Biological Sciences, Santa Barbara City College

Biology 100: Concepts of Biology


Soft Chaparral or Coastal Sage Scrub Community

California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica) and Black Sage (Salvia mellifera) are the predominant species of the coastal sage scrub community.  These shrubs are generally less than 6 feet in height (height will be much less of a plant growing on an interior slope of a hillside located within a rainshadow) with multiple woody stems. Leaves are often aromatic, gray, woolly or sticky. Leaves are pliable and thin (malacophyllous), hence the alternate name for this community of soft chaparral.  Leaves may also be drought-deciduous, falling off the plant during the hotter, drier months.  Roots are relatively shallow and are typically about half as deep as those of hard chaparral although this may be due more to the shallower depth of the soft chaparral soils.  Active plant growth is early, immediately following the rains of November and December and continuing through the spring.  There is a higher herbaceous component to coastal scrub than to the hard chaparral.

The coastal sage scrub community, or "soft" chaparral, is commonly found in California's coastal zone in the elevation range from just above sea level to 1,800 feet. When it occurs on lower angled slopes, this community falls prey to urban development. However, many sites for soft chaparral are unsuitable for development as they are too steep and unstable.

Proximity to the ocean (climate is moister in areas under the influence of coastal fog), substrate, latitude and elevation all effect changes on the distribution and species composition of stands of coastal scrub communities.  Soft chaparral is found primarily on western slopes above the beaches, on steep, south-facing wind-exposed slopes, and in areas where the marine layer penetrates further inland to foothills and canyons. This community receives on average about 10"-20" of annual rainfall

Plants of the hard and soft chaparral employ different strategies to deal with summer drought conditions. The plants of the hard chaparral are generally evergreens with leaves that are reduced in size, thick and leathery. In contrast, some of the soft chaparral plants are drought-deciduous. They reduce metabolic function and either drop leaves under prolonged drought conditions (summer) or produce smaller leaves on secondary shoots during the summer.  This second characteristic, known as seasonal dimorphism, can result in a reduction of water loss by as much as 80%.  In prolonged drought situations more leaves are lost in an effort to keep the rate of dehydration below the rate at which the roots can replenish water from dry soils. Leaves are replaced when winter rains provide supplies of water. The leaves are also aromatic and full of volatile oils. On hot days the fragrant oils evaporate to both cool the leaves and inhibit the growth of competing plants. The oils may also make the leaves less palatable browsing herbivores.

Fire is an important element in the ecology of both hard and soft chaparral.  Dominant species of both hard and soft chaparral sprout back vegetatively from root crowns after a fire or other disturbance.  This resprouting, along with the spread of small, wind dispursed seeds, helps ensure the succession of soft chaparral community.  When fire occurs too frequently the coastal scrub community may be replaced by grasslands that are often dominated by non-native annual species.


diversity in sages.  L J Friesen, photo
Coastal Sage Scrub, Point Sal
Dominant species of the soft chaparral include Black sage (Salvia mellifera) , California or wild buckwheat, (Eriogonum fasciculatum), California sagebrush (Artemisia californica), Laurel sumac (Malosma laurina) , White sage (Salvia apiana) and purple sage (Salvia leucophylla). Other commonly found species includeMimulus aurantiacus (bush monkeyflower), Encelia californica (bush sunflower), Baccharis pilularis (coyote brush), Malosma laurina (laurel sumac), Trichostema lanatum (woolly blue curls), Venegasia carpesioides (canyon sunflower), Lotus scoparius (deerweed), Opuntia littoralis (coast prickly pear) and Lupinus spp. (lupines).


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