People don't describe
what they see,
they see what they can describe
Several months after Huell Howser completed the chaparral episode for this popular public television show, California's Green, he called us up. He said, "I've been filming our show up and down the state for the past few months, and you know what I've seen? Chaparral! It's everywhere! I had no idea."
When you bought your last car, did you notice, all of a sudden, that the same model seemed to be everywhere? When you become familiar with something, you're able to identify it almost automatically. The same goes for California's chaparral ecosystem. Once you know it exists and learn its various types, you'll notice it everywhere.
For the basic description of what chaparral is, please see our introductory page. To explore the wonderful variety of unique chaparral plant communities, we would like to share the photos below. Enjoy!
Red shanks chaparral (foreground) near Pine Valley, California, in the Cleveland National Chaparral (Forest) Preserve. Inset shows an old-growth red shanks individual more than 125-years-old. The cream-yellow blooms upper left are from chamise.
Ceanothus chaparral deep in the Cleveland National Chaparral (Forest) Preserve west of Temecula, California.
Chamise chaparral with its creamy-yellow blossoms having turned auburn in the summer. Light green manzanita shrubs are interspersed.
Old-growth scrub oak chaparral (over 50-years-old) in San Diego, California. Inset shows the delicate understory with lichens on the branches and a thick carpet of oak leaves, a rich habitat for a wide variety of lifeforms.
Manzanita chaparral (foreground) on the Los Padres National Chaparral (Forest) Preserve above Santa Barbara, California. Inset shows the understory and a close-up of several mature Refugio manzanita shrubs.
Mixed chaparral with a wide variety of shrub species in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, California.
Maritime chaparral at the Elfin Forest Preserve, Los Osos, California.
Island chaparral on Santa Rosa Island, California. The tree is a Torrey pine, only found here and in San Diego County.
Montane chaparral on the Mt. Laguna range in the Cleveland National Chaparral (Forest) Reserve, California. The yellow are Kellogg oak trees (Quercus kelloggii) turning in the cool days of October.
Ione chaparral, composed primarily by the low-growing Ione manzanita (Arctostaphylos myrtifolia), southeast of Sacramento, California.
Desert chaparral, in the Anza-Borrego Desert, is one of the most fragile chaparral types due to the sparse moisture and longer drought periods.
Serpentine chaparral growing in serpentine soil on Mt. Tamalpais, north of San Francisco seen in the distance. Note the greenish serpentine rocks and soil in the foreground.
Episodic Chaparral growing after the 2013 Rim Fire near Yosemite. After forest fires, episodic chaparral recolonizes the burned ground and provides critical habitat for species unseen since after the last fire. The shrubs also act as nurse plants to shade conifer seedlings, helping them to create a forest again. The shrubs will eventually thin out under the forested shade, but will still provide important understory habitat. Unfortunately, driven by potential financial gain, foresters often destroy this fragile habitat with salvage logging and herbicides to create artificial tree farms that can be logged in the future. California State Parks is in the process of destroying episodic chaparral in Rancho Cuyamaca State Park. This type of chaparral was first characterized by Bryant Baker in his studies of post fire forest habitats.
International Mediteranean-type Shrublands
The matorral of central Chile. Minus the palms, the community is very similar to the chaparral of southern California.
The maquis of northern Italy.
The garigue of Spain, Sierra del Teleno in the province of León. Photo credit: Mark Farrell.
Other Shrubland Ecosystems
For a number of reasons, shrubland ecosystems have been delegated as second-class environments (or worse) when compared to forests or grasslands. In the past, forests provided cover, grasslands a place to hunt. Forests can be lumbered; grasslands can be grazed. But shrublands? They have often been seen as the stuff that gets in the way of the forester or the rancher. With chains dragged between tractors, abuse by fire, and the application of herbicides, humans have attempted to remove shrubs from the landscape. Such shortsighted approaches to land management have usually resulted in dire consequences for the natural environment. It's time to rethink our attitudes about the ecosystem in-between, an ecosystem that provides incredibly diverse habitats for the majority of animal life in many regions. It's time to learn to appreciate the value of the shrubs! "People don't describe what they see, they see what they can describe."- James Flaherty
California sage scrub. A special plant community dominated by aromatic semi-woody, and semi-deciduous drought-tolerant shrubs. Often referred to as coastal sage scrub or "soft chaparral." California rather than "coastal" is a better identifier because many sage scrub communities occur far from the coast. Often found on south facing slopes on coastal and inland mountains from north-central to southern California, and into Baja California.
Petran chaparral in Roxborough State Park, Colorado, shown here in early February before new leaves form. Although this "chaparral" is not shaped by a Mediterranean-type climate, it does have dense shrub thickets composed of short gamble oak, mountain mahogany, and a few other shrub species. The low growing manzanita Arctostaphylos uva-ursi is also found here.
The sagebrush steppe is composed of shrubs, grasses, wildflowers, and some trees (like juniper and pinyon pine) that provide food and shelter for hundreds of wildlife species. Historically, the sagebrush steppe covered between 150 - 243 million acres in western North America, spanning parts of 16 states and three Canadian provinces. However, the sagebrush steppe has been reduced in area by as much as 50 percent since European settlement. Exotic grasses and weeds now dominate much of its former range.
Heath balds are sky island habitats in the Appalachian Mountains dominated by broad-leafed, evergreen shrubs adapted to harsh, xeric conditions. The balds are usually surrounded by dense forests. One of the most remarkable species is the beautiful rhododendron, which color the balds in spring with splashes of pink. The formation of balds continues to be debated, but soil conditions likely play the key role. An extremely acidic layer of peat soil that underlies the balds can be 50 to 100 centimeters in depth. Heath balds are found along narrow ridges and mountain crests in the Great Smokey Mountains, Appalachia. Hiking the Appalachian Trail is an excellent way to visit these unique shrubland habitats. Photo credit: Allen, J.L., and J.C. Lendemer (2015).
Creosote shrubland, Saline Valley in Death Valley National Park. Creosote bush (Larrea tridentata), frequently misnamed as "chaparral," is a beautifully aromatic shrub. As can be seen in this photo, it sparsely populates vast stretches of desert environments.
Hop-sage shrubland, Saline Valley in Death Valley National Park. Hop-sage (Grayia spinosa) is the characteristic species in this low-growing, arid ecosystem.