Explore the “superbloom” in Santa Cruz County

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Author Nathalie Martin was an undergraduate when she started working on a field guide to the plants of UC Santa Cruz. California poppies, below, make a beautiful show every spring. (Photos by Carolyn Lagattuta)

Illustrator and naturalist Brett Bell is happy to have a creative outlet that is also a learning tool. “Drawing and painting plants is a really useful way to remember them,” said Bell. “If you spend time carefully observing and drawing something, you really commit it to memory.” Bell’s illustrations in the book are mostly watercolor-and-ink, a technique that he found useful for the field guide. “Watercolor and ink is a faster way to define features and edges than more traditional botanical illustrations that use watercolor with pencil,” said Bell, who worked from photographs, as well as in the field. Bell discovered his interest in plants as an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, where he learned about the tremendous biodiversity in California. “Where we live is really unique,” he said. “This area is one of the few biodiversity hotspots outside of the tropics.” California is home to approximately 6,500 plant species—”That’s more than the Eastern United States and Canada combined,” he hastened to add. Since graduating from UCSC, Bell has pieced together a patchwork of jobs in outdoor education, art, science, and higher education. He credits the publication of the field guide with inspiring him to earn a certificate from the prestigious

at California State University Monterey Bay. Of the field guide, Bell said, “I feel so lucky to be a part of it. A book was kind of a life goal.” Then he shared an aspiration: “More of that to come, I hope. Maybe I’ll make my own field guide that’s fully illustrated one day.” (Photo by Holly Chiswell)

This spring’s wildflower “superbloom” is good news for residents of Santa Cruz County, where impressive displays of California poppies, Sky lupine, and Douglas iris are popping up in grasslands from Davenport to Watsonville.

Dozens of less familiar blooms will emerge in coming weeks and months, and a beautiful, full-color  Field Guide to Plants of UC Santa Cruz makes exploring the landscapes of the campus—and the county—fun and rewarding.

The guide was a labor of love for author Nathalie Martin (College Nine ’17, environmental studies), who hopes the 173-page volume filled with photographs, maps, and tips will inspire others to build their knowledge of local plants “and all the curiosities and wonders that accompany them.”

“This project was sort of like a botanical treasure hunt for me,” said Martin, who became involved with the project during a winter-quarter internship her sophomore year, during which she explored, identified, and photographed plants all over campus.

Smitten, Martin did two more internships and devoted countless volunteer hours to the project, ultimately overseeing the entire production, from writing to design and layout. “There’s nothing like having the physical copy of the book in your hand after seeing it on the screen for so long,” said Martin.

It is not uncommon for undergraduates at UC Santa Cruz to coauthor, or contribute to, papers that appear in academic journals. It’s far less common to write a book. “I didn’t anticipate taking on the whole thing, but at a certain point, I said, ‘I want to see this through,’ ” recalled Martin.

The guide is valuable for novices, as well as those with greater knowledge of plants. Each entry features three or four photos, a description of the plant, and notes about its abundance, height, blooming season, size, and locations on campus. The index lists both Latin and common names, a lengthy glossary defines terms, and detailed campus maps show different vegetation communities, from chaparral and coastal prairie to redwood forest, as well as “botanical hotspots.”

Illustrator Brett Bell (Cowell College ’12, environmental studies and biology) contributed beautiful paintings, as well as illustrations of leaf shapes and the parts of a flower, and other features that aid identification (see sidebar).

“It adds so much to the book to have these illustrations,” said Martin. “I didn’t want it to be just a sterile book, but something that’s enjoyable and inspiring for readers to look at and use.”

Martin is loathe to name a favorite plant, but when pressed, she mentions large-flowered mariposa, or Calochortus uniflorus, a photo of which adorns the cover of the field guide. “It’s so striking, with those blue anthers,” she marvels. “Each species within the genus is like a detailed little work of art.”

Martin appreciates the Latin names of plants, but she values how descriptive and useful common names are. For example, Scoliopus bigelovii doesn’t begin to convey what the common name fetid adder’s tongue does: “It’s stinky but beautiful,” she said of the delicate, lily-like plant with maroon- and white-striped petals. “They are pollinated by gnats, which are attracted to the fetid stench.”

Latest in a series of campus field guides

The field guide is part of a series of natural history field guides being produced by the UCSC Campus Natural Reserve, following student-authored books about spiders, birds, fungus, slime molds, and ethnobotany. It features 185 plants found on campus, most of which thrive throughout the county. While flowering plants make up the majority of the plants listed, trees and ferns are also included.

Campus Natural Reserve manager Alex Jones supervised Martin on the project, from her first internship through the many hours she volunteered to bring it to fruition. “She was thoughtful about her process, had photography skills, and she was really interested in the plants themselves,” he said. “She’s a quick learner and took the time to actually learn how to identify plants.”

Jones approached Martin about writing the book, and he credits her with having the dedication, patience, and desire to see the project through.  “We were lucky to have her stick with it,” he said. “We got really lucky with Brett, too. He was building up his portfolio and basically donated his illustrations. They are a great complement. They really liven it up.”

From Dallas to Santa Cruz

Martin grew up in Dallas and knew she wanted to go to college in the west. After visiting schools in Oregon, Washington, California, and Colorado, UC Santa Cruz emerged as her top choice. “I always loved spending time outside when I was growing up, and for me, the biggest draw was just the setting,” she said. “It’s really important being in a place I can enjoy and explore. Having the forest by the ocean was foreign to me, and really exciting.”

The diverse landscapes of campus called to Martin, who quickly felt compelled to “dive into studying them in some way.” She enrolled in botany classes, internships, and field courses that fed her desire to learn about plants.

“Natural History Field Quarter was hands down my favorite class,” Martin said of a quarter-long Environmental Studies class during which students explore California’s different landscapes, from the Mojave Desert and the Sierra to Big Sur and the Eel River in Mendocino County. Martin soaked up the opportunity to study those places in depth—and get academic credit for it.

The book project and Martin’s classes honed her skills as an observer of the natural world. “The big thing I took away is slowing down and paying attention to the little things that are so easy to overlook, especially in this crazy, fast-paced world we’re living in, where we’re rarely taught to slow down and appreciate what is around us,” she said.

“Nathalie took her education into her own hands,” said Jones. “She really took advantage of all the opportunities. I’m super proud of her.”

The book is likely the most comprehensive guide to plants in Santa Cruz County, yet it remains a “work in progress,” said Jones, noting that its 185 plants are only a portion of more than 500 species that grow on campus.

“I’d love for someone to build on it one day,” added Martin. The book does not include grasses, rushes, or sedges—something she acknowledged in the book’s introduction, where she extended an invitation of sorts: “Are you, dear reader, the one who will create the second edition of this guide?”

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The Field Guide to Plants of UC Santa Cruz is available at Bay Tree Bookstore or on Amazon.