Citizen Tleilax

Mystery Plants and Identified Flora on the U-Vanu Trail off the Nancy Hoover Pohl Overlook in the Santa Monica Mountains

In the Santa Monica Mountains off Mulholland Drive just west of Laurel Canyon is the Nancy Hoover Pohl Overlook, one of my favorite places to hike. There are a couple different trails one can take from the overlook, one which connects to multiple other trail options in the area and one that is less than a mile long and dead-ends behind a neighborhood in the hills. The latter I believe is called the U-Vanu trail, but it’s hard to find an authoritative source for that–maps I’ve seen aren’t perfectly clear & the most confident sounding reference to it is from LAist here. Though the U-Vanu trail is short, it has a pretty diverse repertoire of flora to display, and I took all the following pictures in this lengthy post on the afternoon of February 20th, 2010. If you happen to download or post them anywhere, please credit to “D. Bene Tleilax” and a link back here would be nice. Thanks!

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Sometimes I’m not very good at distinguishing between species of a particular type of plant; I am also still very much an amateur with identification in general. If you see that I’ve made any errors please do me a favor and post your corrections!

First up are the mystery plants. Plants can be pretty difficult to search for when you don’t know their names and I haven’t had any success with these ones. Any tips would be appreciated.

mystery plant stalks
mystery plant stalk

This one has a somewhat similar growth habit to the Fuchsia Flowered Gooseberry (seen below) in the way its stalks protrude around its territory.


large mystery plant growth
large mystery plant

One of the most singularly prominent plants along the trail, there is only one of these creatures and it has staked out its claim on the steep hillside that descends into the canyon below. I am really curious about this particular plant. The leaves are very large and seem fuzzy, though I haven’t touched them since they are growing out the side of a cliff.


big leaves plant group

These leaves look really yummie to me, but I wouldn’t dare eat them without knowing what they are.


unknown herb

What is it?


purple flowers green berries
purple flower plant

The leaves look different in both of these pictures but I’m pretty sure they’re the same species of plant, the bottom just looks younger and less jumbled to me. In the bottom photo the leaves are shaped like hearts, much like sunflowers. Note the interesting and fairly large green berries in the top photo, which also sorta look like they could be flower buds except for how large some of them are.


spiky green plant leaves

These spiky leaves have a really nice light green color. They look really cool and I can’t wait to find out what this is.


white stalked herb

Another mysterious young spiny herb I’m quite fond of.


yellow & black flower group

These seem pretty clearly in the Asteraceae family but I’m not very familiar with flower species.


grass with seeds

I’m not up on my grasses either…


seashell leaves

These leaves look like seashells to me. The lighter green ones in the middle were actually that color even though it looks like it’s a lighting thing.


maybe toyon

The way the leaves all reach to the sky makes me think this is toyon (heteromeles arbutifolia), though this is a relatively new species to me and I could be mistaken.


maybe oak

This seems like some sort of oak, though I’m not sure.


maybe coast live oak (quercus agrifolia)

I think this might be a coast live oak (quercus agrifolia) based on the way the leaves all curve down, but it’s really hard for me to distinguish oaks right now since I haven’t studied them much and many of them seem quite similar.


young milk thistle (silybum marianum)

This appears to be a fresh patch of young milk thistle (silybum marianum) which hasn’t yet put up any stalks.


sugar bush group
sugar bush flowers (rhus ovata)

At first I thought this was laurel sumac (malosma laurina) since it has leaves very obviously shaped like taco shells. Then when flipping through a library copy of Flowering Plants of the Santa Monica Mountains I happened across sugar bush (rhus ovata) and saw that the flower style is significantly different from laurel sumac, and indeed that is actually what I had found.


ubiquitous black sage (salvia mellifera)

coastal sagebrush (artemisia californica)

The top is black sage (salvia mellifera), the bottom coastal sagebrush (artemisia californica), both ubiquitous shrubs in this area. Before I knew what sagebrush was I called it the “bubblegum plant” because of its strong gum-like scent. It’s one of my favorites. It’s also one of the plants I like to smoke when I roll herbal cigarettes from plants I harvest myself (mixed with mugwort, which can also be found along this trail though I didn’t take any pictures of it).


