Newsletter 2006 January – February

California Native Plant Society

Orange County Chapter

January/February 2006



The Good News is…

…more people are talking about California native plants, more people are planting California native plants, more people are appreciating native plants. The question is: do more people know about the California Native Plant Society? CNPS should be the first name that comes to mind when there are questions about our native flora—identifying, classifying, planting, restoring, admiring—what ever the question might be. Spread the word—let 2006 be the year in which the California Native Plant Society achieves broader “brand name recognition.

Sarah Jayne, President


Chapter Meetings

Chapter Activities, 2005


Field Trips

Action Opportunities

Acorn Naturalist Lecture Series

Local Walks

Beginners’s Corner: Interview with a Cereal Killer

A Look at the Genus Ribes

CALENDAR Jan/Feb 2006

Jan 5………………… Board Meeting
Jan 19……………. Chapter Meeting
Jan 21…. Crystal Cove plant walk
Jan 28…………….. LCW plant walk
Feb 2……………….. Board Meeting
Feb 16…………… Chapter Meeting
Feb 18…. Crystal Cove plant walk
Apr 1……………. Plant Sale at TOL
Weed and Seed:
Thurs 10-1……………. UCI Arboretum
Any day, 8:30-noon……. Fullerton Arb
3rd Sat………………………. Bolsa Chica
4th Sat……… Upper Newport Backbay
2nd Sat……………… Irvine Open Space

Chapter meetings are held at the Irvine Ranch Water District headquarters at 15600 Sand Canyon Ave., Irvine. Doors open at 7 PM and the meeting begins at 7:30. Wildflower posters and a wide variety of books are available at the meetings.
Directions: From the Santa Ana Freeway (I 5) exit on Sand Canyon Road west. Pass Irvine Center Drive. Turn left at the next light onto Waterworks Road, then left into the IRWD parking lot. From the 405 exit east on Sand Canyon/Shady Canyon, turn right on Waterworks, left into the parking lot.”!





January 19 (Thursday)— California Desert Flowers: Lecture and Book Signing

Speakers: Sia Morhardt and Emil Morhardt, Botanists, Authors, Illustrators and Photographers

Sia Morhardt is Adjunct Professor of Environmental Studies at Pitzer College. J. Emil Morhardt is Roberts Professor of Environmental Biology and Director of the Roberts Environmental Center at Claremont McKenna College. He is the author of Clean, Green & Read All Over: Ten Rules for Effective Corporate Environmental and Sustainability Reporting (2002).

Together they are the authors of a beautifully conceived book, California Desert Flowers, An Introduction to Families, Genera, and Species. This most recent addition to field guides of desert plants has been highly praised and is an easy-to-use guide to the most visible families of California desert flowers. It includes family and genus keys, color photographs of nearly 300 species, and a wealth of diagrams. Created as a primer on identification to family and genus, California Desert Flowers takes readers to a new level of understanding and appreciation of wildflower relationships and their habitats and adaptations.

Come hear Sia and Emil tell the story of their project and see many of Emil’s beautiful slides of wildflowers included in the book. Books will be available for purchase and signing just in time for the desert wildflower season.
We WILL have copies of this book for sale at our meeting and the Morhardt’s have agreed to sign copies for attendees.

February 16 (Thursday)—Gardening with Natives-It’s a new day: Lecture and Book Signing

Speaker: Bart O’Brien

Our speaker, Bart O’Brien will be talk about some of the most outstanding natives for use in our home gardens and landscapes. Most of them will be from his newly released book, simply titled California Native Plants for the Garden. Of course, California’s astonishing flora has long attracted worldwide interest and is justifiably famous, with many of California’s most treasured wildlands largely defined by their plant life. It is from this vast collection of several thousand species that Bart will choose a handful of the most interesting, lovely, intriguing, beguiling, fragrant, and useful native plants. During his presentation, Bart will show plants that can be used in challenging garden situations and will discuss the ways our native flora can be used to create innovative landscape designs. He will also provide practical maintenance advice for a number of plants that can keep gardeners guessing about their needs. Whether beginner or long time native plant gardener, we all come away from Bart’s talk with new and useful information about our favorite plants.

