California’s Lying Fields of Gold

What happens when you learn a beloved landscape has a troubling history?

Rolling hills in California, covered in golden grass and dotted sparsely with low trees, under a cloudless blue sky.
Photo by Yvonne Stepanow via Freeimages

California’s iconic golden rolling hills.

Not long after I turned 30, my family took a road trip through Northern California, where we had roots but no longer lived. My sister Caitlin and I lived on the east coast, and we craved the expanses of open land. My parents lived in Utah, with its wide desert vistas, but they wanted to be among the surf, the redwoods, and, most of all, the golden rolling hills of Marin and Sonoma counties where they had fallen in love.

On the second day of our trip, my family drove through a long stretch of forest on Highway 1. When we emerged from the bowers, sunlight flooded the Subaru. Massive trunks gave way to hills covered in honey-colored grass and dotted with murky green oaks, standing in stunning contrast to the gold. We sucked in our breath at the sight, and my mother whispered, “Our hills.”

Impossibly young, my mother and father had hiked through the grass while their golden retriever pranced alongside. Later, they’d watched dairy cows graze methodically, while walking with babies strapped to their backs. Later still, once my father’s job had brought them to Utah, they spoke of California and the golden rolling hills like their grandparents had of the old country, where the flowers were brighter, and the weather was better, and life made more sense.

As we watched, the gold grass and green oaks seemed to become more saturated with each second. I felt as if we could all read each other’s thoughts, and the thoughts of the land and all who had walked it before us — as if there was nothing purer or more distinctly for us at that moment than the golden rolling hills of California. In a time when we lived spread across a continent, we, the land, and the beauty were all there together for a moment.

Though yellow grass makes many think of drought or fire, Californians know their land is full of life. We see how the gold flows seamlessly over the rolling hills like Rapunzel’s hair down her back, how it all stands quiet under the blue sky. The golden hills are a California icon that stretch up the coast and through the Central Valley, from south of San Luis Obispo, north past Sacramento. They are covered primarily in wild oat grass that browns to a toasty gold in the summer, creating an uncomplicated landscape of contrasts.

It’s a scene that has inspired artists and tourists for more than a century. Alongside Yosemite’s Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall, Ansel Adams turned his camera to these hills, turning the tawny to grey with his monochrome film. The hills, along with the rocky seashore and windswept pines, sparked the California Impressionist and California Plein Air painting schools in the first third of the twentieth century.

My appreciation for golden hills makes me feel connected to the place I was born, makes me feel more like me.

The hills inspire, but they also calm and collect. There is something thrilling in their simplicity. You can feel that simultaneous energy and calmness in the music of Joni Mitchell and The Eagles. California folk singer Kate Wolf’s recording of “The Redtail Hawk” — which contains the refrain, “You can hear a song each time the wind sighs in the golden rolling hills of California” — was part of the soundtrack to my childhood. We played it again in the car during our road trip. Though the long, mournful chords seemed at odds with the brilliance of the view, we kept pushing repeat.

For Golden State newcomers, learning to love the golden hills is a rite of passage. Long Island-raised Jonah Raskin writes: “The hills turned me into a Californian. They tested me, found me fit and read me my rights.” Though I am California-born, I understand Raskin’s sentiment. My appreciation for golden hills — which look so different than most of the hills in North America — makes me feel connected to the place I was born, makes me feel more like me.

California’s colonial settlements are nearly as old as anything on the east coast. Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo “discovered” San Diego Bay in 1542 and it was settled in 1769. San Francisco was founded five days before the Declaration of Independence was signed.

When Sir Francis Drake and Junípero Serra and Alexander Andreyevich Baranov and all the rest of the colonizing, evangelizing men arrived on the west coast, they were not greeted with golden rolling hills. They saw a scrubby land where tufts of bunchgrass erupted scattershot.

The golden grass was not there yet. California’s iconic golden grass is a non-native, invasive species.

Like Catholicism and smallpox, the golden grass was brought by Europeans. From the 1500s on, the seeds traveled to the New World accidentally in ship ballast, and intentionally as food, medicine, and ornamentation. The most common seeds were wild oats, filaree, and ripgut brome, which are now, along with the other common golden grasses, known as “California annual type.” These are the plants of Spanish barnyards, and they came to cover the ground of the Golden State.

The golden hills are anything but natural.

Though ecologists and ranchers have long known that the golden grass is not native, it’s not common knowledge. I was shocked to learn this fact while sitting in my DC office after the road trip. I’d Googled “golden rolling hills of California,” hoping to find a music video of Kate Wolf singing “Redtail Hawk.” What I found was the website of the Hastings Natural History Reservation, part of the University of California’s network of reserves dedicated to studying and promoting native species of flora and fauna. That site, and others, told me what I’d never suspected: the golden hills are anything but natural.

I asked my California friends and relatives about it, and was met exclusively with surprise. It’s not hard to understand why people don’t know that the golden grasses are not native: they look like they are. Northern California is a land of windswept beauty, where cypress trees grow in wild, bent forms and steep cliffs drop into the ocean. It makes sense for rainy Seattle to be green, and for dry California to be gold.

