Something's Always Blooming on Catalina Island
Ah, spring! Lengthening days, blustery breezes, warm sunshine, songs and poems of love. Even in Southern California, where seasonal changes are subtle, spring signals a feeling of renewal as our coastal sage scrub landscape greens up. This spring, after good drenching rains following a period of drought, Santa Catalina Island is utterly beautiful in a drape of multi-hued green.
Upon the verdant backdrop, spring wildflowers grace the island in temporal waves of color. The waves begin in late January or early February with delicate pink Shooting Stars, February's flower, in masses on grassy open hillsides. The first Wild hyacinths, or Blue dicks, wind up through the cactus and scrubby sagebrush, followed by bright yellow Johnny jump-ups and flaming orange Paintbrush. March brings deep blue Arroyo lupine along roadsides and on the hills, yellow Goldfields and Tidy tips in masses, and creamy white Milk maids in the cool moist canyons. By April, the deeply fragrant wild California rose blossoms bright pink in moist lowlands, exquisite Mariposa lily flourishes in grassland, chaparral, and coastal sage scrub, and California golden poppy and Island poppy highlight nearly every landscape.
These harbingers of spring, the stuff of poets and lovers, are so much more than just beautiful natural organisms to behold. Experts estimate that there are over 240,000 species of wild, flowering plants worldwide. Catalina has about 430 native plant species. For these native plants, flowers = fertility. Flowers are the gaudy, smelly, nectar filled treasure traps that draw pollinators to the reproductive parts of a plant. Flowers and their pollinators illustrate that for which nature is so celebrated: relationships that form the web of life.
Pollinators determine everything about a flower: scent, color, shape, and time of bloom. Ninety one percent of the world's flowering plants are pollinated by animals. Most of the work, at least 88%, is done by insects, especially beetles and bees. California poppies are largely pollinated by beetles that gorge on easy to reach pollen and then don't have to go far to drop some on the next flower. Butterflies and moths, attracted to tube shaped, nectar holding flowers like Heart leaf penstemmon and Island snapdragon, pollinate about 8% of plant species. Vertebrates, birds and bats in particular, pollinate less than 1% of all plant species.
Plants, the foundation of all life, dispersed from the mainland to Catalina on the wind, on the ocean's waves and in the bellies of birds. Their arrival and survival made the island hospitable for land animals. Survival of these plants required the near simultaneous arrival of their pollinators. A hike in Catalina's hills or at the beaches in spring is a testament to thriving relationships. A voyeur peeking into almost any flower will find that it is being actively mined for pollen or nectar or both.
What we refer to as wildflowers are generally those low-to-the ground plants without woody stems that grow and bloom for a short time each year, usually in spring or early summer. But, the list of flowering plants is much longer and includes many trees and shrubs. The Catalina endemic Ironwood, a plant unique to this island, flowers in masses of tiny fragrant white flowers. It is a member of the rose family as is the Catalina cherry tree. Both bloom in late spring and are so attractive to bees and flower-loving flies that a walk in an Ironwood or Cherry woodland is a naturally noisy respite from town-sounds.
Catalina is home to at least seven kinds flowering plants found only on this island and another 25 or so that are endemic to the California Channel Islands. These very rare plants with such a limited range give Santa Catalina and the other Channel Islands special status as biodiversity hotspots. Protecting these special places is no simple task.
The Catalina Island Conservancy has spent the past several years doing the hard work of removing feral pigs and goats from the island. Without natural predators, the animals had multiplied to such a point that they had significantly degraded the island's ecosystems. This year, with the removal almost complete, the display of wildflowers and regrowth of woodlands seems to highlight a conservation success. Regular scientific monitoring will document how the island's natural communities respond.
Meantime, we don't need to wait for data trends to tell us that spring is gorgeous on the island. All we need do is get out there. As Luther Burbank said, "Flowers always make people better, happier and more helpful; they are sunshine, food and medicine to the soul." Come into Catalina's interior and nourish your soul!