Plant communities are typically named for their dominant species (e.g. Monterey Pine Forest), general character (e.g. Coastal Prairie), or habitat (e.g. Coastal Bluff.) Each community exists where it does as a result of interactions among climate, soils, topography, plants, animals, fire, man, and time.
Boundaries of plant communities, called ecotones, can be gradual or abrupt. They are biologically the most productive areas in that animals may find shelter in one area and more abundant food in the other.
Listed below are the plant communities of Point Lobos, the trails which traverse them, and their characteristic plants.
Monterey Cypress Forest
Trails: Cypress Grove
Harsh growing conditions on Cypress Point and the deep shade beneath the cypresses, plus the shallow nutrient-poor soil, limit the number of shrub and understory species growing in the cypress forest. Once more widespread, Monterey Cypress Forest is now limited to two places at the north and south ends of Carmel Bay: Crocker Grove in Pebble Beach and Allan Memorial Grove at Point Lobos.
Lace lichen is often found growing on the cypresses; it is not parasitic and does not harm the trees. The trees closest to the direct salt spray are often covered with a bright orange growth: Trentepohlia, a green alga rich in beta carotene, which gives it its orange color. It too is non-parasitic and is also found growing on rocks and downed wood along the trail. Both the alga and the lichen condense moisture from the fog; it drips down into the root zone of the trees and provides extra water during the dry season.
Monterey Pine Forest
Trails: Whalers Knoll, North Shore, Lace Lichen, Pine Ridge
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve forest path. Photo credit: Janet Beaty.
Monterey Pine Forest is an example of the classic plant community structure: tree species which dominate by their sheer size, the quantity of nutrients absorbed by their roots, and needle/leaf litter dropped; a shrub layer (e.g. Ceanothus, coffee berry, poison oak); and understory of low-growing plants (e.g. wood mint, Douglas iris.) The size of the Monterey pine and the density of the canopy limit the plants growing in association with the pines to those able to tolerate deep shade. Also, the soils are quite shallow and nutrient-poor.
Fire is an integral part of a healthy Monterey pine forest. Without periodic burns, whether started by lightning, Native Americans in the past or rangers today, the pine forest becomes a thicket of spindly trees crowding out other species. Too many nutrients are locked up in dead vegetative matter on the forest floor to support healthy plant growth. However, where a pine forest exists in proximity to human habitation, prescribed burns can be difficult to sell to the public.
Also found in this community is the coast live oak – “live” because it is an evergreen, not deciduous, tree. In the open it can reach 50 – 70 feet; within the pine forest it remains smaller. Coast live oaks live longer than pines, so without periodic fires to regenerate the pines, oaks might in time replace pines as the dominant species.
Frequently growing on both oaks and pines is lace lichen, Ramalina menziesii. It grows on tree branches, taking advantage of openings in the canopy to grow in the light. It is not parasitic on the trees.
Northern Coastal Scrub
Trails: Sea Lion Point, Sand Hill, South Shore, Bird Island, North Shore, Cypress Grove
This shrubby plant community is found just along the coast, in a narrow strip from southern Oregon to San Mateo County, and in Monterey County from Pacific Grove to Point Sur. It features shrub species growing tightly together with a weakly developed understory. The dense plant growth helps the whole community to conserve moisture to survive the dry summer and also provides cover for many small animals.
Plants display various adaptations to their harsh conditions, to minimize moisture loss and reduce exposure to sun:
- Deciduous in dry weather – coast sagebrush, poison oak, bracken fern
- Gray foliage to reflect sunlight – coast sagebrush, California everlasting
- Waxy or oily coating on leaves – coyote brush, Ceanothus, poison oak
- Fine hairs on leaves, reflecting sunlight – lizard tail, California everlasting
- Relatively small leaf area – most species
Trails: Sea Lion Point, Sand Hill, Bird Island, Granite Point
Coastal Bluff is found atop and on the upper parts of the cliffs directly facing the ocean, above reach of the waves. This is a sub-community of Northern Coastal Scrub, and many of the plant species are the same, although individuals may be much smaller. Plants must adapt to extreme conditions: intense sun or dense fog, very shallow soils or bare rock, direct salt spray, and wind.
Northern Coastal Prairie
Trails: South Shore, Granite Point, Moss Cove
Meadows within the reserve (Hudson Meadow, Mound Meadow) are the southernmost examples of Northern Coastal Prairie, where plants consist only of grasses and very low-growing herbaceous plants.
Native Americans set fires to thin invading shrubs to improve forage for deer, making hunting easier. They also used seeds of the giant rye grass, found in Mound Meadow, for food. This grass is well adapted to fire and produces much seed following a fire.
Recent prescribed burns are attempts to restore meadows to their condition before the arrival of Spanish settlers. Native grasses, called “bunch grasses,” are perennials growing in deep-rooted clumps which survive fire and re-sprout vigorously; most introduced grasses are shallow-rooted annuals easily destroyed by fire.
Extensive grazing has greatly degraded the native grasslands; many native grass species have been crowded out by introduced species. These forces along with fire suppression have made coastal prairies extremely rare, and the great diversity of plant life represented makes their preservation even more important.