Bart O’Brien is the Director of Horticulture and Curator of the Living Collection at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont, an educational institution dedicated to research, conservation, and horticulture of California native plants. A fifth-generation Californian, he is an authority on the native flora of the state and of northern Baja California and is an accomplished collector, grower, lecturer, and author. He was just named the 2005 Horticulturist of the Year by the Southern California Horticultural Society.

We WILL be selling Bart’s new book, “California Native Plants for the Garden” and the author will be graciously signing them. Don’t miss this opportunity!


Orange County CNPS Members Active in 2005

Membership in CNPS makes a distinct statement. It says you understand California’s genuine and often unique flora. We are fans of California’s authentic landscape. So, did you participate with friends in the privileges of CNPS membership this year?

Membership Meetings: How many of these monthly social and educational events where you able to join? As a member, what topics do you want in 2006? By the way, bring a friend. (They don’t have to be a member!) … Dudleyas, Fred Roberts … Planting for Landscapes, Dan Songster … Rare Plants, Mark Elvin … Goldenwest College Garden TourYear Round Color, Dan Songster … You Might Be a Wildflower Fanatic If…, Bob Allen … Santa Catalina Island Flora, Denise Knapp … Native Plants of Mount Diablo, Yulan Chang Tong.

Communication: Six newsletters keep members up to date on activities and opportunities. We also reach out and talk with people. Thank you to everyone who manned or visited CNPS booths at the Santiago Creek Week Fair, Boeing Environmental Lunch, and Orange County Fair. Speakers are vital to communication and two events stand out. First, Dan Songster and Steve Hartman (LA/SM chapter & State Treasurer) spoke at the California Landscape Contractors Association conference. That sure makes sense. The second opportunity involved speaking to authorized salons of Aveda personal care products. What? Dig a little deeper to find a company that runs an Earth Month campaign each year, educating clients and raising funds for selected environmental organizations.

Field Trips: The chapter sponsored hikes to see Tehachapi spring wildflowers, Morrell Canyon rare plants, local lichen hunting (Kerry Knudson), and Lower San Juan Trail flora spotting. Good connections allowed members to join other chapters and organizations going to Indian Wells Canyon (southern Sierra Nevada), Joshua Tree National Park, and a natural history tour of the Santa Ana Mountains.

Events: The most regular events are Thursday morning work outings at the UCI Arboretum. Celia Kutcher has room for more volunteers, so give her call. A big thank you to all who visited, worked, advertised, and purchased from the Spring and Fall Plant Sales. These events are fun and social, raise appreciation and use of native plants, and help fund chapter activities. The Vegetation Survey Training Class was a special event. CNPS state ecologists demonstrated the Releve method to members of OC, Riverside and San Diego chapters. 2005s biggest event was hosting the CNPS Chapter Council meeting in September where representatives from most of the chapters statewide come to Southern California. It involved multiple meetings, tours, meals, and a speaker. The impressive weekend ran smoothly because of volunteer efforts by Celia Kutcher, Sarah Jayne, Bob Allen, Laura Cohen, Mike Evans, Christiane Shannon and Yumi Shieh.

There’s More: MAD Plants for third grade classes officially opened in the fall. Visit for more information. The newest CNPS poster arrived and is really four finely detailed grass mini-posters. Laminated versions are ideal for classrooms and placemats. Student Anh Doan at El Modena High received a grant to establish native plants at Esplanade Elementary School. Jimmie Payton received a grant for research on local historic uses of native plants. Bill Neill, weed warrior extraordinaire, finished another year of eradication at prime Orange County parks. Your chapter contributes to certain of his supply costs and his attendance at the 2005 Invasive Plant Council Symposium.

