Trying to Use AI to Solve a Malibu Creek State Park Plant Mystery

Terminal leaf cluster of Purple Clarkia (Clarkia purpurea), after it has flowered.

Recently, while doing the Bulldog Loop in Malibu Creek State Park, I noticed a peculiar plant about a half-mile up the Bulldog climb. The linear, red-tinged “petals” were unusual in the early morning light. I snapped a photo of it, planning to identify it later.

When I looked at the photo later that day, I couldn’t ID the plant. Hoping to get some hint about its identity, I tried various “AI-powered” searches and apps. This included Google Lens, Bing Visual Search, Pl@ntNet, iNaturalist Seek, PlantSnap, Flora Incognita, LeafSnap, and others. The most common matches were air plants such as Tillandsia ionantha and various species of paintbrush.

This wasn’t a huge surprise. The AI-based applications were having the same problems I was having — they were not “familiar” with this particular stage of the plant’s life cycle. They also were not keying on an important element of the image.

After a few days without any progress identifying the plant, I headed back to Malibu Creek State Park to take a closer look at the plant.

That turned out to be more challenging than expected. Even though I had the plant’s GPS coordinates, the time of day was different, with different lighting. The plant was also less colorful than before. I walked up and down a 30-yard stretch of Bulldog fire road several times before finally seeing it.

Once located, it didn’t take long to find examples of the plant at an earlier stage of development. In one case, with leaves on the stem and another with leaves and a flower. This helped solve the mystery.

It turned out the plant was one with which I was familiar — Purple Clarkia (Clarkia purpurea). The title photo is after the plant has flowered and all but a terminal cluster of leaves on the stem have wilted. The 8-grooved, elongated-football-shaped structures intermixed with the leaves are ovaries. These are distinctive. A human expert would have immediately zeroed in on these.

The flowers of Purple Clarkia are usually much larger than seen here. They are typically purple-pink with a wine-red spot on each of the four petals. However, the color of the flowers varies, and wine-colored flowers are not uncommon. The size of the flower also varies. Jepson mentions that the subspecies intergrade extensively.

Using the photo of the plant in flower, some of the AI-based apps identified the genus as Clarkia and/or the species as purpurea, or at least included Clarkia among their suggestions.

Searching For Another Blue Oak In Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve

Blue oak-like leaves of an unusual oak in in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve (Ahmanson Ranch).

After the Ahmanson Blue Oak in East Las Virgenes Canyon died this Winter, I started to search for another blue oak (Quercus douglasii) in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve (aka Ahmanson Ranch). Blue oaks are rare at the southern limit of their range, but I was hopeful that if there was one blue oak at Ahmanson, there might be another.

Valley oak leaves in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve (Ahmanson Ranch).
Valley oak leaves.

Typically, blue oak leaves are noticeably different than valley oak leaves. The Jepson eFlora describes the leaf margins of blue oak as being more or less entire, wavy, or more or less lobed. The leaves of the Ahmanson Blue Oak fit this description. Valley oak leaves are usually much more deeply lobed and readily identified.

Recently, while on a run, I noticed an unusual oak near the top of a service road on the western margin of Lasky Mesa. Its leaves are not deeply-lobed and are a bit more dusky than the usual valley oak leaf. But the tree doesn’t look quite the same as the Ahmanson Blue Oak. One difference is that the shape of the leaves is not as uniform as those of the Ahmanson Blue Oak. This might be due to the wet 2022-2023 rain season and the flourish of leaves that resulted. And, as with the Ahmanson Blue Oak, this oak was burned in the 2018 Woolsey Fire, and its trunk is partially hollow.

Blue oak-like leaves of the unusual oak on the western margin of Lasky Mesa.
Blue oak-like leaves of an oak on the western margin of Lasky Mesa.

Based on its leaves, the “West Lasky Mesa Oak” could be a blue oak, blue oak hybrid, or valley oak hybrid. A 2002 study of a mixed stand of blue and valley oaks found that appearance can be misleading. When DNA tested, four of the five hybrid-appearing oaks in the study were not classified as hybrids. Of the four trees deemed most likely to be hybrids, only one oak was intermediate in appearance.

Although it seems unlikely this tree would have been overlooked, I could find no specific reference to the oak in the various studies and surveys done of Ahmanson Ranch. Please get in touch with me if you can provide additional information about this tree or how a DNA analysis can be arranged.

Some related posts: Ahmanson Blue Oak, Ahmanson Blue Oak Succumbs to Climate Change

Farewell-to-Spring in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve

Farewell-to-Spring found in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve in June 2023

An unusually wet rain season not only increases the population of many wildflowers, it can produce wildflowers not usually seen in an area.

The Farewell to Spring (Clarkia amoena) pictured above was one of very small population found in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve (aka Ahmanson Ranch) in June 2023. The California native is much more common in the Bay Area and coastal Northern California. It probably found its way to Ahmanson by way of a local garden.

Elegant Clarkia in Las Virgenes Canyon

Hillside of Elegant Clarkia in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve (aka Ahmanson Ranch)

This year’s bloom of Elegant Clarkia (Clarkia unguiculata) in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve (aka Ahmanson Ranch) is even more widespread and lavish than it was in Spring 2020. It’s virtually impossible to do a hike, run, or ride at Ahmanson Ranch and not see the stalks of the oddly-shaped, 4-petaled, pink-purple flowers.

As in 2020, Purple Clarkia (Clarkia purpurea) is also widespread. Not as common at Ahmanson Ranch is another member of the Evening Primrose Family, Shredding Primrose (Eremothera boothii). It can be found along the Edison service road near the Las Virgenes Trailhead.

After the Bobcat Fire: Running the ANFTR 25K Course

San Gabriel Mountains. Photography by Gary Valle'.

On June 1, Angeles National Forest reduced the size of the Bobcat Fire Closure, opening up most of the upper West Fork San Gabriel River area. Curious to see how the West Fork area is recovering from the Bobcat Fire, today I ran a slightly shortened version of the ANFTR/Mt. Disappointment 25K course.

Since the Mt. Wilson parking lot is usually closed until mid-morning, this morning’s run started and ended at a small turnout near the top of the Kenyon Devore Trail on the loop road on Mt. Wilson. The ANFTR Trail Races start at the main Mt. Wilson parking lot.

I’d recently done the San Gabriel Peak and Bill Riley Trails and knew they were in reasonable condition. And I’d read that AC100 Trail Work Teams led by Gary Hilliard and Ken Hamada had cleared the Gabrielino and Kenyon Devore Trails earlier this year. So, I didn’t expect to have a repeat of the epic fallen-tree obstacle course that I experienced doing this course in 2020.

Here is what I found.

Explore the terrain of the Mt. Wilson – Red Box – West Fork – Kenyon Devore Loop using our interactive, 3D trail run visualizer. It’s like being there! The loop is a slightly shorter version of the ANFTR 25K. The map can be zoomed, tilted, rotated, and panned. To change the view, use the control on the upper right side of the screen. Track and placename locations are approximate and subject to errors.

Related post: An ANFTR/Mt. Disappointment 2020 Adventure