California has more native plants than any other state, most of which are endemic to California (only found here). What’s more, over 1/3 of our native plants are also considered rare due to human development, climate change, habitat fragmentation, rare habitats, and other factors.
During this collaborative program where science meets art, we’ll learn about human relationships with nature from two rare plant lovers who engage with California’s unique flora in their own unique ways.
Barnali Ghosh, an immigrant storyteller and California landscape architect, has taken the native plant world by storm with a series of fashion self-portraits bridging home and homeland — re-creations of California native flowers, using fabrics and dance forms from India.
Amy Patten works with community scientists to document rare plant populations throughout California through her role as Rare Plant Treasure Hunt Manager with the California Native Plant Society. She also captures the flora and fauna around her through the art of photography.
Barnali Ghosh has featured several of Amy Patten’s photographs of native plants in her self-portraits.
Not all that glitters is gold — sometimes it’s benitoite! So discovered prospector James Couch, when in 1907 he encountered some sparkling specimens of what would one day become the California state gem. While gold looms large in the story of our state, the unique geology of California has gifted us many other magnificent rocks and minerals. From cinnabar to serpentinite, we are delighted to share these with the public once more in our classic California minerals exhibit. We are fortunate enough to have one specimen of rare benitoite on display, and for this month’s close-up, we’ll zoom in on our only other specimen, safely secured in storage.
Our second benoite specimen is hosted by a chunk of blueschist that amounts to the size of a large hamburger. Brilliant blue sparkles alert us to the presence of benitoite, or barium titanium silicate (BaTiSi₃O₉). These are nestled alongside black sprinkles of neptunite in a white, almost fuzzy looking layer of natrolite. Blue, black, and white, each of these substances is its own mineral, a naturally occurring inorganic element or compound with a characteristic structure.
These minerals and their blueschist host rock come from the guts of the southern end of the Diablo Range. Millions of years ago, unusual combinations of hydrothermal fluids seeped into the cracks of the blueschist found within metamorphosed serpentinite, forming a variety of rare minerals including benitoite, neptunite, natrolite, joaquinite and others. And while benitoite is found in a few places around the world, this section of the California Coast Range geologic province in southeastern San Benito County is the only place in the world where gem quality benitoite crystals are found.
It’s also the first place where benitoite was found. There are some complex claims to the initial discovery, but the most widely accepted story begins with failed melon farmer James Couch prospecting outside Coalinga on behalf of investor R. W. Dallas. In December of 1907, Couch noticed some blue sparkling stones he thought to be sapphire. In the subsequent months, Dallas looped in a few dealers and gem cutters, who offered different identifications, including an expert in Los Angeles who thought it was volcanic glass (perhaps because of it’s conchoidal fractures). By the time a sample made its way to San Francisco, a lapidary who thought the stone was spinel showed it to a friend, who sent it to UC Berkeley mineralogist Dr. George Louderback.
Dr. Louderback investigated the sample, finding it too soft to be either spinel or sapphire. Upon examination, Louderback identified the specimen for what it was – a new substance to science, and named it Benitoite, after the San Benito river which ran through the area of the mining claim. He soon journeyed to the Dallas Mine, where operations had already started, to study benitoite’s geological context. The paper he published describing benitoite’s mode of occurrence also includes the first published photos of benitoite and early photos of the mine.
The paper describes a lot of the properties that make benitoite exciting – including the high refractive indices and strong dispersion that make it especially sparkly (although you have to go elsewhere to learn about benitoite’s stunning fluorescence). It is still described by many sources as one of the “finest” descriptions of a new mineral species to be written. It’s worth noting that benitoite, while new to science, was nonetheless the embodiment of a scientific prediction that had been made decades prior. It exhibits a ditrigonal-dipyramidal crystal habit, a shape that looks sort of like someone glued the bottoms of two triangular pyramids together, within the hexagonal crystal class. This was the first time such a form was found naturally occurring, one of only thirty-two possible classes of crystal shapes mathematically predicted by Leipzig crystallographer J.F.C. Hessel in 1830.
