Art &



Base Camp

Introduction to California Plant Communities.


If you were a little bird looking for a good supply of seeds to eat – where would you chose to live ? If you were a wildflower that needed a cool mountain elevation to live in, where would you most likely want to live ? Or say you were a bird who loved cactus fruit more than any other food – where would you find the plants that provide this food ? And if you were a rare Island Fox who only lives out on the Channel Islands, what would the plants in your home environment be like ?

We can find the answer to these and other habitat questions by learning about California’s different plant communities. And we can begin to learn how to protect these important and increasingly endangered plant communities for the future life and enjoyment of Californians.

"There are more than 5,000 native plants in California, and at least a third of them occur no where else on earth. Much of California’s nature is threatened. The Nature Conservancy has reported that about 25 percent of the state can no longer support its original communities of plans and animals " says the author of A Natural History of California. Author Allan Schoenherr also mentions how important it is "to foster appreciation for California’s natural diversity" to raise awareness of the unique natural resources the state offers, and to educate the public to protect California’s precious resources.

First, let’s get familiar with some important science terms that will help us understand California Plant Communities. Then let’s select a hands-on project that will help you learn more about - and take care of - the natural environment. People who choose to take care of the earth and her natural resources are known as stewards – and this concept of stewardship is a growing practice in the science community, as well as in the lives of everyday people.

Learn these terms :

  • Native / Non-Native / Endemic / Endangered Plants
  • Ecosystem
  • Three Main Organisms
  • Biotic Communities
  • Habitat
  • Watershed
  • Biotic Zonation


Native / Non-Native / Endemic / Endangered Plants

Native plants are plants that have been living in a location before the arrival of humans.

Endemic plants are those that exist only in one place, like on the Channel Islands, on one desert mountain range, or in one Sierra meadow. These plants are very rare.

Exotic or Non-Native plants have been brought to a location by humans and may or may not have had harmful impact on the native and endemic plant species. Early American and European settlers brought plants to California that have been causing serious damage to native plant populations. Work is underway to study these plant communities, and to determine a means to return certain areas ( like the Channel Islands ) to their original – pre-Western human contact – state.

Endangered plants - these are native or endemic plants that are in danger of being eradicated due to human impact on the environment and that require close attention in order to preserve them as part of the earth’s natural bio-diversity.


An Ecosystem is an interacting unit in nature made up of living and nonliving components. In a healthy ecosystem, matter is recycled over and over. Living organisms are in a balance with nature, and they do not use up their resources. The ecosystem is the BIG PICTURE of how living and nonliving components interact.

Three Main Organisms

Scientists divide organisms into three main categories : producers, consumers, and decomposers.


Green plants are producers – they convert light energy into food energy through a process of absorbing sunlight that is called photosynthesis. These plants then become the food that nourishes the consumers.

Animals – including humans – are the consumers in this system. Herbivores eat only plants (producers). Omnivores eat plants and some meat. Carnivores eat the animals (consumers ) that eat the plants. Who eats who is known as a food web or a food pyramid.

Decomposers are fungi, like mushrooms, bacteria, and other microorganisms that break down the remains of the producers and consumers, turning it back into soil form which the next generation of producers is grown.

Biotic Communities

Biotic means life forms, so this phrase describes life forms that live together and influence one another. Inside a biotic community, scientists classify grouping of plants different ways. The main and largest categories are BIOMES – grassland (valleys with low grasses), desert (dry with specific plant types that can adapt to little rainfall ), scrub (dry land with sage and chaparral and few trees ), coniferous forest (many trees that have some type of pinecone), temperate rain forest (green all year ), tundra ( so high in elevation trees do not grow ), and temperate deciduous forest ( looses leaves in the fall ).

Inside each BIOME are CALIFORNIA PLANT COMMUNITIES of one or more types of plants :

Grassland – valley grassland, cactus scrub, creosote bush scrub, shadscale scrub, alkalai sink, blackbrush scrub, joshua tree woodland

Scrub – coastal sage scrub, lower chaparral, upper chaparral, desert chaparral, oak woodland

Coniferous forest – pinyon-juniper woodlands, yellow pine forest, lodgepole-red fir forest, subalpine forest

Temperate Rain forest – coast redwood forest, mixed evergreen forest

Tundra – alpine

Temperate Deciduous Forest – riparian


A habitat is the complete setting that a plant or animal lives in. It include the plants, the animals, the watershed, the climate and weather, the history of human impact, the soil, the rocks, and the geography. A habitat has one or more plant communities, and is a part of the larger ecosystem.

  • Habitat Project


A watershed is a specific area of land and habitats that are marked by boundaries that follow the source of natural water run off. It is usually bordered by the peaks of mountains and tops of ridges that send water flowing down towards streams and rivers, which are then fed by other streams, all making their way to the sea. A river is usually the main central point of a watershed. Everyone of us lives in a watershed, some bigger than others.

  • Watershed Project


Biotic Zonation

We use flat maps to understand the geography of California, and to see where the mountains, deserts, valley, and ocean lie. When we measure the earth’s surface this way, we are taking a flat – horizontal – view. But the nature of the landscape also has another factor – and that is elevation, measured as the height above or below sea level. One mountain can actually have many plant communities on its surface – each adapted to the elevation the plants sits at. For example, a mountain range can have scrub and chaparral at its lower levels, then progress upwards to a foothill woodland, continue on up to a yellow pine forest, and at the highest elevation also have a tree-less tundra landscape with alpine wildflowers.

  • Biotic Zonation Project