“You better go see the meadow” was all I could think to say. The research botanists already were in awe of the two species of Calochortus at Scott Mountain Summit (Siskiyou County) and were fixated on exploring the extents of each, but as a dilettante I don’t study, I just move on to the next thrill. Which was over in the meadow. I had discovered multiple magnificent stands of the insectivorous California pitcher plant, Darlingtonia californica, set in a lush meadow surrounded by tall Jeffrey pines (Pinus jeffreyi). And after that, up to the serpentine soil and the CNPS Rank 1B endangered Scott Valley phacelia (Phacelia greenei) and carpets of other colorful annuals and perennials. We were in a botanical wonderland. And according to my California Road & Recreation Atlas, the wonderland had a name: Scott Mountain Botanical Area in the Klamath National Forest.
I pondered: if there was one officially designated Botanical Area in California, were there more? With hours of tedious internet research, I found that at each level of government, natural resource agencies have identified and protected land that supports extraordinary plants. What follows is a quick tour through the agencies, the terms they use, and many links to help you find fascinating botanical wonderlands to visit on your own. Consistent with the primary CNPS mission to conserve California native plants and their natural habitats, we close with easy actions you can take to protect these treasures.
Our local East Bay Regional Park District designates Regional Preserves as areas with outstanding natural or cultural features. Two properties, Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve and Sobrante Ridge Botanic Regional Preserve warrant the “botanic” sobriquet. The native plant community at Huckleberry is a rare relict plant association, and both Huckleberry and Sobrante Ridge support the rare Alameda manzanita (Arctostaphylos pallida).
At the state level, three California departments assign classifications for super cool plants and plant communities. The California Department of Parks and Recreation features 10 botanical State Natural Reserves (SNR): Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve SNR, Armstrong Redwoods SNR, Azalea SNR, John B. Dewitt Redwoods SNR, Kruse Rhododendron SNR, Los Osos Oaks SNR, Mailliard Redwoods SNR, Montgomery Redwoods SNR, Smithe Redwoods SNR, and Torrey Pines SNR. I was unhappy to discover I had to count and list all the reserves myself by scrolling through all 280 park units; you can look up each State Natural Reserve on the master list of all state parks, but there is no list of just the State Natural Reserves.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife maintains 136 (!) Ecological Reserves for the primary purpose of protecting rare, threatened, or endangered native plants, animals, and habitat types. Though it includes an interactive map, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife site is a little lean on “sortable” information, and you will need to work at figuring out which of the reserves are botanical treasure locations if you’re using their site alone. However, you can investigate further by checking Calflora and iNaturalist for plant observations from a particular reserve.
Caltrans designates Botanical Management Areas and has a lovely sign for the classification. However, an exhaustive internet search has yielded concrete evidence of only one, Bear Creek Botanical Management Area along State Route 20 in Colusa County. Reportedly there are 19 more, and perhaps a direct inquiry to Caltrans will yield more results.
The regulations and policies of three federal agencies, the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Forest Service, mandate recognition for unique or otherwise outstanding botanical resources. The Bureau of Land Management‘s National Conservation Lands system, designed to identify and manage significant landscapes, includes one botanical site, the Headwaters Forest Reserve. The Bureau of Land Management also has designated 191 Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) in California, some of them with names that reveal their botanical features, like Old Growth Juniper Research Natural Area, Desert Lily Preserve, Kelso Creek Monkeyflower ACEC, and Parish’s Phacelia ACEC, though others such as Soggy Dry Lake ACEC could be, well, anything. Once again, to determine which are botanical treasures will take some cross-referencing from the Bureau’s online map with searches of Calflora and iNaturalist to learn what grows in an individual ACEC.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages National Wildlife Refuges, many of which support significant plant resources, but only one, Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge (of course it is in our area!), was established to protect endangered plants and insects.
The U.S. Forest Service designates Special Areas as places with unique or special characteristics; subcategories include Research Natural Areas and Botanical Areas. For California, the U.S. Forest Service website includes a map, a list, and links to beautiful descriptions of each of the 98 Research Natural Areas. The Research Natural Areas include virtually undisturbed watersheds, old-growth Ponderosa pine stands, subalpine meadows, bogs, fens, Coulter pines, Jeffrey pine forest…so incredible!
The U.S. Forest Service Botanical Areas in California seem most plentiful in the northern part of our state: 23 within Klamath National Forest alone. U.S. Forest Service Botanical Areas are a subset of the Special Areas category and are listed separately for each forest in the state on the Special Places page in the “Select a Forest” drop-down menu. In a tedious effort that included pen and paper, the author found likely botanical Special Areas for the following forests: Inyo, Klamath, Plumas, Six Rivers, and Tahoe. One of the closest is the Placer Big Trees Grove, about three hours away, which is the northernmost of the giant sequoia groves in California. Check the information on the Tahoe National Forest website (scroll half-way down).
Public agencies are guided by public input, and you can help build the constituency for native plants. Let the managing agency of the site you just visited know how much you appreciate their agency’s preservation of native flora. Tell them you are a CNPS member, and encourage them to consider the health of native plant communities in every decision they make. I just timed myself on a start-to-finish handwritten letter, including finding the stamp, to the Plumas National Forest Supervisor expressing appreciation for the Butterfly Valley Botanical Area, which I recently visited. It took me nine minutes and four seconds.
— Sally de Becker, Vice President, CNPS East Bay Chapter