Even as the true nature of benitoite was unfolding, commercial operations quickly emerged at what was first called the Dallas Mine. Over the decades the mine has seen varying techniques and levels of productivity. In the earliest years, folks were after the largest possible gems and they wanted them fast. This meant hacking off a lot of big knobs of crystal that were initially covered, due to the way the mineral veins had formed within the blueschist, in a fine layer of natrolite. Waiting to dissolve the natrolite in acid, which could happen with no harm to the benitoite, took too long. This meant that a lot of well crystalized mineral specimens within their original rock matrix were broken up and made into gems. Fortunately, some whole specimens remain, and the museum purchased the specimen featured in our Collections Close-Up from San Francisco based J. Gissler in the late 1930s.
Our display specimen was also purchased in the 1930s. This specimen has been exhibited since 1985, the very year that Californian’s made benitoite their state gem to celebrate its beauty and uniquely California story. And though the history of this mineral is part of it’s charm, mineral discovery is not a thing of the past. Scientists continue to discover new minerals as the result of current field work, or even through fresh understandings of preserved museum specimens.
For more on benitoite and it’s geological and cultural history, join our Collections Close-Up conversation with Professor Hilde Schwartz on June 10.
Conservation and recovery of threatened and endangered species requires more than bringing individual organisms back from the brink. It also requires the restoration and recovery of ecological relationships that allow all organisms in an ecosystem to survive and thrive.
During this lecture with artist Megan Gnekow, we will explore how understanding and communicating food webs and other ecological relationships can help put some favorite (and famous!) creatures into context. We’ll also learn how creative use of science illustration can help tell these stories.
This program is in support of our science illustration exhibit, The Art of Nature, on view online and in-person.
With formal training in a wide variety of media, Megan’s current work focuses primarily on honoring the fine details of the world and depicting the relationships between organisms in a wide variety of ecosystems. Her great passion is bringing people back to connection with the natural world through artistic experiences. She also volunteers for Resource Management at Pinnacles National Park, where she continues her training as an amateur naturalist. Megan spends most of her free time exploring the vast collection of ecosystems we call California.
There are few things more Californian than benitoite, a mineral formed within the low temperature, high pressure environment of subduction zones and sparsely sprinkled throughout serpentinite landscapes. While the mineral exists in isolated locations globally, gemstone quality material has only been found in California — one of the reason’s it was named our State Gemstone in 1985.
Learn about the geologic and cultural history of this mineral with Museum Collections Manager Kathleen Aston and Dr. Hilde Schwartz, lecturer in the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department at UC Santa Cruz, during this installment of our member-exclusive Collections Close-Up series.
Zoom into the stories, secrets, and science of our collections during monthly webinars with Collections Manager Kathleen Aston. This live event is an extension of our monthly Collections Close-Up blog, with added insights and intrigue. Members are invited to participate in this program before it is made available to the general public as well as ask questions directly of Kathleen.
The rocks on the surface of the Earth are shaped and transformed by the boundless forces of nature, creating a vast and ever-changing arrangement of formations for humans to observe and ponder. Even though the terrain of the U.S. comprises less than 2% of the Earth’s surface, the wide variety of environments found here gives rise to a diverse set of geologic wonders. In this installment of Rock Record, we will take a closer look at the mechanisms that formed some of the most distinctive and interesting of these geologic landmarks.
The Arches of Arches National Park
Unlike the natural bridges here in Santa Cruz, the arches of Arches National Park are not the result of localized erosion from waves. So how did these enigmatic features form?
The famous arches are a marvelous geologic coincidence, stemming from three key processes that unfolded over the past 300 million years. The first factor leading to the arches was the deposition of massive salt layers by an inland sea 300 million years ago. In the ensuing time, denser, stronger sandstones were deposited on top of these salt layers and the weight of the overlying rocks, combined with tectonic forces in the region (the second arch forming factor), caused the salt layers to bulge and push to the surface. The combined effects of the tectonic forces and the underlying salt layers created a massive anticline, or convex rock fold, in the overlying sandstones (see the schematic below).
