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Grasslands are distributed worldwide. In California they are found from Oregon to the Mexican border and from the desert to the Pacific Ocean. They occur here from sea level to about 4500 feet. In the northwestern corner of the state, primarily on coastal terraces and hills, one finds Coastal Prairies or Northern Coastal Grasslands. Montane meadows are usually treated as wetland communities given the distinctively wet environment in which they occur. In transmontane California (east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains) in the Mojave and Great Basin Deserts are Desert Grasslands. Throughout the rest of cismontane California are Southern Coastal Grasslands, Valley Grasslands, and Native Bunchgrass Grasslands. Today, Valley Grasslands , California annual grasslands , or non-native grasslands, are synonymously used to refer to most of the highly altered grasslands found throughout California. They occur in the San Joaquin, Sacramento, and Salinas Valleys and other similar valleys, as well as along the coast. Poly Canyon's grasslands are within the geographic extension and floristic description of Valley Grasslands and Native Bunchgrass Grasslands. Today Valley Grasslands are largely dominated by introduced annual grasses and forbs. Native Bunchgrass Grasslands are supposed relicts of the pristine valley grassland and are dominated by native perennial bunchgrasses.

Valley Grasslands and Native Bunchgrass Grasslands occur in areas of relatively little (ten to twenty inches) rain that falls, irregularly, in winter and spring. Typically there are four to eight months per year of summer drought when the soils dry out thoroughly. Temperatures often rise above 100F. These areas are too hot and dry for woodlands and forests. However, where more moisture is available, often on north-facing slopes, in ravines, or near springs, trees such as coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia) may grow among the grasses and forbs.

These grasslands develop on a variety of soils. As their name suggests, Valley Grasslands are often found in valleys on deep, nutrient-rich alluvium. The soil texture ranges from coarse gravel to very fine clay. A shallow claypan or hardpan may prevent rain from penetrating to deeper soil horizons. Native Bunchgrass Grasslands are often found on shallow and/or rocky, nutrient-poor serpentinite or in patches among Valley Grasslands. During the summer, the upper soil horizons of these grasslands usually dry out.

Grassland communities in Poly Canyon intergrade with coastal scrub, chaparral, coastal live oak woodlands, and riparian communities. Grasslands and coastal scrub may both occur on clay soils and are often physically separated by a zone of bare ground, as discussed above in the coastal scrub chapter. Chaparral tends to be found on steeper slopes. Coastal live oak woodlands are found in soils that retain moisture longer.

A description of California's pre-European pristine grassland communities is impossible because there are no scientifically accurate records. Experts use early historical accounts in conjunction with knowledge of micro-fossil presence and current grassland composition and distribution to attempt to describe what these grasslands once may have been. In areas where soils retain more moisture later into spring and early summer, primarily in rich-soiled valley bottoms and lower foothills, one often finds perennial grasses such as needlegrasses (Nassella pulchra and N. cernua, both bunchgrasses). These are often interspersed with non-native annual grasses such as wild oats (Avena spp.) and bromes (Bromus spp.). Other native grasses are also common, including one-sided bluegrass (Poa secunda), blue wild-rye (Elymus glaucus), Junegrass (Koeleria macrantha), and melic grasses (Melica spp.). Annual grasses and forbs commonly occupy open spaces among the perennials.

Pre-colonial native grasslands were grazed seasonally and episodically by pronghorn antelope, tule elk, and deer. The valley floor would be grazed earliest in the year. Then, as temperatures warmed the foothills and grasses matured there, the herds would move further and further upslope till the cool weather returned. Predators would have kept the number of grazers in check and kept the remaining animals on the move. Thus, the habitat would unlikely have been overgrazed.

Native Californians used fire once every three to five years. Fire stimulates the regrowth of certain herbs and grasses the following year by removing litter, providing more nutrients in the form of ash, and preserving the grassland community by preventing woody plants from becoming established. For example, purple needlegrass (Nassella pulchra) seedlings become established more successfully on bare ground than on the litter-strewn ground of an undisturbed grassland. Also, studies have shown that perennial grassland species successfully resprout and vigorously set flower the first season following burning.

From 1769 through the mid-1800s, Europeans settled and changed these grasslands for raising introduced crops and domestic livestock. European methods of animal husbandry encouraged cattle and sheep to graze much more intensively than native animals. Domestic animals were allowed to graze throughout the year. Fires were either repressed or set too often (yearly). European forbs, such as filaree (Erodium spp.), mustard (Brassica spp. and Hirschfeldia incana), and thistles (Carduus pycnocephalus, Centaurea calcitrapa, Cirsium vulgare, Silybum marianum, and others), were mostly introduced accidentally, their seeds arriving in livestock and pet hooves, fur, and fodder, as well as in packing materials and ballast. These foreign plants came to California's Mediterranean climate without elements which in Mediterranean Europe kept their growth in check. Their native pests and diseases remained in their homeland making them already more tolerant of grazing than were native Californian plants. Also, European cattle and sheep preferred grazing on native Californian plants. Thus, the introduced plant species that were able to survive then, now grow here unchallenged: hardy weeds.

