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January 25, 2018

Dear Skyliners,

 

In the last week, we've been out dodging these welcome rains to weed and plant. We had a big group out on Sunday and we rolled back the Scattergrass in two areas near the Bay Grove.  Welcome to Valerie, Steve, Jazmine, Yoshiya, James, Brandon and Alex. 

 

Conditions look perfect for lots of planting on Sunday.  We'll be planting on the Plateau and in the Bay Grove.  

We'll meet at Siesta Gate at 9:30 - please let me know if you can make it.

 

In our restoration work on the high ridge meadow areas at Skyline, we've been observing the role of gophers in the local ecology.  Our local species of gopher is Botta's Pocket Gopher (Thomomys bottae) and they are little miners.  They excavate  underground homes of tunnels and many chambers: places to sleep, places to store food, places for their waste, and now, even little rooms for Gopher Wi-fi.  Each gopher occupies a defined territory; in good soil this can span about 1,000 square feet (or an area about 30 feet square).  

 

Gophers are vegetarians, and in the spots where they feed heavily, the surface is pock-marked with little holes and bumps.  That's what their name comes from, for the word Gopher comes from the French 'gaufre' which means 'waffle;' they were named for the waffle-like pattern of their feeding holes.  

 

All this excavation brings a lot of soil to the surface, which we see as gopher mounds.  One gopher can move up to several cubic yards of soil each year. 

 

Now the soil that gophers bring up to the surface comes from deep in the ground, and it is mineral soil, nearly completely free of any seeds.  So a fresh gopher mound becomes the perfect seed bed for new plants.  These mounds are crumbly, so nearby seeds fall right into the pits and cracks, and these mounds are the perfect places to sprout with no competition.   I have noticed that these gopher mounds are often the best places for annual wildflowers, especially in meadow areas heavily infected with greedy invasive grasses.  These are places where our native wildflowers can grow and temporarily thrive with the competition pushed to the edges.  

 

The same dynamic is also true of areas where our native perennials grow very thick.  Without gophers, the perennials will simply cover and lock down the whole area and choke out the annual wildflowers.  I first saw this years ago when I was exploring a 'sea-stack' just barely separated from the Mendocino Coast.  While the mainland had a rich display of Tidy Tips, Gold Fields, Owls Clover and such, the sea-stack was completely thatched over with native perennials such as Phacelia, Angelica, Lizard Tail, Buckwheat, Yarrow and such.  I couldn't explain why there were no annual wildflowers on the sea-stack full of natives, until I saw that there were no gophers out there to open up seed beds with their mounds of earth.  Sure enough, remove the gophers and you remove these wildflowers.

 

We are finding these same patterns up at Skyline and here are some photos.  Let's start with Poppies; here's a shot of Poppy seedlings on a fresh gopher mound:

You can see that the Poppy seedlings are surrounded by the bare, pebbled earth of a gopher mound.

 

Here's a shot of Popcorn Flower seedlings:

The large rosettes with the pointed leaves are Popcorn Flowers, two large ones and one small one.  At the center right is a  Phacelia seedling, with deeper vein lines on the leaves.   The red stake is to flag these from over zealous vinegar sprayers or  weeders.  If these survive to make flowers and seeds, this spot will become a little reservoir of wildflower seeds for the next seasons.

 

Here's a large area of gopher activity surrounded by a ring of Fiddleneck seedlings:

The Fiddlenecks are quite well developed, and right here I believe they are growing in last year's gopher mounds.  The soil to the left is very fresh, within days because it hasn't yet been rained on, and will provide the seed bed for next year's Fiddlenecks.

 

Here's a medley of native plants coming up in a mound:

At the left is a Miner's Lettuce seedling  the round leaves we associate with these will develop later around the flower stalk).  In the middle is a Buckwheat; a perennial who has survived the recent excavation.  In the upper right are two seedlings of Silver Lupine, the shrubby Lupine with the purple flowers.  These have a long way to go to complete their life cycle.

 

Next time your are out, take a moment to look around and see how our little miner friends promote diverse and beautiful meadowlands.

 

The long spring that began with the first rains in October - over three months ago - is now beginning to blossom forth. The first wildflowers are starting to peek out at Skyline.  Here's our lovely yellow ground-hugger, with the frilly leaves:

This is Lomatium (probably caruifolium), sometimes called Biscuit Root or Hog Fennel.  They are members of the Parsley family.  Each flower head is about the size of a silver dollar, and the color is a pure, lemon yellow.  They have a deep, underground tuber that sustains them in the dry season.  By the way, these fine-cut clumps of leaves are devils to spot when we are out spraying vinegar.  

 

And, here is our first Indian Paintbrush:

We have lots of these at Skyline, and they just light up the land.  

 

It is wonderful, and deeply reassuring, to see them again.

 

Happy Trails,

 

Glen