It’s 2006. Make a difference with your membership. Get out, join in, share, meet, lead, follow, fund, plant, maintain, save, read about, and experience California’s authentic flora!

Brad Jenkins



CHECK IT OUT: See for a flowchart of the CEQA process. This process, spelled out in the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA for short), is the main vehicle by which the public (including CNPS and the rest of the enviro community) can influence how (or, maybe, IF) projects are done at state and local levels.

Check out, also, the links accompanying the flowchart. They lead to an encyclopedic array of environment-related information, LUPIN (California Land Use Planning Information Network) particularly.

Note on the CEQA flowchart that the official public input steps occur about half way through the overall process. This means that project proponents and “lead” and “responsible” agencies may have put considerable time and funds into planning and studying a project long before the public, officially, under CEQA, gets to have any say in it. This is why it’s so important for all enviros to pay attention to what our government—at all levels—is doing. See the CNPS links below to start; see also the websites of most other enviro organizations for more links and activist opportunities.

COMING IN 2006: It’s an election year, a great opportunity to vote for the environment. Among the local races:

5th District County Supervisor (most of southern OC).

35th District State Senate (most of coastal OC).

Most previous occupants of these (and most other OC) seats have not been noted for being pro-environment. Contact the OC League of Conservation Voters,, to find out which OC candidates are most pro-environment.

It’s expected that a bond act for park and open space acquisition will be on the June or November ballot. CNPS is currently watching two such proposals in the legislature, see for this and other legislation being tracked by CNPS.

CNPS Legislative Analyst Vern Goehring warns that it’s likely that political/legislative attacks will be made soon on CEQA, CESA and other California environmental laws. Such attacks will be in line with the attacks on all our federal environmental laws that have been under way for the past several months. Sign up for CNPS Action Alerts,, to keep updated on this very important threat to CNPS’ (and all enviros’) ability to work for conservation.


San Mateo Creek: At a huge State Park Commission public hearing in San Clemente on November 3, speaker after speaker voiced opposition to the Foothill-South toll road route proposed to run the length of the inland portion of San Onofre State Beach. This route would render the very popular San Mateo Campground all but unusable and possibly cause State Parks to abandon it. The route would change lower San Mateo Creek’s hydrology, threatening the balance of forces that form the legendary Trestles surf break (which has been called the “Yosemite of surf”). The road’s presence would introduce pollutants into the freshwater marsh (a rare habitat in southern California) and blind estuary at the creek’s mouth, and threaten at least seven endangered species living along the route.

The overwhelming public sentiment led the Commission, on November 18, to unanimously ask Governor Schwartzenegger and the Attorney General to take all necessary steps, including litigation, to protect the park and its resources. The Commission’s request was advisory, but sent a powerful message to the Governor.

With the above public sentiment and resource values in mind, one may wonder why the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) would even consider routing a toll road through a state park. But see the Los Angeles Times’ Dec. 18 article, “Route for New Tollway Goes Through D.C., Sacramento,”,1,3071056.story. The story describes how the TCA has been manipulating the government to push the Foothill-South Toll Road along the route TCA wants. TCA successfully lobbied three prominent Republican congressmen to get toll road exemptions from wildlife and park protections. They even attempted to get the toll road exempted from ALL California state laws, but were defeated. This kind of cold-blooded manipulation is in complete disregard of the environmental laws and protections that we the people want, as shown by poll after poll. Such manipulation points up how important it is that we the people pay attention to our government.

Trabuco District, Cleveland Nat’l Forest: State CNPS, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Los Padres Forest Watch, Center for Law in the Public Interest, Wilderness Society, and California Wilderness Coalition, have formed a coalition to appeal the Forest Service’s new National Forest Land Management Plan Record of Decision and Final Environmental Impact Statement. Coalition members find that the plan document is incomplete, inadequate, fails to address many significant concerns, and violates many federal environmental laws.

