For a number of reasons, shrubland ecosystems have been delegated as second class environments (or worse) when compared to forests or grasslands. In the past, forests provided cover, grasslands a place to hunt. Forests can be lumbered, grasslands can be grazed. But shrublands? They have often been seen as the stuff that gets in the way of the forester or the rancher. With chains dragged between tractors, abuse by fire, and the application of herbicides, humans have attempted to remove shrubs from the landscape. Such shortsighted approaches to land management have usually resulted in dire consequences for the natural environment. It's time to rethink our attitudes about the ecosystem in-between, an ecosystem that provides incredibly diverse habitats for the majority of animal life in many regions. It's time to learn to appreciate the value of the shrubs!
"People don't describe what they see, they see what they can describe." - James Flaherty
A special plant community dominated by woody, drought-hardy shrubs, shaped by a Mediterranean -type climate (summer drought, winter rain) and infrequent wildfire.
Where chaparral is found: California, southern Oregon, northern Baja California, and a few unique places in Arizona (although the Arizona version is subject to summer monsoons).
Other similar, Mediterranean-type shrublands exist in: 1. Central Chile - called Matorral 2. South Africa - called Fynbos (fain-boos) 3. Western Australia - Kwongan 4. Mediterranean Region - Maquis
Map Credit: Rundel and Pompelli
CALIFORNIA SAGE SCRUB
A special plant community dominated by aromatic semi-woody, and semi-deciduous drought-tolerant shrubs. Often referred to as coastal sage scrub or "soft chaparral." California rather than "coastal" is a better identifier because many sage scrub communities occur far from the coast.
Where California sage scrub is found: Usually on south facing slopes on coastal and inland mountains from north-central to southern California and into Baja California.
Heath balds are sky island habitats dominated by broad-leafed, evergreen shrubs adapted to harsh, xeric conditions. The balds are usually surrounded by dense forests. One of the most remarkable species is the beautiful rhododendron, which color the balds in spring with splashes of color.
The formation of balds continues to be debated by scientists, but soil conditions likely play an important role. An extremely acidic layer of peat soil that underlies the balds can be from 50 to 100 centimeters in depth.
Where heath balds are found: Along narrow ridges and mountain crests in the Great Smokey Mountains, Appalachia. Hiking the Appalachian Trail is an excellent way to visit these unique shrubland habitats.
The sagebrush steppe is composed of shrubs, grasses, wildlflowers, and some trees (like junipers) that provide food and shelter for hundreds of fish and wildlife species.
Where to find sagebrush steppe: Historically, the the Sagebrush Steppe covered approximately 150 million acres in western North America, and was perhaps as large as 243 million acres, spanning parts of 16 states and three Canadian provinces. However, the sagebrush steppe has been reduced in area by as much as 50 percent since European settlement. Exotic grasses and weeds now dominate much of its former range (see photo below). See the Sagebrush Sea website for more details.
Sagebrush Steppe destroyed by overgrazing and fire. As evidenced by the cattle trails in the background and the burned remains of shrubs, the healthy shrubland ecosystem that once thrived here is no more. Filling in the void is the non-native weed species, cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum). Such loss has occurred over millions of acres throughout the West. Photo location: Dinosaur National Monument, Utah.
Hop-sage shrubland, Saline Valley in Death Valley National Park. Hop-sage (Grayia spinosa) is the characteristic species in this low-growing, arid ecosystem.
Creosote shrubland, Saline Valley in Death Valley National Park. Creosote bush (Larrea tridentata), frequently misnamed as "chaparral," is a beautifully aromatic shrub. As can be seen in this photo, it sparsely populates vast stretches of desert environments.