Among forbs and grasses, introduced grassland annuals seem to challenge the native perennials. Annuals germinate with the first rains of the season and start growing earlier in the year than perennials. Annuals take the first moisture and nutrients available in an area. Then they grow quickly to outshade perennial species. Many annuals are not as tasty as perennials or they have other qualities which repel livestock. For example, the common name ripgut grass (Bromus diandrus) refers to the long, sharp awns (bristly hairs which stick out of the grass head) that would-be grazers need to negotiate before eating any kernels. Many annuals have much lower nutritional value than perennials, and annuals are available to be grazed only in spring, whereas perennials remain green nearly year-round.

Type conversion not only of native grasslands, but also of coastal scrub and chaparral has claimed many acres for fields, orchards, and urbanization. Wild oats (Avena spp.), bromes (Bromus spp.), and barley (Hordeum spp.) are commonly found in such areas. However, localized occurrences of native perennials such as needlegrass (Nassella spp.), bent grass (Agrostis spp.), fescue (Festuca spp.), Junegrass (Koeleria macrantha), and bluegrass (Poa spp.) are also found. Section G provides more information on anthropogenic communities (click here for description).

Once covering one fifth of the state, native perennial grasslands cover 0.1% of that today. "The California Natural Diversity Data Base has identified Purple Needlegrass [Nassella pulchra] Grassland as a community which needs priority monitoring and restoration efforts. Communities with 10% or greater overall cover of Stipa pulchra [Nassella pulchra] constitute significant communities that require special protection as remnants of the once widespread pristine California prairie."

At Cal Poly, an innovative approach to range management has been applied in Serrano Canyon, the watershed just west of Poly Canyon. Under the title "holistic resource management," livestock grazing is proving to be not only sustainable, but more importantly, beneficial to degraded grassland communities. At any given time, 100% of the animals are grazing on only 1% of the available land. Animals are not allowed to graze an area until all forage has been depleted. Instead they are rotated into other pastures soon enough to allow native grasses and forbs the opportunity to regenerate. Pastures are closely monitored and are grazed much like they were when native deer were their only grazers: periodically and episodically. Depending on the season and the weather patterns, animals are grazed longer or shorter in any given area.

In Poly Canyon, Italian thistle has become established under many oaks because of repeated cattle trampling and overgrazing. Ironically, cattle no longer graze areas that have become overrun by the thistles. However, sheep do. Sheep eat plants that cattle will not touch, such as star thistles (Centaurea spp.), Italian thistle (Carduus pycnocephalus), and milk thistle (Silybum marianum). With the managed introduction of sheep into such areas in Serrano Canyon, Italian thistle has been eliminated, promoting reestablishment of more desirable native grasses and forbs.

Another interesting point is that many studies have shown oak survival to be inhibited by rodent populations in savannas and grasslands. However, studies in Serrano Canyon suggest that the rodents are not actually the cause of the problem, rather a symptom of another problem. As native perennial grasses and forbs are replaced by introduced annuals, the overall seed production in the area increases. This allows the population of seed-eating rodents to increase proportionately. While perennials produce seed over a relatively longer period each year (well into summer), annuals produce only one crop of seeds each year mostly in one short season (late spring, early summer). When annuals dominate a savanna, acorns, which mature when annual seed is long gone, become an important food crop for the rodents, and the recruitment of oaks suffers.

In Poly Canyon, non-native annual grasslands occur primarily in the deeper-soiled, clay-loam bottomlands bordering riparian communities and on the lower hillsides where they meet coastal live oak woodlands, chaparral, and coastal scrub communities. They constitute grazed lands, pastoral communities highly modified by human's repeated disturbance.

The occurrence of native perennial grasses on shallow-soiled, rocky, serpentinitic hillsides is conspicuous in Poly Canyon. Grazing of domestic livestock has been eliminated in some of these areas. Patches occurring within the boundaries of the Botanic Garden have not been grazed since 1971. One such area supports at least seven grass species, the first six of which are natives:

  1. Squirreltail (Elymus elymoides), perennial
  2. Junegrass (Koeleria macrantha), perennial
  3. California melic (Melica californica), perennial
  4. Slender needlegrass (Nassella lepida), perennial
  5. Purple needlegrass (Nassella pulchra), perennial
  6. Annual fescue (Vulpia microstachys), annual
  7. Ryegrass (Lolium perenne), annual

Whereas many native grasses are tolerant of serpentinitic soils, most non-native annuals are unable to withstand such an environment. In Poly Canyon, serpentinitic uplands are haven to relict native grasslands as well as communities of rock outcrop and yucca scrub.

