June 16, 2011
Thursday, June 16, 2011.
Today we met Sarah Ratay, the Catalina Island Conservancy’s Senior Plant Ecologist. Along with Charlie we all walked down Descanso Canyon, near Avalon. During the walk we practiced plant surveying and tried to identify as many plants as we could see, with a lot of help from Sarah and Charlie. On the right side of the road was a hillside, and on the left was a small canyon. There was an astounding difference in the types of plant communities present between the two areas: the hill side was sparsely populated with mostly invasive plants while the canyon was lush and covered with a much greater diversity of plants.
Today was my first step towards seeing plants like a botanist. An average person walks by through a landscape, recognizes that it is all green and therefore natural, may or may not be pleased with the sights and aromas, and walks on. A botanist or ecologist, on the other hand, knows and sees different shades of green, different leaf or flower arrangements, or the difference between a native plant and an invasive one. The trained eye can differentiate two seemingly similar neighboring plants the same way an average person differentiates between a dog and a cat. Today was the beginning of this awareness training for me, and now when I walk by areas that I was previously familiar with I see a whole new thing altogether. It is no longer just a tree next to a bush, but instead a rare endemic Catalina mahogany next to an invasive fennel.
As we walked down, we collected samples from several different native plants so we could practice identifying unknown plants using the Jepson Manual. The Jepson Manual is like the botanist’s taxonomic bible in California; it contains information on every plant found in California as well as a collection of keys, called a dichotomous key, for identifying vascular plants found in the field.
We returned to the Conservancy office in Middle Ranch to “key” the samples using the Jepson. For each plant you use the dichotomous key to identify it using key characteristics, for example monocot or dicot, shrub or tree, woolly or smooth leaves, etc., to narrow down the possibilities. The process turned out to be quite difficult and a little tedious. It took us about two and a half hours to identify the five plants! We keyed a toyon, crossosoma, and lemonade berry among a couple others. In the end we only managed to identify them with a lot of help from Sarah, because the vocabulary used is extremely specific and determining plant characteristics requires an experienced eye. However it was good practice for us and now we can at least attempt to identify plants we find.
After we keyed all of our samples we headed down the road to the Conservancy’s Native Plant Nursery. We met Pete Dixon, who is in charge of the nursery, and he gave us a quick tour around the place. They had a lot of cool gadgets and gizmos: a soil mixer/dispenser, a seed bank filled with seeds of native plants, multiple greenhouses, a heavy duty freezer room for seed storage, a machine to help seeds germinate, and all types of tools. I have loved plant nurseries ever since I used to volunteer at the Marin Headlands native plant nursery in the Bay Area while I was in high school. There is just something so peaceful, so zen about a plant nursery that can rarely be experienced anywhere else. I could literally plant and transplant plants all day, and I think the other interns feel that to some extent too.
After the tour was over, we had our first introduction to fennel removal, an activity that would end up consuming many hours of my summer and a lot of my interest. Because we cannot use herbicides in our trail area (because the drainage leads directly to the Marine Protected Area below), we learned how to manually remove this terribly invasive species. The Conservancy has an amazing armory (tool-shed) full of machetes, chain saws, axes, shovels, weed-wrenches, pulaskis, and other weed-killing accessories. For fennel the main tools used are shovels and pulaskis, kind of a fireman’s axe with an adze on the other side. Fennel or foeniculum vulgare is an invasive Mediterranean plant that now dominates much of the channel islands and a huge stretch of coastal California and Mexico. The plant is highly resistant to mowing and fires, neither of which will sufficiently kill a fennel plant by itself. The only way to remove them is to either use tools that can get the main root node out of the ground, or chemicals.
All of us learned how to remove fennel pretty well, but I had an unexplainable passion for it. We had some help from Muriel, the nine-year-old daughter of a Conservancy employee, who showed us proper fennel removal techniques and brought us candy. She was talented beyond her years in fennel removal and invasive species knowledge. We got so engrossed in removing fennel we accidentally worked past the end of the work day. Since then I have made it my personal mission to kill any fennel I see. I like to think of myself as the fennel Terminator. I have already seen a large number of them on our trail, and can’t wait to get started on them.