Field Notes From Santa Catalina Island
Blanche Trask



Blanche Trask
Naturalist, Geographer, and Mystic
A Journal of West American Botany
Edited by
Willis Linn Jepson
Instructor in Botany
University of California
Volume 7, page 135-146

Mr. Lockwood, in a recent article upon "Carrier Pigeons," in the St. Nicolas magazine, was most happy in saying that Catalina Island was "in shape not unlike a giant's footprint." The island is about twenty-two miles long and from three to eight miles wide. It is cut into almost two islands, for at "The Isthmus" it is but a quarter of a mile from sea to sea, though on either side there are lofty peaks.

Two or three fishermen live at "The Isthmus." Avalon is a tent city, which year after year, from June to September, renews its life; like the Selaginella quick to respond to the opportunity and as suddenly fading away--not to death, but to its semblance, sleep. There are scarcely a hundred people left over in Avalon "after the season."

On the summits, "The Ridge" is not tthe narrow strip it looks from below; one is surprised to find many an undulating stretch where he may wander for hours without beholding once the sea; here and there a mesa, and, indeed, "uplands vast," where only the wild goats and sheep wander and the little silvery foxes live. The highest peaks range at about 2,000 feet. Mexican Joe, the old-time guide, states that there was once snow on "The Ridge," but that it has never been known in the valleys.

There are deep craters surrounded by mountains of rocks overburnt; there are cliffs all the hues of the rainbow, some in such tones that to speak of their color is impossible--such strange blendings of violet and rose call for new words: there are crags whose rocks crash down a thousand feet into the sea below, where they are laved by green-blue waves--waves whose wondrous colouring is stolen from the rocks and by many a spiral and labyrinthine trail carried out into the deep. In these strangely-colored waters the brown "mermaid's hair" sways to and from, goldfish hide in the tangled weeds, and to look down upon it all from the heights, well repays one for the tramp from Avalon.

Arroyos are everywhere, making now and then terrible leaps; there is seldom water in their beds except during the rainy season.

Springs there are, indeed, but hidden--unless you happen "to know," the search for them would be well-nigh fruitless.

Disintegrating rock is everywhere; boulders are falling and crumbling, even on "The Ridge," and from the highest peaks as well as from the edges of the sea-cliffs. It will consume an hour to make an ascent of from two to three hundred feet in such places, every rock, gerat and small, breaking into pieces at touch of hand or foot. such climbing, it is needless to say, is dangerous. It is, however, only afater such efforts that one can properly estimate the common blessing of being able to walk about, without thought, on a reliable foundation.

There is a tragic significance in the large number of slopes which are covered with the bleaching trunks and roots of trees and shrubs, uprooted, doubtless, by the rocks which crumble in the swiftly-running waters, for in the heavy rains the fall is great and very fast. One asks, "What is to replace these thousands of trees and bushes?" Adenostema, Heteromeles, Ceanothus cuneatus, Cercocarpus, Rhamnus, Eriogonum, Artemisia, Salvia? On the other hand, there are some species which seem to be less on the decline or are more than holding their own.

The fine-rooted Rhus integrifolia, R.laurina, and R.ovata cling to the perilous edges of every sea-cliff. Cerasus ilicifolia holds slope after slope as its territory, rising from twenty to forty and even to fifty feet in height, twisting about the rocks, its long roots exposed from fifteen to twenty feet. It seems as though in time this cherry would cover all the northern slopes at least. The var. integrifolia forms groves on moist slopes, and indeed fills many small canons. It differs from the ordinary form as follows: 30 to 50 feet high; leaves orbicular or obcordate, entire, never "spinosely toothed," quite thin and shining, 3 to 6 inches long, petioles half as long; fruit always black, an inch in diameter.

Ceanothus arboreus is abundant on all the high slopes, and is twenty to twenty-five feet high. It blooms, in "a wet season," in January; the black fruit ripens in June. Ceanothus cuneatus, var. macrocarpus, in the same month gives to all the high, dry slopes the appearance of having been visited by a light snow-storm. The former species inhabits moist slopes, and its "clean trunk and open but round head" is in great contrast to the gnarled, crabbed variety of C. cuneatus, which, no doubt, regards its beautiful lavender-flowered relative with envy.