Native grasses commonly found in Poly Canyon include:
Blue wild-rye (Elymus glaucus)
Junegrass (Koeleria macrantha)
Beardless wildrye (Leymus triticoides)
Melic grass, oniongrass (Melica imperfecta)
Foothill or slender needlegrass (Nassella lepida)
Purple needlegrass (Nassella pulchra)
One-sided bluegrass (Poa secunda)
Annual fescue (Vulpia microstachys)
Grasses introduced to Poly Canyon include:
*Slender wild oat (Avena barbata)
*Common wild oat (Avena fatua)
False brome (Brachypodium distachyon)
Ripgut brome (Bromus diandrus)
Soft chess brome (Bromus hordeaceus)
Red brome, foxtail chess (Bromus madritensis)
Nit grass (Gastridium ventricosum)
Mediterranean barley (Hordeum marinum ssp. gussoneanum)
*Foxtail (Hordeum murinum)
*Wild rye, Italian ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum)
Harding grass (Phalaris aquatica)
Smilo grass (Piptatherum miliaceum)
Annual bluegrass (Poa annua)
Rattail fescue (Vulpia myuros)

Descriptions of Poly Canyon's primary native grasses follow.

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Blue wild-rye (Elymus glaucus) This bunchgrass is a stiffly erect perennial with a grayish-bluish green color. It has 6- to 14-dm. (231/2- to 55-inch) culms. The leaf blades are flat. The 6- to 16-cm. (21/2- to 61/2-inch) spike-like inflorescence generally has two spikelets per node. Each spikelet has one to seven florets. The straight awn is less than 30 mm. (11/4 inches) long. Blue wildrye occurs in open areas, chaparral, and woodlands.

Elymus is the ancient Greek name for this grass. Glaucus means "bluish-gray."


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Junegrass (Koeleria macrantha) This is a perennial, clumping species. It has 2- to 7-dm. (8- to 271/2-inch) stems. The leaves have ridged blades. The 2- to 15-cm. (3/4- to 6-inch), narrow, panicle-like inflorescence is somewhat cylindric. It bears a 4- to 6-mm. (1/6- to 1/4-inch), tan-colored (or purplish), laterally compressed spikelet with two to three awnless florets. It occurs in dry, open sites, in clay to rocky soils, in woodlands and shrublands.

G.L. Koeler was a German botanist born in Mainz in 1765. Macrantha means "large-flowered."


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Beardless wildrye (Leymus triticoides) This is a bluish-glaucous perennial that spreads by rhizomes. It has 41/2- to 13-dm. (18- to 51-inch) stems. The leaf blades are strongly ribbed above and finely scabrous below. The inflorescence is 5 to 20 cm. (2 to 8 inches) long and spike-like. There are one to three spikelets per node and two to seven florets per spikelet. The single awn is approximately 3 mm. (1/8 inch) long. Beardless wildrye occurs in moist meadows.

Leymus is an anagram of Elymus in which genus this grass was once included. Triticoides means "wheat-like."


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Melic grass, oniongrass (Melica imperfecta) This is a densely clumped perennial bunchgrass. It has slender 5- to 11-dm. (20- to 43-inch) erect or spreading stems. The basal leaves have flat blades. The 5- to 36-cm. (2- to 14-inch) inflorescence is narrow and panicle-like. The 31/2- to 7-mm. (1/8- to 1/4-inch) spikelets have one to two fertile florets at the bottom and a clublike sterile floret at the tip. Florets are awnless. Melic grass occurs on dry, rocky hillsides, in chaparral and woodlands.

Melica comes from the ancient Latin name for "honey." Imperfecta means "unfinished, imperfect, incomplete."


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Foothill or slender needlegrass (Nassella lepida) This perennial has a 3- to 10-dm. (12- to 39-inch) unbranched stem. Its open panicle-like inflorescence is 9 to 55 cm. (31/2 to 211/2 inches tall). There is one floret per spikelet, each with a distinctively very slender and long 20- to 46-mm. (3/4- to 13/4-inch) awn with a wavy tip. The awn is not as stout as that of Nasella pulchra, below. This needlegrass is found on dry slopes, in chaparral and savannas.

Nasella derives from the Latin word nassa meaning "basket with a narrow neck." Lepida means "scale."


Purple needlegrass (Nassella pulchra) This perennial has a 3- to 10-dm. (12- to 40-inch) unbranched stem. It has an open 18- to 60-cm. (7- to 231/2-inch) panicle-like inflorescence. The single floret per spikelet has a distinctive 38- to 100-mm. (11/2- to 4-inch) awn that is strongly bent, except the tip which is straight. The awn is stouter than that of Nasella lepida, above. Purple needlegrass is found in grasslands, oak woodlands, and chaparral.

Nasella derives from the Latin word nassa meaning "basket with a narrow neck." Pulchra means "beautiful."


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One-sided bluegrass (Poa secunda) This is a perennial, densely clumped grass with 11/2 to 10 dm. (6- to 40-inch) culms. The leaf blade is flat to folded or inrolled. The open to dense, panicle-like inflorescence is 2 to 15 cm. (3/4 to 6 inches) long and is often one-sided. It is linear to lanceolate in shape. The oblong to linear spikelets are 6 to 10 mm. (1/4 to 1/2 inch) long and have three to six florets each. The bracts of the spikelet are all awnless. One-sided bluegrass is common in many habitats.

