A heady floral fragrance greeted us almost immediately as we stepped from the trailhead on Skyline Boulevard in the hills above Oakland. The intense perfume was not what I was expecting in the dark, ferny, bay forest we had entered. Something really smelled good and I began nosing about, bush to bush, like a hound on the hunt. I found it soon enough. Pink and white clusters of delicate lilac-like blossoms, festooning the nearly bare branches of a large bush beside the trail. The little flowers were almost luminous in the dim light, but that smell was what really grabbed me.
Brad, my stalwart hiking buddy, and I were starting a 2.5-mile walk in the Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve. It is a small regional park next to Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve in the Oakland/Berkeley Hills, the subject of another Walk About column. Sibley had been made a park to preserve a volcanic core and some incredible geology. Huckleberry’s preservation was for something very different, a remnant plant community, a small island of life that originated long ago on the coast, further south when that was a much wetter place. Now it is found on the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara and in pockets along the coast from Point Conception to Montara Mountain, but nowhere in the East Bay Hills except this isolated island of life.
We were following the Huckleberry Path, a self-guided nature walk, where we learned that this preserve boasts flowers in all seasons of the year. Stepping onto the path in March, we had happened on the peak bloom of the pink-flowering current, and that wonderful perfume wasn’t the flower at all, but the small, newly opening, sticky leaves. Looking like tiny grape leaves, a close cousin, these soft leaflets were intoxicating. It seems every time I set foot in a regional park that is new to me, I find something unexpected.
Huckleberry Preserve stands directly in the path of summer’s prevailing winds, which blanket the region in fog streaming in from the Golden Gate. Just below is Canyon, that quirky little community nestled into the moist redwoods west of Moraga. This would be a great hike in summer when a dark bay forest and the winds from the west might be the perfect antidote to the swelter of a hot, smoggy day.
Here on the ridge, life has to deal with a particularly barren upturned bank of sedimentary rock, an ancient sea floor made up of alternating bands of shale and the skeletal remains of siliceous microscopic diatoms and radiolaria. Much of the ecology of the area is centered on that slow struggle of life to enrich otherwise poor soils. At one stop on the hike, the path leads out of the dense oak/bay forest onto a relatively spare promontory, a manzanita barren. Pallid manzanita, also known as the Alameda manzanita, is found only here and in
Scrubby manzanita bushes dropped a few leaves on the bare gravely ground, the beginning of real soil. In their shade, growing in the little bit of protection the manzanita provided, were young huckleberry plants that would one day tower over their protector and shade them out.
This kind of plant progression could be seen all along the trail. At another point, chinquapin was actively crowding out established manzanita, only to eventually be shaded out by tall huckleberry bushes. Here the crowning flora would eventually be the bay trees, or possibly even the redwoods working their way uphill from Canyon over the millennia. So goes the life cycle of a forest.
Fires were a regular part of this landscape. Native Americans treated our East Bay hills like a garden and not a wilderness, cultivating through fire. The plants that establish themselves in the early stages of a forest’s life after a fire were more plentiful when fires were a regular occurrence. By keeping the wood load down, when things did burn, the mature trees were usually spared. Now the land is subdivided or preserved as park, and regular burning is potentially too dangerous to the surrounding communities.
Much of the life in this ecosystem is well suited to fire, from the huckleberry, manzanita and chinquapin right on up to the canyon live oaks, bays and even the redwoods. They all sprout from a massive burl at their base. If fire takes out the plant’s upper growth, life is preserved in these rootstocks, shoots are quickly sent out the following spring, and the progression continues.
Tassels hung from the coast silktassel which had flowered from December to February, and piles of thorny seed pods lay beneath the chinquapins, whose bloom had been at the height of last summer.
As we hiked the nature trail, each number in our brochure led us to another member of this enchanting forest. One small, hangdog-looking little shrub turned out to be the extremely rare western leatherwood, which had already bloomed but was sending out new shoots and leaves. Lining the path was Douglas iris, but this wouldn’t flower until spring was further along, when it would be joined by monkey flower and the honey-rich smell of ceanothus.
We took a few wrong turns, but our hike was short enough that we had time to retrace our steps and find the right path. How I ever make my way across a landscape is beyond me and frankly a bit of a miracle. We’re both nature geeks, so we had to stop and read each guide entry carefully and enjoy the beauty of the plant described. We easily stretched our little walk out over several hours, with a lunch break at a bench toward the end of the trail. The nature trail is only a 1.7 mile loop, but we walked further, completing a full circle of 2.5 miles or so to the far end of the park and back.
The thick bay forest, truly a forest primeval, was dotted about with splashes of blue, forget-me-nots, ever reminding me of the beauty in the life beneath me on the forest floor. We found more sprays of pink-flowering currant and its aromatic new leaves, but just as we were coming full circle back to the trailhead, I glanced up and on the bank above the trail was one of my favorite beauties of the coastal forest. She is one of Degas’ lovely ballerinas dancing, draped in wine-purple silk, atop a green gown of three round leaves. It was an exquisite Trillium chloropetalum, the giant trillium. My favorite lily of the redwoods and a fitting end to an easy walk in the forest that had been all about flowers and the succession of life in a rare eco-pocket in the East Bay hills.
The Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve is a place to walk every few months if you want to take in the yearly floral calendar and to catch some of the rarer flowers at their peak. It’s also about ferns and moss and lichens and moist earth in a fog-watered part of our usually dry hills. You can find information and directions for the park at the Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve’s web page.
There is not a ‘fragment’ in all nature, for every relative fragment of one thing is a full harmonious unit in itself.—John Muir, A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916)
Scott Williams writes regularly about hiking and walking for Martinez Patch, where this article first appeared.
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