Chaparral is California's most extensive, native plant community, dominating foothills and mountain slopes throughout most of the state. Chaparral provides the deep green backdrop for Santa Barbara, the soft hues surrounding the gold country along the western slopes of the Sierra, and a valuable wilderness retreat for a rapidly growing San Diego. Take a drive into the hills surrounding nearly every southern California metropolitan area and you are immediately immersed in chaparral.*
*What Chaparral isn't:
It's not a plant.
It's not a herb sold in health food stores (the chaparral sold in stores is actually the leaves from the creosote bush, a desert shrub).
Chaparral doesn't "need" to burn, and it hasn't become overgrown due to past fire suppression.
Where's the Chaparral?
It's in every county in California,
as shown in blue and red on map.
Chaparral Area in California by County (in acres)
San Diego 1,003,441
Los Angeles 553,789
Santa Barbara 440,645
San Luis Obispo 417,718
San Bernardino 276,010
San Benito 246,623
Santa Clara 188,427
San Mateo 36,152
Santa Cruz 32,328
Acres of chaparral from Fried, J.S., C.L. Bosinger, and D. Beardsley. 2004. Chaparral in Southern and Central Coastal California in the Mid-1990's.
Map from Parker, V.T. 2020. Chaparral of California. In Goldstein, M.I, DellaSala, D.A., (eds.), Encyclopedia of the World's Biomes. Elsevier. Addendum: there's a small patch of chaparral in the southwestern corner of Imperial County that barely shows, but it's there!
Chaparral is a semi-arid, shrub dominated association of sclerophyllous (hard-leaved), woody plants shaped by a Mediterranean-type climate (summer drought, mild, wet winters), and infrequent fires (with natural intervals between fires being 30 to 150 years or more). Sclerophyllous is a term coined by German botanist, Andreas F. W. Schimper in 1898. Referring to Mediterranean climatic regions (there are five*) in his classic 844 page Plant Geography Upon a Physiological Basis, he said, "The mild temperate districts with winter-rain and prolonged summer-drought are the home of evergreen xerophilous (dry-loving) woody plants, which, owing to the stiffness of their thick, leathery leaves, may be termed sclerophyllous woody plants."
Sclerophyllous leaves are advantageous in a semi-arid climate because they reduce evaporation thorough a variety of traits including waxy coatings, thicker cell layers, and recessed stomata (the pores in leaves permitting evaporation and the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide). Chaparral is primarily a California phenomenon, although there are some wonderful chaparral "islands" at higher elevations in parts of Arizona (such as in the Catalina Mountains above Tucson). Chaparral also extends a bit into southern Oregon (notably in the Rogue River Valley) and sparsely south into Baja California. A similar shrubland without the Mediterranean climate, called Petran chaparral, is found in the central Rocky Mountains and Northeastern Mexico.
Although the largest and most pristine stands of chaparral occur in California between 500 to 4,500 feet in elevation, smaller patches exist along the coast. Stands of red shanks chaparral can found at 7,000 feet in the San Jacinto Mountains in Riverside County. If there is one defining characteristic of nearly all chaparral, it is the presence of chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum), the ecosystem's most pervasive shrub.
We have identified the primary chaparral types found in California, based on dominant shrub species, geography, or soil type in which it occurs. Enjoy exploring them through our Chaparral Types page.
*The 5 Mediterranean regions with their characteristic shrublands are California (chaparral), central Chile (matorral), South Africa (fynbos), southwestern Australia (kwongan healthlands and a Eucalyptus shrub-dominated habitat called mallee), and the Mediterranean basin (maquis, and a less dense version, garigue, a on poor, limestone soils). Although each native shrubland is unique in its own special way, each have a similar appearance. So, when a southern Californian visits Spain or France, the surrounding shrubby terrain feels a lot like home.
World map showing the Mediterranean-type climates. From Rundel and Pompelli.