The Nature Dorks: Orange County's Wildflower Experts

robert allen and fred roberts jr. have written the definitive guide to orange county’s wildflowers. it may never sell out its 2,500-copy first printing, but to a peculiar few, it’s a blockbuster.

‘Want to come up and see my daisy?'

Robert Allen asked that question the first time I met him. Well past my ingenue days, I don’t get many offers like that.

I was headed somewhere else that morning—the trail upslope to the northwest in Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, where I would be teaching a group of hikers about edible and useful plants, the sagebrush that Native Americans used to repel bugs, and the parasite on prickly pear that contains such beautiful red-purple fluid the resulting dye was, in its heyday, as valuable as gold. Allen was leading another group on the southward hill to look at wildflowers. But I was early; there was time for a short jaunt.

I traipsed along at the back of a long line of hikers, Allen continually spinning around to speak and gesture to his group, a dancer on the trail. Even on this overcast day, he wore his signature head covering, a brimmed cloth helmet with an elaborate neck flap, to protect the fair skin that goes with his red hair. As though to balance the flap in back, his rabbinically long, unruly auburn beard cascaded down his chest.

And then, on a small knoll, we came to the hike’s climax: a low-growing yellow daisy with white-tipped petals. Pentachaeta aurea ssp. allenii. Allen’s daisy.

A flower that he, along with botanist Fred Roberts Jr., had discovered in 1983, Allen’s daisy is pictured on Page 127 of “Wildflowers of Orange County and the Santa Ana Mountains,” the colorful field guide the two men authored. Its 1,400-plus photos depict more than 600 wildflowers that bloom throughout the county. Some are eye-popping gorgeous; others are endangered or near extinction.

It was helpful that wisecracking Allen and Roberts, his earnest, gentle-voiced research, writing, and photography partner, have been friends since their high school days in Dana Point, because their 500-page magnum opus demanded a decade of hiking and painstaking work. The labor caused grinding frustration, both natural and man-made.

Finally published last summer, the book sold half its modest first printing of 2,500 without an Amazon listing or any presence in major bookstores. Within a tiny Orange County subculture of rangers, naturalists, and avid hikers, the county’s first wildflower guide was greeted like an overdue first grandchild. Members of the California Native Plant Society—people who look askance at those who use the common rather than Latin names for plants—gathered at private potluck signings and snapped up extra copies. God forbid the small first run would go out of print with their only copy worn to confetti, these folks thought. Until the book’s arrival, local botany buffs had been saddled with flower reference books from—groan—the Santa Monica Mountains. There’s overlap, but it’s no help when you’re looking for flora such as the Laguna Beach dudleya, a plant so rare it grows in only a handful of rocky little spots around town.

These are the county’s nature nerds, people who will hike a particular trail at a particular time every year just to see a favorite flower in bloom. I’m one of them. (Mariposa Trail of Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, late May, Weed’s mariposa lily or Calochortus weedii var. intermedius, Page 430)

 

Even among the nature nerds, there are those with exceptional knowledge who have gone to great lengths to become authorities. Few are as extreme as Allen and Roberts, who have hiked, climbed, crept, and skidded through the county’s undeveloped corners since they were teenagers in the ’70s.

Allen is the more outgoing of the two, perhaps because of his years teaching botany to community college students and guiding public hikes. He launches offbeat campaigns, such as the one to restore use of the long-abandoned name “school bells,” rather than “blue dicks,” for a cluster of tiny, lavender flowers atop an impossibly long, thin stem (cover photo and Page 444). “If you’d led as many middle schoolers on hikes as I have,” he grumps, “you’d know they don’t hear anything else after you mention ‘blue dicks.’ ”

The Mission Viejo resident could be considered a typical suburbanite. He works as a communications specialist at the county Vector Control District; he and his wife have a grown son, and every Sunday the couple has breakfast with her parents. But in his spare time, he hunts rare plants. There’s a nine-second video of him on YouTube, standing on a hill near Modjeska Peak and cackling, “Only eight living people have seen this plant!” (The endangered Santiago Peak phacelia, Page 168) He then performs a hopping jig around his discovery.

When Allen and Roberts give presentations about their book, Roberts is the reserved-but-beaming one, offering a few brief comments. But get him alone and he’s a rapid-fire talker, his descriptions of his work meandering down conversational alleyways encompassing flowers, trees, birds, photography equipment, land-use policy, and museum budgeting. His foot taps and his knees jiggle as though he’s ready to jump up and run out to the nearest trail.

For all the hyperactive appearance, Roberts, who now lives with his wife in Oceanside, possesses the patience needed for the incredibly detailed work of cataloging plant populations that cover large swaths of land, which is part of what he did during nearly a decade with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “By the time I went to college, I was compiling a checklist of Orange County plants,” he says. That list, published as “The Vascular Plants of Orange County, California: An Annotated Checklist,” eventually would become the basis for the wildflower book. His illustrated guide to Southern California oak trees remains “my best-seller so far,” he says with proud astonishment.