Poa is the ancient Greek name. Secunda means "inferior."


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Annual fescue (Vulpia microstachys) This grass is a loosely clumped or solitary annual. It is erect or ascending to between 11/2 and 71/2 dm. (6 and 30 inches) tall. The stems are glabrous and unbranched. The leaves have flat blades (rolled when dry). The 2- to 24-cm. (3/4- to 91/2-inch) panicle-like inflorescence has lower branches spreading. The 51/2- to 10-mm. (1/4- to 1/2-inch) spikelet stalk is angular. Each spikelet has two to four florets each with a 31/2- to 12-mm. (1/8- to 1/2-inch) awn. Annual fescue is common on disturbed, open, sandy soils.

J.S. Vulpius was a pharmacist, botanist in Baden, Germany. Microstachys means "small spike."


Descriptions of Poly Canyon's common introduced grasses follow.

Slender wild oat

*Slender wild oat (Avena barbata) This annual has culms that measure 3- to 6-dm. (12- to 24-inch) - often much taller. It has an open, panicle-like inflorescence. The spikelets are usually two-flowered. Each floret has one awn that is 20 to 40 mm. (3/4 to 11/2 inches) long that emerges from the back of the lemma more or less at the midpoint. The tips of the lemmas have a pair of bristle-like teeth. The awn is twisted below its bend. The pedicels are very soft, so the fruits dangle. This grass is common where the ground has been disturbed. It has been introduced from southern Europe.

Avena is Latin for "oats." Barbata means "bearded," referring to the hairiness of the lemmas.

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*Common wild oat (Avena fatua) This annual has 3- to 12-dm. (12- to 47-inch) culms. It has a panicle-like inflorescence. The spikelets are usually three-flowered. Each floret has one awn that is 25 to 40 mm. (1 to 11/2 inches) long that emerges from the back of the lemma more or less at the midpoint. The tips of the lemmas have a pair of short triangular teeth. The awn is twisted below its bend. The pedicels are more rigid than in A. barbata, so the fruits are better supported. Common wild oat often grows in disturbed sites. It has been introduced from Europe.

Avena is Latin for "oats." Fatua means "gaping."

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False brome (Brachypodium distachyon) This annual has decumbent to erect 15- to 40-cm. (6- to 16-inch) culms with flat blades. A field recognition feature is that the stem nodes are hairy, whereas the internodes are glabrous. False brome has a spike-like inflorescence of 1 to 8 cm. (1/2 to 3 inches). There are one to six sessile spikelets on each stem. Each spikelet has six to 20 florets. Each floret has one terminal awn of 4 to 11 mm. (1/8 to 1/2 inch). False brome occurs in disturbed areas and on dry slopes. It comes from southern Europe.

Brachypodium is Greek for "short foot," referring to the short, thick spikelet stalk in some species of this genus. Distachyon means "two-pointed."

Ripgut brome

Ripgut brome (Bromus diandrus) This 15- to 80-cm. (6- to 32-inch) annual has soft-hairy leaves. The 6- to 25-cm. (21/2- to 10-inch) inflorescence is panicle-like and open and bears a somewhat compressed spikelet. Each spikelet bears five to eight florets. Each floret has a single awn, 30 to 55 mm. (1 to 2 inches) long. Ripgut brome occurs in open, disturbed places and fields. It comes from Europe.

Bromus is the ancient Greek name. Diandrus means "having two stamens."

Soft chess brome

Soft chess brome (Bromus hordeaceus) This annual has 11- to 65-cm. (41/2- to 251/2-inch) culms with soft-hairy leaves. The dense, somewhat compressed 21/2- to 13-cm. (1- to 5-inch) inflorescence bears one to many short hairy spikelets with five to ten florets. Each floret has a single awn, 4 to 10 mm. (1/8 to 1/2 inch) long. Soft chess brome is found in open, often disturbed places. It comes from Eurasia.

Bromus is the ancient Greek name. Hordaceus means "barley-like."

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Red brome, foxtail chess (Bromus madritensis ssp. rubens) This annual grows to 10 to 50 cm. (4 to 20 inches) tall. It has puberulent to short-soft-hairy blades. The 3- to 8-cm. (1- to 41/2-inch) dense, panicle-like inflorescence bears cylindric to slightly compressed spikelets, each with three to nine florets. Each floret has a single 10- to 25-mm. (1/2- to 1-inch) awn. Red brome occurs in open, generally disturbed places. It was introduced from Europe.

Bromus is the ancient Greek name. Madritensis means "from Madrid." Rubens means "becoming reddish."

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Nit grass (Gastridium ventricosum) This slender, erect annual has 1- to 4-dm. (4- to 16-inch) mostly glabrous culms. Leaves have narrow, flat, or inrolled blades. The panicle-like, 11/2- to 9-cm. (1/2- to 31/2-inch) inflorescence is very narrow and dense. Each spikelet has one floret with a straight to curved, 3- to 5-mm. (1/8-inch) awn. Nit grass is found in open, dry, disturbed places. It was introduced from Europe.

