Plant Communities

Note: The numbers in parentheses are the Holland codes. The Holland codes refer to a classification system found in the unpublished report, Preliminary Descriptions of the Terrestrial Natural Communities of California, written by R. F. Holland in 1986 for the Resources Agency, California State Department of Fish and Game, Natural Heritage Division. 


Much of our area’s coastal prairie has been destroyed due to agriculture and development,  The remaining areas have been invaded by exotic weeds such as annual fescues (Vulpia bromoides), bromes (esp. Bromus diandrus), velvet grass (Holcus lanatus), and thistles (esp. Carduus pycnocephalus).  The remaining, in tact areas of coastal prairie are recognized by the patchy presence of California oatgrass (Danthonia californica) and/or wildflowers such as native bulbs (Brodiaea and Triteleia species), lupines (Lupinus nanus), self-heal (Prunellus vulgaris), and many others.  The best areas to view coastal prairie are at UCSC’s upper campus (Marshall Meadows), State Parks’ Gray Whale Ranch, and just north of Año Nuevo along the coast south of Franklin Point. 

Coastal Terrace Prairie (41100) 
Wildflower Field (dry grassland) (42300)

Coastal Scrub

Coastal scrub grows on marine bluffs and hills, consequently experiencing salt air, fog and strong winds. Plants are generally under six feet tall and include buckwheat, sagebrush, yarrow, lupine, and coyote bush. 

Central Dune Scrub (21330) 
Northern Coastal Bluff Scrub (31100) 
Northern (Franciscan) Coastal Scrub (32100) 

Coastal Strand

European beachgrass and iceplant introduced to stabilize sand dunes have changed the vegetation patterns of the local coastal dunes. In native dune stands, a low ground canopy is formed by perennial forbs, grasses, and low shrubs, including such plants as pink sand-verbena, saltgrass, native dunegrass, and coyote brush. Sand dunes remain at Wilder and Waddell beaches in the north county and Sunset Beach in the south. 

Active Coastal Dunes (21100) 
Northern Foredune (21210)

Coastal Salt Marsh

Though much of the original salt marshes have been destroyed, several remain at creek mouths, especially along the north coast. Common plants include species of cordgrass, pickleweed, and saltgrass. Brackish marshes may also contain bullrushes and cattails. 

Northern Coastal Salt Marsh (52110) 
Coastal Brackish Marsh (52200) 

Fresh Water Marsh

Seasonally or permanently flooded areas along streams, lakes, ponds, and springs provide habitat for the fresh water marsh species which include bulrushes, sedges, cattails, and rushes. The mouths of some local creeks form marshes that are brackish at the lower end and fresh water at the upper. 

Coastal and Valley Freshwater Marsh (52410) 
Freshwater Seep (45400) 

Riparian Woodland

Along stream banks a constant water supply plus winter flooding create a habitat not found elsewhere in the county. The overstory is formed by deciduous trees such as bigleaf maple, alder, cottonwood, and sycamore. Understory trees are willows and dogwoods, and herbaceous plants are lush. 

North Coast Black Cottonwood Riparian Forest (61110) 
Red Alder Riparian Forest (61130) 
Central Coast Cottonwood Sycamore Riparian Forest (61210) 
Central Coast Live Oak Riparian Forest (61220) 
Central Coast Arroyo Willow Riparian Forest (61230) 
White Alder Riparian Forest (61510) 

Redwood Forest

The redwood community is found in the Santa Cruz Mountains generally west of the crest favoring moist areas especially canyons, north slopes, and spots moistened by summer fogs. Because of the thick tree canopy and layer of acidic duff in the redwood forest, the diversity of plants is restricted. Associated plants include sword ferns, huckleberry, trillium, andredwood sorrel. 

Alluvial Redwood Forest (82310) 
Upland Redwood Forest (82320) 


Near the towns of Ben Lomond and Bonny Doon, parts of an ancient sandy sea floor have been uplifted, eroded, and exposed creating a unique sandhill environment. The combination of deep, well-drained sandy soils and the relatively humid coastal climate results in unusual “biological islands,” containing many disjunct coastal relicts and other rare and endemic species. The sandy soil lacks organic matter and nutrients, and its white color magnifies the temperature of the summer sun. Plants and animals of the sand hills have developed unique adaptations to these features. Many of the plants thrive on soil that is too poor in nutrients for commoner species. Most tend to be annual or to be summer-dormant, growing only in the cooler and moister seasons. 

Many species of plants found in the sandhills occur nowhere else in the world, typically occur in distant locations, or occur along the immediate coast. The Sierra Nevada plants Ponderosa Pine and pussy paws (Calyptridium umbellatum) are found in the sandhills. Some unique species include silverleaf manzanita and the Ben Lomond Wallflower. 

Northern Maritime Chaparral (37C10) 
Sand Parkland

Santa Cruz Sandhills and Sandhills Alliance for Natural Diversity (S.A.N.D.)
Jodi McGraw
Sandhills Alliance for Natural Diversity (S.A.N.D.)
PO Box 2363
Boulder Creek, CA 95006
(831) 338-2268

Closed Cone Coniferous Forest

Two types of the local closed cone coniferous forest include species that are extremely rare in native stands–Monterey pine and Santa Cruz cypress. The former grows on dry coastal terraces while the later is found on rocky ridges where the soils are granitic or sandstone derived. Knobcone pine also grows in rocky areas and is often found growing near Santa Cruz cypress, as well as sand hill locations. 

Monterey Pine Forest (83130) 
Knobcone Pine Forest (83210) 
Northern Interior Cypress Forest (83220) 

Mixed Evergreen Forest

Another common community found in the Santa Cruz Mountains is the mixed evergreen forest frequently adjacent to redwood forest but occupying drier and more inland areas. Common trees include interior and coast live oak, tan oak, madrone, bay, and buckeye. Understory plants include ceonothus, coffee berry, hazel, ground rose, and poison oak. 

Mixed Evergreen Forest (81100) 
Coast Live Oak Forest (81310) 
Canyon Live Oak Forest (81320) 
Interior Live Oak Forest (81330) 
Tan-Oak Forest (81400) 
Interior Live Oak Woodland (71150) 
California Bay Forest (81200) 


Occupying the hottest and driest slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains, chaparral plants form dense thickets and are adapted to little water and to wildfires. Leaves of chaparral plants are often small, thick, light green or greyish, and waxy and are retained year round. Manzanita, coyote brush, chamise, ceonothus, monkey flower, and sage are common chaparral plants. 

Northern Mixed Chaparral (37110) 
Chamise Chaparral (37110) 
Serpentine Chaparral (37600) 
Buck Brush Chaparral (37810) 
Blue Brush Chaparral (37820) 
Northern Maritime Chaparral (37C10) 
Mesic North Slope Chaparral (37E00) 

Foothill Woodlands

Foothill woodlands commonly form the transition between grasslands and mixed evergreen forests on the eastern side of the crest in the Santa Cruz Mountains. 

Black Oak Woodland (71120) 

Oak Savanna/Grassland

Oak savanna and grasslands occasionally form on tops of south facing ridges. Valley oak is the dominant tree with the grassy ground vegetation containing needlegrass, fescue, melic, wildrye, and bluegrass species. 

Valley Oak Woodland (71130) 
Valley Needle Grass Grassland (42110) 

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