For the Trabuco District, the new management direction is essentially a continuation of previous direction. Chiquita Basin was named a Special Interest Area, but not Pleasants Peak and many other rare plant areas that should be SIAs or Research Natural Areas. San Mateo Creek watershed was not named as a Wild and Scenic River. San Mateo Wilderness was not expanded, leaving wilderness-quality areas along its borders unprotected from development threats such as the proposed pump-storage dam in upper Morrell Canyon and 500-KV transmission lines along the eastern slope.

There IS good news for the Trabuco District: the proposed tunnel/toll road across/through the Santa Ana Mountains at Bedford and Ladd Canyons has been relegated to “further study,” until 2009 at least, and the proposed widening of Ortega Highway to 4 lanes has been dropped from the current Major Investment Study of ways to improve traffic between Riverside and Orange Counties. Extensive improvements will be made in the 91 corridor instead.

Celia Kutcher, Conservation Chair

[Contact Celia at if you can take on responsibility for monitoring an area near you.]



The first trip on the chapter calendar will take place on March 18, in Baker Canyon, with The Nature Conservancy. See the March/April newsletter for details.

The public is invited to attend interpretive hikes on the Trabuco Ranger District, Cleveland National Forest, and presented by the Santa Ana Mountains Natural History Association. This association was formed to provide interpretive programs on the Santa Ana Mountains. The goal at this time is to provide a minimum of one interpretive tour each month. The initial focus is on the Silverado Canyon area with the hope of partnering with the Inter-Canyon League and opening the Maple Springs Visitor Center. That goal will take a couple of years if an agreement can be reached. If you would like more information on the Santa Ana Mountains Natural History Association or the hike please contact Debra Clarke at 951.736.1811.

Participants should arrive at least 15 minutes early, wear appropriate clothing (long sleeves and long pants recommended), sturdy shoes, hat and sunscreen. Bring water and a snack. You are welcome to bring binoculars, camera, field guidebooks. Rain cancels the program.

January 15 (Sunday)—Geology hike to Red Rock Canyon, 9 AM to 11 AM

Meet at 8:45 AM at the west end of the parking lot of the Foothill Ranch Market Place. The county has a small parking lot there. The market place is located on the North side of Portola Parkway. The shopping center is at Portola and Market Street. (OC Thomas Guide Page 862, B-4.) Call Lee at 949-795-1145 if you get lost finding the meeting place.

The hike will be easy to moderately strenuous but generally flat for a roundtrip distance of 4.5 miles. We will leave at 9:00 AM sharp. Ends at 12 noon.

Parking fee at the park is $5/day or an Annual County Day-Use Parking. Carpool!

Leader: Lee Shoemaker

February 12 (Sunday)—Interpretive Hike on the Bear Canyon Trail, 9:30 AM to 11:30 AM

Meet in the San Juan Loop parking lot across from the Candy Store. Take Ortega Hwy. (74) 19 miles from I 5. The walk will be an easy to moderate 2 – 4 miles. Parking is free but Adventure Passes are required.

Leader: Daryl Walezak



Crystal Cove State Park

Guided Backcountry Walks take place every Saturday and Sunday. Plant walks January 21 and February 18. Meet at 9 AM at the El Moro Visitor Center. Parking is $10.

The Donna O’Neill Land Conservancy

A variety of opportunities to get out in nature are offered at this precious reserve. For information about events, reservations, and directions, contact Laura Cohen or Michelle Thames at 949.489.9778. Visit the website at

Laguna Coast Wilderness

The park is open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays from 7:30 AM to 4 PM. Maps are provided for self-guided tours. Special topic docent-led tours are offered periodically. There will be a guided plant walk January 28, 8 AM. Parking is $3. Call 949.494.9352, for more information. Website:

Irvine Ranch Land Reserve

For walks in the Northern and Southern Reserves call The Nature Conservancy at (714) 832-7478.

Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park

The Orange County Natural History Museum is located at the entrance to the park. Call (949) 831-2790 for more information.

Thomas Riley Regional Park

For more information call (949) 728-3420.



