The California Valley grassland

Edited by: Allan A. Schoenherr


  • The Publications Warehouse does not have links to digital versions of this publication at this time
  • Download citation as: RIS | Dublin Core


Grasslands are distributed throughout California from Oregon to Baja California Norte and from the coast to the desert (Brown 1982) (Figure 1). This review will focus on the dominant formation in cismontane California, a community referred to as Valley Grassland (Munz 1959). Today, Valley Grassland is dominated by non-native annual grasses in genera such as Avena (wild oat), Bromus (brome grass), and Hordeum (barley), and is often referred to as the California annual grassland. On localized sites, native perennial bunchgrasses such as Stipa pultra (purple needle grass) may dominate and such sites are interpreted to be remnants of the pristine valley grassland.

In northwestern California a floristically distinct formation of the Valley Grassland, known as Coast Prairie (Munz 1959) or Northern Coastal Grassland (Holland and Keil 1989) is recognized. The dominant grasses include many native perennial bunchgrasses in genera such as Agrostis, Calamagrostis, Danthonia, Deschampsia, Festuca, Koeleria and Poa (Heady et al. 1977). Non-native annuals do not dominate, but on some sites non-native perennials like Anthoxanthum odoratum may colonize the native grassland (Foin and Hektner 1986).

Elevationally, California's grasslands extend from sea level to at leas 1500 m. The upper boundary is vague because montane grassland formations are commonly referred to as meadows; a community which Munz (1959) does not recognize. Holland and Keil (1989) describe the montane meadow as an azonal community; that is, a community restricted not so much to a particular climatic zone but rather controlled by substrate characteristics. They consider poor soil-drainage an over-riding factor in the development of montane meadows and, in contrast to grasslands, meadows often remain green through the summer drought. Floristically, meadows are composed of graminoids; Cyperaceae, Juncaceae, and rhizomatous grasses such as Agropyron (wheat grass). Some bunchgrasses, such as Muhlenbergia rigens, are found in both montane meadows and moister grasslands. Forbs when present, are typically perennials. East of the interior ranges, grasslands are uncommon although native perennial bunchgrasses in genera such as Stipa, Hilaria and Aristida are common in steppe and desert scrub.

Today, Valley Grassland covers nearly 7 million ha or 17% or the state (Huenneke 1989), although other sources list less than half this amount (Jones and Stokes 1987). There is some evidence that extent of the grassland region has not changed since pre-European conditions, although the spatial distribution of grasslands has likely changed substantially (Huenneke 1989). That is, many current grasslands previously may have been dominated by other vegetation types and vice versa. Without question, many former grasslands have been converted to agricultural and urban use (Barry 1972).

The Valley Grassland community occurs in regions characterized by a broad range of climatic conditions. Average January temperatures may range from 5°C to 15°C and July temperatures from 15°C to 30°C (NOAA 1988). Annual precipitation ranges from approximately 12 cm to over 200 cm, although all sites are characterized by a summer drought of 4-8 months (Heady 1977). Grasslands are well developed on deep, fine-textured soils although they are not restricted to such conditions (Wells 1962, Adams 1964, Heady 1977).

Study Area

Publication type Book chapter
Publication Subtype Book Chapter
Title The California Valley grassland
Year Published 1990
Language English
Publisher California State University
Publisher location Fullerton, CA
Contributing office(s) Western Ecological Research Center
Description p. 3-23
Larger Work Type Book
Larger Work Subtype Other Government Series
Larger Work Title Endangered Plant Communities of Southern California: Proceedings of the 15th Annual Symposium
First page 3
Last page 23
Country United States
State California
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details