Invasion of the comb jellies

Red berries from the toyon, a California native shrub.
Toyon, a California native shrub.
(Getty Images; photo illustration by Micah J. Fluellen / Los Angeles Times)

By Mary Forgione
Design and illustrations by Micah J. Fluellen

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Merry almost Christmas. Southern California has its very own Christmas berry called toyon, or California holly (Heteromeles arbutifolia, for people who know their plants). You’re sure to see it along hillsides and trails at this time of year: clusters of bright red berries dangling from a tall shrub with long oval green leaves. They’re not for eating, just admiring.


Supposedly, stands of toyon on local hills were mistaken for holly and attached to the name of L.A.’s most famous neighborhood. “This idea of floral origins for Hollywood is romantic,” Lila Higgins of L.A.’s Natural History Museum writes in “How Hollywood Didn’t Get Its Name.” “It’s also not true. Hollywood got its name for a much more mundane reason: Someone wealthy liked the sound of it.”

Toyon’s name, however, remains true to its roots. It comes from the Ohlone, who lived in coastal areas of Northern California. Higgins writes it’s the only native plant that “continues to be commonly known by a Native American name,” a nice bit of authenticity amid our many L.A. stories. Look for toyon right now on trails in Griffith Park, at the George F Canyon Nature Center on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, on the Mishe Mokwa Trail in the Santa Monica Mountains and at other low-elevation areas below 4,000 feet.

3 things to do this week

A bench overlooking the Pacific Ocean
Maybe this is the Christmas you seek out ocean views.
(Mary Forgione / Los Angeles Times)

1. Savor some of the best ocean views on a Malibu walk. Beach walks are nice but I prefer seeing the ocean from higher than eye level. Charmlee Wilderness Park above Malibu offers wide-angle views of the coast, often with Catalina and Santa Barbara islands on the horizon. I went last Saturday on what I can only say was a sad/happy stroll. Sad because the Woolsey fire swept through in 2018 and altered the look of the park I had known. It reopened in October after being shut for two years to repair and clear damaged trails. Now just about every native oak tree is scorched and black, with leafy new growth emerging amid the char. Picnic benches remain but have lost their landscaped charm. The happy part is the mile or so walk to unparalleled ocean views. It’s good to be reminded of what fire does to our wildlands — and how they recover. Charmlee is open 8 a.m. to sunset, plenty of time for a Christmas outing. Enter and park at 2577 Encinal Canyon Road.

The Picture Bridge at Langham Huntington Pasadena.
(Langham Huntington Pasadena)

2. Visit a wooden bridge topped with paintings of early California. Most gardens are closed on Christmas Day, so you may want to consider a visit to the outdoor Picture Bridge at the Langham Huntington Pasadena hotel. Depression-era paintings of early California adorn the gables of the bridge, 41 in all. Popular landscapes by Frank M. Moore appear overhead as you walk: Cathedral Spires in Yosemite, Mt. Wilson’s Observatory, Avalon Bay in Catalina and other notable scenes. The bridge, which opened before the paintings were added, has been restored too. For their protection from the elements, the original paintingss were removed in 2013 and put into storage. They’ve been replaced with copies. The bridge is open to the public, provided you follow mask and social-distancing guidelines. Here’s a guide to the hotel grounds.

A crowd of Santas gathers for a Christmas race.
Santa Run this year? No, but no need to skip your Christmas race.
(Leon Neal / AFP/Getty Images)

3. Make plans to complete your annual Christmas race. Don’t give up on your Christmas walk, run or bicycle ride just because you’ll miss the pack. For medal-minded competitors, some virtual races are still taking sign-ups, such as the annual Reindeer Run (in prepandemic times, at the beach in Santa Monica), where you pick the distance you want to run, from 3.1 miles to 50K. Submit your time and they’ll mail you a medal ($19.99 to enter). Or plan your own 10K route or 20K ride, changing it up with a neighborhood or bike path you’ve never been to. Give yourself the weekend to complete the course — and don’t stop trying for a personal best.