January 28 (Saturday)—Weed Removal at Whiting Ranch, 7:30 – 11:30 AM

What was your New Year’s resolution? Get more exercise? Spend more time in nature? Meet new people? Give back to the community? Here is your chance to get started!!

We will meet at the Concourse Park parking lot on Saddleback Ranch Road at 7:30am sharp. We will hike about 20 minutes into the park to the bottom of Whiting Road, where we will work in the shade of beautiful oak trees.

Oak woodlands are vital to the park’s wildlife. The plants we will be removing—Italian and milk thistle—are not native to California. These thistles can reach over 6 feet in height and once they mature, their spiny leaves and stems make it almost impossible for wildlife to pass through or forage. Our work will help restore oak woodlands into healthy habitat for our deer and other wildlife.

Gloves, water and snacks will be provided. Long-sleeved shirts, pants and hiking shoes are recommended. You may want to bring a hat, sunscreen and camera as well. For more information, please contact the park office at 949 923.2245.


From Glenn Ranch Road: Turn onto Saddleback Ranch Road. Pass stop sign; Concourse Park and parking lot are directly to your left

From El Toro/Santiago Canyon Road:Turn onto Ridgeline Road. Turn onto Saddleback Ranch Road. Pass community center; Concourse Park and parking lot are to your right. If you are riding, hiking or biking in the park, please feel free to join us on-site at the bottom of Whiting Road.

UCI Arboretum

Join OCCNPS’ hardy crew on Thursdays from 9:30-1:30, as we trim, weed, and plant some, in the California Native Collection at the UCI Arboretum. Hat, water, sturdy shoes, gloves are advised; bring your favorite weeding implement if you like. May be cancelled if rain within 12 hours, call Celia, 949-496-9689 if in doubt.

Directions: From 405, go south on Jamboree to Campus Dr. Turn left on Campus, then immediately right on the unnamed campus service road. Turn left into the Arboretum gate, park free on the gravel behind the greenhouse.

Fullerton Arboretum

Chris Barnhill welcomes you to come anytime to work in the native plant section of the Fullerton Arboretum.

The Laguna Coast Wilderness Park Nursery

Seeds are collected from the park, sown in flats, bumped up to pots, then planted in restoration areas in the park. Right now, there’s work every Saturday, 8 AM- 12 noon.

Robert Lawson, Volunteer Nursery Manager

Bolsa Chica Stewards

We are at the reserve every 3rd Saturday of the month—rain or shine—from 9 AM ‘til noon. October through April we focus on planting hundreds of natives and during the summer months we tend to the new plants and do other projects on the mesa. Anyone interested who would like more information is welcome to call Kim Kolpin at 714.717.6304 or

Upper Newport Bay

Please join ROOTS for ecological restoration volunteer opportunities in the Upper Newport Bay on the fourth Saturday of each month (except in November and December)

Contact Project Coordinator Matt Yurko to confirm project dates, times and directions at 949-640-0286 or

Irvine Open Space Nature Center “Second Saturdays” Land Steward Program.

Join us from 9 AM until noon the 2nd Saturday of each month to help remove exotics and maintain trailside habitat. For more information email
Amy Litton, Senior Naturalist, Irvine Open Space Preserve, Community Services Department

Shipley Nature Center

For directions and information visit

Santa Ana Park Naturalist Programs Calendar

To volunteer or request information, please call 714.571.4288 or email


Acorn Naturalists at 155 El Camino Real in Old Town Tustin presents an excellent lecture series on the second Wednesday of each month from 7 – 9 PM. Call 800.422.8886 to find out who’s speaking in January and February. For directions and more information about Acorn Naturalists, go to




