From sand dunes to salt marsh to aromatic coastal sage scrub and native grasslands, the reserve is a dynamic ecosystem with five major plant communities. Explore below and discover the plants that thrive within them!
Water percolates quickly through porous sand, but if plants put their roots down too deeply, they encounter seawater with high salinity. Life on dunes is rough for plants; they have adapted to harsh conditions by forming low-growing, spreading mats with shallow root systems. These plants can easily be uprooted by humans walking on them.
Most plants in this community have small hairs on their leaves that help them to collect moisture from the marine layer.
At Bolsa Chica, sand dune habitat is found along Pacific Coast Highway and in other parts of the reserve. Tern nesting islands are additional dune habitat.
Beach evening primrose
Beach morning glory
Pink sand verbena
Silver beach bur
Nemacaulis denudata var. denudata
Conditions in this habitat are cooler and drier than chaparral. However, fog along the coast provides enough moisture that keeps temperatures cool enough to prevent this region from being a desert.
Many plants in this community have adaptations for the hot dry summers. Adaptations include:
Coastal prickly pear
Santa Barbara milkvetch
Centromadia parryii australis
Bolsa Chica has lost more freshwater wetlands than saltwater. Freeman Creek (a tributary of the Santa Ana River) and Wintersburg Creek once flowed into the wetlands year-round, with marshes that extended miles inland. Now freshwater at Bolsa Chica is restricted to four places:
All of these freshwater wetlands are highly degraded and contain varying degrees of pollutants. Only the marsh fed by runoff from Seacliff Golf Course supports a significant stand of cattails and bulrushes.
There appears to be an additional source of freshwater that is very puzzling. Along the western boundary of the salt marsh in the inner bay bordering PCH, a narrow strip of cattails, bulrushes, and sedges separates the dunes from salt marsh in isolated spots. Some people have speculated there may be a series of freshwater springs running along the edge of the salt marsh at that location.
Salt marsh fleabane
At lower elevations, the dominant trees are western sycamore, California bay laurel, mule fat, and willows (black, red, sandbar, and arroyo). At middle elevations white alder, big-leaf maple, and black or Fremont cottonwoods are added to the plant palette.
Riparian habitat is rapidly disappearing from Southern California due to stream channelization for flood control and development. As with all other habitats, when this habitat is destroyed, the birds and animals that rely on it are also lost.
At Bolsa Chica, there is a small strip of riparian woodland that grows in the runoff swale that carries water from Seacliff Golf Course down Huntington Mesa into Bolsa Chica.
Because of the destruction invasive plants cause, they require constant vigilance to keep invasive populations in check and to restore native plant populations. In 1990 the Bolsa Chica Conservancy began removing non-native iceplant from the dune habitat along PCH from Warner to south of the south parking lot. After removal of iceplant, saltgrass (Distichlis spicata) successfully expanded and threatened Wandering Skipper Butterflies returned to the area.
Since the establishment of the Temporary Interpretive Center on the northern edge of the reserve at Warner and PCH, the Bolsa Chica Conservancy has worked to restore native vegetation on Little Mesa. By working around native plants to remove non-native and invasive plants that smother them, installing habitat-appropriate native plants, and leaving areas with healthy seed banks of native plants, there has been successful restoration of the area. Since beginning the restoration there has been natural establishment of alkali heath (Frankenia salina), and the rare southern tarplant (Centromadia parryii australis) as well as many other native species. Restoration is an ongoing process and requires continued effort in areas that have already been restored. If you are interested in helping with restoration of the wetlands click here to sign up for one of our regularly scheduled service days!
Canary Island date palm
Common sow thistle
Freeway daisy, Trailing African daisy
Horehound, White horehound
Iceplant, Crystalline iceplant
Iceplant, Slender-leaved iceplant
Iceplant, Hottentot fig (highway)
Iceplant, Sea fig
Mexican fan palm
Stock purple, Tenweeks stock
Stork’s bill, Filaree
Maltese star thistle