tree tobacco flowers
young tree tobacco plant

Speaking of smoking, this is tree tobacco (nicotiana glauca), the bottom being a handsome youngster. I’ve never actually tried smoking this even though I would like to, because I can’t find enough reliable information on it being safe to do so. I’ve seen references to it being smoked normally, but also seen references to it making your head feel like it’s going to explode. It’s tempting, but the fact that it has definitely killed people who ingested it in other ways gives me pause.


poisonous castor bean plant (ricinus communis)

The castor bean plant (ricinus communis) knows a bit about killing people, as its seeds are highly poisonous. As the genus name suggests, it contains the toxin known as “ricin”. It kinda looks like a wicked plant, doesn’t it? I think it looks really cool, and before I knew what it was it always stood out to me since it looks so strange and unique.


wild cucumber (marah macrocarpus)
wild cucumber tendril

Another deadly but neat looking plant, the wild cucumber (marah macrocarpus) has large spiky green seed pods containing seeds that were once used by the Chumash in a tea to peacefully euthanize those who wouldn’t be able to recover from some sort of accident that had befallen them, according to medicine woman Cecilia Garcia. The bottom picture displays a blurry and curly tendril grasping onto the branch of another plant, an easy way to spot this common vine.


canyon sunflower (venegasia carpesioides)

I’m usually more into weeds, herbs, and other plants which have definite practical usages than wildflowers, but ultimately I’m interested in learning all of the plants which grow around me. The canyon sunflower (venegasia carpesioides) is a pretty looking native and I love its large, healthy looking leaves.


buck brush shrub (ceanothus cuneatus)

Another new one for me, which I believe is the buck brush shrub (ceanothus cuneatus). It has taken me a while to see the differences between all the shrubs of the chaparral plant community; at first glance they all appear somewhat similar and non-distinct. Once I really started paying attention and focusing on their individual traits, they each became much more distinguished.


chamise (adenostoma fasciculatum)

This is chamise (adenostoma fasciculatum).


fuchsia flowered gooseberry (ribes speciosum)
close up of gooseberry flowers

The magnificent fuchsia flowered gooseberry (ribes speciosum). I love the way the stalks all protrude from the center, it looks very spidery and tentacled in a way. This really is a beautiful plant. The hanging flowers, dark, glossy leaves, and bright red or pink thorns make it quite unique and one of my favorite discoveries. Not to mention the berries that develop are edible.


horehound (marrubium vulgare)

Horehound (marrubium vulgare). There is lots of this weed along the trail. I like it.


sweet fennel (foeniculum vulgare)
sweet fennel

Finally we have sweet fennel (foeniculum vulgare), another common weed of the area. A long time ago I ordered fennel seeds in bulk for culinary usage, and it was a while before I discovered that they came from this plant (or one of its relatives). You can break off stalks of this plant and chew them right then and there, and it will fill your mouth with a licorice taste. Careful though, as it is said to look very similar to poison hemlock, which will fill your mouth with a death taste right then and there, or at least within about 15 minutes of horrid suffering. I’ve seen poison hemlock many times and to me it looks pretty different, but I suppose similar enough for everyone to always warn about it when talking about fennel. By the way, that dead stalk in the bottom picture is from a past generation of the plant–they can get pretty thick and tall.


I hope this collection of plants I’ve spotted along the trail is useful for anyone who may be trying to identify plants they’ve seen, though of course it is by no means comprehensive and I am no expert. The reason I made this post is mainly because nobody else has done something like this for that particular trail or portion of the mountains. I wish somebody had, because it makes learning about the plants you see on hikes much easier if you can look up pictures someone has taken from that exact location and match them to what you saw when you were there. Perhaps I will do more of this in the future.

