Diana and I spent a Sunday in early April this year, visiting the Pinnacles National Park from the west side, near Soledad, CA. It was a drizzly day, making the rock formations appear surreal – larger than life. If you have not walked the park, the trails are wide and gentle, easy for those who take their time. It is the perfect place to take the whole family for an outing.
This is a magic place and it has had a loyal fan club for a long time. The property was protected during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt in the early 1900s. We may know the Pinnacles as heap of giant rocks and caves, aligned along the west side of the San Andreas Fault in San Benito County. Its lesser twin, the Neenach Formation, is located 195 miles to the southeast on the eastern side of the fault.
A walk in the Pinnacles during March and April is a feast for the eyes, with an abundance of wildﬂowers throughout the park. I wanted to brieﬂy share with you some of the highlights of our visit and encourage you to make a stopover there when traveling north.
Clearly, the ﬁrst assault on the senses when leaving the parking lot on foot is the grand, odd-appearing rock designs dotting the landscape. Then, amongst these giant pillars, are the plants that add to one’s wonder and excitement. It was the plethora of larkspur (Delphinium parryi) that ﬁrst caught our eye, some upwards of 7 feet tall, in large, dense, purple-blue clusters. \
As we rounded the bend in the trail among crevasses and tall boulders, we noticed mats of dark-green liverworts (Asterella sp.) covering the stony surfaces, showing their umbrella-like spore capsules suspended atop them. These primitive plants seek the damp and shaded rock areas in the deepest parts of the canyon.
Turning around to see what grew on the southern exposures, which receives more light, we found signiﬁcant coverings of a tiny dudleya, Dudleya caespitosa, coating the rock faces. These small, silver-leaved succulents, no larger than a quarter in diameter with their bright yellow inﬂorescences, were all linked together by tiny rhizomes resembling spaghetti, running over the rock faces and creating one giant carpet. We’d never seen anything like it.
On our way towards the top of the ridge, we found a number of plants that we have rarely seen in our county. The vividly orange, western wallﬂowers, Erysimum capitatum, were mixed with golden monolopia, M. lanceolate. Additionally, there were the large, eye-catching Venus thistles, Cirsium occidentale var. venustum, with their enchanting and vibrant shocking-pink hues, along with a small attractive, chalk-white buckwheat, Eriogonum saxatile, growing near the top among the rock outcrops.
As we crossed the rocky ridge and descended the eastern side, we encountered a large area, over an acre in size, covered in tiny terraces, ﬁlled with the lowly resurrection plant, Selaginella bigelovii. For those not familiar with this plant, although it is a higher plant, it is called a spike moss, and very closely resembles a non-vascular bryophyte. It is endemic to California and remains dormant for most of the year, but it quickly greens up during the rainy season. So here, on the enormous exposed rock face, grows this tiny plant and nothing else.
Further down the eastern slope, we found two more beauties, Fremont’s monkey ﬂower, Mimulus fremontii, a very small plant, no more than four inches tall, with a tubular magenta ﬂower and two golden stripes angled into its center. These plants are clearly ephemeral and could be easily missed because of their size. Their ﬂowers are easily twenty times the size of the few visible leaves, leading us to wonder where the energy comes from to put on such a ﬂoral display.
The other discovery was a mariposa lily, Calochortus venustus, known as the butterﬂy mariposa lily. The word
“mariposa” is Spanish for butterﬂy. These large ﬂowers stood high on plants, well above the annual grasses at their base.
I ﬁnd that a more careful study of mariposa lilies can be fascinating, because each ﬂower is slightly different. This is partly because they change as they open; a newly opened ﬂower bears little resemblance to its older, pollenated selves. Yet, if one looks more closely, the distinctive markings that adorn so many in the genus, vary among ﬂowers in placement, size, color, and intensity. To me, this dance of color and shape reminds me of the intricate motifs found in Native American art. It is as if each ﬂower has its own unique facial alignment, in the way features identify an individual on a human face. Next time you encounter a mariposa lily in bloom, gaze into its “face” and observe the minute and detailed spender within. Make sure you have a 10x hand lens with you at that time.
Walking in our natural surroundings is a great activity. We breathe the fresh air, we see the remarkable and intricate patterns of the landscape, and our heart beats a bit faster as we head up the trail. We native plant enthusiasts are fortunate to have these opportunities to explore and be healthy!