It was a mystery how plants survived here, but Ned was more concerned about his own survival. He believed that horses could smell water and he sure could use Lulu-Belle. He lost count of how many dry canyons he had passed through - up and down and up and down for hours. It was very hot but he had to keep moving on. Surely the trail would eventually come to a spring or ranch. After another half hour of trudging along, he came to an open place of burned stubs and short regrowth. Finally, he could see for a distance. He climbed onto a boulder and looked all around. Less than a mile to the northeast was a steep, deep canyon with redwoods. There would be water there, and Lulu-Belle would not be far away.

Chaparral in spring
Trail through the springtime chaparral

The chaparral ecosystem is found in the low and middle elevations of rugged and mountainous country along the western edge of North America, from the Sierra San Pedro Martir in Baja California to southwest Oregon. Most of the chaparral is in California. It is a land of a very thick growth of shrubs, broken up by grasslands in drier areas and woodlands in moister areas. Chaparral shrubs are usually on the order of 6 to 10 feet high, though that can vary depending on the microclimate and species mix.

Chaparral plants have to be drought-tolerant because they are found in a mediterranean climate zone, where winters are undependably wet and summers are dependably dry. Chaparral shrubs are evergreen. They survive by having thick, waxy, and usually small leaves that minimize water loss. They usually grow in rocky soil, where roots can penetrate deep. This kind of soil can also absorb water from a heavy dew. Chaparral shrubs are very efficient. If a branch is no longer receiving an adequate amount of sunlight, the plant can self-prune that branch, that is, allow it to die. The understory of the chaparral is a tangle of dead branches.

Ceanothus megacarpus
Ceanothus megacarpus in bloom

The climate and the nature of the plants both conspire to make the chaparral a very fire-prone place. Chaparral plants have to be able to deal with fire and they all can recover in one way or another. Fires usually occur after annuals have died off for the summer and when most perennials are dormant, so they avoid the fire by not being present at all. Some shrubs are able to resprout from the base. Others are completely killed, but new plants grow from a seed bank that has been building up for years. Many of these plants have seeds that can only sprout after a fire.

Chaparral comes from the Spanish and means "having scrub oaks". There are several species of scrub oaks, with Quercus berberidifolia being the most common and widespread. Other common chaparral shrubs include chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum), toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), various Ceanothus species, various manzanita (Arctostaphylos) species, laurel sumac (Malosma laurina), sugar bush (Rhus ovata), holly-leafed cherry (Prunus ilicifolia), redberry (Rhamnus ilicifolia) and mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus betuloides). Most of these plants have abundant springtime or summer blooms. Berries add color in the late summer and fall when the rest of the region is drab. Any given patch of chaparral will contain several of these species but one or two will be predominant.

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Greenbark Ceanothus

Ceanothus spinosus

Sticky Monkeyflower

Diplacus aurantiacus


Parry's Phacelia

Phacelia parryi


Adenostoma fasciculatum

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Hollyleaf Redberry

Rhamnus ilicifolia

Large-Flowered Phacelia

Phacelia grandiflora

Bush Lupine

Lupinus longifolius

Golden Yarrow

Eriophyllum confertiflorum

Yerba Santa

Eriodictyon crassifolium

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Dove Lupine

Lupinus bicolor

Turkish Rugging

Chorizanthe staticoides

Indian Pink

Silene laciniata

Scrub Oak

Quercus berberidifolia

Caterpillar Phacelia

Phacelia cicutaria

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Fuchsia-Flowering Gooseberry

Ribes speciosum

Wild Cucumber

Marah macrocarpus

Chaparral Flowering Ash

Fraxinus dipetala

Prickly Poppy

Argemone minita

Rose Snapdragon

Antirrhinum multiflorum

The large shrubs are only half of the story when it comes to chaparral plants. The many small shrubs include fuchsia-flowering gooseberry (Ribes speciosum), prickly phlox (Leptodactylon californicum), poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum), and California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum). Chaparral yucca (Hesperoyucca whipplei) is very showy in bloom. Dudleyas are beautiful succulents and some are very rare.

