Feb 23, 2018

The Morro Bay Watershed Native Plant Series



The Morro Bay watershed is one of the most botanically diverse regions in California. This diversity can be traced back to the ice ages as California’s coastline receded and advanced over thousands of years, and the tectonic plates settled into their current position. Many communities and species of plants have evolved here as a result of such active geologic change. These plant communities have continued to exist and thrive because San Luis Obispo County still resembles its natural state, despite increasing human habitation and land use development.

Aerial of the Morro Bay Watershed and estuary. Image Source: MBNEP.

Because the natural areas of Morro Bay have been so well preserved, many native and rare plants grow here. Some of these plants are endemic to this area, which means that they are not found anywhere else in the world. To celebrate our area’s botanical richness, we have launched a multi-part blog series on the Morro Bay watershed native plants. For each blog post, we will explore a different plant community that can be found in the watershed (with suggested hikes, too!).

Plant communities of the Morro Bay Watershed. This image is from the Atlas of Sensitive Species of the Morro Bay Area.

A plant community is a grouping of certain species of plants, distinct from adjacent groups of plants, that interact with each other and their environment. We can tell these communities apart by their varying physical structure and appearance (that’s physiognomy in science circles). Their appearance is created by the species of plants present, their distribution, size, and abundance. Communities are dominated by one or a few species that have the most impact on the environment and/or are the most abundant. Sometimes, plant communities are named after the dominant species; for example, the “oak woodland” community is named after the oaks that dominate it.

The Elfin Forest, a pygmy oak woodland community located in the Morro Bay Watershed. Source: Chris Jepsen. Stay tuned for a post about this community!

Over this series of posts, we will explore coastal sand dune, coastal scrub, subtidal and intertidal, marine aquatic, freshwater wetland, maritime chaparral, oak woodlands, riparian, grasslands, and anthropogenic communities, all located in the Morro Bay watershed.

View of the Estuary channels and bay from Black Hill. Various plant communities are pictured here. Stay tuned to learn what they are. Source: MBNEP.

There are plenty of species growing in Morro Bay that make this a very special place. Native plants matter because they provide habitat for native wildlife, and they support water conservation. Some insects and birds depend on very specific species of plants for survival, so a diverse range of native plants allows for a diverse range of native wildlife to exist. Since native plants have been adapting to local environmental conditions over long periods of time, they require far less water to survive and they do not need fertilizer to support growth. In our dry Mediterranean climate here in Morro Bay, we encourage homeowners to plant native species in their yards for this reason. As stewards of the watershed, the Estuary Program pays close attention to our native plant communities – what is growing here, what might have grown here before human development, and how we can work to restore our native ecosystems.

Getting to know the plants that are growing around you and why they are growing there is a great way to understand your environment and its ecological context (the complex interactions between flora and fauna that have been evolving over long periods of time). Just like familiarizing yourself with the local coffee shop and grocery store, it’s important to get to know your native plants!

Stay tuned for our first plant community post where we’ll learn about the pioneer sand dunes that make up the Morro Bay Sandspit and the unique plants that can be found there. Spring is on its way, which means many of our native plants will be displaying some beautiful blooms.