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Grasslands in California

California is home to a variety of habitats. One that is not commonly seen around Orange County is grassland. California’s amazing grasslands were once thought to be more forblands as originally they were filled with perennial bunch grasses and broadleaf herbs called forbes (Rundel 2005). The composition of California’s grasslands has completely changed since the 17th century after many non-native plants were introduced by European settlers. California grasslands are now typically covered by high non-native annual cover although you are still able to see native species at low levels.

This display at the Oakland Museum shows just part of the 20-foot-long root mass of one California oatgrass plant (Danthonia californica). Danthonia californica ©Oakland Museum of California

California’s native grasslands species provide a wide variety of ecosystem services. For example, native bunch grasses have large expansive root systems that have the ability to store large amounts of carbon. These perennial grasses are able to renew 50% of their root masses each year, so experts say that they are better carbon sinks than trees (UC Davis 2018). Carbon sinks help regulate earth's climate by removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in large root systems. In addition, their large root systems, which can reach around 20 feet long, are able to access moisture deep underground and act as a great anchor to prevent erosion (UC Davis 2018).

Distribution of grasslands in California.Data from U.S. Geological Survey, Gap Analysis Program

The California Native Grassland Association reports that California's grasslands have decreased by 99% (CNGA 2021). Although not many native grasslands remain, you can still find native plants among the nonnative ones around the Simi Hills of LA, portions of Cleveland National forest, Perris Plain, and along Camp Pendleton.

Photographed by Mx. Granger

Photographed by Mx. Granger

Our California state flower is a forb that calls the grasslands home. The California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) blooms abundantly in spring each year for massive displays in the disturbed grasslands in Antelope Valley’s California poppy reserve. A fun fact about this flora is that early Spanish settlers would call the poppy dormindera, meaning drowsy one. This is due to the flowers' tendency to close at night in order to protect the pollen. In 2023, the record breaking rainfall brought a superbloom of poppies in regions of Riverside county and other spots throughout California. Many areas displaying the superbloom of poppies have restricted public access due to trampling of poppies during the 2020 super bloom. Trampling hurts the plants ability to reproduce, so they will struggle to return in the following years.

Photographed by Keir Morse under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

California's state grass belongs to many of California’s different habitats including grasslands, chaparral, and oak woodlands. Purple needlegrass (Nassella pulchra) became California's state grass due to it being the most widespread native grass, giving it the ability to suppress invasive species and provide support to native oaks. Similar to other native bunch grasses, they grow well in clay soils and have a root system that can reach 20 feet deep. As previously mentioned these deep root systems are an adaptation the plants use to combat drought. This allows the plant to reach moisture in the soil deep that otherwise would not be available.

Photographed by ©2018 Walter Siegmund (CC BY-NC 3.0)

Photographed by Jorg & Mimi Fleige (CC BY-NC 3.0)

Another notable forb native to California is owl's clover (Castilleja exserta). This plant is unique looking with masses of pink, red, and white flowers. This flower gets its name from admirers noticing the white part of the flower looks like a tiny owl. Early Spanish settlers called the plant escobitas due to its similarity to little whisk brooms. Owl’s clover is considered hemiparasitic. Like many other hemiparasitic plants, it has chlorophyll and green leaves giving it the ability to photosynthesize, but the majority of the plant's nutrients come from its roots tapping into surrounding species. Many other grassland species are also hemiparasitic.

If you would like to learn more about California's native grasslands and explore some animals that call them home, check out our habitat video about grasslands on our website.

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