King-Swett docents help native plants prosper

Restoration work yields vigorous results
By Samuel James Adams

Step into King-Swett Ranch with a few smart folks and the learning proceeds almost automatically. There are new words—did you know elderberries grew in umbels?—and ancient Latin (artemisia californica, aka California Sagebrush). Then there are regular words used with more specificity and zeal.

One such word is vigor, and when volunteers Maggie Ingalls and her husband David Lindsay drive into the park, vigor is the word of the day.

Suited up against yellow star-thistle and insects, the volunteers pass healthy bunches of needlegrass and descend towards a pond. Here they will check the health and growth of the surrounding plants and score their “vigor” on a scale of excellent to poor. (Dead is a separate category.)

They wand out their measuring tape, note prior counts, and assess the look of the plant.

“Why do I collect this data?” Maggie asks. “Partly to entertain myself.”

When a plant looks obviously healthy, the praise starts before they reach the tree. The madrone boasts large vibrant leaves. Hummingbirds rest on a now giant willow. Bare buckeyes look otherworldly, yet hale and well. The leaves of the valley oak crimson and rust and their branching system traces amazing shapes.

Maggie and David live in Benicia, which is not quite so close to King-Swett as Cordelia, but still only fifteen minutes down I-680. Their monthly check-ins inventory nearly two decades of plantings, begun by high school kids in Vacaville for a 2003 project. Maggie has been volunteering since 2010. David began after his retirement in 2016.

The benefits of a healthy native tree in a landscape are uncountable. But the plantings along the pond are for the benefit of Red-legged frogs, which are seldom seen and very quiet, and require covered plants to estivate in. “If you hear a frog,” Maggie says. “it’s not a Red-legged frog.”

The landscape also hosts the endangered Callippe Silverspot Butterfly. When fully grown, the butterfly can browse along the different pollinators here. But in the first phase of its life cycle, the butterfly is a host-plant specific species, that require California Golden Violet (Viola pedunculata).

The plants also help each other in very direct ways. Several of the cages contain both a young tree and a nursery shrub, such as Coyote brush. The larger brush shades and creates a microclimate for the growing tree.

Not all the plantings can survive a grazing from livestock that will eat their bark, so most will keep their cages. Wildlife makes use of their cages, sometimes grimly. Project Manager Jasmine Westbrook-Barsukov, joining the couple in their count, found a lizard carcass skewered on one of the cages—work of the notorious Loggerhead shrike. The shrike’s not in sight, but a juvenile Red-tailed hawk observes the volunteer work from a variety of posts.

When they’re not monitoring, Maggie, David, and the other volunteers who come here are weeding out thistle, mustard, and fennel, and watering the native plants. They only water the young plants, which must be hardy enough to make do with the buckets they carry down the hill.

“This is the best monitored volunteering project,” Jasmine says. She mentions that studying the aspect of these plants and their health over time gives a sense of how to expand future restoration work to the many drainages of King-Swett.

When the survey concluded, the crew drove the narrow road up to the flat top to turn around. They stepped out for a view of the newly filled triangle pond and a sweeping vista of the Delta.

At King-Swett, the volunteers have opportunities to appreciate beauty up close and beauty as vast as the horizon. And it’s all because people saw land worth saving and acted.

Guided tours of the King-Swett Ranches happen the first Saturday of every month. The next begins 11/6/2021 at 9:00 a.m. Register here today!