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A rare wonder at Mission Trails Regional Park

By Audrey F. Baker

Whether you frequent our 60 miles of trails, take in a leisurely stopover at the Visitor and Interpretive Center, or fall somewhere in between, spring blooms await you at Mission Trails Regional Park.

A recent and touching phone call received at the Visitor Center illustrates the special and unique opportunities offered to all at Mission Trails. A daughter called to ask how her aging mom might enjoy the wildflowers.

Our Plant Identification Walk best suited her mom’s desire to experience spring in the park while addressing her limited mobility concerns. The walk follows the outline of the back terrace and amphitheater areas and incorporates 40 of our region’s native plants, each paired with a descriptive plaque. It provides an opportunity to view signature plants of sage and chaparral and is designed to enhance your nature experience.

The collection offers a unique opportunity to view a true gem of chaparral, the Mexican Flannel Bush. Listed by the state of California as rare, and cited by the federal government as endangered, our specimen of Fremontodendron mexicanum is currently in spectacular bloom. It boasts stunning 3-inch-wide flowers best described as “tea cup-sized” and reminiscent of a garden that Matisse dreamed.

The rare Mexican Flannel Bush in blookm at Mission Trails Regional Park. (Photo by Audrey F. Baker)

Capable of growing as either an erect shrub or small multi-trunked tree, this Mallow Family member generally reaches a height of 6-10 feet, although 19-foot specimens are known. Peppered along wispy branches are leathery and furry 2-inch-deep olive green leaves showing three to five lobes and hairy undersides.

Solitary flowers appear spread along its branches, and are usually opposite a leaf. Close viewing reveals the flowers have no true petals, but are made up of five bright yellow to orange sepals and are occasionally reddish toward the base.

The openly visible blooms feature an erect pistil that mirrors the fanciful architecture of the plant. Nectar pits at the base of the sepals are a great attractant for busy European honey bees.

Attributes of the plant astound. Three months of spring can bring a 6- to 8-foot growth spurt. A true drought-tolerant plant and endemic to southern California and northwestern Baja California, “Southern Fremontia” is dormant in summer, requiring no water, but makes its own stringent demands — a well-drained, mineral-enriched soil with deposits of clay, silt, sand and gravel.

Its motto is “rain in; rain out,” less its drought-adapted roots be drowned. The root crown must be nearly debris free as it is prone to root rot.

Home is historically amid dry canyons, shaded foothills, and in drainages of southern mixed chaparral habitats or in closed-cone coniferous forests.

Classified as a Sterculiaceae, this unique plant bares a kinship to the cola nut and chocolate! With a 60 million-year ancestry, Flannel Bush is thought to be a relic of the Cenozoic Era, when California and neighboring Baja accommodated a more tropical climate.

Flannel Bush’s scientific name and one of its common names (Fremontodendron mexicanum and Southern Fremontia) honor explorer and mapmaker John C. Fremont (1813-1890), who was himself a resilient California notable. Elected as one of our state’s first two senators, he also was a presidential candidate in 1856 and a staunch proponent of western expansion.

Speaking to just how rare it is, when listed as an endangered species (Oct. 13, 1998), Mexican Flannel Bush was known to inhabit only one canyon in the United States and one in Baja California, Mexico. The U.S. occurrence contained fewer than 100 plants. At that time, no information was available on the number of plants in Mexico.

On Aug. 14, 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that Flannel Bush is now known to naturally occur only in southern San Diego County (just north of the Mexican border) within three adjacent canyons on a single mountain. The two additional occurrences were discovered within two miles of the first. Unfortunately, the original Mexican population is extirpated.

We at Mission Trails can’t help but feel a swell of pride in knowing park visitors can enjoy one of nature’s most precious offerings with ease of accessibility. For those of you hitting the trail to enjoy the blooms of the season, don’t forget to stop and take in the spectacular Flannel Bush blooms!

—Audrey F. Baker is trail guide at Mission Trails Regional Park. Reach her at aud1baker@gmail.com. Call 619-668-3281 for more information on the park’s free trail guide-led nature walks and opportunities to learn more about natural Southern California. Special walks can be arranged for any club, group, business or school by contacting Ranger Chris Axtmann at 619-668-2746 or at caxtmann@mtrp.org.

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