Tag Archives: Chaparral

Understanding Wildfire in the Chaparral of Southern California


Toyon, or California Holly (Heteromeles arbutifolia) re-sprouts following a fire.

Whether naturally ignited or caused by man, fires are an inevitable part of life in Southern California. California’s history is dotted with wildfires, many severe and engulfing large tracts of the landscape. The 2009 Santa Barbara Fire, October 2007 wildfires, Cedar Fire of 2003, and 1993 Malibu Fire, among others, are recent memories of particularly devastating events. Undoubtedly, more wildfires will occur in the future.

As with Earthquakes, the question is not if the next wildfire will occur, but when. Records indicate that infrequent wildfires are a natural part of the ecology of the region we live in, although the interval between fires has shortened in recent times. In the Chaparral biome, the scrubland community that encompasses much of the Coast Ranges and foothills of several interior mountain ranges, the average fire interval is thirty to forty years. In certain areas the typical interval between fires can drop as low as ten to fifteen years, and span up to one hundred years in others. It has been estimated that the fire regime was much less frequent before human settlement: between thirty and one hundred fifty years. It has only been within the past century that the interval has shortened dramatically.

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Peculiar Plants of our Area: The Chaparral Yucca

Chaparral Yuccas (Hesperoyucca whipplei)

If you have been hitting the trails recently, it is likely you have come across a plant with a towering white stalk of flowers, reaching twice your height or more. These impressive inflorescences belong to the Chaparral Yucca, more nobly known as “Our Lord’s Candle”, or Hesperoyucca whipplei in the scientific sense. Classified as an agave in the asparagus family, this sharp-leaved, unusual looking plant hardly resembles something that you would steam and eat with your dinner. Although the asparagus family contains thousands of species, many of which are not edible, the Chaparral yucca does in fact have edible parts. Although it is rarely eaten in the present day, several Native American tribes consumed the rosettes, immature pods, flowering stalks, and flowers. The roots are hardly if not ever consumed, but often mistaken for the “yuca”, or cassava root, a completely unrelated plant that serves as a staple in the diet of many tropical nations.

Chaparral Yucca can be found as far North as Monterey and Fresno Counties, south into Mexico, and east into Arizona. It favors habitats on the warmer side, and is one of the most common species in coastal sage scrub and Chaparral. Additionally it can be found in lower densities in deserts, creosote bush scrub, dry woodlands, and yellow pine forest. This hardy plant is highly tolerant of dry, rocky soils, and can even be spotted springing out of some very craggy, inhospitable looking rock formations. The way in which it juts out from the surrounding vegetation creates a striking contrast that can make for some intriguing hiking scenery. A similar species, the Century Plant, is often confused with the Chaparral Yucca. This relative of the Chaparral Yucca does not live nearly as long as its name suggests, rather only a meager 10-30 years. It can be distinguished from the Chaparral Yucca most easily by its height, as it grows to be much taller: up to twenty-six feet high.

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