As this bulge in the Earth was eroded away, folded sandstone layers were then exposed at high angles at the surface. Because the sandstone layers were less erodible than some of the surrounding rocks they were left behind, jutting out of the earth surface in formations known as “fins” (see photos below). It was from these fins that the arches were eventually formed.
The final arch forming factor was localized fracturing from faulting within the fins. Tectonic processes caused faults along small, weak shale layers within the sandstone columns, leading to highly fractured zones. Over time, wind and rain plucked these fractured zones from the fins, leaving behind the arches we see today.
The Mono Lake Tufa Towers
Above the quiet waters of Mono Lake, the tufa towers stand like a peculiar shrine to the geologic processes operating in this area east of the Sierra Nevada. The conditions that created the otherworldly tufa were an intersection between the realms of chemistry, geology and hydrology, forming tufa towers throughout the ~760,000-year life of Mono Lake.
To understand the formation of the tufa, it is easiest to start by analyzing the setting of Mono Lake: Mono Lake lies in a basin that allows water to flow in, but not out. Meaning that all of the dissolved rock particles that flow into the lake stay there, causing the lake waters to become very salty and to have a very high pH (e.g. Acids like vinegar and lemon juice have low pH, while bases like baking soda and ammonia have high pH.) These lake conditions are conducive to high levels of the molecule carbonate (CO3), one of building blocks for “carbonate” minerals.
In addition to the surface lake waters, there are abundant groundwaters that flow into the basin from surrounding areas, which interact with the rocks as they flow towards the lake and become high in the element calcium. As these ground waters flow into the lake through underwater springs, the groundwater and lake water mix, causing the carbonate molecules and calcium from the two respective waters to bond, and form the tufa towers from the mineral calcite. This means that every tufa tower is a fossilized spring! Unfortunately, there is also a human induced component of the tufa towers we see today: when the city of Los Angeles diverted freshwater that once flowed into Mono Lake it caused lake levels to fall dramatically, leading to exposure of previously underwater tufa (see schematic of tufa formation below.)
The Dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park
Sand dunes probably seem mundane for folks living in Santa Cruz who’ve likely seen the coastal sand dunes on the drive from Santa Cruz to Monterey. However, it may come as a surprise that the tallest sand dunes in North America are far from the ocean and are not associated with grand deserts like the Mojave either, but instead are found right in the middle of Colorado!
The dunes at Great Sand Dune National Park lie along the eastern edge of the San Luis basin between the San Juan Mountains to the west and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east. This basin used to hold the massive Lake Alamosa, which drained around 440,000 years ago. Following the lake drainage, sediments from the lake bottom and the surrounding mountains began to build up in on the basin floor (see maps below).
The location of this basin in the greater Rocky Mountains funnels wind from the southwest, causing the sand dunes to grow in a natural pocket in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. During storms events, opposing winds are driven from the east, causing the dunes to grow to their great heights (see image below).
Learn more about our nation’s geologic landmark, including some closer to home, during May’s Rockin’ Pop-Up.
Rock Record is a monthly blog featuring musings on the mineral world from Gavin Piccione and Graham Edwards, PhD candidates in geochronology with the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at UC Santa Cruz. They also host our monthly Rockin’ Pop-Ups as “The Geology Gents”.
The CZU Lightning Complex fires burned roughly 80% of the old growth redwood forests in the Santa Cruz Mountains, notably including Big Basin, the largest contiguous stand of old growth redwoods south of Humboldt County. While it’s still unclear what the outcome of this fire complex will be, we can look to prior fires to see how the redwood trees might respond.
Join us as we discuss what is known about redwoods and fire, from historic fire intervals, to fire adaptations, to tree-level physiological and anatomical responses. We’ll also explore how severely trees were burned using ground and satellite measurements and what we may expect forest recovery to look like.
About the Speaker
Zane Moore is a doctoral student at UC Davis studying redwood development and genomics. He has studied redwood forests in the Santa Cruz Mountains since 2010 with a focus on albino redwoods, large redwood clones, dendrochronology (tree ring science), and tall trees. Zane has also been a docent at Big Basin since 2012, engaging in science communication with the public about these fascinating trees.