There are large groves of Quercus tomentella in a canon near athe middle of the island, with trees over fifty feet high, and so closely set that teh sunlight peers in wonderingly, and searches among the fallen leaves for the acorns, and the little stream trickles along not knowing through what rare shade if flows. And here is one large Quercus macdonaldi, if there be such a species! For those who think they know differ. The Scrub Oak is always at hand, and is a variety of Quercus dumosa.

Late in June, Rhus laurina blooms; it is abundant. Spiraea ariaefolia flowers in the same month; it has been found in but one canon.

In autumn, Rhus diversiloba, in company with the red-berried Lonicera hispidula and its yellow-berried relative, and the white-haired Clematis climb Populus trichocarpa, which thrives in all canons, large and small, where there is water for its roots. On all the Cottonwood trees noticed, the staminate ament is as long as the pistillate.

In open places where Rhus diversiloba finds no support, it abandons the hope of leaning, and does its best to become a tree, although a very poor sort of a tree it usually is; if chances offers, it gladly takes the first opportunity to climb. However, in La Canada Diablo there are fine arborescent specimens fifteen to twenty feet high.

Mr. Lyon speaks of a trifoliate form of Rhus integrifolia,, and Mr. Brandegee says: "The ternate leaves are usually scattered among those of the normal shape, and no bush with any large proportion of the abnormal ones was seen." I have collected the ternat-leaved form in every part of the island. There are trees on five trails leading in as many directions out of Avalon. It thrives at the extrem "West End." It is found in the broad, sunny, and valley-like canons of the "South Side" as well as in the narrow arroyos which lie like green threads between the shattered cliffs at the "East End." In two canons it predominates.

It is as though some new life principle has touched the hearts of the Rhus leaves. While upon some trees there is found only now and then a ternate leaf, all the other leaves seem to be turning and twisting - sometimes becoming quite undulate, so that in the press they are crushed because they can not be laid flat. Then, again, in their efforts they become misshapen, appearing with irregular scallops where new leaflets should be, and even notched in the wrong places and occasionally narrowed at the apex and broadened at the sides, and rarely a fine trifoliate leaf is lobed as though making yet further effort for other leaflets. Among these peculiar states the heart-shaped form is conspicuous.

Rhus ovata is abundant in three of our largest canons. With its clean trunk and bushy head it reminds one of orchard trees, though upon close inspection it is found to be extremely crabbed.

Beyond the "Isthmus" Arctostaphylos bicolor occurs frequently; it is from eight to twelve feet high. A. diversifolia is found in but one canon, and differs from the characterization of the species in the books. It has white flowers and only the very young leaves are "willow-like;" the others are extremely coriaceious. There are three trees from twelve to fifteen feet high.

Eriogonum giganteum is found occasionally twelve inches in diameter and as many feet high. The normal size abounds, the usual diameter ranging from six to eight inches.

There is one Sambucus glauca in Grand Canon which measures twenty-seven inches in diameter, an unusual size, the largest seen.

With the aspect of the "Weeping Willow," it pendulous branches over six feet long Cercocarpus parvifolius thrives on all the moist slopes, now and then attaining the height of forty feet. By its side, a variety of Rhamnus crocea grows to be fifteen to twenty feet high.

Where water remains all the year round, either above or below the sandy bed, the willows thrive, often becoming tall trees. Salix lasiolepis is, perhaps, more frequent than S. laevigata.

Save on arid slopes Hetermomeles arbutifolia abounds, the trunks often one foot in diameter. A form with bright orange-yellow fruit has been found in several localities. It differs, like our red-berried sort, from the character given in Botany of California as follows: Leaves usually entire, "sharply serrate" ones occur but rarely, often not one such leaf on a slope covered with this species; petioles from six to twelve lines long.

Vast areas of the dry uplands seem again, in June, to be visited with light snows. It is the blooming-time of Adenostema fasciculatum.

Another striking plant is Eriophyllum nevinii; its foliage gleams like frost-work on the cliff-sides and in June its gold flowers begin to shine against the silver. Here, too, on the dry cliffs, glow the autumnal-tinted flowers of Hosackia argophylla. This Hosackia is here decidely woody at base, though coming under an "herbaceous" section in the classification of the species in the Botany of California. The stems are from four to six feet long; and even when mature, it is still "silvery." Near by, the papery pods of Astragalus leucopsis, also red and yellow tinted, rattle in the seabreeze, while above them all Audibertia polystachya raises its arms.