January 28 – 29

Valley Life Sciences Building, UC Berkeley


February 4 – 5

Valley Life Sciences Building, UC Berkeley

Flora of San Luis Obispo County

March 30 – April 2

San Luis Obispo

Flora of the Mojave Desert

April 27 – 30

Granite Mountains Research Station

Flora of San Miguel Island

May 4 – 7

Cuyler Harbor, San Miguel Island


May 6 – 7

Valley Life Sciences Building, UC Berkeley

Vegetation Mapping and Classification Workshop

May 17 – 21

Point Reyes National Seashore & adjacent areas

Pollination Ecology of Spring Wildflowers

June 2 – 4

UC Hastings Reserve, Carmel Valley

Flora of Lava Beds National Monument

June 15 – 18

Lava Beds National Monument

Flora of Mt. Ashland, Eastern Siskiyous

July 6 – 9

Near Ashland Oregon

Sierra Nevada Plants

June 2 – 4

Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Lab, Mono County

New Zealand Flora: Especially Ferns

December 1 – 12

North Island of New Zealand

For full information on these workshops and to see the other classes and workshops sponsored by the Friends of the Jepson Herbarium go to or call Cynthia Perrine at 510.643.7008 to request a catalog. A basic membership in The Friends gives discounts on the cost of the workshops. The membership form is available on the website. They are also soliciting support for the Second Edition of The Jepson Manual.

Beginner’s Corner: Interview with a Cereal Killer*

—Joan Hampton with Bill Neill

For nearly three years, I idly wondered about the mysterious Invasive Exotics Chair, Bill Neill, listed on the back of the OC CNPS newsletters along with the rest of our committee chairs. Shortly before Christmas, I had the opportunity to accompany him on his rounds at Featherly Regional Park in Yorba Linda. Our conversation overturned many of my preconceptions.

I had imagined that he went into an area to eliminate multiple species of non-native plants, but that’s not the way he operates. He goes in to a particular area with a defined plan for eliminating one or more specific species. Once he commits himself to an area, he makes repeat visits until they are brought under control. Initial visits focus on large specimens, while subsequent ones are aimed at seedlings. On this occasion, he targeted castor bean (Ricinis communis), spraying plants at the base so that overspray would be less likely to harm adjacent natives.

Bill’s hit list, in his own words, includes “…weed species…that eventually will displace the native flora entirely, yet provide poor habitat for wildlife.” Castor bean, he says, “has been prominent in the news recently as the source of ricin, a potent poison implicated in bioterrorist threats. With its enormous tropical leaf, castor bean is very shade-tolerant and it easily shades out adjacent native plants. Castor bean is not restricted to riparian areas, but it thrives there. Large mature plants are highly susceptible to herbicide, and thus can easily be controlled, but the large seed can remain viable for years after the parent tree is gone.” He cites an incident where “…two children…died from ingesting castor bean seeds [which they ate] like pinyon nuts gathered on a family outing)” and another where a “…horse…died from eating castor bean leaves.”

Through research at various public agencies’ websites, he found out that “…castor bean poisoning is harmful to multiple organs: breathing vaporized ricin causes pulmonary edema; skin contact produces dermatitis; ingestion of leaves or seeds—which are even worse—leads to gastrointestinal hemorrhage plus liver, spleen and kidney failure. Castor bean poisoning is slow-acting and difficult to diagnose, and has no antidote.”

Once the parent plant has been eradicated, “the larger job will be controlling successive waves of castor bean seedlings that sprout from the persistent seed bank. Because the seed is relatively large and immobile, most seeds produced in previous years will remain under the parent tree canopy or short distances downslope, sprouting initially as dense carpets of seedlings after the parent dies. The seeds are newly exposed to sunlight during spring months.” Furthermore, the seeds can remain viable for at least a decade.

Bill’s hit list contains only one cereal, the giant reed (Arundo donax), noted for its “…abundant thirst for ground water.” It is “…uniquely virulent in its ability to destroy riparian habitat. Resembling a cross between dwarf bamboo and giant corn stalks, Arundo grows to heights approaching 30 feet and forms impenetrable thickets that shade out small trees and shrubs. Large trees are eventually killed by fire because Arundo is highly flammable and converts riparian corridors from natural fire breaks to fire conduits.” Add to this the fact that Arundo is a water thief: “I could show you a 10-acre stand of solid Arundo near the Rio Hondo channel that is completely impenetrable and devoid of trees and wildlife.…Arundo is exceptionally shade-tolerant and expands slowly but inexorably where introduced intentionally, by accident or by flooding, until it becomes abundant enough to carry hot wildfires though a riparian corridor, which kills the native trees.”

