A Dana Point land re­serve is un­der or­der to re­move the in­va­sive weed

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Chris­tian Orozco

On a re­cent Sun­day morn­ing, Regi­nald Du­rant led a dozen vol­un­teers through an Or­ange County na­ture re­serve and pointed out plants with fan­ci­ful names like fid­dle-neck, coast golden-bush and tidy tips.

Walk­ing fur­ther, the group passed coastal prickly pear, blad­der­pod, el­der­berry and golden yar­row.

But this was no or­di­nary hike. Du­rant and his vol­un­teers were on a seek-and-de­stroy mis­sion — and their tar­get was a plant with a de­cid­edly plain name.

Mus­tard over­ran the Cuesta Kato Na­tive Land Re­serve in Dana Point as a re­sult of above av­er­age rain­fall last win­ter.

Be­cause mus­tard is con­sid­ered sus­cep­ti­ble to fire, the city had the author­ity to clear the en­tire site — some­thing Du­rant wanted to avoid.

So he gath­ered up vol­un­teers to per­form the task of pulling the re­lent­less mus­tard by hand.

“The na­tives would not re­cover from be­ing mowed and it would be type-con­vert­ing it to non­na­tive an­nual thatch, which would then be a di­rect fire threat to this area,” said Du­rant, the founder and ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the non­profit group Back to Na­tives.

Dana Point’s weed abate­ment pro­gram never ex­plic­itly de­fines “clear and abate”

as mow­ing an en­tire site. But city of­fi­cials say that is the most eco­nom­i­cal op­tion.

“Mow­ing/weed-eat­ing is usu­ally the cheap­est. Hand­pulling weeds, among other meth­ods, are more ex­pen­sive,” City Man­ager Mark Denny said. “Ul­ti­mately, the prop­erty owner will bear the cost of the re­moval, so we gen­er­ally try and do it the cheap­est way pos­si­ble.”

Ex­perts say it is dif­fi­cult for some na­tive plants, es­pe­cially young ones, to sur­vive a mow. But it varies by plant.

“If they planted [Cal­i­for­nia] grass­land or prairie species, then mow­ing at this time of year shouldn’t harm the na­tives,” said Sarah Kim­ball, a project sci­en­tist at the Cen­ter for En­vi­ron­men­tal Bi­ol­ogy at UC Irvine. “If they planted coastal sage scrub shrub species re­cently, then I would ask the city to mow around them. Those na­tives won’t do well with mow­ing. If na­tive shrubs have been es­tab­lished for many years, then they may crown-sprout fol­low­ing mow­ing, es­pe­cially if it is done as high as pos­si­ble.

“The mow­ing would still be an ad­di­tional stress on the na­tive shrubs, and many wouldn’t sur­vive,” Kim­ball added.

The land re­serve pro­vides na­tive seeds for the non­profit’s nurs­ery in Santa Ana. The group also hopes to cre­ate trails on the land and use the land for ed­u­ca­tional pur­poses.

Back to Na­tives re­ceived a no­tice from Dana Point in Fe­bru­ary to de­stroy the mus­tard, which is a weed. Since March, the group has gone to the re­serve with vol­un­teers from 9 a.m. to noon every Sun­day to hand clip each piece of mus­tard. But the ef­fort took longer than de­sired be­cause there were not enough vol­un­teers.

“It makes sense to re­move the in­va­sive and re­place with lower-fire-haz­ard na­tives,” Denny said. “The city and the prop­erty owner both agree that is the best out­come. The chal­lenge is how quickly that can be done.”

The group had a bit more time to work with since the Santa Ana winds that of­ten fan fires in the fall don’t af­fect this area as much as oth­ers, said Jim Ran­der­son, an Earth sci­ence pro­fes­sor at UC Irvine.

“Santa Ana fire sea­son is most in­tense in Septem­ber through early Novem­ber,” Ran­der­son said. “But Santa Ana fire risk is mostly con­fined to high-wind cor­ri­dors down­wind of moun­tain passes, and I don’t be­lieve Dana Point is down­wind of one of th­ese clas­sic high-wind cor­ri­dors.”

Phil Run­del, a pro­fes­sor of ecol­ogy at UCLA, said the mus­tard can be re­moved be­fore it goes to seed to pre­vent a re­cur­rence next year.