He pulls out a portfolio of his drawings; most are of birds or other natural subjects. He’s been working on developing his artistic talent. They’re realistic, detailed, and delicately shaded.

Ron Vanderhoff, general manager at Roger’s Gardens, is a leading county botanist who bushwhacks through treacherous canyons to find and record what might be the westernmost example of a particular plant. He also finds occasional signs of illegal marijuana farms. He venerates Allen and Roberts, and recalls a hike he took with the latter: “Fred’s calling out the plants as he goes, with perfect accuracy and without breaking stride.” He also recalls that Roberts, who is so familiar with the local wilderness that he can identify subtle changes from great distances, once mentioned the differences in soil type and plant arrangement on a canyon wall a quarter mile away.

 

Strangely, neither of the two flower men started out with an interest in plants. “From the age of 2, I was into bugs,” Allen says. He still is. His nickname is Bugbob, and he has inserted some insects and their interactions with the plant world into the wildflower book. Monarch butterflies, for example, will lay their eggs only on milkweed, a plant with otherworldly clusters of alien-looking flowers (Pages 57 through 59); after the eggs hatch, the vividly striped yellow, black, and white caterpillars devour the leaves, which contain a latex that’s toxic to most insects.

As a child in Dana Point, Allen would roam the countryside searching for bugs, which he stored in the family freezer; he began teaching himself their Latin names when he was in third grade, and by the time he was 11, he was doing unpaid work for a research institute. Middle school teachers had him give class presentations. It was during Allen’s lecture on butterflies that Roberts, who was a couple of years older, first met him.

Roberts was a reptile guy, “chasing lizards in Garden Grove” as a preschooler, he says. The family moved to Dana Point when he was 8, and he wandered around the large open spaces that still existed, much richer grounds for his research and collecting. At 15, he started keeping records of reptiles. His high school observations of lizards and snakes provided research fodder years later for the U.S. Geological Survey because, though amassed by a young amateur, they were the best herpetology records on South County from the ’70s.

The boys befriended each other in high school science club, which took its members on regular camping and botanical research trips. Eventually, their study of animals led them to a common ground—plants, and the environment that fed the local fauna and gave it shelter. From Roberts’ perspective, greenery had an added advantage: It couldn’t feel anything when it was being collected and preserved.

On an early trip to Ecuador, he had found an especially rare frog and showed it to experts. “They then promptly plunked the poor thing in alcohol,” he recalls. “It was just so much easier to press a plant rather than watch a frog squirm in alcohol.”

 

I exchanged emails with Bob Allen long before I saw his daisy. In 2008, when I was researching and writing an Orange County hiking guide, I shot photos of unfamiliar plants I found on remote trails and begged for identifications. What’s the yellow flower in lower Harding Canyon that looks like a peeled banana? Golden eardrops (Page 310). The fuzzy plant that showed strange white fibers when I pulled a leaf apart? White everlasting (Page 99) was the verdict, along with a typical Allen commentary: “Those ‘fibers’ are leaf veins. You just ripped out its circulatory system, you fiend.”

I’d first heard he was working on the wildflower book 12 years ago. I wanted it to take on my backcountry forays. But while I was racking up trail miles and tracking down the plants, geology, and history of my hikes, Allen and Roberts were dealing with their own authorial setbacks.

For one thing, as lovable as wildflowers are—unlike butterflies and birds, they stay still long enough to look them up in a field guide—sometimes they let you down. Allen knew there had been a 1962 Silverado Canyon sighting of rayless arnica (Page 69), a relative of the daisy. But after a drought a plant might decide it would take too much effort to produce a blossom that spring. Allen looked for a blooming arnica for five years until he finally was able to get the shot in ’08. It took three years of visiting a particular spot in Caspers Wilderness Park to catch valley cholla (Page 187) in bloom. But nature occasionally gave as much as it withheld; there was a surprise discovery of three-lobed starry puncturebract (Page 351), a delicate pink flower not seen in the county since 1935.

Then there was the frustrating human element. Even rare plants are more abundant than publishers willing to print books about them. Allen recalls the rejections: “It’s too specialized.” “Too expensive to print all that color.” “You’ll never sell enough to cover the costs.” For two years, work slowed when promised funding fell through. And then there was this doozy from a nonprofit organization: The book would be such a huge success that publishers would be vying for it, and this group couldn’t afford to join the bidding war.

A bidding war never happened. Outdoors books are labors of love, not profit. But the book eventually found a home with nonprofit Laguna Wilderness Press, and the flower nerds of O.C. never again will be saddled with a book that omits the Laguna Beach dudleya (Page 223).

The two authors are planning a less showy publication on Orange County flora, and Roberts has in mind an endless stream of new books about plants around Southern California, including a book on lilies. It’s also time for a second edition of his oak book, he said, which has sold out all but 13 copies of its original 2,000-copy first printing—a little more than the wildflower book has sold so far. “Books are essentially a work of art, something substantial, and they can be shared.”

 

Illustration by Jody Hewgill
This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue.