us for walking through the area messing up his fences (Luckily Reid knew there were no fences so he got nothing!) we started up the slope. It was easy walking at first but soon it got steep and no trails except goat trails, but goats have four legs! So when we reached the top the party had been pruned down to the die-hards and the others were hiding in the shade of the few trees on the slope awaiting our return. It was in the autumn so we did not find anything ‘rare and endangered’ but we had had a good time!

Orcuttia californica; Medina Vernal Pool Complex, Colonet Mesa, Baja California, photo by Jsriley1984, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Orcuttia_californica.jpg

The other time was a tremendous treat floristically for it was in the spring after a winter with good rains. We drove all the way down to near Colonet and then out to the coast on a rutted dirt road. Finally, we ended up in a paradise of vernal pools with acres of the rare Orcuttia grass. The amount of interesting plants that most of us had never seen before was just overwhelming.

It was an overnight trip of course since it was such a long drive so at dinner time we drove down to the ocean and camped. After a beautiful sunset we gathered around a fire and I remember that I sang Greensleeves and Reid countered by singing a deep bass parody of it with the green sleeves replaced by asparagus tips! We slept in the sand dunes to the continuous lullaby of the breakers and in the morning we walked around in the dunes along the shore looking at the different flora there. A tremendous trip and those who did not come on it really missed something!

The most romantic field trip of them all as I remember was the one down to Guadeloupe Canyon in Baja, southwest of Laguna Salada. After hiking around in the heat of the day we relaxed in the hot spring pools under the palms in the campground as the sun set and the full moon came up with the wind whispering in the palm fronds and the steaming hot water rushing down the sIope. What a treat!

At one time we thought we would have a little outreach fieldtrip to the Tierrasanta area, to try to rope in some new members. Lots of Tierrasantans turned out and we looked at vernal pools and had a nice time. That is when we found a tiny Chorizanthe that I had never seen before so of course somebody asked: “What is this one?” so I said: “Turkish Rugging” since that is in the same genus. “But it is green”, somebody protested. “Oh well, then it must be Irish Rugging!!!”

Sloan Canyon; Bureau of Land Management - Sloan Canyon NCA, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42091375

Speaking of old stories, I remember when we visited that gem of the backcountry, Sloan Canyon, where Betty Bretz warmly and smilingly received us as always. We were down by the stream in the canyon rooking at all the nice stuff and keying things out that we were not, sure what it, was. I think it must have been one of our Herboration Hikes where we took the botany a little more seriously than usual. So many had notebooks and wrote down all the words of wisdom. And then there was a bird that came swishing by. “What was that?” I know the difference between ravens and hummingbirds but that is about it, so I had to invent something. “A Canyon Swift!” I said. But, as I saw alI the conscientious pupils entering that piece of misinformation in their notebooks, I was filled with remorse so I added “A Sloan Canyon Swift!!!”

California Ayenia (Ayenia compacta), Wickenburg Mountains, Yavapai Co., Arizona, USA, photo by Mike https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archivo:Ayenia-compacta.jpg

Speaking of canyons, we were once going up Moonlight Canyon by Agua Caliente springs and of course we found something new that nobody had ever seen including me. It was one of those weirdos that one can’t even tell the family for so I threw in the towel at once but an ambitious gal would not leave it at that but told me to get the flora and key the darn thing out then and there in the hot desert sun. So I had to start in the very beginning of the dicots and try to figure it out. It did not work. So Duffie took a littIe twig to bring to the Natural History Museum. On Monday evening he called me and told me it was Ayenia compacta, so I got the flora out and tried to determine what, had gone wrong in my keying it out. And found to my surprise and relief that there is no way one can key out Ayenia using Munz. They simply had forgot that genus when they made the key. So I got Duffie on the phone and asked him: “How on earth did you manage to key it out?” He answered: “I showed it to Reid”. That was the standard method those days when one had tried everything and nothing worked, to take the darn thing to the museum and find Dr. Reid Moran in his ‘Hisbarium’ and show it to him. It always worked!

That reminds me of that most famous of field trips, the one to Canyon Sin Nombre in November almost ten years ago. I had scouted it out in October with my dear wife and she made it easily without complaining so I thought it would be OK. But that was on a cloudy day.

The beginning was good. A nice big turnout in spite of the dire warning in the newsletter that it was going to be six hot, dry sandy and stony miles. It was downhill through the canyon and it took a while for the sun to get going full blast. But towards lunchtime the heat was on! People started getting worried. “Where do we eat? It is hot as hell and no shade!” So I reassured them: “We will find a nice cool place.” Nobody believed me and at five to twelve everybody was hungry and morale was low. So I said: “We will stop for lunch in five minutes in the shade!” They must have thought it was a bad joke for nobody shouted “Hurray!” But at the time indicated we entered the slot canyon that comes in from the north into the main canyon. Ten feet, wide, a hundred feet high perpendicular walls, shade all day, and a cool draft. Everybody was impressed.

After a nice long rest, we started up the slot canyon. I had warned those with claustrophobia to stay home for in places this canyon is less than two feet wide and the walls are still a hundred feet. We got through all right using the push-pull method here and there and climbed up on the ridge north of the main canyon. I had counted on the wind to kick up in the afternoon and keep us nice and cool here on the ridge but it did not turn out that way. It was dead calm and the sun was utterly merciless. Some tried to find shade under Creosote Bushes and others, the youngsters, seeing our cars far away at the Carrizo Badlands Overlook, took off like jackrabbits to get back to the shade of the cars as quickly as possible. Soon, the ‘group’ was a mile long with me somewhere in the middle, worrying. I had planned to follow an oId Indian trail along the ridge but when the ridge turned north at one spot the forerunners just followed the beeline like homing pigeons down a nasty, steep slope to the bottom of the canyon and then up to the cars. Well, we were lucky, everybody came back. Many years afterwards people would come up to me and say: “Don’t you remember me, I was with you on that field trip to Canyon Sin Nombre?!”

Speaking of canyons, I remember that one we had to Coyote Mountain. An overnight trip with stargazing in the evening and, of course, storytelling around the campfire. It was in the autumn so all we expected to see was fossils, and then Larry Hendrickson found the Dalea polyadenia in a canyon near the saddle in the middle of the mountain. This was the first find in this area of this Mohave desert species. We also spent a lot of film on a tarantula that obligingly posed for us along the trail. The weather was ideal: warm sun and cool breezes like it can be when the desert is in a good mood. On the way back the group got a little disorganized; a man from EI Centro was in a hurry to get home so he took of ahead of us and Duffie stayed behind collecting some stuff for the museum. When we came back to the cars we were surprised to find that the car of the EI Centro guy was still there. Could he have gotten lost up on the mountain? As we waited anxiously there he came together, with Duffie. We all heaved a sigh of relief and asked what had happened. Well, this area is a little tricky. One goes down a canyon and then at one point one has to get out of it and continue on a dirt road. The first guy continued down the canyon until he realized he was lost. Luckily Duffie made the same mistake so he found him! Since Duffie and I had been there before a couple of times he knew how to get back to civilization. We were lucky that time. The desert is not to trifle with!

When we came back somebody thanked me for arranging such a nice field trip. “Don’t thank me”, I said, “good field trips are not led, they just happen!”

Reminds me of the first field trip we had to Skull Valley (not named on the topographic map) on the border south of Coyote Wells. As we got into the valley that looks like an upside down skull, the group spread out a little and I did not think it was anything to worry about for it was fairly flat, open country. As we were down by the playa in the bottom of the valley admiring the Crucifixion Thorn it dawned upon us that CarI Johnson was missing. Well, I thought we will lee him as soon as we get out of the shrubs on the playa. But we did not. We scanned the slope we had come down with binoculars. Nothing! How can anybody disappear on an open slope? We climbed up on the side of the valley to get a better overlook. Still nothing! Finally, we spotted something white moving on a little rocky outcropping way up the slope. It was Carl all right, who had tied a handkerchief to a stick to attract our attention. We sure learned a lesson there. Always stick together in the desert, even when it looks nice and open.

Some years later in spring that time we had a weekend field trip to the same place. It was the year of Haley’s Comet. I think we even announced in the news letter that the comet was going to be the nighttime attraction. We drove until the end of the dirt road and then we hiked over the saddle down to the playa where the rare Teucrium cubense was in flower. Most of the group went home in the evening as the weather looked a little threatening, so we were only four of us staying the night if I remember right. We had a little scare when it started drizzling for we had no tent. (It never rains in the desert!) We were camped along the dirt road not realizing it is one the Border Patrol keeps close watch on, so they came thundering by several times during the night. In the morning they came and wanted to look at our shoes. When they saw those Betty Bretz was wearing they exclaimed: “Oh, it must have been her.” They had found her tracks, thinking it must be those of a Mexican woman that had crossed the border, and had followed them until they disappeared at the spot where we got into our cars again after the hike. We had actually seen roaming around all over the place with flashlight during the night wondering what was going on. That was when they were trying to find her tracks again!

The comet was a flop as usual. It was cloudy most of the night and only at one time did it show faintly through some thin high clouds.

Next day we rounded off the field trip by driving up Arroyo Seco del Diablo. It was dry all right! We got out of the cars now and then to look at the stuff growing there. At one time I was squatted down to take a close look at a shrub when Duffie called out: “You are sitting on a sidewinder, for Pete’s sake!” I got up kind of quick and there it was, coiled up like a cinnamon roll. My footprint was one inch away from it! But luckily it was a well-brought up snake so it did not budge!

Sometimes the turnout is a little above the enjoyable. Like the one we had once to Borrego Springs together with the Santa Monica Mountain chapter. I never managed to get an exact count but it must have been around sixty cars when we drove east on the Salton Sea Highway. We stopped along the road to rook at some sandy hills to the south but it took about ten minutes for the group to get reasonably together and about as long to disburse them back to the cars after the walk so that was not much of an idea. We camped in Ella Wash and made an interesting but hot hike into the Borrego Badlands. Campfire in the evening with guitar music and singing. The main attraction turned out to be a sidewinder we found in the morning that was coiled up like a cinnamon roll in the sand waiting for breakfast to come by. It did not move in spite of all the more or less brave or reckless photographers that got in more or less close to the guy to take pictures.

Font's Point Anza-Borrego, photo by David Corby https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fontspoint02262006.JPG

We did not have any problem with overcrowding during another field trip to the same area in the autumn. We were only five of us. The weather was pretty rough and it looked as if it could start raining any minute so after a first hike in the Font’s Point area we were only three left. Art Morley took us to look at the Echinocactus polycephalus that he had discovered in Palo Verde canyon and then he went home since he lived in Borrego Springs. So we were only two of us left when we camped along Truckhaven road. I had promised the other participant, a visiting professor from France at San Diego State, that we would have a visit by a kit fox in the evening but he did not believe me. We cooked dinner on my famous wood stove and then came the fox all right. He trotted in as if he owned the place and even got into the car at one time. And somehow word must have spread in the kit, fox community for soon there were two of then. The Frenchman was delighted. What a story to tell when he went back to the university in Nantes!

Echinocactus polycephalus, photo by Dornenwolf from Deutschland https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Echinocactus_polycephalus_(14737872158).jpg

In the morning I was surprised to see my boots lying ten feet away from my cot as if I had thrown then there.  And then I learned a few new French words as my companion was looking for his nice new lightweight hiking boots that had disappeared during the night. Those blasted kit foxes. They had had to give up on my heavy boots, but those lightweight ones must have ended up in their den. At least we did not find them after looking for them for well over an hour. So my friend had to hike in tennis shoes that day. We really had a njce walk in the wilderness around Palm Wash and towards the afternoon the the sun broke through openings in cloud cover and shone like a searchlight over the desert giving it a rare beauty. So the Frenchman got a good compensation for his lost boots and after all now he really had a good story to tell his colleagues when he went home!