Most people’s understanding of their landscape is experiential, bodily. It’s what we see, smell, hear, and feel. Intuition and a third-grade knowledge of climates tells us that hearty green lawns and maple trees probably aren’t native to the Las Vegas suburbs. But since the non-native golden grass in California feels right, it is mostly assumed to be native.

That’s why, when I learned the truth about the grass, I felt betrayed. Being in the grass with my family felt so fundamental, so natural and true; we were all from California, my family and the golden grass. We had a deep connection to the land, and learning that the grass wasn’t native cheapened it. But, like so much else, California’s landscape is an impure product of human development.

This is what is pure, if purity exists: bunchgrass. Prior to European settlement and wild-oat-grass invasion, purple needlegrass, deer grass, and other native plants covered the majority of the Golden State’s rolling hills in perky bunches. Purple needlegrass stems grow up to one meter high, and are sometimes topped with purple-tinged fruits filled with seeds. From the fruits, awns up to ten centimeters can grow, giving the bunches a wild, split-ended look. They dot the landscape prettily, green or purply-red tufts that sprout up from the ground like kids’ pigtails. They’re attractive little nests. They look desert-y, Western, and practical.

Purple needlegrass growing in bunches in the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve, between San Diego and Los Angeles.

Purple needlegrasses are botanical wonders, longer-lived than a tortoise — sometimes by hundreds of years — and perfectly evolved for California’s climate. “They can take fire and grazing; they’re deep-rooted and really tough,” says ecologist Mark Stromberg, who retired from his post as director of the Hastings Reserve a few years ago. “They would be great for Northern California.”

The grasses grow spaced out from each other, so that each bunch can get enough water from the earth in times of drought — a perfect adaptation to the dry climate. They green early in the year and remain so through October, making them an abundant food source for grazing animals. Their deep and intricate root networks hold the hills in place, preventing landslides in inclement weather. They withstand fire, unlike the invasive grasses that turn to kindling as they dry out in the summer and fall.

Despite all these reasons, when I ask why native grasses are worth valuing, he first tells me they’re beautiful. The spaces between bunches allow vibrant flowers to grow. They attract necessary bees, butterflies, and birds. “European grasses to most people looks like a field of grass,” he says. “A clue that it’s native is that there are flowers and bees.”

Listening to Stromberg, I find myself appreciating the native perennials. I look through old photos and find some pictures of bunchgrass. I stare at the skinny stalks. I like them; I want desperately to be on their side. I want to support the underdog, and to believe that this land is theirs.

But I can’t quite. I’m beginning to place the golden grasses alongside chocolate cake and super-cheap products from Walmart: things I know are bad for me and the world, but are just so nice that I guiltily like them anyway. The only defense for the golden grass I can come up with is that the golden grass is more dramatic. Aesthetics seem a cheap defense, but there it is. Pretty as the native perennials are, they don’t drape hills like velvet. They can’t send ripples across the land in the wind. They’re not gold.

The promise of gold in the ground brought the world to Northern California’s shores in 1849, the hope of turning orange groves to golden rivers of wealth brought people throughout the early 20th century, and the lure of golden statuettes brings people to Southern California today. There is no longer any gold in the ground, but it still seems fitting that our hills would be covered with it. How do bunchgrasses compete against that?

Study of the California mission system gives ecologists insight into the spread of the annual-type grasses. Franciscan priest Junípero Serra founded the first mission in San Diego in 1769. The church complexes were built with bricks made from mud and local soil. At San Diego de Alcalá, the bricks show a small quantity of non-native seeds. As the missions were slowly built up the coast to Sonoma, each a day’s ride from the last, the bricks had an ever-increasing number of non-native seeds in them, illustrating the growing prevalence of the seeds as more and more Europeans came to the west coast.

The presence of the seeds wasn’t enough to cause their takeover, though. Ecologist Stromberg discovered that plowing is what spelled the demise of the native grasses. Plowing cut off the growth of the perennials, allowing non-native species to thrive, eventually disrupting the biome.

It’s estimated that only 1% of California’s native grassland remains. Since the days of the conquistadors, more than 4 million hectares (one tenth of California’s vast landmass) have been covered with the wild oats and other annual-type grasses. The result is waves of gold — and a tremendous loss of biodiversity.

Of American states, California is second only to Hawaii in the list of states whose native flora are most at risk, with 32% of indigenous plants seriously threatened. This is especially problematic because, like Hawaii, California has a unique climate, home to a large number of endemic species. According to the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, 61% of the nearly 3,500 plant species that grow in the California Floristic Province — which extends from southern Oregon past Ensenada, Mexico — are endemic. Over the last 250 years, they’ve been severely threatened by the golden grass.

But, Stromberg tells me, at the bases of trees and in the narrow strips of land where plows couldn’t reach, the native plants and old soil system still exist. After his shock at learning that most of the grasses are invasive Mediterranean species, Stromberg says, “I realized I could find native grasses in almost any acre.” This discovery gave him hope that, with work, the native plants could continue to exist.