Later, the gay Zauschneria californica joins the assembly on the cliffs, while on the tip-top ledges the pink Eriogonum giganteum has its habitation. Mr. Lyons speaks of the "cream-colored flowers" of E. giganteum, but I find them always pink on expanding, though they usually fade to "cream" in a day. Eriogonum nudum is also at hand, as well as Cotyledon caespitosa and, less frequently, C. lanceolata.

This [1896-97] being "a wet season," Crossosoma californica was in bloom before Thanksgiving. In character, it differs from that given in the Botany of California as follows: Young shoots glaucous; leaves, oblong and obovate, retuse and often sessile; arboreus, twelve to fifteen feet high. Mr. Brandegee (Zoe 1, 199) says he frequently found as many as nine carpels; I have rarely found so many, three to seven being the usual number.

In four localities Antirrhinum speciosum has been collected. It loves bold crags, where the flowers hang over the sea, like corals on green strings. At its best, it is about ten feet high. It is continuously in flower.

In March, Leptosyne gigantea blooms, usually on the broken edges of sea-cliffs, but there is a valley a mile inland where it grows on the summit of a little peak which rises abruptly from a little valley. Here the Indians a long time ago carved their pots out of the serpentine, for the marks of their implements are still fresh, and you may walk through a vale of broken pots.

Lavatera assurgentiflora grows in a depauperate condition on Bird Island, for there is hardly any soil on this great rock--for rock it is--of the shags and gulls. Yet specimens brought from this islet to Avalon, have now reached a height of over twenty feet and are always in fruit and flower. Just where Mr. Lyon found it "growing luxuriantly" is a mystery. On a rock three miles distant from "Bird Island," L. assurgentiflora grows in about the same state as on "Bird Island." "Bird Rock"--sometimes called "Ship Rock," from its resemblance to a ship in full sail--still seaward from "Bird Island," has had no sign of plant-life for the last ten years; so I am told by a reliable old fisherman, who makes frequent visits there. There are no other islets about Catalina.

On two sea-cliffs Cereus emoryi grows. Opuntia engelmanni var. littoralis abounds. O. prolifera, included in Mr. Brandegee's list, I have not seen.

There is a luxuriant growth of Vitis girdiana in one canon.

In Avalon, Lycium richii forms an impenetrable arbor-like network, about one hundred feet in circumference and twenty-five feet in height. Dr. Hasse says it has grown rapidly, since he first noted it, over ten years ago. Its pale lavender flowers and small red berries are always seen on its virgate branches. The largest branches are six inches in diameter.

A snow-white form of Orthocarpus purpurascens grows in several localities, but does not differ except in color from the ordinary form.

There were two specimens of Mentzelia micrantha found last season whose largest leaves measured seven inches from base to apex -- an unusual size.

Beset with long hairs which glisten in the sunlight, Scrophularia californica is far from being the "homely weed" it is on the mainland. Its virgate, flowering branches are two feet long and rise from four to six feet above the one's head.

The blue-purple flowers of Solanum xanti var. wallacei, observed in eight or ten localities, are about two inches in diameter. Mr. Lyon speaks of its black fruit being edible; I can learn of no one having eaten it, save two little boys of Vicente's - an old-time fisherman - and they were quite ill in consequence. i must except Vicente himself, who can eat two or three berries without any ill effects.

Galium catalinense is abundant on rocky slopes and sunny cliffs.

We have a very peculiar form of Oenothera micrantha with numerous decumbent stems, three to four feet long; bark shreddy; leaves at base cespitose, two to three inches long, the upper smaller, very wavy, somewhat dentate and clasping.

Ribes viburniflorum thrives in all parts of the island in moist places. Its leaves shine in the sun and it is exquisitely fragrant occasionally; it covers the steep walls of one canon that I know to the height of a hundred feet for a stretch of a quarter of a mile or more. This canon - and if it is ever honored with a name, it should indeed be that of "Currant Canon" - which consumes two hours in tramping from its head to the sea, is clothed with this beautiful Ribes - mile after mile of overhanging rocks being festooned with its branches.