This program is part of the CZU Lightning Complex and Community Science Project in partnership between the California Native Plant Society, the Kenneth S. Norris Center for Natural History, the San Lorenzo Valley Museum, and the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History.
Joshua trees are threatened by the changing climate and may be extinct from their namesake park within a century. In this talk, Dr. Juniper Harrower will share her multimedia art and ecological research practice that investigates the impacts of climate change on Joshua trees and their critical symbiotic partners — a clever moth pollinator and an underground community of mycorrhizal fungi.
Join us to learn about how she brings together years of species monitoring in Joshua Tree National Park, DNA sequencing, experimental painting, animation, and an online dating site to meet Joshua trees!
Specializing in species interactions under climate change, Dr. Juniper Harrower works across disciplines as both an ecologist and an artist. She uses rigorous science methods and a multimedia art practice to investigate human influence on ecological systems while seeking solutions that protect at-risk species and promote environmental justice.
Learn how to get to know a rose in order to illustrate it. We’ll explore native and heritage roses and observe their particular characteristics. During this online lecture, Maria Cecilia Freeman will demonstrate how to draw and paint petals, leaves, and other parts that help distinguish a rose. Once you draw the identifying parts of a particular rose, you’ll recognize it wherever you see it.
Maria Cecilia (Cissy) Freeman gardens, paints, and teaches in Aptos, where she finds or grows many of her plant subjects. Her work includes scientific illustration and botanically accurate fine art, often combining the two in graphite and watercolor studies. She takes a special interest in portraying native plant species with a view to their preservation, and she particularly loves drawing and painting heritage and species roses.
Her “Rose Studies” watercolors and drawings have appeared in solo exhibitions in Spello, Italy, at the Horticultural Society of New York, and at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Her work has been included in juried exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe, and numerous publications. She is a member of the Northern California Society of Botanical Artists and the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators. To see her artwork, visit http://www.mcf-art.com.
A Cyclist’s Guide to the Wildflowers of Santa Cruz
Pedaling to petals, it’s almost too good to be true.
Add a little color to your bike ride with this mobile wildflower guide from the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. This flower field guide and bike route map will help you on your treasure hunt. Wildflowers can be fleeting so keep these routes on rotation to avoid missing the show!
Wildflower season varies from year-to-year, usually starting in March, picking up in April, and winding down in May. Some of these flowers pop-up early in the season, while others are late bloomers.
This guide was created in honor of Bike Month in partnership with Ecology Action. Learn more.
This easy route takes you through some of the best wildflower viewing in the heart of town. You might think wildflowers belong in the wild, but with habitat loss such a huge threat to plant diversity, creating space for native plants in our urban areas is more important than ever.
All Trails Route | Distance 7.05 mi | Elevation Gain 203 ft This route cuts through town and along the coast, starting at Arana Gulch, then heading to the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, and ending at the UC Santa Cruz Coastal Science Campus. Then double back and see if you missed anything!
Santa Cruz Tarplant (Holocarpha macradenia) Location: Arana Gulch
This rare and endangered plant endemic to Northern California is the reason we have Arana Gulch Open Space. The City manages the park in a way that promotes the success of this species. Adapted for disturbance historically common in coastal prairies, cows graze the landscape much like megafauna used to thousands of years ago.
California Poppy Maritime Variety (Eschscholzia californica var. maritima) Location: Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History
The Garden Learning Center at the Museum features several habitats. The front garden is a coastal prairie featuring our local variety of California poppy in abundance! Our maritime variety has a darker center with light edges, whereas the standard poppy is more orange throughout.
California Buttercup (Ranunculus californicus) Location: Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History
These bright, shiny yellow flowers often bloom earlier than many other species, and will go to seed and return to a dormant state by early summer. Buttercups can be a nice source of nutrition and can be toasted or ground up and added to baked goods.
Common Self Heal (Prunella vulgarus) Location: Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History
In addition to attracting pollinators, this edible plant has long been used as a remedy for a variety of ailments, including sore throats and muscle aches. Some of its other common names include heal-all, woundwort, heart-of-the-earth, carpenter’s herb, and brownwort.