Another water thief, the tamarisk or saltcedar tree (Tamarix ramosissima), provided the motivation that eventually led to a career switch from petroleum engineering to professional herbicide applicator during 1998-1999. Bill became concerned about its proclivity for invading and taking over desert springs. He says that “…throughout much of the Colorado River and Rio Grande watersheds, tamarisk has become the dominant plant species, replacing native riparian trees such as cottonwood, willow and mesquite.” In Death Valley, where he got started, he observed that “…National Park Service staff had started removing tamarisk from Eagle Borax Spring in the early 1970s because the spring was drying up. Removing the tamarisk brought the return of surface water and native reeds and waterfowl, and mesquite trees regained their vigor. It was an impressive example of ecological restoration.”

Inspired by this recovery, Bill earned his herbicide applicator’s license in 1983, “and started to organize volunteer work parties to remove tamarisk from desert springs and riparian areas throughout the California desert and occasionally in neighboring states.” He is currently one half of a partnership named “Riparian Repairs,” working as a contractor funded by various grants throughout southern California. OC CNPS is one of his sponsors for volunteer work. Orange County parks where he does volunteer work are Carbon Canyon Regional Park, Featherly Regional Park, Craig Regional Park, Santiago Oaks Regional Park, Irvine Regional Park, Caspers Wilderness Park and Peters Canyon Regional Park. In addition to his other efforts, he now performs contract work at Shipley Nature Center in Huntington Beach, following several years of volunteer weed control work there.

The risks posed by herbicides raise a number of hotly debated questions: can we be certain that none of them are dangerous to humans? To farm animals? To wildlife ecosystems? To soil microorganisms? How long do they persist in the soil? Are herbicide testing procedures adequate? Should manufactured herbicides be replaced by naturally derived ones? Should the use of herbicides be curtailed in favor of mechanical methods of weed control?

Let’s begin with a look at testing procedures.

Since it is not feasible to test herbicides on every organism that might be affected, and certainly not on human subjects, researchers use so-called surrogate species as stand-ins. These can include fish, newts, salamanders, crustaceans (such as the minute water flea), tadpoles, adult toads and frogs, rats, mice, and (particularly for eye testing) rabbits.

Pesticide manufacturers conduct testing. It generally takes seven to ten years to bring a product to market, because tests examine long-term effects on at least three generations of the specimens studied. Apart from obvious, acute toxic effects, researchers also assess the possibility of mutation leading to birth defects (including the inability to successfully reproduce), cancer-causing potential, and persistence in the environment. In California—the state with the most rigorous requirements—test results are reviewed by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, whose website is The national overseer is the Environmental Protection Agency.

The possibility exists that some drastic toxic effect—akin to that of DDT—may have been overlooked, but thus far nothing significant has turned up for common herbicides used today. That does not mean that a given product is safe under all conditions. For example, certain herbicides used where food crops are grown may only be sprayed after the crop has been harvested. Some of the sprays Bill uses are not allowed for applications where they could enter ponds or waterways, because of toxic effects on fish, amphibians, or aquatic vegetation. Species that live in water are vulnerable to skin contact, ingestion or inhalation of pesticides. Products intended for use around water must undergo additional testing to be awarded a type of license known as aquatic registration.

Very often, herbicides are mixed with other substances, such as refined vegetable oil (for bark penetration) or surfactants (for leaf penetration). In some cases, these surfactants are more toxic to animal life than the herbicide, and their presence places restrictions on how the herbicide may be used.