In Pebbly Beach Canon, one specimen of Specularia biflora was colleted, peculiar in its construction, having four stigma, six stamens and a small sixth lobe to the five-lobed calyx.

An anomalous specimen of Godetia tenella was collected and proved very interesting. It had four stamens with long filaments and the anthers purple and arcuate, and four stamens with filaments half as long and anthers yellow; all the anthers ciliate with short white hairs and somewhat pubescent with scattered hairs; stigma lobes white, purple tinged; leaves barely petioled.

Mr. Lyon speaks of the absence of Brodiaea capitata during the time of his visit, although he says it was collected here in other years. For the last three seasons, at least, it had been abundant. Brodiaea minor is rarely seen.

A wonder in beauty if Mirabilis californica and fittingly named. The plant differs in many respects from the ordinary form. Plant not "yellowish green;" stems three to four feet long, mostly decumbent from a "decidedly woody base," the margins beset with stiff hairs; pubescence slight upon the stems and young leaves; petioles twelve lines long; involucre six lines long; perianth twelve lines long, with yellow, five-rayed eye; fruit six lines long.

Lyonothamnus floribundus is hardly so rare as reported by Mr. Brandegee. I have found more than a dozen groves on the larger part of the island, this side of "The Isthmus," as we say, while beyond "The Isthmus" it is here, there and everywhere - a veritable Lyonothamnus land. This "rare" tree blooms in June. In only two groves I have found divided leaves; yet a tendency toward divided leaves and imperfectly divide leaves is everywhere present; indeed, in most groves the exception is the entire leaf. The flowers are white and the clusters are very showy. The groves stand on steep slopes among great rocks. The finest specimens are over forty feet high, straight and slender, branching near the top, the first limbs having apparently died away. The bark hangs in long shreds. There are groves on slopes 500 or 600 feet above sea-level; several are also found at about 2,000 feet elevation, on one of our highest peaks, just above one of the old craters, the only green which touches this desolate height.

A single specimen of Marrubium vulgare was collected at Avalon last summer by Dr. Bishop. Alyssum maritimum was also found on a cliff-edge.

Gymnogramme triangularis is found not infrequently, but the var. viscosa is on all moist slopes in every canon, together with Adiantum emarginatum. Polypodium scouleri is not abundant as is P. californicum. Cheilanthes californica and Aspidium rigidum (or A. aculeatum) are fairly represented on moist slopes and in the canons, while fine specimens of Pellaea andromedaefolia are hidden away in "the bushes" on the open ridges and Pellaea ornithopus abounds among all the cacti. Here also are the white flowers of Convolvulus occidentalis.

Fine specimens of Delphinium are found on dry hills in March, with the bright Erythraea venusta at its feet.

In Avalon Canon, Eulobis californicus was found in one locality, with a "decidedly woody base;" in the same locality was Antirrhinum strictum with woody base, one-half inch in diameter; the plants were about three feet high.

On arid heights Gilia dianthoides flowers profusely; a stem scarcely rising out of the ground, will bear half a dozen blooms - large, white, and fragrant

The violet-blue flowers of Nemophila aurita are seen on nearly all canon sides. N. insignis thives in one locality.

A species of Nicotiana was discovered on Fisherman's Beach last summer. It was about twelve feet high; with yellow flowers; leaves, thick. ovate, glaucous. [footnote 3]: Probably N. glauca Graham, which is becoming extensively naturalized. -ED.

Penstemon cordifolius and Lathyrus vestitus grow among the low trees on the ridges. Protected by other shrubs the fragrant Artemisia californica attains a height of ten and twelve feet and the trunk becomes six inches in diameter. Among the cacti, on a dry slope above the sea-cliffs, I came across, one day, a fine specimen Malvastrum thurberi. I have before collected in one locality a shrubby sort with expanded and racemose inflorescence...........

Just at the foot of one our highest peaks, Eriodictyon traskiae covers a large area; I have seen it in no other locality. Pectocarya penicillata is abundant; hill upon hill in the arid uplands is carpeted with it.

Nearly every little stream which continues to keep its head above sand and rock the year round, is fringed with Mimulus cardinalis and occasionally with M. luteus; M. floribundus is more rare. M. glutinosus adorns "hill and dale" at all seasons, with its bright red-and-salmon-colored flowers.