Gumplant (Grindelia stricta) Location: UC Santa Cruz Coastal Science Campus
In the early stages of blooming, the head of this yellow aster produces copious white exudate (i.e. goo). Indigenous cultures have traditionally used this exudate as an adhesive.
Western Blue Eyed Grass(Sisyrinchium bellum) Location: UC Santa Cruz Coastal Science Campus
Actually a member of the iris plant family, blue-eyed grass produces deep purple flowers in late winter and early spring. The genus name means “pig snout”, referencing the sweet roots that were dug up by pigs in their native grasslands.
Sometimes you have to work a little for flowers, especially the really good ones. This route has you summiting one of our biggest in-town hills by biking up Bay St. towards campus. Part of the UC Santa Cruz Campus Natural Reserves, Mima Meadow is a coastal prairie featuring geologically interesting mima mounds and some of our most sought after flowers. Walk your bike through the paths to help protect the endangered Ohlone Tiger Beetle (Cicindela ohlone).
All Trails Route | Distance 5.71 mi | Elevation Gain 427′ This route has you starting at the coast side of Bay St., taking it all the way to the top, then turning left on High St. and continuing on Empire Grade until you reach the closed gate to Mima Meadow on your left (just past the Arboretum). To get into the Meadow, you will need to use the steps in the fence at the fire road. Either lock your bike up at the Arboretum across the street, along the fence, or walk with it along the trails.
From here you can look down on your starting location along the Monterey Bay as you walk the trails. Stop by the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum and Neary Lagoon on your way back!
Monterey Mariposa Lily (Calochortus uniflorus)
The genus Calochortus contains some of our region’s most sought-after flowers. This rare species has grass-like leaves and upright flowers shaped like a bowl, which bees often rest in. Featured here is a longhorn bee (Melissodes sp.)
Yellow Mariposa Lily (Calochortus luteus)
Another member of the Calochortus genus, this California endemic flower is more widespread than C. uniflorus, but can still require a bit of a hunt. Conveniently, this species pops-up right near the gate to Mima Meadow. Turn right on the first trail you see and make sure you don’t discount every bright, big flower as a poppy!
White Brodiaea (Triteleia hyacinthina)
Also known as fool’s onion, this plant has an edible bulb, though it lacks the familiar onion smell.
Harlequin Lotus (Hosackia gracilis)
This rare plant belongs to the pea family and is unlike any plant you’re likely to find with its mix of sherbet colors. It’s thought to be a larval food plant of the Federally Endangered lotis blue butterfly (Lycaeides argyrognomon lotis).
Sky Lupine (Lupinus nanus)
Our region hosts many types of lupines and they can be challenging to tell apart. Even when not in bloom you can identify a lupine by its palmate leaves (five fingered like a hand).
Golden Brodiaea(Triteleia ixioides subsp. ixioides)
This cheerful yellow flower is in the same genus as the white broadiaea and also grows from a bulb.
BONNY “DOOM” | Strenuous
The Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve is a spectacular location for exploring nature. An example of the rare Santa Cruz sandhills habitat, the soil is comprised of ancient seabed deposits and is very nutrient poor. For that reason, highly specialized plants grow here and nowhere else. It also burned partially in the CZU Lightning Complex fires, as well as during the Martin Fire of 2008.
All Trails Route | Distance 24.85 mi | Elevation Gain 2,612 ft From Mima Meadow, continue on Empire Grade. Turn left onto Smith Grade. You’ll meander through parts of the CZU Lightning Complex Burn Zone before reaching Bonny Doon Rd. Turn right and continue onto Pine Flat Rd. before taking a slight right onto Martin Rd. You’ll know you’re getting close when the habitat changes drastically, the sky opening up above you. Bike locking is a challenge, but you also don’t want to bring your bike along these trails.
When you’re done, double back down Bonny Doon Road to Highway 1 and take that back to the Coastal Science Campus for a relaxing view.