Cool stuff

Peak portraits by Amandalee Design.
(Amandalee Design)

Amanda McClellan is a woman of place, specifically California’s central coast. The graphic artist creates portraits of mountains close to her Grover Beach home that are like no others: contour map-like profiles stuffed with facts about each peak. Her work has the look of a woodblock print (intentionally) and provide a deep dive into knowing what’s underfoot. So far, she has profiled each of the Nine Sisters, a cluster of peaks that stretch from San Luis Obispo to the ocean, including Morro Rock, as well as Yosemite’s Half Dome. “It was a fun project, finding the best shape for the angle of the Nine Sisters,” McClellan says. “I’ve loved learning all the facts about them.” Now she’s turning her attention to profiling the most requested high point: Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the Lower 48 states. In non-pandemic times, McClellan sells her artwork — also emblazoned on tees and tank tops — at pop-ups around SLO town. Best place to shop for her items now is at the Amandalee Design website.

The read

Walker Ryan holds his first novel, “Top of Mason.”
(Walker Ryan)

How many books have you read about adult skateboarders? Walker Ryan just published his first novel, “Top of Mason,” a look into San Francisco’s skateboarding scene. Walker’s 29-year-old protagonist, Henry Philip, is described in an L.A. Times story as “working as a cleaner at the SRO hotel where he also lives, wounded from the breakup of a long-term relationship. His career in skateboarding seemingly behind him, Henry drifts through his days running shady errands for his boss at the hotel, skating at a local skatepark and pining for his ex.” Kind of makes you wonder what happens to skateboarders amid all the drift time. Walker knows the world he’s writing about: He went pro in 2011 when he was 23 years old. The novel weaves a story but also reflects on the Insta-crazed sport where few end up on top. Read the full story here.


Wild things

Comb jellies, on Orange County beaches.
(Erica Page)

I wasn’t even thinking about comb jellies until I saw Erica Page’s cool video showing the little pebble-sized orbs turning up at Orange County beaches right now. “They are similar to jellyfish and they float and drift with the tide,” says an email that came with the video link. “These comb jellies are harmless to humans and do not contain stinging tentacles. There were thousands of them EVERYWHERE!”

The jellies, also called “sea gooseberries,” pulse like jellyfish, and are a bit bioluminescent too. It’s an informative video, no surprise because Page works as an educator at Newport Landing Whale Watching in Newport Beach. If you go looking for comb jellies, be respectful of the creatures and be sure to take your garbage with you when you leave the beach. Here’s the video link.

The red flag

The historic Ahwahnee Hotel inside Yosemite National Park.
(John Walker; photo illustration by Micah J. Fluellen / Los Angeles Times)

Health tip: If a prestigious national park restaurant invites you to a lavish holiday bash — and by invite, I mean, allows you to pay $103 per person — during a deadly pandemic, you don’t have to say yes. Reports last week found that the Ahwahnee in Yosemite hosted a “hearty touchless buffet” for hundreds on Thanksgiving in its historic indoor restaurant. Concerned employees say most diners weren’t wearing masks, and social distancing became difficult in the bar area. To be fair, the holiday fell before the stricter regional order went into effect that shut all lodgings and restaurants in the park. Still, there’s no disputing that public health officials asked all of us to stay home for Thanksgiving and not dine with others outside our households. Read the full story here.


Roy Wallack stands in front of the "Fluid City Rising" mural by artist Ricardo Mendoza.
Roy Wallack celebrates the “Fluid City Rising” mural by artist Ricardo Mendoza.
(Cindy Morgan)

Roy M. Wallack once told me he planned to ride his bike until he was 100 years old; he even wrote a book with that title. Roy died Saturday, biking on the dirt trails he loved in the Santa Monica Mountains. The fitness and health writer contributed stories to the L.A. Times for more than two decades, the rare combination of someone who took on big adventures and had the writing skills to share them with readers. Here’s his description of Ultimate Frisbee: “Why would a middle-aged man run as fast as he can and fling himself headfirst across a grassy field with an arm outstretched like Superman trying to intercept a flying object — knowing full well that he’ll feel the repercussions of the ensuing crash landing for the next week?” I was one of many editors Roy had during his years writing for The Times. We miss him already.

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Click to view the web version of this newsletter and share it with others, and sign up to get it sent weekly to your inbox. I’m Mary Forgione, and I write The Wild. I’ve been exploring trails and open spaces in Southern California for four decades.

Mary Forgione