Book on San Diego Flora Argues Pro-Plant Politics

There aren't many people who would call a book on the plants of San Diego County a political statement, but then there aren't many people who pray for wildfires, either. Mitchell Beauchamp does both.

That's one measure of how much he cares about local native plants. Another is his encyclopedic knowledge of them.

What's the oldest plant in the county, Mitch? "Probably some of our coast live oak trees. Some of the really huge ones are over 1,000 years old," he explained patiently.

What's the rarest plant? "One of the rarest is a little blue-flowered annual called the Cuyamaca Lake downingia. It's found only in wet areas near Cuyamaca Lake."

And what's that tall, thin cactus that grows on the windward slopes of Cabrillo National Monument? "Velvet cactus. Within San Diego County it's found only in small patches at the monument and at UC San Diego."

You get the idea. The amazing thing is that Beauchamp can spout similar information for many of the plants in the county--and by his own count there are 2,210 different kinds, including trees and weeds.

Beauchamp is a botanist and principal consultant for Pacific Southwest Biological Services, an environmental consulting firm in National City. His book, "A Flora of San Diego County, California," is being published this month. It's the first attempt in nearly 40 years to compile a complete list of every type of plant that grows in the county--and where each grows.

The project has kept Beauchamp occupied, off and on, for the last 15 years. But Beauchamp, 39--a third-generation native of National City--is appalled at the way housing tracts and agricultural development have destroyed the county's open hills and canyons, and he is hoping that his book will help convince people that many native plants here are unique and need protection.

"In terms of the number of native plants, San Diego County has more diversity than any other county in the continental United States," he pointed out. "But developers and the people who move here are totally ignorant of it" and don't seem to be concerned that many of the plants are gradually being wiped out.

Documentation of Diversity

"My book is documentation of this fantastic diversity of plants we have at our doorstep," he said. "It's a political statement, based on scientific evidence, that the county is a very unique area.

"You want proof? Start counting."

The last comprehensive inventory of the county's plants was published in 1949 by Ethel Bailey Higgins, a former curator of botany at the San Diego Natural History Museum. Beauchamp doesn't mean to detract from Higgins' book by publishing his own; in fact, he met Higgins in 1962 and still treasures the autographed copy of her book that she gave him.

Some Drastic Changes

But since 1949 there have been some dramatic changes in the county's plant life, according to Beauchamp. Among them:

- The spreading of new species of weeds, many of them introduced in "seed sprays" used by developers to revegetate hillsides that have been denuded during construction. "Weeds cannot invade an area unless it's been disturbed by the hand of man," Beauchamp noted, "and in San Diego County the hand of man has generally been a bulldozer."

- The obliteration of some types of plants that were flourishing here 40 years ago. The main culprits are urban development and increasing agriculture.

The discovery of several new plant species.

Thomas Oberbauer, field chairman for the California Native Plant Society and an environmental management specialist for the County of San Diego, said it is high time that botanists updated their knowledge of which plants grow here, and where. Such information not only allows scientists to see how plant communities have changed over time, but is "also useful for determining environmental impacts," he said. "It gives you an idea how much habitat is left for an individual species . . . and there are more species of rare and endangered plants here than in any other county in the continental United States."

Beauchamp said the book will be a valuable reference for professional and amateur botanists, students, environmental consultants, and state and federal officials charged with managing wildlife habitat. It includes a key for identifying plants, and maps that show the extent of various plant communities.

Beauchamp said his interest in botany began when he was a student at Sweetwater High School. He worked as a volunteer at the Natural History Museum and was fascinated by "what species of plants are found here, why they're here, and what controls their range."

He graduated from Sweetwater in 1964 and from San Diego State University in 1968. But his work on a comprehensive book about the county's plants didn't begin until 1970, when he got out of the Navy and returned to SDSU to get a master's degree in biology. "I was going to do the book for my thesis, but when I got into it I realized, whoa, this is going to be a lot of work," Beauchamp said.

The county's diverse topography--which includes coastal bluffs and marshes, mountain forests, desert plains and canyons, and a host of other features--has spawned an unusually high number of different plants. Kern County, for example, is much larger than San Diego County but has about 200 fewer plant species, Beauchamp said.

Much Updating Was Needed

Higgins had laid much of the groundwork for listing the various plant types and their locations, but there was still a lot of information that needed to be updated, supplemented and sorted out. As a graduate student, Beauchamp spent the better part of two years "driving all over the county collecting plants." After receiving his master's degree in 1972, he began sifting through the top herbariums in Southern California to find out what plants had been collected locally--and where--since 1949.

Working as an environmental consultant also increased his knowledge of local plants because it required visits to a wide variety of locations around the county.

One outgrowth of his work was the discovery of several new plant species. In 1977 he found a small yellow-flowered shrub growing under the chaparral near a freeway off-ramp in Poway. No one had ever noticed it growing there before--or anywhere else in the world, either. The shrub is now known as Poway barberry.

"We've found it since then along Palomar Road and on the slopes of Black Mountain," Beauchamp said. "But this is an example of how we need to give these things a name and some recognition before they become extinct."

He also found a new species of butterweed growing in a burned area after the huge Laguna fire of 1970. "We were going to call it 'Post Toasties,' since it was found after the fire," Beauchamp noted drily. It was eventually given the more formal name of Gander's butterweed.

"Plant communities are totally different after a fire," Beauchamp added. "The fire recycles nutrients stored in the wood back into the soil . . . and the heat causes seeds to crack so that they absorb water and germinate. So we botanists tend to pray for chaparral wildfires" because so many unusual plants appear afterward.

While new species of plants are still being found in the county, the record shows that many more are disappearing.

"There used to be a little succulent that grew all along the coastal bluffs in places like Carlsbad, Pacific Beach and Oceanside," Beauchamp said. "But with all the bluff development, and surfers trampling on it as they tried to get a view of the waves, it's gone. It still survives in Baja and in San Clemente, but it hasn't been found in San Diego County for 40 years."

Four thousand copies of Beauchamp's book are being printed by his own company, Sweetwater River Press. He said a paperback version will cost about $24 and will be sold at local museums and the visitors' centers of state and national parks in the area.

"I hope it will make a statement to some young person who is developing his priorities that San Diego County is an important area to scientists," Beauchamp said. "And I hope (this young person) will try to do something to preserve it. What we need to do is expand our regional and state parks to include areas where many of these rare plants grow.

"When you get the last little shrub growing on a freeway off-ramp, it's like having it in a zoo. . . . No plants have become extinct since Higgins came out with her book, but if things continue as they are, the first of the county's native species will become extinct in about 20 years.

"But that's when it will be too late. The time to save them is now."

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