Gastridium is Greek meaning "small pouch," referring to the swollen base of the spikelet. Ventricosum comes from venter, "belly," and means "swollen, inflated."

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Mediterranean barley (Hordeum marinum ssp. gussoneanum) This 1- to 5-dm. (4- to 20-inch) annual has stems that are erect or bent at the base. The blades range from flat to somewhat rolled. The dense, spike-like, 11/2- to 7-cm. (1/2- to 21/2-inch) inflorescence is green to purple in color. There are three spikelets per node. There are two types of spikelets: the central one has a single bisexual floret. This floret has a 6- to 18-mm. (1/4- to 1/2-inch) awn. Each of the two lateral spikelets has a sterile floret with a 3- to 8-mm. (1/8- to 1/2-inch) awn . Hordeum marinum flowers later in the season than does H. murinum. Mediterranean barley occurs in dry to moist disturbed sites. It is native to Europe.

Hordeum is the ancient Latin name. Marinum means "of the sea, marine." The derivation of gussoneanum is unclear.


*Foxtail (Hordeum murinum) This is a 1- to 11-dm. (4- to 431/2-inch) grass with erect (sometimes prostrate) stems. The leaf blade ranges from flat to somewhat rolled. The 3- to 8-cm. (1- to 3-inch) green-glaucous inflorescence has three spikelets per node. There are two types of spikelets: the central one has a single bisexual floret with a 20- to 40-mm. (1- to 11/2-inch) awn. The lateral spikelets have a single floret with a 20- to 50-mm. (1- to 2-inch) awn. Hordeum murinum usually flowers earlier in the season than does H. marinum. Foxtails are found in moist, disturbed sites. Subspecies glaucum is a summer annual. Subspecies leporinum and murinum are winter annuals. Foxtails were introduced from Europe.

Hordeum is the ancient Latin name. Murinum means "(gray) like a mouse."

Wild rye, Italian ryegrass

*Wild rye, Italian ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum) This is an annual in Poly Canyon. Its solitary to loosely clumped stems are 4 to 8 dm. (16 to 32 inches) long, and are generally glabrous. The leaves are basal and cauline. The 5- to 20-cm. (2- to 8-inch) blade is rolled when in bud. The spike-like, 10-to 30-cm. (4- to 12-inch) inflorescence has sessile, laterally-compressed spikelets inserted edge-on to the axis of the spike. Each spikelet has a single basal glume. There are five to 20 bisexual florets per spikelet. Each floret has a single 1- to 8-mm. (1/16- to 1/4-inch) awn. Wild rye is found in disturbed sites. It was introduced from Eurasia.

Lolium is the ancient Latin name for "ryegrass." Multiflorum means "many-flowered."

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Harding grass (Phalaris aquatica) This is a 4- to 15-dm. (16- to 59-inch) perennial clumping grass. It has erect stems with flat-bladed leaves. The very dense inflorescence is 11/2 to 11 cm. (1/2 to 41/2 inches) long, panicle-like, and cylindric or ovoid in shape. The strongly compressed spikeletshave a single, terminal fertile floret and one or two tiny sterile lemmas below it. Harding grass is common in wet areas and ditches. It was introduced from Mediterranean Europe.

Phalaris is the ancient Greek name for "grass with shiny spikelets." Aquatica means "found in/near water."

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Smilo grass (Piptatherum miliaceum) This is a perennial, clumping grass. The culms are 4 to 15 dm. (151/2 to 59 inches) tall. The open 15- to 40-cm. (6- to 151/2-inch) inflorescence has whorled branches with numerous tiny spikelets. Each spikelet has a single floret that is 11/2 to 2 mm. (1/16 to 1 inch). The slightly bent awn is 3 to 4 mm. (1/8 inch) and falls readily. Smilo grass is found in disturbed places, mostly along the roadsides in Poly Canyon. It was introduced from Eurasia.

Piptatherum means "falling awn" in Greek. Miliaceum means "millet-like."

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Annual bluegrass (Poa annua) This is an annual, 2- to 20-cm. (1- to 8-inch) grass. It forms clumps or spreads by stolons. The leaf blade is flat and is bright or yellowish green. The 1- to 10-cm. (1/2- to 4-inch) inflorescence is panicle-like with spreading branches.The 3- to 6-flowered, oblong spikelets are 3- to 6-mm. (1/8- to 1/4-inch) long. The bracts of the spikelet are all awnless. Annual bluegrass grows in disturbed, moist ground. It is native to Europe.

Poa is the ancient Greek name. Annua means "annual."

Rattail fescue

Rattail fescue (Vulpia myuros) This annual, loosely clumped or solitary stemmed grass is unbranched and less than 71/2 dm. (30 inches) tall. The dense, panicle-like inflorescence measures 4 to 25 cm. (11/2 to 10 inches) in length. The spikelet stalk is slender, and the spikelet is 5 to 111/2 mm. (2 to 41/2 inches) long. Each spikelet bears three to six florets, each with a 5- to 15-mm. (1/4- to 1/2-inch) awn. This grass occurs in open, sandy places, hillsides, and moist sites in chaparral. It was introduced from Europe.

