Stalking the Wild Goldfields

Benicia State Recreation Area is one of the oldest and most popular hangouts in town. But when you’re there with Bert Johnson it becomes an almost entirely new place, full of rare treasures and fresh discoveries.

Bert is a Benician and a botanist of the first rank.

Now retired, he spent a good chunk of his life as a gardener for the Regional Parks Botanic Garden at Tilden Park in Berkeley. He has written scholarly articles about the plant life of the Southampton Bay region and he can rattle off their scientific names like a Jeopardy champion.

But what really shines through when you talk to Bert is his clear, unabashed love for plants, especially native California plants. “Wow! Look at this,” he says as we arrive at a patch of pretty little yellow flowers. “Man, are we lucky.”

It is our lucky day because we are standing within arm’s length of “the number one rarest wildflower in the whole park,”  the alkali goldfield. There are a whole bunch of them, fully in bloom, clustered around a bend in the dirt trail that curves outward along the marsh. You pick up this trail from the paved Mike Taugher Trail that’s popular with runners, recreational walkers and bicyclists.

Bert Johnson

Bert Johnson

We have yet to see any manzanita on our tour today, which is a shame because Johnson is one of the leading authorities on manzanita in California.

There is even a variety of manzanita found only near Big Sur that is named after him. It’s informally known as “Bert’s Manzanita.” He has even discovered things about BSRA that nobody knew until he started exploring it. 

One day in a hike around Dillon Point he spotted a few gorgeous black and orange pipevine butterflies fluttering around a grouping of sandstone rocks. “It was a clue,” he recalls. The swallowtails are dependent on a rare plant known as the California pipevine; without it, the equally rare butterflies could not live there. Like a botanical Sherlock Holmes, this clue led him to find the first-ever California pipevine in BSRA, combined with a similar discovery around Lake Herman.

Like the pipevine, the alkali goldfield is also rare and also acts as a natural “indicator” for another living thing that is dependent on it, in this case a busy little bee. “They’re very tiny,” explains Bert. “Very hard to spot. They’re natives. They don’t sting. They’re ground nesters. They collect the pollen from the goldfields and feed it to their larvae. They survive only because the goldfields are here. If the flowers died off so would the bees.”

The goldfields and the bees that hang onto them for life inhabit what Johnson calls “a botanical hot spot.”

There are three other exceedingly rare plants that can be found here as well: salt marsh birdsbeak, Western dock, and marsh butterweed. Their fragile little home along this well-worn hiking trail is, in Bert’s words, “a totally unusual habitat” because of its fortuitous location on the edge of the pickleweed marsh. The goldfields tend to grow with another petite golden flower, the brass button, which thrives here too.

Despite having walked by this spot hundreds of times, I had no idea how special it was. Nor did I have a full understanding of the epic battle that is occurring at Benicia State Recreation Area. It is a battle between indigenous California creations such as the alkali goldfield and the non-natives that have taken hold here and are threatening the natives with destruction. Who’s winning, who’s losing this centuries-old struggle? We’ll check back in with Bert next month to find out.