Ben Lomond Spineflower (Chorizanthe pungens var. hartwegiana)
You really have to see this flower in person to understand just how tiny it is. This rare member of the buckwheat family is found only in our local Santa Cruz sandhills habitat. You don’t have to travel far along the trail to find dense mats of this flower when in bloom.
Bush Poppy (Dendromecon rigida)
This shrub offers a pop of color to the Reserve when in bloom and can reach many feet high.
Ben Lomond Buckwheat (Eriogonum nudum var. decurrens)
Belonging to the same family as the spineflower, this variety of naked buckwheat is also rare and endemic to the Santa Cruz sandhills. Its leaves form dense basal rosettes and the tiny flowers sit atop long spindly stems.
WILDERIN’ OUT | Mountain Biking
For those who prefer dirt to pavement, there’s great wildflower peeping along the trails of Wilder Ranch State Park. There’s not a bad trail for finding flowers, but this simple route takes you straight up towards the top of the park, passing through some of the best coastal prairie grasslands in the County. On the way back you’ll pass through redwood forest and woodland habitats.
All Trails Route | Distance 11.75 mi | Elevation Gain 1,286 ft This route takes you along the coastal bike path past invasive plants like wild radish, marigold, acacia, and french broom. When you get to the end of the trail, turn right and head up! You’ll take Engelman’s Loop to Long Meadow Trail, then double back and take the Wild Boar Trail for a change of scene and some fun twists and turns.
Common Fiddleneck (Amsinckia menziesii)
These early bloomers with their charmingly twisted tops will pop-up in droves. As the plant grows, the stem uncoils, and new flowers emerge, while the old flowers develop into seed pods along the lower part of the stem.
Western Heart’s Ease (Viola ocellata)
Wilder Ranch has a handful of native violets, ranging in colors from white to yellow. These are often found in the transitional zones from meadow to chaparral to redwood forest.
Fairy Lantern (Calochortus albus)
Another stunner from the genus Calochortus, this species has a different stature than C. uniflorus and C. luteus. Rather than a bowl shape, this species has flowers that drop like little lanterns. Find it on the edges of grassland and woodland habitats.
Purple Owl’s Clover (Castilleja exserta)
This species belongs to the genus Castilleja, which includes Indian paintbrushes. Like other related plants in the family, this is a hemiparasite which derives some of its nutrients directly from the roots of other plants.
Fremont’s Deathcamas (Toxicoscordion fremontii)
This perennial plant grows back year after year from bulbs underground. It’s referred to as deathcamas because all parts of the plant contain a toxic alkaloid that some consider more potent than strychnine.
There are so many more wildflowers to see in Santa Cruz than are included here. If you find something you don’t recognize, consider taking its picture and uploading it to iNaturalist. The app will suggest potential species and your observations will be recorded as biodiversity data, helping us better understand our natural world.
These routes traverse the traditional and unceded territories of the Awaswas-speaking Uypi and Cotoni tribes. Today these lands are stewarded by the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band who are working hard to fulfill their obligation to Creator to care for and steward Mother Earth and all living things through relearning efforts and the Amah Mutsun Land Trust.
This guide was created in honor of Bike Month in partnership with Ecology Action. Learn more.
Did you know that the Simpkins Swim Center is the former site of a cement plant that manufactured the cement tetrapods used in the harbor jetty? In the back of their parking lot is access to a short set of trails managed by Twin Lakes State Park. These trails meander through sunny meadows and shady oaks and lead to views of the Pacific Ocean and Schwan Lake.
Historyof Schwan Lake Schwan Lake was once a lagoon that connected to the ocean and is named after Jacob Schwan, an immigrant from Germany who owned and farmed on the land in the 1860s. In the 1880s the lagoon had bridges and a railroad trestle crossing over it. After the construction of East Cliff Drive in the 1930s the lagoon was blocked from the ocean. This caused it to seasonally dry up and become very smelly. In 1977 a weir gate was installed so now the lagoon is a lake and never dries up! A weir gate is like a dam but it allows water to flow over the top of it once the lake reaches a certain water level.