J.S. Vulpius was a pharmacist, botanist in Baden, Germany. Myuros means "long and tapering, like a mouse's tail."

Grassland forbs include:
*Wild onion (Allium haematochiton, Liliaceae)
*Fiddleneck, rancher's fireweed (Amsinckia menziesii var. intermedia, Boraginaceae)
Locoweed (Astragalus curtipes, Fabaceae)
Cryptantha (Cryptantha clevelandii, Boraginaceae)
*Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum, Liliaceae)
*Storksbill filaree (Erodium botrys, Geraniaceae)
*Redstem filaree (Erodium cicutarium, Geraniaceae)
*California poppy (Eschscholzia californica, Papaveraceae)
*Goldfields (Lasthenia californica, Asteraceae)
*Jones' Layia (Layia jonesii, Asteraceae)
*Tidy-tips (Layia platyglossa, Asteraceae)
*Baby stars (Linanthus parviflorus, Polemoniaceae)
*Popcornflower (Plagiobothrys nothofulvus, Boraginaceae)
*Annual plantain (Plantago erecta, Plantaginaceae)
*Buttercup (Ranunculus californicus, Ranunculaceae)
*Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum, Iridaceae)
*Johnny jump-up (Viola pedunculata, Violaceae)

Grassland forbs are described here:

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*Wild onion (Allium haematochiton, Liliaceae) This perennial spreads by bulbs on short rhizomes. The stem is 10 to 40 cm. (4 to 16 inches) tall. The four to six flat, linear, basal leaves wither from the tip before the plant blooms. The inflorescence is an umbel of ten to thirty flowers. The flowers are 6 to 8 mm. (1/4 inch), with the three sepals and three petals being petal-like. The flowers are whitish to rose-colored and have a dark mid-vein. The six stamens are epipetalous. The bloom is from March through May. Wild onion is common on grassy, dry, rocky hillsides.

Allium is Latin for "garlic." Haematochiton refers to the reddish, stiff, papery membranes enveloping the bulbs.


Fiddleneck, rancher's fireweed 1 Fiddleneck, rancher's fireweed 2

*Fiddleneck, rancher's fireweed (Amsinckia menziesii var. intermedia, Boraginaceae) This 20- to 120-cm. (8- to 47-inch) annual is bristly. It has both basal and alternate cauline leaves. The inflorescence is a cluster of spike-like scorpioid cymes. The 1/2-cm. (1/4-inch) flowers are deep yellow to orange. They are tubular, flaring at the mouth. They bloom from February through May. The fruits are clusters of one-seeded, tubercled, three-angled nutlets. Fiddlenecks are common in open and generally disturbed places. This is a native species.

W. Amsinck, 19th century, was a patron of the Hamburg Botanical Garden, Germany. Archibald Menzies (1754-1842) was a naturalist on the Vancouver Expedition. Intermedia means "intermediate."


Locoweed (Astragalus curtipes, Fabaceae) This perennial has clumped 20- to 40-cm. (8- to 16-inch) tomentose stems. The pinnately compound leaves have between 25 and 39 leaflets. The inflorescence is a dense raceme with 15 to 35 flowers. The petals are cream-colored, with the keel possibly lilac tinged at the tip. Blooms occur from January through June. The fruit is a 21/2-to 4-cm. (1- to 11/2-inch) one-chambered, papery bladder (legume). Locoweed is found in grasslands, as well as shrublands and disturbed places. This is a native species. Alkaloids in this plant are TOXIC.

Astragalus is Greek meaning "ankle bone" or "dice," possibly referring to the rattling of seeds inside the pod. Curtipes means "short foot," referring to the short stalk or stipe at the base of the ovary.


Cryptantha (Cryptantha clevelandii, Boraginaceae) Cryptantha is a 10- to 60-cm. (4- to 24-inch) annual covered with fine, appressed hairs. It has simple to branched basal leaves and cauline leaves that are opposite low on the stem, alternate higher up. The inflorescence is a cluster of dense, terminal, scorpioid cymes of tiny white flowers that bloom from March through July. The fruit is usually a single nutlet (occasionally two to four nutlets). The nutlet is lanceolate-ovate, smooth, shiny, and mottled gray-brown. Cryptantha can be found in sandy or rocky (even serpentinite) soils, including chaparral. This species is native.

Cryptantha is Greek meaning "hidden flower." This refers to the fact that some species have cleistogamous flowers (that remain closed and are usually self-fertilizing). Daniel Cleveland (1838-1929), of San Diego, collected extensively in southern California as well as the eastern United States.