When Paul Kephart — an ecologist and landscape architect who specializes in restoration and design projects using native plants — works with bunchgrasses, he sees more than beauty, or even a recreation of an older world. He sees erosion-control, wildlife support, thermal moderation, stormwater management, and more. And, he says, clients increasingly see indigenous plants as having those values, too.

Recently, Kephart’s firm Rana Creek was involved with landscaping Apple’s Cupertino campus with 3 million native plants, and planting Facebook’s 3.5-hectare roof garden with indigenous trees, shrubs, and flowers. These clients, and many others, are clued into the eco-friendly promises that native plants provide. Given the likelihood of another terrible California drought, native plants that require little to no supplementary water are appealing.

But native plants don’t easily regain root in their former soil. It has changed too much. “The microbial community in the soil is all messed up,” Stromberg says bluntly. Fixing it, and developing the hydrologic conditions for regrowth, is a long process. The bunchgrasses grow slowly — the old growth developed over hundreds of years. The microbial community alone takes around 100 years to return to its bunchgrass-friendly state.

The spaces between bunchgrasses allow wildflowers to flourish on California hillsides.

“But,” says Kephart, “once they are established and the [plant] community is stable, they will last forever.”

Kephart stimulates the situation by creating a modified version of the ideal conditions. The soil may no longer support native grasses, but if it still supports some native shrubs, Kephart will plant them. The shrubs’ presence will begin the process of soil improvements so native grasses may one day thrive.

For Kephart, the biggest challenge of working with native plants is keeping the invasive plants at bay while the native ones gradually grow. His team controls invasive species through controlled mowing, grazing, burns, and hand-weeding. This is effective enough that Kephart has been able to landscape and restore large areas, sometimes hundreds of hectares at a time. But the frequent maintenance required can make replanting efforts like these prohibitive on a mass scale.

The golden rolling hills of California are full of weeds.

Stromberg speaks of Kephart’s landscaping work as the way of the future: restoring a site here, landscaping a site there. “We tried all kinds of things to get large-scale land prepared for native grasses; we mowed and sprayed and burned and grazed. We worked with state parks. It didn’t go so well,” he says.

Plugging, seeding with sufficient density, and maintenance are simply too expensive. The cost makes planting native grasses a non-starter for conservation-minded ranchers, many of whom have worked with Stromberg. Cows are happy to eat the bunchgrasses, but keeping competitive plants out is simply too hard. “Non-native grassy weeds […] shade out and cover up the little baby native grasses that need three or four years to grow into bunchgrasses,” Stromberg explains.

“Weeds?” I ask, wondering exactly which plants he’s referring to.

“The yellow grasses. The golden rolling hills of California are full of weeds.”

Because the weeds are sometimes burned away by wildfires, reseeding scorched areas with native plants once seemed a promising solution. But it has proved largely too challenging. The competitive weeds — my golden grasses — are one problem. California itself is another. “California is just too unstable,” Stromberg says. “With fires, floods, and earthquakes in such rapid succession, you’re reeling.”

He recalls plans for post-fire reseeding being thwarted by mudslides that strike soon after the fire. In such cases, bunchgrasses could have anchored the soil and likely prevented a mudslide, if they’d had time to be planted and grow. Or if they hadn’t been practically tilled out of existence.

California is an example of how we can wreck something very easily, unintentionally.

Stromberg has given up on large-scale reseeding of this reeling land. The bunchgrasses will likely never fully regain their reign over the hills. Nor will the golden grass ever be anything but weeds. “California is an example of how we can wreck something very easily, unintentionally, and have a pretty hard time even considering fixing it,” Stromberg says.

The best we can do in a situation such as this, perhaps, is keep encouraging ornamental landscaping and restoration work that enables co-existence. If both kinds of grasses can thrive, California can be partly as it was and should be, and partly as it has come to be known.

The author walking among roadside bunchgrasses in California.

Learning that balance is part of being North American. We live in countries built on stolen land, by conquerors who changed cultures, power structures, even the soil and roots within it. Our challenge today is to find a way to restore what was lost to the best of our abilities, knowing things can never truly go back to how they once were.

California’s grassland situation may be unique, but it is far from the only state to have a “natural” icon be not-exactly natural. Iowa, where swamps were drained to expand the famous prairie; Kentucky, whose famous bluegrass is as invasive as California’s gold; the states (Vermont, New Hampshire, Indiana, and Alabama among them) that have non-native state flowers — this country is full of such locales. And in all of them, people feel at home and try their best to live in landscapes that may not be entirely “natural.”

We must remember that the land was not always as it is now. And learn about what was lost, and what was gained, and help the two coexist in perhaps paradoxical beauty.

Knowing what I now know, I can’t embrace the hills in the way my family always has. But I’ll still listen to Kate Wolf’s “The Redtail Hawk.” I’ll hug my parents and be grateful that they fell in love in this imperfect land. I’ll still be swept up in the harmonies — but the song’s sad tones will seem appropriate. Like bunchgrasses, long, mournful chords have their place in the golden hills.

Asparagus depends on readers.

Support our work by subscribing, donating, or buying sustainable swag.