Opponents of manufactured pesticides argue that they should be replaced with less harmful natural plant-based products. For example, as a science fair project, a fourteen-year-old school girl experimented with using oleander extract to kill Arundo—with great success. Other natural toxins that have been suggested are those present in chrysanthemums, in castor bean, and in poison hemlock (Conium maculatum). But because of their extreme toxicity, these natural extracts create far more problems than any herbicide currently in use—to the public, to the ecosystem where they might be applied, and to the health of the person applying them.

In addition to the seven- to ten-year time span required to test accepted pesticides, Bill states that manufacturers spend forty to eighty MILLION dollars to “…satisfy EPA requirements and to bring a new, active ingredient to market.” A company attempting to sell one of these natural extracts would first have to undergo the complete testing process, required since the extract’s intended use would be as a pesticide. It is possible that some suitable substance will be found and will survive the rigorous testing procedures, but that hasn’t happened thus far.

Disregarding their potential as pesticides, we don’t even know how much risk these plants pose to the public in their natural state, proliferating along stream banks and in other natural areas. In short, we know a lot about the properties of manufactured herbicides, but nearly nothing about natural plant extracts, except for their extreme toxicity. We cannot conclude here that “Mother Nature knows best.”

Bill has concerns about health risks to himself from working around these toxic species. He researched the subject extensively, but found almost no hard data. Personal protection that he uses in the field includes gloves, long sleeves, and safety glasses with side shields. He cleanses the gloves after each use.

Another option advocated by herbicide opponents is to replace chemical treatments with mechanical removal of invasive plants. Options include tarping, cutting, or digging them out. This can be successful with small infestations and a large volunteer crew, but while there are exceptions, it is usually not feasible where the weeds are widespread.

In conclusion, we may not love the idea of spraying herbicides in our wild areas, but for the time being it is the most effective method of weed eradication.


* Thanks to Brad Jenkins for the title

Ridin’ the Currants & Goosin’ the Berries: A New Year’s Look at the Genus Ribes

—Bob Allen, OC-CNPS

The start of a new year brings with it a new crop of wildflowers to study and enjoy. As January starts up, so do our currants and gooseberries. Sometimes they even start to flower in December, just to get a jump on the new year. Once considered members of the Saxifrage family (Saxifragaceae), they are now placed in their own family, the Grossulariaceae (word has it that some other saxifrages will soon be moved there as well).

Gooseberry & Currant Family, Grossulariaceae

These are open shrubs that grow up to 2-3 meters tall. Those in our area are upright but a few species found elsewhere in California trail on the ground. Leaves are palmately veined with 3-5 rounded lobes, in clusters alternately arranged on the stem. Most are summer deciduous, the new leaves appear in winter before or with the flowers. Sepals and petals 5 (rarely 6, but only 4 in one local species) with an inferior ovary. The petals are held tight to the 5 stamens while the sepals are either held to the petals, curved outward, or folded back away from the flower tip. The fruit is a berry, either smooth-skinned or spine-covered. After flowering, the dried flower remains attached to the fruit. The family contains 120 species, 30 in California, 18 in southern California, all in the genus Ribes (from the Arabic word ribas, a species of rhubarb, a word derived from a Persian word for acid-tasting, probably in reference to the taste of the fruits).

Two groups within the genus Ribes are easily recognized. Gooseberries have spines on their leaf nodes and fruits; their flowers hang downward loosely. Currants lack spines and their flowers are in erect or arching clusters. We have 4 currants and 4 gooseberries in our area.

Many have horticultural value for their lovely flowers, unusual fruits, variable leaf textures, and growth forms. Flowering periods are generally short and mostly occur during winter. Their blooms never fail to attract hungry hummingbirds. Prized in the landscape trade, they are best planted in partial shade beneath trees or near other shrubs. Their roots and the soil above them should not be exposed to direct sun; for this reason they are often planted with another shrub that will provide ground-level shade. Because of their spines, gooseberries should not be planted near walkways or play areas.

The Guide to Ribes with pictures will help you key out our species and find them in the field.