Photo by Melody

The Malibu Natives: Coastal Sage Scrub

By Kelli Kallenborn (KelliApril 30, 2010
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Dark clouds moved in quickly and the sea was choppy and grey. Drops of rain began to release the fragrance of the scraggly, but aromatic bushes. Gloria stood in a little open space beside the trail overlooking the ocean. She raised her arms and brought them down to her side again, looked at her hands, and writhed as if in imitation of the wind-whipped shrubs. Then she let out a cry that would have horrified a listener.

Gardening picture

However, no one was listening that bleak day and it was just as well.  Gloria was not in torment.  Actually, she was very happy.  She had finally gotten a big break and had landed the role of Lady Macbeth with a well-respected troupe.  She found inspiration from the outdoors.  There was some brushy, rugged country just beyond her apartment building.  The Malibu Hills would be her Scottish Highlands and sagebrush would be her heather. 

Coastal sage scrub is a vegetation type found in the lower elevations of cismontane central and southern California and adjacent Mexico.  It is most abundant near the coast but can also be found many miles inland.  It is vaguely similar to chaparral both in appearance and in the type of locations where it is found.  However, there are distinct differences.  The dominant plants in the chaparral tend to be woody shrubs over 6 feet tall.  Although some woody plants can be found in coastal sage scrub, the dominant plants are semi-woody plants less than 6 feet tall.  In both cases, the vegetation can be dense, but the chaparral is usually much thicker, to the point of being impassable.  A person might get scratched going cross country through coastal sage scrub, but he could make it through. 
 Coastal Sage Scrub Chaparral
Comparison of the predominant plants in coastal sage scrub vs. chaparral
 Less than 6' tall  More than 6' tall
 Semi-woody Woody
 Aromatic Not aromatic
 Drought-deciduous Evergreen
 Grows in clay soil Grows in sandy soil

Purple sage 
 Purple sage
As the name implies, sages are dominant members of the coastal sage scrub community.  These include black sage (Salvia mellifera), purple sage (Salvia leucophylla), and white sage (Salvia apiana).  All have aromatic foliage and are important honey plants.  The most common "sage" in the community is California sagebrush (Artemisia californica).  This is not a true sage (Salvia), but a member of the Asteraceae.  Like the true sages, it also has aromatic foliage. 

Coastal sage scrub is found in a mediterranean climate zone, so it needs to have a way to survive the dry summers.  Many of the members do this by being drought deciduous.  Plants lose a lot of water through their leaves, and in dry weather, the sages and sagebrush lose some of their leaves, especially the larger ones that were grown during the rainy season.  Also, coastal sage scrub vegetation tends to be greyish from the waxes that help reduce evaporation through the leaves. 

 Springtime coastal sage scrub Autumn coastal sage scrub
 Springtime coastal sage scrub is bright and green By fall it is dry and colorless

 

Coastal sage scrub and chaparral are often found in very similar sites as far as climate and exposure, so why is there chaparral in one place and sage scrub in another nearby?  I think the critical factor is the type of soil.  At least in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, coastal sage scrub is found on clay soil derived from shale and chaparral is found on sandy soil derived from sandstone or igneous rocks. 

Coastal sage scrub scene 

 Tracts of coastal sage scrub are usually broken

up by other plant communities like grassland

and woodland

 Indian paintbrush
 Indian paintbrush
Indian paintbrush (Castilleja affinis) is an interesting plant of the coastal sage scrub.  It is a hemiparasite of California sagebrush.  The bright flowers are very striking, especially against the grey-green of the sagebrush. 

Many species of plants are found in the coastal sage scrub community.  A short list includes laurel sumac (Malosma laurina), coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis), bush sunflower (Encelia californica), giant coreopsis (Coreopsis gigantea), Shaw's agave (Agave shawii), island morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia), soap plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum), cobweb thistle (Cirsium occidentale), coastal cholla (Cylindropuntia prolifera), California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum), gumplant (Grindelia camporum), bladderpod (Isomeris arborea), and bush lupine (Lupinus longifolius).  This list is not comprehensive by any means but these plants were chosen to illustrate the variety found in the community. 

Coastal sage scrub is one of the more endangered plant communities in the United States.  This is mainly because it is located on very desirable ocean-front and ocean-view real estate.  Approximately 10 to 30 percent of its original range remains and it is home to at least 19 endangered plant species.  Also, even a Malibu native can have an image problem.  Maybe it starts with the name, "scrub".  Who would care about that?  Some celebrities-in-the-making might have success with a name change, but in reality, regardless of the name there is nothing particularly glamorous about coastal sage scrub.  Fully a third of the year it looks dry, tired, and homely.  It lacks the grandeur of a redwood, the nobility of a sequoia, and even the Old West romance of the chaparral and prairie.  However, people are beginning to appreciate the importance of all ecosystems, even the most humble.  Perhaps the places closest to home should be valued most of all. 

You may not have coastal sage scrub near where you live, but maybe you have some other under-appreciated natural area.  Go visit it.  Learn about it.  See what lives there.  Discover its secrets.  It is important in its own way. 


  About Kelli Kallenborn  
Kelli KallenbornKelli has lived in California for 25 years and really enjoys the climate and all of the varied natural ecosystems. You can also follow Kelli on Google.

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Discussion about this article:
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Thank You! Lily_love 6 28 Sep 12, 2010 10:00 AM
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