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*Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum, Liliaceae) This perennial wildflower spreads by corms. It has two or three basal leaves measuring 10 to 40 cm. (4 to 16 inches). The inflorescence is a dense head or umbel on a bare stem that grows to 65 cm. (2 feet) tall, with dark purple bracts, and six to fifteen flowers. The flowers are bell-shaped. They have three sepals and three petals all petal-like, in two series. They are light bluish purple in color (sometimes white or pinkish purple). The flower tube measures 3 to 12 mm. (1/8 to 1/2 inch). There are six stamens which are fused to the perianth and into a crown-like tube. Blooms appear February through May. The fruits are three-angled capsules. Blue dicks are common in grasslands, scrublands, and open woodlands.

Cacomite bulbs were roasted and eaten by native Californians.

Dichelostemma is Greek meaning "toothed crown," referring to the appendages on the stamens. Capitatum refers to the dense head-like inflorescence.

Storksbill filaree

*Storksbill filaree (Erodium botrys, Geraniaceae) This is a 10- to 90-cm. (4- to 35-inch) prostrate to ascending annual. Its stems have many short hairs. The leaves are lobed or dissected. The flowers are maroon-veined and pink-lavender overall. They bloom from March through May. The 5-lobed fruit has a 5- to 12-cm. (2- to 5-inch) long stout beak and breaks into five pieces at maturity; the segments of the beak coil into a tight spiral as they dry. Storksbill filaree occurs in dry, open, and distrubed places. The plant is native to southern Europe.

Erodium is Greek for "heron," referring to the bill-like fruit. Botrys is Greek and means "bunch of grapes."

Alfilerillo ("little needle" in Spanish) was introduced early in the Mission period. Its seeds were used for food; the plant was boiled to make a tonic for the blood.

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*Redstem filaree (Erodium cicutarium, Geraniaceae) This is a 71/2- to 30-cm. (3- to 12-inch) annual with glandular hairy stems. Its leaves are compound, hairy, and deeply dissected. The 0.25-inch flowers are magenta with a purple base. They bloom from February through May. The fruit has a shorter beak than that of E. botrys, 2 to 5 cm (3/4 to 2 inches). Redstem filaree occurs in open and disturbed places, in shrublands and grasslands. This plant is native to Europe.

Erodium is Greek for "heron," referring to the bill-like fruit. Cicutarium derives from the Latin cicuta which means "poison hemlock," referring to the dissected margins of the leaves.

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*California poppy (Eschscholzia californica, Papaveraceae) This annual (or perennial, from a taproot) grows to 60 cm. (2 feet) tall. Its glaucous, linear-dissected leaves are basal as well as scattered along the stem. The flower bud is upright, acute, and may be glaucous. As the flowers open, the cone-like calyx is pushed off by the expanding petals. The four 2- to 51/2-cm. (3/4- to 21/2-inch) petals are a brilliant golden yellow with the bases tinged orange. The bloom is from February through September. The flowers become smaller in late-flowering plants. The fruit is a 3- to 9-cm. (11/4- to 31/2-inch), cylindric capsule that splits open lengthwise. The California poppy is found in open, grassy and disturbed places. California poppy is a native species.

J.F. Eschscholtz, 1793-1831, was a Russian naturalist. Californica means "of California."

Toroza was used by native Californians as an analgesic for colic. It was one of the mythological elements. Now it is our state flower.

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*Goldfields (Lasthenia californica, Asteraceae) This is an annual that grows to about 40 cm. (16 inches) tall (but usually less in Poly Canyon). It has a hairy stem that is simple or branched. The needle-like leaves are opposite. The inflorescence is a small terminal daisy-like head of 10 to 14 deep yellow ray florets and many creamy yellow disk florets that bloom in March and April. Goldfields occur in a variety of habitats, especially in open, grassy areas. En masse it colors grassy fields a brilliant golden yellow - hence the common name. This is a native species.

Lasthenia was a female student of Plato. Californica means "of California."

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*Jones' Layia (Layia jonesii, Asteraceae) This is a 7- to 55-cm. (23/4- to 22-inch) glandular, unscented annual. Its linear to (ob)lanceolate, lobed leaves are less than 7 cm. (23/4 inches)long. Its flowers are in terminal daisy-like heads. The 4- to 8-mm. (1/6- to 1/3-inch) phyllaries appear swollen at base (unlike tidy-tips (L. platyglossa), below). There are 13 to 27 white-tipped yellow ray florets. Disk florets number 35 to 100 and have purple anthers. The fruits of the ray florets are shiny; those of disk florets usually have a pappus of scales (which readily distinguishes this species from tidy-tips (L. platyglossa), below). Jones' Layia is a rare species, but is common in Poly Canyon, particularly on open serpentinite or clay slopes. It is a native species.