A Hiking Adventure on Local Trails

May 21st, 2009:

Two sunny days ago, my companion and I embarked upon our weekly ritual of traversing the various trails of our local mountain wilderness. We arrived at a location previously unexplored by ourselves, and of the few possible paths accessible to foot-travel, we decided to take the westernmost trail. The entrance to this trail lies subtly amongst the scrub brush behind a half-circle of stone which serves as a bench for those who ascended to this point merely to look out into the canyon, a view which is admittedly quite fine. Because the trailhead could be easily overlooked by most, it in fact stood out to me as one which ought to be explored with immediate haste.

The trail followed a rather sharp decline down a northern facing slope. After perhaps a mite more than 5 minutes of steady travel, the path flattened out for merely a couple of yards, largely beneath accommodating trees with horizontal branches perfect for resting upon for a spell if one were weary on his way back up. As indicated by the ancient, fading black spray paint which decorated nearly all of the trees’ surface area with now indecipherable text and the surrounding multitude of much younger bottles and cans once filled with cheap American beer, the spot had indeed been used as an out-of-the-way respite. One traveler had even left a zippable sweatshirt behind, perhaps as a gift to the tree in exchange for its temporary shelter.

At this point, my companion and I decided that the road to the canyon bottom was too steep to further descend without walking sticks. Using a black plastic bag from a liquor store conveniently left behind, we proceeded instead to gather all of the aluminum cans, as I am in the consistent habit of doing wherever I happen across significant quantities of them. Aluminum is one of my most favored metals, from a purely practical perspective. Its utility value is high, and when converted into appropriate forms of energy–a process executed with fair simplicity–it propels both my vehicle and myself with the fuel it provides.

After depositing our unexpected bounty of metal into the trunk of my motor carriage, we proceeded down the easternmost trail. Following this trail, we walked upon a path which was on one side an often precipitous drop to the canyon floor, and on the other a hill raising itself at various grades. Throughout the trail was a wide variety of herbaceous growth, most of which are common and considered weeds. Many of them I could not yet identify, having still much to learn in my studies, but I will provide a small list of those whose names I know: sweet fennel, milk thistle, mugwort, blessed thistle, sagebrush, horehound, tree tobacco, and castor oil plants.

The trail ended after less than a mile near a group of unoccupied houses, mostly obscured from view by the vine-covered growth on the close hillside. A shaded staircase made of half meter long dirt steps reinforced by wooden blocks steeply ascended into a backyard which featured a swimming pool completely greened by algae. We descended stairs on the opposite side of the pool and walked around to the front of the house which brought the others into view. A cursory glance noted that two had suffered severe structural damage, perhaps as the result of a previous earthquake or natural erosion. The two with damage were quite easily accessible, with no efforts made whatsoever to block entrance to their interiors. The more elevated of the two, however, looked as though it would be a significant physical risk to wander through. We therefore entered the less damaged one and began to walk through its rooms, examining the remains.

Magazines were strewn about each room, popular ones dealing with very surface-level fashion trends and sex advice. Drawers remained, empty and without dressers to plug into. In the kitchen, vines had covered the windows and let only a thin and greenly tinted light into the room–a very attractive effect which I would consider worthy of designing for on purpose. Many things had been left behind in the various cupboards and drawers. Among the objects we retrieved were an unused spool of white thread with needle attached, a tomato-shaped pincushion filled with pins, four cans of vegetarian-suitable baked beans, a new box of Earl Gray tea, a tin emblazoned with the British flag containing cigarette rolling papers, a ball of rope-like twine, and some fabric. There were more items worth taking, however we did not wish to burden ourselves too much for the hike back and so perhaps another visit shall be in order for the future.

Upon our return to my vehicle, I took a square of cardboard and a knife and, grasping with the cardboard in my left hand, proceeded to slice off one freshly tweening cladode from three different opuntia specimens in the area, distributing my harvest among them out of respect for their new growth. We then vacated the premises and retired to our abode. After despining and chopping the opuntia cladodes, called “nopales” in Mexican cuisine, I added them to a pot filled with the canned beans we had acquired from the deserted residence, wherein they served as a delicious and nutritious vegetable in this meal which was fully and freely provided to us by the day’s adventuring.