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SCVNews.com | Opinion/Commentary: Can They Be Cousins? | 06-06-2013
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Let's Go Outside | Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Jun 6, 2013

evelynevandersande_mugSorry, everybody, I missed our little weekly talk because I was on vacation. One place I went was an island far away: Lanzarote, which is part of the Canary Islands. It has the same Mediterranean climate as our Santa Clarita Valley.

That might seem strange as you’re standing in Newhall, because that romantic-sounding sea is far away, but basically it means we have two seasons: one dry in the summer, one with some rain in the winter, and with mild temperatures throughout the year.

When traveling in other countries that enjoy this Mediterranean climate, I have been caught by surprise a few times by seeing a plant or an animal that looks familiar, one that seems much like what I am used to seeing in California but with some small twist. The climate is similar, with dry hillsides and bushes with small, thick leaves to survive the hot summer by conserving the moisture the same way they do in our hills.

evelyne-tumbleweedWhile visiting Lanzarote, I stopped in my tracks when I noticed a large, round, dry bundle flying across the road. The tumbleweed is the plant that represents the far West for me, the plant you discover when reading Westerns and the one that makes you dream of those vast horizons, with howling winds driving them across the landscape.

The first time I saw a tumbling weed fly in front of my car on McBean Parkway, I had recently moved from New York City, and I had to stop my car because of the tears in my eyes. I was so excited and moved to have at last seen this ambassador from the wilderness.

This plant in Lanzarote was used to demonstrate that the volcano was still much active, with heat so high that if you threw a few of those tumbleweeds in one of the holes in the volcano, they would catch fire.

evelyne060613aEverybody was watching the fire, but I was checking this weird plant that looked so much like our tumbleweed. It is a small, spherical and seemingly leafless shrub called aulaga (launuaea arborescent). It has small, yellow flowers and is widespread because of its thorny protection against grazing goats.

As you can see, it is not OUR tumbleweed, but finding similar growing conditions, plants have developed with similar adaptations. Watching the volcano activity was different and interesting, but finding a “cousin plant” was oddly comforting to me.

evelyne060613bBy the way, I found out the tumbleweed I thought so American is not a native plant at all. It is a weed imported from Europe, and that is one of the reasons it has thrived here. It does not have natural predators. Of course, we can argue that a weed is always a plant; it just does not grow where you want it to…

evelyne060613cAnother time in Malta, I stopped to stare at a plant that looked similar to “our” wild cucumber. The leaves were just a tad different, but the fruits were certainly the same. What story of adaptation lies behind this plant, I will never know. Did they start the same and go through a different evolution? It certainly was a lovely surprise to find this “cousin” so far away.

Western fence lizard

Western fence lizard

The same situation occurred when I saw my first Atlantic lizard. We are all familiar with the fence lizard – the lizard we see most of the time sunning itself in our gardens. Small and grey with little blue patches under their bellies, they are sometimes called blue bellies. When I saw the Atlantic lizard, which is endemic to Lanzarote, I was surprised to see the same blue spots more or less in the same place.

I admit, the blue is more obvious – it is perhaps a bit gaudier – but the blue is in the same area and serves the same purpose: to attract the lady friend and make the male more desirable so the females will have a lot of babies and the species will be preserved.

It is fun to discover those close cousins so far away. The climate needs to be the same, and this blessed climate we enjoy in California can be found in our valley and all the way down south to Baja – but not in San Francisco. The coast of the Mediterranean Sea benefits from this climate, and I mean only the coast. I know this well, for I had hail two days in a row in Madrid on my last trip. The coastline of South Africa also enjoys this mild climate, but it changes quickly as soon as you go inland.

Atlantic lizard

Atlantic lizard

Few other places in the world have this fabulous climate – you almost have to check a map of the world to be able to understand why – a small part of the western coast of Africa, Australia and South America in Chili. Those parts are open to the ocean and get the humidity from the onshore breeze.

This climate is pleasant year around, so the population is usually quite dense, because people enjoy being outdoors year around just like the plants do. What does it mean in term of survival of the human species? Food is easily available all year round.

Some examples give a different dimension to this thought: California food production alone could feed the population of both the entire United States and Canada. On a smaller scale, nearby in Oxnard, three successive crops of strawberries can be grown in certain areas.

We do not sit still and think about this until, traveling around the world, you see areas where there is no water to grow crops and the wilderness shows little plant growth. Desalinization plants can help the population to have good and ample water supply, but they are at the mercy of technical difficulties.

Water sourcing and repartition of the water is complex, political, and much more difficult than my little article pretends to be.

Have a great summer. It is good to be back talking with you.



Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at Placerita Canyon Nature Center for 27 years. She lives in Newhall.


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