McKerricher State Park and Coastal Dunes

Every spring, I teach a class on plant communities of California, that travels on four field trips to different parts of the state to see some of the incredible range of terrestrial ecosystems in our neighborhood. Last weekend we took three days to go towards the coast, in the Mendocino area. The trip takes students from coastal dunes to coastal prairie to riparian system to pygmy forests to mixed evergreen forests and ends with old-growth redwood. Along the way they learn to identify the different plant species, understand the different drivers that cause the plant communities to be what they are, and hear stories of the history and social factors that shape how we think about these communities today.

These are a few of my students from McKerricher state park, where the students conducted a sampling exercise to look at how the assembly of plants changed as they moved from the high tide line towards the inland dunes. The plants we saw include beach evening primrose, purple owl’s clover, Indian paintbrush, beach bur, coastal sagewort, knotweed, American dune grass, and sand verbena. These plants all have amazing adaptations to the shifting sands, harsh winds, bright light, salty air, and low water supply they have to deal with in this environment. One of these adaptations is a spreading below-ground root structures that anchor the plants in the dunes, store water and nutrients for drought, and allow the plant to resprout if it is buried. Check out the photo of the sand verba roots–you’d never know from their cute little leaves that such a monster lay underneath! We also enjoyed a stunning display from Menzies’ wallflower, an endangered species with a limited range along the California coast.

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