“Mus­tard can be handweeded when small but is more dif­fi­cult to pull once it gets larger,” Run­del said. “If it is thickly es­tab­lished, the city may be cor­rect in deem­ing it a fire haz­ard that needs clear­ing. In any case, it is im­por­tant to get the mus­tard re­moved be­fore it pro­duces new seed.”

Carla D’An­to­nio, a pro­fes­sor at UC Santa Bar­bara who spe­cial­izes in plant and ecosys­tem ecol­ogy, in­va­sive species and restora­tion ecol­ogy, does not con­sider mus­tard to be par­tic­u­larly ig­nitable.

“To me, the big­gest issue with mus­tards is that they ex­ude chem­i­cals that in­hibit other species,” she said. “So the Back to Na­tives folks should get rid of the mus­tard to keep it from in­hibit­ing the na­tives. It will take over their site if they don’t keep it back.”

When Du­rant met re­cently with vol­un­teers at an Al­bert­sons park­ing lot, he made sure ev­ery­one san­i­tized the bot­tom of their shoes so that no one tracked non­na­tive seeds into the site.

Af­ter a brief ori­en­ta­tion, Du­rant took the vol­un­teers to the re­serve and showed off its coast gold­en­bush, which sprouts yel­low f low­ers from long, green stems. The fid­dle­neck’s stem looks furry, with tiny hairs grow­ing on its spi­ral­ing neck where yel­low flow­ers bloom.

Tidy tips are yel­low flow­ers with white-tipped petals that give them the look of tiny sun­bursts. Bright col­ors from the green grass and yel­low, white, and pink flow­ers fill the land, with hints of pur­ple from na­tive grass.

The na­tive milk­weed serves monarch but­ter­flies, which lay their eggs on it. The bloom­ing flow­ers at­tract a glob­ally dwin­dling pop­u­la­tion of bees. Hum­ming­birds, hawks and field mice have been spot­ted on the land. Fox foot­prints have also been seen.

But if one did not ven­ture deep into this sloped land and sim­ply drove past on Del Obispo Street, they might not have no­ticed much of any of this be­cause of a blan­ket of brown, dry mus­tard.

As Du­rant walked through the re­serve, he went out of his way not to dis­turb an orb weaver spi­der that had spun a large, cir­cu­lar web in the mus­tard. The vol­un­teers pulling the mus­tard left this small patch undis­turbed, at least for a lit­tle while.

Their ef­forts might have paid off — for now. Du­rant and the vol­un­teers have made progress re­mov­ing the mus­tard. Over the week­end, Du­rant in­formed the city that he be­lieves that the group has cleared the site.

Weed abate­ment is an an­nual pro­gram for the city. At the be­gin­ning of next year, city staff will iden­tify prop­er­ties that re­quire weed abate­ment.

“Over time, if Back to Na­tives is suc­cess­ful in type-con­ver­sion of the weeds on their prop­erty from high-fire-haz­ard in­va­sive weeds like mus­tard to lower-fire-haz­ard na­tive shrubs, it is pos­si­ble that the prop­erty won’t be iden­ti­fied for weed abate­ment ef­forts,” Denny said.

Un­til that time, Back to Na­tives must con­tinue to keep the mus­tard un­der con­trol — and make sure the city is sat­is­fied with its progress.

Pho­to­graphs by Francine Orr Los An­ge­les Times

MARIA ALONSO of Lake For­est helps re­move mus­tard on a hill­side in Cuesta Kato Na­tive Land Re­serve in Dana Point last month. The city or­dered the non­profit group Back to Na­tives, which owns the site, to re­move the in­va­sive weed, which is a fire haz­ard.

A CAR passes the land re­serve, where Back to Na­tives founder Regi­nald Du­rant works. With the help of vol­un­teers, the site is clear, Du­rant says.

Francine Orr Los An­ge­les Times

NAOMI GRUENTHAL, 57, of Santa Ana cuts mus­tard that over­ran the Cuesta Kato Na­tive Land Re­serve in Dana Point af­ter above av­er­age rain­fall last win­ter. The re­serve’s owner re­cruited vol­un­teers to up­root the re­lent­less weeds. They will be re­placed with na­tive plants.

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