Fred Roberts chortled softly. Atop a ridge in the foothills of the Santa Ana mountains, the botanist had stumbled on a springtime patch of owl's clover, one of three species left in Orange County that could provide a haven for the rare quino checkerspot butterfly.
"Isn't this the prettiest little plant you ever saw?" he said, pointing to small, white spikes lightly tipped with color.
Thanks to an unseasonably warm January, and nourishing February and March rains, Southern California's hillsides and highway flanks are teeming with a bumper crop of spring wildflowers.
But the display is a dwindling affair, with tens of thousands of acres of lush meadow and swale replaced in recent decades with stucco and asphalt. That particularly saddens Roberts.
"This would have been the year," he said. "The hills would've just been flaming with color in Orange County.... I think people would be shocked if they realized what used to be here."
Roberts, 45, a botanist and geologist based in Oceanside, discovered his vocation while attending Dana Hills High School in Dana Point in the 1970s, where he sketched and made copious notes on lizards, snakes and plants in the 10,000 acres of meadow surrounding the school.
He worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during the 1990s on protection and recovery plans for endangered and threatened species. Now an environmental consultant with his own publishing firm, he has put out a technical guide to Orange County native flowers.
Today, the meadow around his old high school has been reduced to about 700 acres. But there are still patches of grassland in county parks, nature reserves and this place, on a blue-sky afternoon, on the Santiago Truck Trail bordering the Cleveland National Forest in southeastern Orange County. Strictly speaking, the trail is a gated fire road standing ready should a blaze threaten Santiago or Modjeska canyons below. It is also a back-country boulevard for mountain bikers and khaki-clad naturalists like Roberts.
On a mid-March meander, chest-high bowers of yellow lace line the dirt road, stretching out in a sweetish-smelling haze. The bloom is black mustard, one of the most successful transplants to arrive in Southern California. Spanish missionaries seeded roadsides in the 1700s with the plant, which now blooms profusely in bright nimbuses along fire roads and old cattle trails and in vacant suburban lots.
Other nonnative species hitchhiked across the country in pioneer days with livestock forage, and more escaped from pots brought in by the nursery trade in the 1900s.
"The biggest problem with the nonnatives is they out-compete the natives," said Roberts. "Many of the nonnatives have been living near human beings for 7,000 years, so they know how to survive disturbances. The little natives tend to be a lot less aggressive."
In addition to two types of mustard, there are half a dozen scratchy green and brownish grasses, including common sow grass, a sort of mutant dandelion; foot-high, feathery beige foxtails; three kinds of bristly thistle, including the thick-stemmed, purple-crowned artichoke thistle; and burr clover, a cheery green ground cover with tiny yellow flowers. Roberts described it as "an odd-looking relative of alfalfa that develops a nasty little round fruit with spines all over it -- really a nasty little plant."
Roberts has a rule of thumb -- or foot -- for telling native and nonnative grasses apart:
"Almost all of the nonnatives get stuck in your socks. They have burrs. Not too many of the natives annoy people."
Half a mile in, native plants began to reclaim their turf.
Three dozen flower species poked out in scarlets, magentas, soft pinks, golden yellows and royal blues against a soft, gray-green palette of coastal sage scrub. Gazing at a shimmering, deep-gold bank of strigose lotus, Roberts declared that he had never seen such a large display of the tiny plant. Normally, one or two would dot a rocky slope.
Roberts proceeded slowly from plant to plant, picking out the more delicate, unobtrusive ones with obvious delight. Many are represented by just a small bush or two set in a sandy or granite slope. Others amount to a few stalks tangled in the underbrush of a larger plant. But up close, they are infinitely varied.
Tiny pink bracts bud from spiky, green buckwheat bushes. Shocks of pungent white sage offset the 4-foot-high topiary-style blooms of black sage, and stringy orange witches' hair, a parasitic relative of the morning glory, flings itself across any bush it cares to tackle.
Roberts whooped with delight when he spied the thin, green stalks of nolina, a rare relative of the agave plant, hiding in the chaparral. Nearly 85% of the entire earthly population of nolina is found in a half-mile-wide strip of hills stretching from Mission Viejo north to the Riverside Freeway. It is a classic example of the thousands of plant species found only in certain spots in Southern California. A bit more wind, a bit less rain or elevation, and they disappear.
Pausing to turn back, Roberts pointed out future blooms on greening plants. Penstemon and manzanita all will bloom in coming months. A bush sunflower is covered with fat buds.
"Come back in September; this will be blooming beautifully," Roberts promised.