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Book on San Diego Flora Argues Pro-Plant Politics

March 05, 1986|GORDON SMITH

SAN DIEGO — There aren't many people who would call a book on the plants of San Diego County a political statement, but then there aren't many people who pray for wildfires, either. Mitchell Beauchamp does both.

That's one measure of how much he cares about local native plants. Another is his encyclopedic knowledge of them.

What's the oldest plant in the county, Mitch? "Probably some of our coast live oak trees. Some of the really huge ones are over 1,000 years old," he explained patiently.

What's the rarest plant? "One of the rarest is a little blue-flowered annual called the Cuyamaca Lake downingia. It's found only in wet areas near Cuyamaca Lake."

And what's that tall, thin cactus that grows on the windward slopes of Cabrillo National Monument? "Velvet cactus. Within San Diego County it's found only in small patches at the monument and at UC San Diego."

You get the idea. The amazing thing is that Beauchamp can spout similar information for many of the plants in the county--and by his own count there are 2,210 different kinds, including trees and weeds.

Beauchamp is a botanist and principal consultant for Pacific Southwest Biological Services, an environmental consulting firm in National City. His book, "A Flora of San Diego County, California," is being published this month. It's the first attempt in nearly 40 years to compile a complete list of every type of plant that grows in the county--and where each grows.

The project has kept Beauchamp occupied, off and on, for the last 15 years. But Beauchamp, 39--a third-generation native of National City--is appalled at the way housing tracts and agricultural development have destroyed the county's open hills and canyons, and he is hoping that his book will help convince people that many native plants here are unique and need protection.

"In terms of the number of native plants, San Diego County has more diversity than any other county in the continental United States," he pointed out. "But developers and the people who move here are totally ignorant of it" and don't seem to be concerned that many of the plants are gradually being wiped out.

Documentation of Diversity

"My book is documentation of this fantastic diversity of plants we have at our doorstep," he said. "It's a political statement, based on scientific evidence, that the county is a very unique area.

"You want proof? Start counting."

The last comprehensive inventory of the county's plants was published in 1949 by Ethel Bailey Higgins, a former curator of botany at the San Diego Natural History Museum. Beauchamp doesn't mean to detract from Higgins' book by publishing his own; in fact, he met Higgins in 1962 and still treasures the autographed copy of her book that she gave him.

Some Drastic Changes

But since 1949 there have been some dramatic changes in the county's plant life, according to Beauchamp. Among them:

- The spreading of new species of weeds, many of them introduced in "seed sprays" used by developers to revegetate hillsides that have been denuded during construction. "Weeds cannot invade an area unless it's been disturbed by the hand of man," Beauchamp noted, "and in San Diego County the hand of man has generally been a bulldozer."

- The obliteration of some types of plants that were flourishing here 40 years ago. The main culprits are urban development and increasing agriculture.

The discovery of several new plant species.

Thomas Oberbauer, field chairman for the California Native Plant Society and an environmental management specialist for the County of San Diego, said it is high time that botanists updated their knowledge of which plants grow here, and where. Such information not only allows scientists to see how plant communities have changed over time, but is "also useful for determining environmental impacts," he said. "It gives you an idea how much habitat is left for an individual species . . . and there are more species of rare and endangered plants here than in any other county in the continental United States."

Beauchamp said the book will be a valuable reference for professional and amateur botanists, students, environmental consultants, and state and federal officials charged with managing wildlife habitat. It includes a key for identifying plants, and maps that show the extent of various plant communities.

Beauchamp said his interest in botany began when he was a student at Sweetwater High School. He worked as a volunteer at the Natural History Museum and was fascinated by "what species of plants are found here, why they're here, and what controls their range."

He graduated from Sweetwater in 1964 and from San Diego State University in 1968. But his work on a comprehensive book about the county's plants didn't begin until 1970, when he got out of the Navy and returned to SDSU to get a master's degree in biology. "I was going to do the book for my thesis, but when I got into it I realized, whoa, this is going to be a lot of work," Beauchamp said.

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