Text by Doreen Smith and photographs by Vernon and Doreen Smith

Herbaceous Plant Communities:

1. Dunes and Beaches

This association of plants can be seen at Rodeo Beach, Pt. Reyes and Dillon Beach. Little annual temperature range, few freezing or hot dry days. Winter rainfall adequate for plant growth, summer fog maintains humidity, causes fog drip. Salt winds affect plants, limiting some species, but main limiting factors are nutrient-poor sandy soil and rapid drainage. Species include mock heather, native and European dune grasses, perennial lupines, flat gumplant, beach strawberry , Menzies’ wallflower, silver beachbur, sand verbena, fernleaf phacelia, wavyleaf pennyroyal.

Point Reyes Coastal Dunes

Point Reyes Coastal Dunes

2. Coastal Grassland or Prairie

Usually within sight of ocean or bay. Thin soils in windswept locations on bluffs and hills. Some of the best places to see spring wildflowers. Visit the Marin Headlands, Pt. Reyes, west slopes of Mt. Tamalpais. Serpentine rock areas have additional special species, e.g. Tiburon peninsula. One of the few remaining areas in California to see native bunchgrasses. Idaho fescue, reedgrasses, pine bluegrass, owl’s clovers, true clovers, mariposa lilies and star tulips, checkerbloom, California poppy, paintbrushes, iris, larkspurs.

Coastal Prairie

Serpentine Grassland Mt. Burdell

3.Valley Grassland

On deep soils and in grazed areas often little California native vegetation remains. Many annual grasses, some introduced weeds are common. If some oaks punctuate the scene this is called “Savannah”. Can be seen on Mt. Burdell, most of inland Marin grasslands are this type. Wild oats, ripgut brome, soft chess, filaree, star thistle, bull thistle, and Italian thistle occur. Natives remaining include wild hyacinths, clovers, ground iris, owl’s clover, true clovers, goldfields.

Valley Grassland

4.Vernal Pool

Rare areas of peculiar water-regime. Submerged in winter, moist in spring and bone-dry in summer and fall. Few introduced plants can cope, many rare natives evolved tolerance. Lagunitas meadows, Hidden Lake, Mt. Burdell, other, scattered, small pools. Coyote thistle, needlerush, Baker’s navarretia, quillwort, white forget-me-nots, rayless goldfields, water buttercup, and annual foxtail grass occur: an invasive weed here is pennyroyal.

Vernal Pool Hidden Lake Mt. Burdell


Both bay and ocean sides of the Marin peninsula. Wet and salty all year, mild climate with few frosts. China Camp State Park and Pt. Reyes have easily visited saltmarshes. Much pickleweed, saltgrass, jaumea, tall gumplant, sedges, rushes, arrowgrass, marsh lavender, alkali heath, saltmarsh bird’sbeak.

Limantour Salt Marsh

China Camp Salt Marsh

6.Freshwater Marsh and Fen

Not widespread in Marin and usually dries partly in summer. Olema marshes, Rodeo valley marshes, Pt. Reyes swales. Typical plants are tules, sedges, rushes, water parsley, giant hedgenettle, straggly gooseberry, twinberry honeysuckle, salmonberry, willows.

Giacomini Marsh

Tree-Dominant Communities:

7.Streambank, Riparian Woodland

Linear plant community found along permanent streams. Alders, willows, ash, maples, ninebark, wildrose, creek dogwood. Good examples can be seen in Samuel P. Taylor Park, along Lagunitas Creek, and Miller Creek.

Creek at Samuel P. Taylor State Park

8.Coast Redwood Forest

Best seen in Muir Woods but also Woodacre, Roy’s Redwoods, Samuel P. Taylor park. Coast redwood, Douglas’-fir, rhododendron, baylaurel, yellow violets, sword fern, redwood sorrel, vanilla grass, wild ginger, wakerobin.

Roys Redwoods

9.Mixed Evergreen Forest

Wetter areas have much Douglas’fir, drier areas more oaks. Bear Valley on Pt. Reyes is the wetter type, around the Marin reservoir-lakes is the drier type. Tanbark oak, madrone, canyon liveoak, black oak, Oregon oak, baylaurel, buckeye. Understory plants include hound’s tongue, orchids, Marin iris, eyed violet, woodfern, bracken fern, hawkweed, woodland madia, bedstraw, red larkspur, Indian warrior, milkmaids, fairybells, native vetch.

Lake Lagunitas

10.Bishop Pine Forest, Closed Cone Pine Forest

On N. Inverness Ridge, Pt. Reyes: understory shrubs are manzanita, huckleberry, salal, coffeeberry, gooseberry, native blackberry, flowering currant, blueblossom. Closed cones open best during a fire such as occurred October 1995, regeneration has been promoted by a good rainfall during the following winters.

Bishop Pine Forest

Shrub-Dominant Communities:

11.Chaparral, Hard Chaparral

A particularly Californian plant community of stiff, drought-resistant shrubs. Small, leathery leaves are typical on oaks, manzanitas, blueblossoms, chamise and chaparral pea. Spring annuals and perennials include jewelflowers, mariposa tulip, paintbrush, woolly daisy, catchfly, deerweed, goldenbush, zygadene, goldwire, arnica, horkelia, pitcher sage, morning glory, and poison oak.

Carson Ridge Chaparral

12.Northern Coastal Scrub or Soft Chaparral

Along the coast and following arroyos inland. Slopes provide good drainage, climate similar to that of dunes and beaches, soils usually thin and rocky. Shrubs include coyote bush, osoberry, hazel, poison oak, flowering current, gooseberry, California sagebrush, snowberry, creambush, huckleberry; sometimes swordfern, pearly everlasting, cow parsnip, Douglas’ iris.

Coast Trail Chaparral