It's a humble enough plant, a low mass of woody stems and dull green herbage, clinging to life among the rocks. To most of us, the Santa Susana tarweed is a plant only a botanist could love . . . or even find.
From its discovery about 75 years ago until the late 1970s, the tarweed was believed to exist only atop isolated sandstone outcroppings in its namesake Santa Susana Mountains.
In 1977, the Santa Susana tarweed was discovered high on the Castro Crest area of the Santa Monica Mountains, and later atop Calabasas Peak and in Charmlee County Park.
Hemizonia minthornii may seem even more homely than it is because it comes from a beautiful botanic family--the sunflower family.
Other members of the family--goldfields, golden yarrow, California everlasting and tidytips--are real lookers, and even such family members as shrubby butterweed and milk thistle have their moments in the sun.
Actually, the Santa Susana tarweed isn't that ugly; in autumn, it dons a cloak of yellow flowers. Its botanical name, minthornii , honors botanist Theodore Wilson Minthorn and his sister Maud, who collected in Southern California during the first two decades of this century.
You can stalk the Santa Susana tarweed--and some genuinely pretty flowering plants--on a nice loop trail along the Castro Crest area of the Santa Monica Mountains.
The trail is part of the 65-mile Backbone Trail, which, when completed, will extend over the spine of the range from Pacific Palisades to Point Magu.
"This is one of my favorite wildflower walks," says Milt McAuley, author of "Wildflower Walks of the Santa Monica Mountains" (Canyon Publishing Co.).
According to McAuley, some defenders of the Santa Susana tarweed, concerned with its public image, have begun to refer to it as tarplant. "Some people say tarweed smells like fresh raspberries," says McAuley, "but we tarweed boosters say raspberries smell like tarweed."
Geologically minded hikers will also enjoy tramping along Castro Crest. Towering above the parking area is the gray sandstone/mudstone Sespe Formation, formed about 30 million years ago.
Down in Upper Solstice Canyon is the Coal Canyon Formation of marine deposition, laid down some 50 million years ago. Many a mollusk is visible in the long rock slabs.
Even those hikers without interest in botany or earth science will enjoy this hike. It samples both high and low segments of the Backbone Trail and provides great views and a good aerobic workout.
Directions to trailhead: From Pacific Coast Highway, about two miles up-coast from Malibu Canyon Road, turn inland on Corral Canyon Road. Proceed 5 1/2 miles to road's end, to a large dirt parking lot.
The hike: From the parking area, head past the locked gate up the wide dirt road, Castro Motorway.
You're walking the Backbone Trail along the spine of the Santa Monica Mountains. After a short climb, you'll be treated to a fine view of Mt. Baldy, the San Gabriel Mountains and the Santa Susana Mountains, home of the elusive tarweed.
If you're stalking the tarweed, a great place to look is about three-quarters of a mile from the trailhead on the north side of the dirt road, near the junction of Castro Motorway and Bulldog Motorway.
Bulldog Motorway, on your right, leads to Malibu Creek State Park and its many miles of trail, but continue climbing another three-quarters of a mile to a junction with Newton Canyon Motorway, which you'll join by bearing left.
Castro Motorway continues west toward a forest of antennae atop Castro Peak; Newton Motorway descends to a junction at a saddle. You could go straight (south) here and drop into Upper Solstice Canyon, which would cut off about two miles of the six-mile (round trip) hike.
Bear right on the stretch of Backbone Trail called Castro Trail and head west for a mile to paved Latigo Canyon Road.
Walk along the road for a short while and join Newton Motorway on your left, which passes by a private residence and then descends to the aforementioned saddle and the connector trail leading back toward Castro Motorway.
Continue east, meandering along the monkey flower- and paintbrush-sprinkled banks of Solstice Creek.
Watch for a lovely meadow dotted with Johnny-jump-ups and California poppies. The trail turns north with the creekbed, then climbs west for a time up a chaparral-covered slope, back to the trailhead on Coral Canyon Road.
Note: November is Backbone Trail Month. Conservation activities and many guided hikes will be held at various spots along the Backbone Trail.
For a complete schedule of activities, call the Mountains Conservancy Foundation: (800) 553-PARK.
A new map, "Trails of the Santa Monica Mountains," is now available. The map details all state and national park trails, camps and recreation sites.
For a copy, send $4.95 to Olympus Press, Attn. S.M. Map, Box 2397, Santa Barbara, Calif. 93120.
HIKING / Santa Monica Mountains / Backbone Trail
* WHERE: Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, back side of Malibu Creek State Park.
* LENGTH: Six-mile loop along Castro Crest, through Upper Solstice Canyon; 1,000-foot elevation gain.
* TERRAIN: Spine of the Santa Monica Mountains.
* HIGHLIGHTS: Mountain and ocean views.
* DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Moderate.
* FOR MORE INFORMATION: Call the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area at (818) 597-9192.