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Call to Colors

Local wildflower experts will lead tours to help hikers scour the trails for budding signs of life.

March 20, 1997|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you need extra motivation to pull on your hiking shoes and head for the hills, here it is: Spring wildflowers are blooming.

So far, the headliner in the annual show of colors is coreopsis, the daisy-like shrub that now dots the coastal hillsides in a blaze of yellow, especially visible from Pacific Coast Highway.

Inland, the curtain is rising a little more slowly, but by late March the wildflower season, which extends through April, will peak. You'll see everything from the orange-red Indian paintbrush to the vivid purple nightshade to that dazzling showstopper the California poppy.

But suppose you don't know a poppy from a Popsicle. Don't despair. You can sign up for a slew of wildflower hikes this spring with flower experts who can identify anything in bloom and just about anything that isn't.

One of the most celebrated local experts, Milt McAuley, is leading four wildflower hikes in the Santa Monica Mountains through a program offered later this spring by the Learning Tree University in Chatsworth. On March 30, you can join him for a free wildflower hike at Chatsworth Park South.

If you can't hike with McAuley, you can do the next best thing: Pick up his book, "Wildflowers of the Santa Monica Mountains" (Canyon Publishing Co., $19.95). Written 10 years ago and revised last year, it has 496 color photos of what blooms here.

At 77, McAuley, who lives in Canoga Park, is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to the Santa Monica Mountains. Vigorous and with just a trace of a paunch, he hits the trail often, averaging 20 miles of walking a week.

With his bushy eyebrows and mustache, he's been likened to Walter Cronkite. And when he speaks about the mountains in his slow and deliberate manner, the resemblance is even more striking.

On a blustery morning late last month, he led the way up La Jolla Canyon in Point Mugu State Park to scout out early wildflower blooms. The trail just off Pacific Coast Highway is one of his favorite haunts, and that morning he wasn't disappointed.

Coreopsis was everywhere. This native shrub grows primarily along the coast, between Point Dume just above Malibu and Point Conception in Santa Barbara County, and on the Channel Islands. Three years ago, fire devastated much of the coreopsis in the state park.

"I like the way these are coming back," McAuley said. "It's a great season for coreopsis." Although it's past its peak, some coreopsis should be in bloom a few more weeks.

It may be a good season for other bloomers too. The wildflowers here are still feeling some beneficial effects of the fire, which burned away chaparral and gave them space to proliferate. And, of course, the chaparral is on the rebound.

Tapia Park, south of Agoura Hills, may hold great promise for wildflowers this season because of the fire there last fall. But you won't be disappointed elsewhere.

"It's a good year," McAuley said. The early heavy rains followed by a spell of warm weather helped move things along, so the wildflowers are blooming a bit earlier than usual this year.

As he strolled up the La Jolla Canyon Trail, he pointed out yellow deer weed, morning glories, blue dicks, purple nightshade, to name a few. He spotted a lush spread of what looked like coreopsis to the untrained eye. Canyon sunflower, he said, pointing to the leaf pattern.

A waterfall spilled over boulders next to the trail and McAuley hopped nimbly over. He talked of the Chumash, the canyon's first residents, and how decades ago rock was stripped from here to build the Pacific Coast Highway.

Around the next bend we would find marine fossils embedded in the rock, he said. Sure enough, there they were, plain as day, but probably unnoticed by the thousands of hikers who traipse through here.

At one point, the trail was almost canopied by pale blue California lilacs--an awesome sight.

"It's a rather stunning plant," he said with characteristic understatement.

But it was shooting stars and the elusive chocolate lily that were on his mind that day and he was determined to find them. After two miles or so, the trail opened onto a grassy meadow and he spotted a scattering of white and lavender shooting stars.

"Where you find shooting stars you find chocolate lilies," he said, scanning the meadow. Sure enough, moments later he spotted a single bronze-colored chocolate lily, and then a few others here and there. "A lot of people would go by here without noticing," he said triumphantly.

In fact, a lot of people, accustomed to cultivated gardens, anticipate they will be bowled over by vast fields of colorful wildflowers when they hit the trail in the spring. But it's a more subtle experience.

(If you're headed for the California Poppy Reserve in Lancaster, don't get your hopes up. The poppies got little rain, bloomed early and the displays are disappointing, the reserve reports.)

When McAuley leads one of his wildflower walks, he gives them his standard line: "Don't expect too much--and be patient."

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