THEY tower over the short San Gabriel River sage-scrub landscape like welcoming giants, almost beckoning people to come in and take a look.
“They really light up the landscape,” said botanist Ann Croissant, who took me on a tour through the back trails of the Santa Fe Dam alluvial fan sage scrub.
It occurred to me last week to check out the yuccas while I was driving east on the 210 Freeway through Irwindale and saw the yucca stalk pop into view. I smile when I see the California poppies along the transition road from the 10 to the 57 freeways. I’ve gone chasing after wildflowers during my 25 years working for the San Gabriel Valley Newspapers. I spotted rare plants in the crevices of Clamshell Canyon and was the first to report the discovery of the endangered thread-leafed brodiaea up the Colby Trail in Glendora in the late 1980s. But I suspect for many, these “freeway flowers” are the only wildflowers they’ll see. And that’s a shame, since all it takes is parking the car and getting out into nature.
So today, I want to introduce you to the Santa Fe Dam backcountry, where one of the greatest arrays of wildflowers are on display.
“This is the purist area of the alluvial fan sage scrub in the county. We really need to protect it, yet still introduce people to it,” said Croissant, president of the San Gabriel Mountains Regional Conservancy (www.sgmrc.org), which helped rebuild the nature center in 2004 and restore the habitat.
There is much more than those skyscraping yuccas, which are still my favorites. Prickly pear cactus cluster the landscape, their yellow, red and purple flowers blooming from each porcupine leaf. Scarlet larkspurs wave 18 inches tall in the wind, their brilliant flowers resembling a hothouse orchid. There are 150 or more species of flowers here, from foothill penstemons and dainty purple nightshade to yellow sun cups and bushes of buckwheat and black sage.
Along the bicycle and walking trails of Santa Fe Dam, these flowers are everywhere. Thursday morning’s 90-minute walk/ride with Croissant easily out-wowed my two-day experience at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park last month, proving you don’t have to drive hours to see nature if you live in the San Gabriel Valley. It’s right here off the freeway. But you’ve got to exit and take it by foot.
Croissant, a botanist who teaches at APU and Cal Poly Pomona, stopped to show me her favorite plant, the cobweb thistle. “It’s absolutely gorgeous — a natural thistle. This is the first year I’ve seen it multi-stemmed.”
The dudlea, which is sending up stalks of fluorescent yellow-red flower buds from a succulent leaf base, also is flourishing. “I’ve never seen them this high,” she said.
The rains of winter — not just heavy but spaced out throughout the season and into spring — are partly the cause of the wildflower bounty. But sometimes, the rains can have the opposite effect and limit a species’ appearance, she said.
“You need to taste these — these are called lemonade berries,” she interrupted. A lemony tang rang my taste buds as I touched a tiny red berry to my tongue.
It’s relaxing to stroll amid these ancient landscapes and discover new sights, sounds and tastes.
Another rich wildflower area is the Colby Trail in the Glendora foothills, where the once obscure brodiaea is in bloom. “You see purple everywhere,” she said.
Back at Santa Fe Dam, we came upon still more yuccas as we closed in on the two freeways. “They really thrive in poor conditions. Adversity is something they are attracted to. Maybe there is a message there,” she said.
The conservancy’s master plan includes more hiking trails behind the dam — some as dirt paths for mountain bikers and some improved trails for wheelchair access. “We need to make learning about nature entertainment,” she said.
After emerging from the bumpy ride, she turned to me and said: “I think we’ll name that trail after you: the Yucca Valley Trail.”
It’s freeway close but foot accessible. That’s the secret of the Santa Fe Dam backcountry.