G.T. Lay, early 19th century, was an English plant collector. Marcus E. Jones was a botanist collector in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

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*Tidy-tips (Layia platyglossa, Asteraceae) This is a 3- to 70-cm. (11/4- to 28-inch) glandular, unscented annual. Its linear to (ob)lanceolate, lobed leaves are 4- to 100-mm. (1/6- to 1/2-inch) long. The flowers are in terminal daisy-like heads. The 4- to 18-mm. (1/6- to 3/4-inch) phyllaries do not appear swollen at base (unlike Jones' Layia (L. jonesii), above). The 5 to 18 ray florets are deep yellow and usually tipped neatly in white. The disk florets are yellow with generally purple anthers. They bloom from March through May. Fruits from ray florets are dull; those of disk florets have a pappus of bristles (another feature which distinguishes this species from Jones' Layia (L. jonesii), above). Tidy-tips are common in Poly Canyon and widespread in many habitats, especially grasslands. This is a native species.

G.T. Lay, early 19th century, was an English plant collector. Platyglossa means "flat tongue."

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*Baby stars (Linanthus parviflorus, Polemoniaceae) This annual wildflower grows 5 to 25 cm. (2 to 10 inches) tall. Its 8- to 25-mm. (1/4- to 1-inch) leaves are very deeply lobed. They are arranged on the stem opposite one another. The terminal, head-like inflorescence contains sessile flowers. The flowers have a 6- to 8-mm (1/4-inch) calyx and a salverform corolla the thread-like tube of which is 20 to 35 mm. (3/4 to 11/4 inch) long. The corolla tube can be maroon, pink or yellow, the throat is yellow, the lobes are 5 to 6 mm. (1/4 inch), oblong, and can be white, pink, yellow, blue, or purple and have red marks at their base. Baby stars bloom in April and May. They are found in many habitats, open and wooded.

Linanthus is Greek and means "flax flower." Parviflorus means "small flower."

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*Popcornflower (Plagiobothrys nothofulvus, Boraginaceae) This is a 20- to 71-cm.(8- to 28-inch) bristly-hairy annual. It has purple sap. Its leaves are arranged in a basal rosette with a few along the stem. The inflorescence is a cluster of elongated scorpioid cymes of tiny white flowers that bloom from March through May. The fruit is a cluster of one to three (or four) round to ovoid nutlets. Each nutlet has a round scar on the side near the middle. Popcornflower occurs in grasslands and woodlands. From a distance, the clusters of white flowers resemble puffs of popcorn scattered in the grass. This is a native species.

Plagiobothrys is Greek and means "sideways pit." This refers to the attachment scar on the nutlet. Nothus means "not genuine, counterfeit, illegitimate." Fulvus means "tawny, bronze, red-brown, yellow-brown."

Annual plantain

*Annual plantain (Plantago erecta, Plantaginaceae) This is a slender, erect, softly hairy annual. Its 21/2- to 12-cm.(1- to 5-inch) leaves are all basal; they are thread-like to oblanceolate. The 21/2- to 30-cm. (1- to 12-inch) hairy inflorescence is a densely flowered head-like or short-cylindric shaped spike. The tiny, 4-petalled, radial flowers are bisexual. They bloom from March through May. The fruit is a capsule. Annual plantain is found in sandy, clay, or serpentinite soils, on grassy slopes and flats, and in open woodlands. This is a native species.

Plantago is Latin for "sole of the foot" or "footprint." Erecta means "upright."

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*Buttercup (Ranunculus californicus, Ranunculaceae) This 30- to 60-cm. (1- to 2-foot) wildflower is an erect to spreading, tap-rooted perennial. The flowers are shiny bright yellow with nine to 16 petals and many stamens. The shininess of the petals is starch which turns bluish-purple when scarred with ones fingernail. Buttercups bloom from February through April. The fruit is a cluster of achenes. Buttercups are found in grasslands and oak woodlands. They are native.

Ranunculus is Latin for "little frog," probably referring to the flower's moist habitat. Californicus means "of California."

Blue-eyed grass

*Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum, Iridaceae) This is a perennial with compact rhizomes. Its 30-cm. (12-inch) stems are branched and somewhat flattened. The basal, grass-like leaves appear to be attached edge-on to the stems. The deep blue-purple 2- to 21/2-cm. (3/4- to 1-inch) flowers have yellow centers. They bloom from March through June. The fruit is a dry capsule. Blue-eyed grass is found on open, moist, grassy hillsides and in woodlands. It is a native species.

Sisyrinchium was so named by the Greek naturalist Theophrastus, 372-287 B.C. Bellum means "pretty" or "beautiful."

Spaniards called blue-eyed grass azulea for its blue color.

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*Johnny jump-up (Viola pedunculata, Violaceae) This is a 10- to 36-cm. (4- to 14-inch) perennial. Its heart-shaped leaves are mostly basal. They are edged in coarsely rounded teeth. The flowers are on 12- to 15-cm. (5- to 6-inch) stalks and have five bright yellow petals with dark markings at the base. The uppermost two petals are tinged in brown outside. The lowest petal is spurred at its base. The blooms appear from February through April. The fruit is a capsule. Johnny jump-ups are common in open, grassy areas, as well as chaparral and woodlands. They are native.

Viola is the classical name. Peduculata refers to the prominent flower stalks (peduncle).

The local Spanish name was gallitos, meaning little roosters, for their coloring.