Channel Islands offer unusual plant life

CHANNEL ISLANDS, Calif. — Across the Santa Barbara Channel lies a group of five islands, one of the least-visited parks in the national park system.

Often overlooked by those searching for a national park, the Channels Islands National Park rests just miles off the California shoreline. While the islands attract tourists desiring a challenging hike, avid bird-watching and those wanting to view the well-known tide pools, the Channel Islands also have something extraordinary to offer in their plant life, adding to the natural allure of the national park.

Click on the video at the right to view an audio slide show about the unusual plant life of Channel Islands National Park photographed and narrated by writer Kellu Burns.

 “The Channel Islands are unique for several reasons,” said Tara Brown, a Channel Islands National Park volunteer.

“One is that they were never connected to the mainland. So the plants here developed in isolation from the mainland making many of them different from what other places have to offer.”

The island is covered in natural brush, shrubs, and wildflowers. Of the 790 species of plants, about 578 are native to the islands and 145 are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else in the world.  This is due in part to the islands’ Mediterranean-like climate.

“The winters are cooler and wetter,” said Tony Volois, a botanist with the National Park Service. “The plants have to be able to survive without rain for a long time, and endure the dry soil.”

The view of Santa Cruz Island from the top of Cavern Point. Santa Cruz, the largest of the five Channel Islands offers visitors the most diverse plant life for viewing (Photos by Kelly Burns).

Adaptation is key among the plant life on the islands.

“Because we have one of the harshest climates,” said Volois, “the plants have sort of evolved to deal with climate factors, including features like small leaves, and deeper roots.”

The best time of year to visit is the early spring or very late winter, after the winter rains have allowed the plants to bloom. The islands then appear to be covered in greenery, a deep contrast to the dry, almost barren looking land in the fall.

“We’re hoping the hills will be lush with native shrubs again,” said Brown. “In the 1850s, the brush was so thick, you couldn’t walk through it.”

Shortly after that date the greenery the islands were most known for were tainted by the increasing amount of human influence. When the Europeans began using the islands commercially, bringing with them sheep and pigs, the land became over-ranched, killing many of the natural plants and interfering with the natural order of the land.

“Up until European settlement, the islands did not have any herbivores on the island,” said Dirk Rodriguez, a Channel Islands National Park botanist since 1999. “So, for at least 10,000 years, they developed without herbivores.”

At right, National Park Service volunteer Tara Brown discusses the various endemic plants of Santa Cruz Island with a group of visitors. Here, Brown points out the Santa Cruz Island berry. Below, only patches of green show during the dry season.

Because of the lack of predators, the plants were able to flourish without interruption. Since then however, the list of species in danger of extinction has grown.

“There are number of federally listed plant species that are listed as endangered or threatened,” said Rodriguez.

“We try to bring them back from their precarious conditions.”

Animals such as deer or elk have preyed on various plant species, causing them to deplete at a faster rate. In order to protect the plants, the National Park Service either fences the areas around the endangered species, or if necessary, remove the deer and elk from the island.

Some of endangered plants include the Hoffmann’s rockcress, Island barberry and the Santa Cruz Island live-forever. Five of the 14 endangered plants are on Santa Cruz Island, where one of the largest restoration projects to the Channel Islands has taken place. 

The National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy have been working to restore the island to its former beauty. While most of these restoration efforts relate to the wildlife-eradication of wild pigs, and breeding the island fox, the restoration of the vegetation is just as important.

“The sad thing is that the animals tend to get more of the funding and publicity,” said Rodriguez.  “With plants it’s more about doing what you can. It’s more about bringing a plant back from the back of extinction.”

While reintroducing native plants is a part of the plan to restore the Channel Islands, there are other factors to consider when trying to restore the land.

Non-native species are also battling against the native flora and fires are still possible.

Protecting the natural environment is something that is important to all national parks, but is especially important to an area where the isolation of the island brings a distinct diversity in comparison parks on the mainland.

“It’s really quite a jewel in the National Park Service to have these islands as part of the national parks and they should be preserved for people to enjoy,” said Rodriguez.


If You Go

When:  The best time of year to visit is late winter through the spring when all of the plants are in full bloom.  

Where:  Santa Cruz Island and Santa Rosa Island off the greatest diversity of plant life.  However Anacapa provides the visitor with a mix of plant life and wildlife. 

Cost: Plant viewing is free, but the ferry ride over can range from $24 to $84.  Visit   for up to date prices. 

For more information: Visit the Robert J. Lagomarsino Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center.   The center is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Also check out the native plant garden right outside the center to learn which plants grow best in the Mediterranean climate.  The Channel Islands park site can be found at


Helping the Islands

  • You can do your part in stopping non-native plants from invading the islands:
  • Avoid bringing the following items onto the island: potted plants, flowers, soil, firewood, and bicycles.
  • Check gear for weeds or other plants that may be residing on equipment unnoticed.
  • Do not start campfires. 
  • While hiking stay on the designated trails and avoid areas that are off limits. 
  • Clean up any trash you make have (including food waste) and carry it out of the park with you.  
  • We all can do our part in keeping the parks free from invasive species. 

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