The chaparral also has its share of perennials, geophytes, and annuals. These are usually found in openings in the chaparral, like along trails, where the soil is thin, or where there has been a fire. Flowers are the most numerous in number and variety after a fire. Phacelias, lupines, and members of the poppy family are well-represented for the first couple of years after a fire.

In my local area, which is the low elevation chaparral of Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, blooming starts in December, with chaparral currant and bigberry manzanita. Big-pod ceanothus soon follows and it is then followed by other ceanothus species. Prickly phlox is another early bloomer. April and May are the peak wildflower months. Blooming continues into early July with species like Plummer mariposa lily, scarlet larkspur, and California buckwheat.

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Chaparral Yucca

Hesperoyucca whipplei

Sapphire Wool Star

Eriastrum sapphirinum


Heteromeles arbutifolia


Encelia californica

Plummer Mariposa Lily

Calochortus plummerae

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Scarlet Larkspur

Delphinium cardinale

Chalk Liveforever

Dudleya pulverulenta

Prickly Phlox

Leptodactylon californicum

Chaparral Currant

Ribes malvaceum

Chaparral Virgin's Bower

Clematis lasiantha

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Holly-Leafed Cherry

Prunus ilicifolia

Woolly Blue Curls

Trichostema lanatum

California Peony

Paeonia californica

Lemonade Berry

Rhus integrifolia

Indian Warrior

Pedicularis densiflora

Chaparral plants may be tough in their native environment, but they can be tricky to grow at home. Most cannot tolerate regular watering in the summer. Thus, chaparral plants should be given their own section of the garden. It is usually advised that transplants be given supplemental water once a month for their first year and after that, let them rely on rainfall. In extremely dry winters, supplemental water may be given if desired. My experience in growing chaparral plants is very limited, but I think that the type of soil rugged countryis also important, at least for some species. Some chaparral plants are sensitive to the shrinking and swelling of clay soil as it dries out or absorbs water. In my local area, chaparral is found on rocky soils derived from sandstone and volcanic rock, while coastal sage scrub and grassland are found on clay soils derived from shale. My yard is clay, and chaparral yucca and toyon do fine, but I can't keep ceanothus alive for more than a couple of years. Chaparral annuals would be the easiest plants for beginners or those outside of a summer-dry area to try.

Cultivars of some chaparral genera have been developed. These include many ceanothus and manzanita varieties. These plants may have showier or more abundant flowers, larger leaves, or alternate flower colors or be smaller, more garden-compatible size. When purchasing chaparral plants, you will find the best variety at nurseries specializing in native plants or at California Native Plant Society local chapter plant sales. These sales are usually in the fall, since that is usually the best time to plant most California native plants. Keep tabs on your local chapter's web site, for plant sales are usually for one weekend only. Local general nurseries may have a limited selection of native plants. Seeds are not always easy to find.

For many people, the chaparral is just scrubland to get through on the way to the beach, ski slopes, or Yosemite Valley. Those are very worthy destinations, but the person who likes plants or rugged scenery is missing out by not making the chaparral a destination in itself once in a while. Depending on the location, there are times when the chaparral may be too hot or cold, but most of the year it is pleasant for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, picnicking, or wildlife watching. Many state, local, and national parklands feature chaparral areas. Most trails will go through several ecosystems, and depending on the latitude and altitude, you may also get to experience grassland, coastal sage scrub, oak or conifer woodlands, riparian zones, montane forest, and lakes, ponds, and streams - all adding to your botanic and scenic pleasure.

Click the link below to watch an amateur video of a drive through chaparral country. Places with pine trees are people's yards, but the rest is chaparral.

Common names in this article are as I learned them and they can vary from place to place. Photos are the property of Kelli Kallenborn.