Monday, February 18, 2013

REGIONAL PARKS BOTANIC GARDEN: Native Plant Communities Showcase California’s Ecological Heritage & 160,000 Square Miles of Biodiversity

Huffing and puffing your way up a steep incline in the Berkeley Hills, you’re on a world-class bike ride to a beloved destination five miles distant – Inspiration Point. Nimitz Way Trail picks up for an easy and routine, but oh-so-splendid 12-mile round-trip adventure hike or bike ride traversing a paved section of Tilden and Wildcat Canyon Parks atop San Pablo Ridge.
It’s a beautiful experience anyone of any ability and age can access and enjoy. Hence, numerous close encounters with stroller mobs and other masses of outdoor loving humanity hogging up trail space with nary a clue that you’re comin’ thru! (Politely, of course!)
Inspiration Point is a premier East Bay look out straddling the ridge below Seaview Trail in Tilden Park’s matrix of nearly 40 miles of trails. From this vantage point, you’ve taken in hundreds of, well, inspiring vistas of a dynamic slice of East Bay earthquake tortured topography.
Two reservoirs lie tucked away in the rolling hillscape contorted by millions of years of geologic upheaval. Directly below is the lovely riparian, forested, fossil rich shoreline of oblong San Pablo Reservoir, and to the north lies the bright blue bowl of Briones Reservoir. Due east, the iconic landmark, 3849 ft. Mount Diablo, reigns supreme as the ever-mysterious sentinel.
Refreshing rains have transformed a barren brown landscape (chaparral / coyote brush typical) into an emerald tableau of lush voluptuous hills. A sparklingly clear horizon reveals snow-capped ridges and peaks of the Sierra Nevada.
Staring at the 100-mile distant Range of Light is an amazing thing to behold! Having been everywhere, it seems, you still think it can’t get any better than this.
But before you get to Inspiration Point, sheer whimsy compels you to pull over at the juncture of Wildcat Canyon and South Park Roads to check out the Regional Parks Botanic Garden.
Yes, the Regional Parks Botanic Garden, situated in an intimate canyon formed by high, hemmed-in ridges of Vollmer Peak and Grizzly Peak. You park your bike behind a tree near the parking lot where you once espied (your very first) a mating pair of gorgeous Varied Thrushes.
It’s been a long while since you strolled through the pretty landscaped grounds holding myriad botanical treasures, and what the heck, now’s as good a time as any to renew your acquaintance with one of the Bay Area’s most precious resources.
Right in your back yard, for Heaven’s Sake!
Founded in 1940, the Garden’s ten acres house, according to the Friends of Regional Parks Botanic Garden:
“ . . . 300 taxa that are classified in the California Native Plant Society's landmark study, Inventory of Rare and Endangered Vascular Plants of California.”
There are so many different plants you haven’t heard of a hundredth of them.
On first glance, the Garden has a carefully cultivated look and feel, but you quickly come to appreciate a quaint wildness, an unexpected intimacy created by surprising nooks hidden away here and tranquil crannies tucked away there.
This botanical sanctorum of enchanting terrain features thousands of plants, shrubs, flowers, cacti and trees, many rare and endangered, scattered here and there among a labyrinth of artfully designed zig-zag stairways leading up through oak, conifer and aspen groves, amid collections of specimens from a dozen unique floral zones.
It’s truly a special place, a “living museum” not only for the botanically obsessed but for anyone searching for a nearby redoubt of peace and quiet in a meditative, beautiful setting.
You’re excited to have stopped here, since everything appears to be about a hundred times more beautiful than usual after rejuvenating rains have breathed a second life into the parched earth, dampening dry, musty humus, and imbuing every resonant thing with a glistening sheen and sparkle.
It’s a picture-perfect day of sun beams wafting through low cotton clouds and leaves taking on amplified tinges of orange, red, chrome, rust, yellow; a scintillating freshness emanates from multi-colored and richly textured bark; dew drops tingle like tiny diamonds on unformed buds.
At the centerpiece of this recreated natural world is Wildcat Creek, a life-affirming riparian artery, rushing through the premises in respectable froth and fury, joined in its course by numerous side freshets tumbling down from the Big Springs Hills.
You set off to explore the dozen or so microcosmic plant community areas from around the state – Shasta-Klamath up north, Channel Islands off the southern California coast, Santa Lucian in the Central “Big Sur” mountains, Sierran and Valley Foothill, Redwood, Sea Bluff, Pacific Rain Forest, Franciscan, and Canyon.
Frankly, you’re blown away by it all.
At this time of year, many plants are blooming – silktassel, manzanita, osoberry, pink-flowering currant, barberry, Dutchman’s pipe, gooseberry, milkmaids, and western leatherwood – with hundreds of other varieties set to showcase their own sweet nectar filled flowers over the next ten months.
You don’t have a clue what’s what – but the park guardians have placed identification markers for each individual plant, so when you come to a strange-looking thing that has a familiar look to it, you have an AHA! moment when you learn it’s Milo Baker lupine or an unseasonably early blossoming of the blue Ceanothus thyrsiflorus var. repens in the Sea Bluff section.
So much to learn, you sigh, and so little of it will stick in your memory. But what of it? You soak in the small miracle of these obscure plants’ existence, appreciative for what they are in the forgotten moment, taking a page out of Whitman’s Specimen Days playbook:
“You must not know too much, or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and water-craft; a certain free margin, and even vagueness  perhaps ignorance, credulity  helps your enjoyment of these things . . .”