In April, Calachortus palmeri appears on all high, dry slopes and hills; and C. catalinae, or as some would say, C. splendens, follows a little later. It depends, as Mr. Brandegee says, "upon whether this species is distinct from C. splendens."4. Be this as it may, the species in question is rarely found and one may tramp all day without beholding a single bloom.

About five years ago, Mr. Harry Polley discovered a solitary Cornus. The tree is about twenty feet high, six to eight inches in diameter, with long, "red-purple" osier-like branches. It has cream-colored flowers and lead-colored fruit. The species has not been seen elsewhere, nor any representative of the genus, though the specimen referred to is multiplying by shoots at the base.

It is seldom that Eschscholtzia californica is seen here, but there is a very small poppy, which rarely reaches over eight inches in height; it is frequent on high, dry hills, and is most commonly three to six inches high. Miss Eastwood writes me that it may be E. ramosa Greene.

There is a Lupine frequently met with which Miss Easatwood thinks an undescribed variety of Lupinus truncatus.

In one locality Sarcostemma heterophyllum covers a great rock which, falling from an overhanging cliff, has nearly filled the narrow arroyo.

A dainty plant is Hosackia micrantha; in a few localities it is abundant; "very slender and diffusely procumbent," with tiny yellow flowers and long attenuate, shining, red-brown pods. It is one of the first flowers to appear after the rains. H. strigosa has rarely ten leaflets; pods often recurved and pubescent. H. maritima has decumbent stems over a foot in length and it is frequently six-foliolate.

Trifolium tridentatum if found everywhere; T. ciliatum, T palmeri, T. microcephalum occur frequently; T. catalinae inclines to dry slopes by the sea, while T. amplectens thrives on uplands about one thousand feet elevation. During the summer months Medicago sativa blooms in Avalon Canon. Lupinus hirsutissimus is frequent and is three feet high; pods two inches long ("an inch long," Botany of California), exceedingly hirsute.

As to trees, we certainly have trees, though they are mostly out of view in the deep canons, low-set bushes being noticeable on the otherwise bare hills. Even Rhus integrifolia often takes on an arboreus form, attaining a height of twenty to twenty-five feet, with trunk a foot in diameter. R. laurina has been found two feet in diameter; Rhamnus crocea, Rhus ovata, Heteromeles arbutifolia and indeed all the shrubs become arborescent and arboreus as opportunity offers; and remembering Lyonothamnus floribundus, Quercus tomentella, Q. oblongifolia (or Q. macdonaldi, Salix laevigata and S. lasiolepis and Cercocarpus parvifolius, there can be no doubt that we have trees.

The famous "Yerba Santa," Micromeria douglasii, to which Mexico Joe attributes the power of inducing "a gentle sleep," is found in one canon only. The dried leaves, when steeped, make a pleasant, fragrant tea. A tea is alsos made from Pellaea ornithopsus; "Tea Fern" is the local name, and its delicate fragrance is unsurpassed; it is said to be a tonic as well.

This recalls the medicinal properties which Cereus emoryi is reputed to possess. The information is from the reliable old fisherman, John Sullivan, before mentioned. He went to gather it at the urgent request of a Mexican woman, for the purpose of making for her husband, ill of a fever, healing concoction. It is, also, no doubt, well known that the Indians used to make a liniment from the willows. There are, besides, plants to allay thirst. If a Mexican, when thirsty, comes across a Cotyledon he eagerly seizes leaf after leaf and extracts the water. The fruit of Opuntia engelmanni var. littoralis makes a delicious pudding. The leaves of the "Sour Oak" (Rhus integrifolia) are said to have a wonderful curative effect on rheumatic pains, if rubbed upon the affected part. This last from one of the old seers of Avalon, "who knows"! A fine drink is also made from the berries of R. integrifolia; "the icy-looking white substance" (Botany of California) with which they are coated, becoming, when fully ripe, bright red, very thick, juicy and bitter-acid. The drink requires sugar to be valuable in allaying thirst, when water can not be found on the trail.

