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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!


Salt Marsh Community


Most of Bolsa Chica is salt marsh. The coastal salt marsh habitat is characterized by flooding of low-lying areas at high tide by salt water from the ocean. Plants in this community have adapted to a very special set of conditions. Salt water flows into the wetlands from both Anaheim Bay and an inlet near Seapoint Ave. Plants often have to deal with changing levels of water as a result of the tides. Primarily only halophytes (salt tolerant plants) can grow in this region. Coastal salt marshes are detritus-based ecosystems. This means dead plants and animals are at the base of the food pyramid, and that the decomposer community is of utmost importance in this ecosystem.
Common Name

Alkali heath
Alkali weed
Marsh jaumea
Virginia's pickleweed

Estuary seablite
Sea lavender

Scientific Name

Frankenia salina
Cressa truxillensis
Spartina foliosa
Zostera marina
Jaumea carnosa
Salicornia depressa
Distichlis spicata
Batis maritima
Suaeda californica
Limonium californicum
Distichlis littoralis

Coastal Strand/Sand Dune


Coastal sand dunes are dynamic and fragile habitats. Soils are sandy with little organic matter. Conditions are harsh with salt spray and stiff afternoon breezes that dry out plants. Winds can shift dunes with the seasons, moving them southward during winter storms and northward during summer storms.

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.

Common Name

Beach evening primrose
Beach morning glory
Coast woolly-heads
Pink sand verbena
Alkali heliotrope
Silver beach bur
Western ragweed

Scientific Name

Camissoniopsis cheiranthifolia
Calystegia soldanella
Nemacaulis denudata var. denudata
Abronia umbellata
Heliotropium curassavicum
Ambrosia chamissonis
Ambrosia psilostachya

Coastal Sage Scrub


Coastal sage scrub (CSS) is an assemblage of plants that are found on dry, south-facing slopes, usually near the coast up to an elevation of 3000 feet. CSS habitats are found between the coastal strand and chaparral zones, although many plants of the coastal sage scrub community can be found interspersed with chaparral.

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:

  • Drought Deciduous: Plants lose their leaves (sometimes leaves turn red as the plants stop making chlorophyll) during the summer and become dormant; similar to deciduous trees in cold climates of the Midwest and East Coast that become dormant during the winter.
  • Aromatic: Plants are very fragrant to deter predators from eating them during the rainy season (i.e. Coastal sagebrush (Artemisia californica), and sages (Salvia sp.))
  • Vertical Leaves: This helps reduce direct sunlight exposure to both sides of the leaves, one example is coyote bush (Baccharis pilularis).
Common Name

Black sage
Bush monkeyflower
California boxthorn
California buckwheat
California poppy
California sagebrush
Coast goldenbush
Seacliff buckwheat
California brittlebush
Coastal cholla

Coastal prickly pear
Coyote brush
Big saltbush
Fourwing saltbush
Fascicled tarplant

Santa Barbara milkvetch
Southern tarplant
Telegraph weed
White sage

Scientific Name

Salvia mellifera
Peritoma arborea
Mimulus aurantiacus
Lycium californicum
Eriogonum fasciculatum
Eschscholzia californica
Artemisia californica
Isocoma meziesii
Eriogonum parvifolium
Encelia californica
Cylindropuntia prolifera
Opuntia littoralis
Baccharis pilularis
Acmispon glaber
Atriplex lentiformis
Atriplex canescens
Deinandra fasciculata
Astragalus trichopodus
Centromadia parryii australis
Heterotheca grandiflora
Salvia apiana

Freshwater Wetlands


Freshwater wetlands, marshes and ponds are very much reduced in Southern California due to development. These marshes in Southern California often dry up during the long dry season, or become quite restricted, so plants growing there must be tolerant of dry soils at least part of the year. Rushes, bulrushes (tulles), and sedges are common, and cattails are often found in the shallower water near the margins. Mule fat is found around the margins of more alkaline marshes.

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:

  • A brackish runoff pond at the end of Springdale Road
  • A swale and cattail marsh fed by runoff from the Seacliff Golf Course
  • A very small marsh about 5ft by 15ft at the south end of Bolsa Chica by PCH that is fed by runoff from PCH
  • Brackish water upstream in Wintersburg Flood Control Channel

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.

Common Name

California bulrush
Common cattail
Rough cocklebur
Salt marsh fleabane
Yerba mansa

Scientific Name

Schoeplectus californicus
Typha latifolia
Xanthium strumarium
Pluchea odorata
Baccharis salicifolia
Carex sp.
Anemopsis californica

Riparian Woodland


Riparian woodland habitat includes plants that grow along streams. These plants require more water than plants of the dry scrublands, and often have large leaves.

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.

Common Name

Arroyo willow
Black willow

Scientific Name

Salix lasiolepsis
Salix nigra

Non-Native Plants


Non-native plants are plants that were introduced by humans to Bolsa Chica after the Spanish first arrived in 1542. Many of these plants are considered to be invasive. An invasive species is a plant or animal that has been introduced from another region of the world, and displaces native species in the area. When introduced to a foreign region they have a competitive advantage because they lack the natural predators that keep their population in control. They quickly spread, smother and kill native plants in the area. Invasive species are a major cause of habitat loss.

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!

Common Name

Australian saltbush
Bermuda buttercup
Black mustard
Brazilian peppertree
Bristly ox-tongue
Bull thistle
Canary Island date palm
Russian thistle
Common sow thistle
Curly dock
Dwarf nettle
Finger mesemb
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
Pampas grass
Poison hemlock
Sea rocket
Stock purple, Tenweeks stock
Stork’s bill, Filaree
Tree tobacco
Wild celery
Wild radish
Wild fennel
Maltese star thistle

Scientific Name

Atriplex semibaccata
Oxalis pes-caprae
Brassica nigra
Schinus terebinthifolius
Helminthotheca echiodes
Cirsium vulgare
Phoenix canarienis
Salsola australis
Sonchus oleraceus
Rumex crispus
Urtica urens
Eucalyptus sp.
Malephora crocea
Dimorphotheca fruticosa
Marrubium vulgare
Mesembryanthemum crystallinum
Mesembryanthemum nodiflorum
Carpobrotus edulis
Carpobrotus chilensis
Washingtonia robusta
Myoporum sp.
Cortaderia jubata
Conium maculatum
Cakile maritima
Matthiola incana
Erodium sp.
Nicotiana glauca
Apium graveolens
Raphanus sativus
Foeniculum vulgare
Centaurea melitensis

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