Still, you really do want to know the scholarly side of things, and so you obsess over getting to know everything living thing’s taxonomic schema. Without much success, you acknowledge.
The manzanita variations are attractive in every possible endemic setting. At the bottom of “Lombard Street” – a twisting pathway designed by Jim Roof – a Presidio manzanita (Arctostaphylos hookeri ssp. ravenii), which amazingly happens to be thee most endangered and restricted plant in the mainland United States.
And a Franciscan manzanita (Arctostaphylos hookeri ssp. franciscana) fittingly complete the architecturally landscaped tableau; while throughout the Garden reign numerous examples of rare, threatened, endangered and plain ol' common manzanitas, among 43 species from California, including Bigberry, Eastwood, Monterey, Brittleleaf, San Bruno, and delicate specimens from atop Huckleberry’s hills.
John Muir, as only he can, describes their branches as:
“ . . . knotty, zigzaggy, and about as rigid as bones, and the bark is so thin and smooth, both trunk and branches seem to be naked, looking as if they had been peeled, polished, and painted red.”
Moving on, surrounded as you are by the whir and purr of Wildcat Creek, you exult over its simple majesty of presence. Over its unheralded status as “most beautiful” overlooked natural feature. Over its less than noble font, not far away, up there, atop Grizzly Peak, originating, as a matter of fact, in a parking lot.
The beauty of the creek’s early journey stops you in your tracks at every twist and turn of its wending course to the Bay, through a lush setting of manzanita, creek dogwood, giant Western fern, cottonwoods, madrone, deciduous oaks, vine maple, and colorful twigs of shrubs and bushes.
Such canopy and understory provides a bountiful habitat for our many nonhuman friends: birds, insects, mammals – secretive creatures who rely on a healthy ecosystem for food, shelter and camouflage. 
Again, having been everywhere on earth practically, you’re thinking, can it get any better than this? – this “wild” venue existing in such tenuous proximity to urban sprawl . . . albeit pleasant Berkeley Hills type urban sprawl.
Wildcat Creek – what more can you say about this artery of life-giving water that you haven’t already written / expressed? Not much, but you give it a try:
This creek is so pretty you want to cry.
This creek is so precious you want to shout it out to the world.
This creek is a keeper; you want to take it home in your back pocket.
This creek is flat out sweet.
This urban cum wild creek.
This bedrock cutting creek.
This little creek that could!
This creek that stops you in your tracks.
This splendid little creek!
This ten-million-year-old creek with ancient lava cliffs, hyperbolized in fine Gambolin’ Man style by Gordy Slack in a Bay Nature piece from 2005, as looking like:
“ . . . the remotest of Ishi country.”
You trace a path to an out of the way area, among tall Redwoods and moss slick rocks, to a secluded cul-de-sac where the harried world is no longer, now replaced by a more natural order of things.
For who knows how long, you sit by the grassy bank in a splotch of sunlight, breathing fresh heapingfuls of negative ion rich oxygen.
You're lulled into transcendent mellowness by gentle rustlings in tree tops and the hypnotic gurgle of the creek. Zen Master John Muir sure nailed it when he wrote:
“Everything is flowing  going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water.”
That’s what you feel in this flowing moment on the cusp of nirvanic ecstasy – then the buzz of a helicopter shatters your reverie, probably the park police looking for a lost hiker.
Time to get the blood flowing now. You notice around a bend in the creek a long-ignored trail, an unknown part of the Garden leading into a secluded copse, with diverse plants abounding in their transplanted settings. Despite cars whooshing by on the road a few feet beyond the fence, it’s a pristine and quiet world, a respite from hectic existence. 
You admire a few pretty purple blossoms, lazy bees floating around the perimeter. At the small bridge, you stop to check out which little avian friends might be “reporting” today, taking great delight observing two frisky Yellow-rumped Warblers (adult male Audubons) flirting in the sycamore tree branches. Moments later, you clock the dopest sighting ever – emblazoned pate and all – of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet!
The juncos are active and twittering up a storm, while papa jay scolds harshly in a pine tree. Several turkey vultures, a red-tailed hawk, and a murder of screeching crows make themselves known over the next thirty minutes, just standing there watching, looking, staring, gazing, ogling, eyeballing to see who lives in or frequents the Garden’s beckoning environs.
All in all, an incredible little outing, you have to admit. Routinely passed by headed toward some “better” place, but not today, for what could be more enjoyable than whiling away a few hours in a California dreamtime Garden with a sweet little creek runnin’ through it swelled from rains, saturating the earth and seeping into subterranean aquifers in the lush hills whose secrets you are about to plumb in the next phase of this post-rainy day spontaneous adventure.
With just enough left in the tank, you hop back on your trusty two-wheeled steed and head up South Park Road to seek out some hard-charging, hidden, hard to get to, ephemeral waterfalls in the Big Springs Hills.
All there for the witnessing.
Ahhh, you’re thinking: it really can’t get any better than this:
The Berkeley Hills showcasing Inspiration Point, Lake Anza, Wildcat Creek, and the Regional Parks Botanic Garden!
 Just waiting for your next stop over!
Enjoy dozens of live-action scenes of a special creek & watershed in the Berkeley Hills:
Read selective essays from Gambolin' Man on birding in Tilden and Wildcat Regional Parks in the hills and down on beautiful and hidden Wildcat Creek:
Read many more bird-related posts from Gambolin' Man at his "backyard bird blog":