The tree-poppy, Dendromecon harfordii, is very rare. i have walked and re-walked the ridge from end to end of the island, have been in all the arge canons and many small ones, and I have seen but seven trees, besides the eleven which are within the radius of a half mile. The fisherman, John Sullivan, says he has never seen one "beyond 'The Isthmus.'" It blooms continuously; flowers often three inches in diameter; pods four to five inches long; margin of leaves smooth, though the young an d thin leaves have occasionally a denticulate margin or are merely "rough;" leaves usually distinctly petioled and acute at base, very variable in shape, usually oblong-elliptical, rarely ovate, occasionally spatulate. new shoots from a fallen trunk had their smooth-margined leaves spatulate over an inch broad, and one and one-half inches long. The shredded bark is very conspicuous on all trees here. The species istelve to fifteen feet high, and with the trunk from six to eight inches in diameter. it branches at four or six feet from the ground and, apparently unable to bear its weight, bends forward, while from teh branches long shoots ascend, reminding one of the peculiar growth of the elder. The bending and shooting are repeated again and again; meanwhile, it has turned to a neighboring shrub (invariably Ceanothus cuneatusvar. macrocarpus) and the new branches and young shoots adapt themselves with the greatest dexterity to the twists and turns of the Ceanothus, leading one to suspect that prehensile branches have been given the Dendromecon, because of necessity; for thus the weight of the branches are borne by other trees and the trunk of the Dendromecocn saved from breaking. There are several fine Poppy trees which are lying broken into a hundred pieces, having crashed down at the falling of their support - Ceanothus cuneatus. The Tree Poppy is very brittle; it is almost impossible to gather flower or pod without splitting off large branches. Ceanothus cuneatus, though tough when young, grows brittle as it is gradually uprooted, and it is always being washed out at the roots in the rains. Growing in dry, craggy places, the Tree Poppy finds no better support than the little twisted "White Lilac," so its fate can be readily perceived, and it is not strange that in the length of the island it has been found in but eight different localities.

The writer is deeply indebted to Mrs. A. Wheeler, former resident amateur botanist at Avalon, for information in regard to the habitat of many of the island's rare plants, and Miss Alice Eastwood, Curator of the Herbarium of the California Academy of Sciences, for the naming of many specimens.
Santa Catalina Island, 1897.

Closing Comment
Robert Roy vand de Hoek

Blanche Trask, what a wonderful naturalist and writer she was, whose writing still links Santa Catalina, in Los Angeles County, to Bird Island and Indian Island and other mystical places of geography on Pimu-Catalina. Is Pimu-Catalina worthy of being added to the Channel Island National Park, similar to five other Channel Islands? Answer-YES!!! Should the Catalina Conservancy sell its lands to the National Park Service? Would it be acceptable to scientists and environmentalists to have Catalina be State Park? Answer-YES!!! Could Avalon still exist as a city if the rest of the Island is a National Park or State Park? Answer--Yes!!! Avalon would serve as a recreation and nature study orientation center with tourism focused on the sea otter that could be recovered so that the Island could have about THREE-HUNDRED SEA OTTERS (300+). In addition, imagine THOUSANDS OF SEALS on nearly every beach around CATALINA. This would have people lining up years in advance in a ticketron reservation system to visit Avalon. The city would work out a permit system so that Avalon is not over-run with tourists. With Otters and Seals, more kelp underwater gardens would come into being. These additional kelp gardens would attract even more fish Catalina than occur there now. Most people do not understand that Otters and Seals would actually increase the amount of fish and other marine life on the island. A great myth was perpetrated by fishermen that Seals and Otters reduce fish and marine life. And now science and good natural history study is correcting and eliminating that myth that Otters and Seals are bad for Catalina. In the final analysis, Otters and Seals bring balance to Pimu-Catalina, as well as to bring wild nature as "WILDNESS" back to this beautiful part of California, called Catalina. Catalina as it was called by the Spain and Mexico, and then adopted by Americans from the Eastern U.S. is more correctly called PIMU as the First Americans named it and still refer to it amongst themselves. Most of the 8 Channel Islands had the Island name with an ending in a "U." For example, Santa Cruz Island was LIMU. Perhaps, We should call Pimu-Catalina an entirely new name for this 21st Century. Wouldn't it be nice to rename her as OTTER ISLAND or SEAL ISLAND, perhaps EAGLE ISLAND or OSPREY ISLAND? One thing is certain, it is time to let Santa Catalina Island drift away with the ocean wind.