“Ordinary Magic in a Seed Collection Walk”
Georgette A. Howington

January 30, 2007

Vistas from Mt Wanda

Photograph by Diane Vervoort

Magic is alive in the ordinary when awareness ignites the imagination. Living in a densely populated urban setting, busy each day accomplishing tasks for survival and success, it’s not uncommon to feel separated from nature, thus, not connected with our selves. As we hurry along many of us do not stop to enjoy the open oak studded landscape around us, resplendent with sweeping vistas of inner coastal hills and vast seas of rolling grasslands. For those of us who traverse the available walking trails, each hike however brief can be a window into our natural world and respite from the relentless grind of city life.

Last November, CREEC botanist, Dr. Dean Kelch and Propagation Coordinator, Troy McGregor, organized a seed collection hike on Mt. Wanda, in Martinez. This 660-foot peak is part of the 325 acres on the John Muir National Historic Park along with the Martinez Adobe and nine acres of historical gardens.

Dr. Dean Kelch leading volunteers on the seed hike at Mt Wanda.

Hikers on Mt Wanda

The Franklin Ridge begins at Mt. Wanda located in central Contra Costa County, once a point of destination for a myriad of settlers. Many traveled the treacherous journey by wagon on the Emigrant Trail; others risked their lives crossing the ocean. The unvarnished wilderness, diverse in resources within the mild climate, produced ample food for the Costanoan Indian tribe called the “Karkines” living on the Carequinez Strait.

Since 500 AD, long before Spanish colonization, Costanoan Indian tribes lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. Hunter-gatherers, and harvesters, they lived on a staple diet of crushed acorns, berries, seeds, birds, mammals and seafood. Protecting the land, plants and animals with spiritual reverence, the Karkines thrived. By the early 1800’s however, the entire Costanoan population plummeted to the mere thousands as the Spaniards introduced their land policies, cattle and the California Mission system.

John Muir, one of the most influential of American conservationists, inherited the 2500-acre Strentzel fruit ranch when his in-laws died. Recognized for his powerful prose on nature, he joined forces with President Theodore Roosevelt to save Yosemite. He went on to lay the foundation for both the Sierra Club and National Forest Service. While at the ranch he yearned for the wilderness and sauntered on the trails on the greenbelt above Martinez often to admire the oak woodlands. Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia), Blue Oak (Q. douglassi), Valley Oak (Q. lobata), Bay trees (Umbellaria californica) and a diverse under story of native shrubs, perennials and annual wildflowers were prominent vegetation. John Muir named Mt. Wanda after one of his beloved daughters.

Back on the walk, the red berry laden Toyon shrub (Heteromeles arbutifolia), near the parking lot, at the foot of Mt. Wanda just before the ascent onto the trail appeared suspect to Dean. While plucking berries for collection he said, “This Toyon may have been planted by someone…” In other words, it was probably not of local genetic stock. Bay trees (Umbellaria californica), on both sides of the path, bore pendulant ochre colored fruit and after tearing the sticky flesh away revealed glossy, oil covered seeds.

The red berries of Toyon - Heteromeles arbutifolia.


As the path progressed in elevation, winding off the main trail, Dean identified natives and shared information about them. He asked us to glean seeds with utmost care from specific plants. Dean explained we were to select only a few seeds from each plant in order to leave most in tact.

The oaks and other trees, herbaceous perennials and grasses go to seed from the late summer to fall. The seeds in turn regenerate their own species as well as provide essential protein rich food for birds and mammals. Our eyes were drawn to a chartreuse green bunch grass, the Purple Needle grass (Nasella pulchra), on the ridge trail in the midst of an undulation of dried golden-grey grasses. This is California’s state grass and larval food for the California Ringlet butterfly whose habitat has diminished alarmingly in some areas. Songbirds relish this upright semi-deciduous fast-growing grass for nesting material and the nutritious purple seeds.

Purple Needle grass - Nasella pulchra.

Purple Needle grass (Nasella pulchra)

Sparks of gold marked the path; the diminutive translucent petals of the yellow-tarweed (Madia spp.) were in stark contrast against the brown parched earth. The flat ray flowers are landing pads offering nectar and pollen to late season bees and butterflies. A clump of Milkweed (Asclepsias fascicularis), host plant for the Monarch butterfly, demanded our attention as white fluffs burst forth from over-ripened pods of seed.

Collecting seed from Narrowleaf Milkweed - Asclepsias fascicularis.

Collecting Narrow Leaf Milkweed

Photograph by Diane Vervoort

As this walk came to a close, our quest to preserve local diversity and California natives also served to bond us as human beings dependent upon the land for sustenance. The fresh air, a steady pace of walking for several hours while being on beautiful Mt. Wanda made for a very memorable experience.

Grasslands on Mt Wanda, Martinez. CA.

Grasslands on Mt Wanda, Martinez. CA.

Photograph by Diane Vervoort