Rain is normally not appreciated on fieldtrips but once we had one that turned out to be a great success not in spite of the rain but, thanks to it. It was in our favorite desert area along S-2 around Agua Caliente Springs and it was the Halloween weekend two years ago if I remember right. It was raining in San Diego when we left but I promised that as soon as we got down into the desert, the sun would come out and we would be able to hike high and dry as usual. I should not have said that. When we got to the store in Agua Caliente there was a steady drizzle and everything was soaked. But we got our raincoats on and started hiking up to and along the Squaw Pond trail. For all of us this was the first time we had seen the desert in real rain not just a little shower. It was a strange experience to walk among the Ocotillos with raindrops adorning the tips of the spines and the leaves of a green freshness we had never seen before. And the spidery buckwheats that normally not show at all once the flowers are gone were now delicate clusters of tiny shining drops hanging in the air seemingly without support since the stems are so thin. The clouds were low and when we walked up the Squaw Pond canyon they were touching the slopes on both sides so it was tire walking in a tunnel. Everything was dripping with water and the ground was soggy and so were our shoes by the time we came back to the store. But, there was hot coffee and hot chocolate and hot soup to be had and we managed to keep warm by drinking cup upon cup as soon as we started shivering to the joy and profit of the storekeeper that never had had such faithful customers.

Ocotillo (Fouqueria splendens), photo by Tom Oberbauer

We were going to camp out during the night but most of the participants conveniently remembered that they had urgent business at home that could not wait so they took off expressing their sincere regret at having to leave us. But six of us stayed and camped up towards Vallecitos and then we made a campfire and stood in a narrow ring around it this Halloween evening with flashes of lightning tearing through the darkness and the roar of thunder bouncing back and forth between Whale Peak and the Lagunas. We felt close to nature then and pretty small. The drizzle had stopped and turned to showers instead with a lot of water in them so finally we decided we had done our duty at the campfire and went to bed. Duffie and I had a tent up for the first time in our desert camping career and to be sure not to get wet we had put a tarp underneath it. This turned out to be not such a smart move as we had expected. The tarp was waterproof all right but the tent was in a depression so when we woke up in the morning there was a lake in the tent. Luckily we had our had our camp beds so we were a little above the water level but the tent had leaked so my sleeping bag was all soaked up above the knees. But the rain had stopped and the sun was shining and the desert was going back to normal. So we all draped our wet gear over the Creosote bushes and had breakfast while we waited for things to get dry. By the time we got going the ground had had time to dry up but only on the surface and it was like walking on rubber. The Unicorn Plant was in flower and the shrubs looked fresh and happy and as we looked around it was as if all nature was rejoicing at the sudden bonanza.

And then to end this field trip in the mind, back in time in search of memories, there was this Ramada Day we had a couple of years ago at a little turnoff area from S-2 between Vallecitos and Agua Caliente Springs. We had put up markers with labels on at the different, species and then we sat in the shade of a ramada and waited for people to come and walk around and look at our little homemade botanical garden. In the late afternoon things got quiet and we decided to pulI up our sticks and go camping somewhere for the night. And then, as the sun was getting close to the Laguna mountains, the desert took on a new beauty in shadows, there was an old lady that came together with a couple of young relatives and wanted to look at the desert flowers. Since most of our labels had been pulled I decided to improvise a little field trip for her; after all, she had come a long way and I did not want to disappoint her. Her relatives obviously cared for her and not for the flowers but that did not matter for she cared enough to make if worth while. As she walked along slowly, for her thin, frail, bent body had little strength left, her eyes were shining as she saw once more in her life the flowers she loved so much and so well remembered. And when I felt that genuine love of nature and that keen interest it was as if I was lifted out of the normal field trip routine up to a higher level. As if all I had learned during all my years of wandering in the desert had been just a preparation for this very moment, for making this her last walk in the desert among the flowers a special treat above and beyond the ordinary. For as she thanked me and said good-bye it was obvious that she was not only taking leave of me but also of the desert she had loved all through her long life.

So, strange as it may seem, of all the field trips I have led, the one that made the deepest impression and that I will longest remember is one that lasted less than half an hour and had only one participant!

A thank you to Cindy Burrascano for archiving this article

Banner photo: Carrizo Badlands overlook, photo by Alan Schmierer https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CARRIZO_BADLANDS_OVERLOOK_CAMPSITE (1-8-2017)_anza-borrego_state_park,_san_diego_co,_ca_-1_(31483247004).jpg