The Botanist: Q&A with Tim Krantz


Nobody knows the plants of the San Bernardino Mountains better than Tim Krantz, and he’s committed to their conservation.

A Redlands native (since the age of 2) and a 1977 graduate of the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies, Tim Krantz knows this area better than most. A professor of environmental studies at the University, Krantz graduated from Redlands with a degree in ethnobotany (“Kind of a double major between anthropology and botany,” he says), before going on to earn his master’s in Latin American studies at Stanford University and his Ph.D. in geography at UC Berkeley.

As Krantz tells it, he got “hooked on botany” during his undergraduate days here at Redlands, where he parlayed that interest into a job working for the San Bernardino National Forest and later wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the phytogeography (geography of the plants) of the San Bernardino Mountains based on a comprehensive review of more than 15,000 collection records of plants in the range. Recently, he became the first director of the Southern California Montane Botanic Garden at The Wildlands Conservancy’s Oak Glen Preserve in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains.

Krantz isn’t just an expert on the flora and fauna of Southern California, though. He is also a recognized authority on the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake; a Fulbright Ambassador and Scholar to Austria; and frequent speaker and featured media expert on environmental issues ranging from the California drought to the impacts of “fracking” on California’s groundwater supplies.

Tell me about the Botanic Garden at Oak Glen you’ve been working on.

It’s a spectacular spot. The core of the Oak Glen Preserve is comprised of about 200 acres of native chaparral, oak and riparian woodlands, and mixed conifer forest, with two perennial streams, several ponds. Several miles of trails provide access to these habitats, with more than 100 species signed and fully interpreted.

Thanks to several generous grants, we completed the first phase of the Botanic Garden—Hummingbird Hill—just last year. It features more than 25 species of native plants chosen to attract hummingbirds and butterflies. The hardscape for the second phase is completed and will feature a series of waterfalls and ponds with native fish and a living collection of manzanitas, buckwheats and other native flora of the Southern California mountains.

Ultimately, I see this as a demonstration garden where people can come and see how the natives look and then go home and rip out their lawns. We have Parish’s wooly blue curls, a local Oak Glen native, named for the pioneer botanist in this region—Sam Parrish. There’s also pearly everlasting, which has straw-colored flowers and makes a beautiful, fragrant tea.

We have two native roses, the California rose and the woods rose, clusters of quaking aspen, the southernmost aspen on the Pacific coast. They are limited in our mountains to two tiny groves that have persisted since the Ice Age.

Right now, we’re covering one bank with aspen, which will be gorgeous next fall alongside yellow-flowering buckwheat. We’re using the garden like an artist’s palette, with the plants as our paint.

Do your students get involved with your work here?

The Wildlands Conservancy is one of the most popular community service opportunities for the University with many students working at Oak Glen or other preserves in the SoCal area. Student projects range from removal of non-native species to outdoor education program assistance and curriculum development.

I teach ornithology and botany classes and take my students up here on field trips. I feed them the edible plants—rose hips, salvia stems—while we’re out on a trip. They’re trusting me with their lives!

What did your earlier job for the Forest Service entail?

At the time, the Endangered Species Act was brand new and hadn’t been applied to plants. My task was to relocate some of these rare plants based on their historical collections. Some of them had not been described or located for many decades, so I’d be reading through labels for these collections at UC Riverside or Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont trying to decipher where they’d been collected.

Samuel Bonsall Parrish was the first botanist to explore these mountains in the late 1800s. He was a gentleman Mormon rancher, and he would collect samples and send them back to Asa Gray, the renowned Harvard botanist. Gold had been discovered in 1859 or so, and there were these ramshackle towns up in Big Bear comprised of 20 or so cabins, half of which were bars and houses of ill repute, and here was this gentleman botanist exploring and collecting wild flowers! It so happened that many things he collected only occurred in Big Bear.

There were no place names then, so he’d just say San Bernardino Mountains or Bear Lake. It was kind of a detective game to actually find where he was and what the particular habitats were for these rare species.

So there is something pretty special about the flora in these mountains.

The San Bernardino Mountains host about 1,600 species of flowering plants. That’s more than a quarter of the flora of California in just 0.7 percent of its area. We have 32 species that are strictly endemic—found nowhere else in the world except the San Bernardino Mountains—and another 88 with but one or two populations outside of the San Bernardino Mountains. About 15 are restricted only to Big Bear and the adjacent Holcomb Valleys. The San Bernardinos have the highest degree of floral endemism or uniqueness of any mountain range in the U.S. and one of the highest in the world. It’s truly remarkable.

Part of the biodiversity of the San Bernardino Mountains comes from the fact that it combines everything from desert floor to alpine summits in just the space of about 25 kilometers as the crow flies. Another unique factor is that the San Bernardino, San Gabriel and Santa Ynez mountains comprise the only transverse mountain range in the continental U.S., meaning they run east to west. All the others run north-south. That’s important because each ridge then has a north aspect and a south aspect slope.

With each wave of ice ages you get cold-loving plants pushed southward, and if they established themselves here they could survive the intervening warm climate periods on the north aspect slope; whereas warm-loving species from Mexico, like the California fan palm, could survive the cold climate periods on the lower south-facing slopes. Each wave of the ice ages and warm inter-glacials added more species to the flora.

And are they endangered? If so, how?

Two million people visit these mountains every year, which is as many as visit the state of Hawaii. Before it was a lake, Big Bear Valley comprised several thousand acres of montane meadows with open clay soils called pebble plains. With the filling of the Big Bear reservoir, much of the meadow habitat was inundated. And then there was the development that occurred around the lake—a golf course, runways and ski areas—that further eliminated probably 50 percent of the total distribution of many of those plants.

Altogether there are 36 species that are considered rare, threatened or endangered under the federal and state Endangered Species Acts. These endemic species are like fingerprints, uniquely representing the natural history of the San Bernardino Mountains. By conserving them, we protect hundreds of other species of flora and fauna that comprise the amazing biodiversity of the San Bernardino Mountains.


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