Friday, June 30, 2023

The Purple Sentinels of Mulholland Drive

Cenchrus setaceous in Mulholland Drive

Mulholland drive is a scenic and winding road through the canyons of Los Angeles that connects the Hollywood Hills to Malibu.  It overlooks the City of Angels, and has been the home site of many celebrities, including Madonna, Jack Nicholson, John Lennon, Roman Polanski, Marlon Brando, Demi Moore, and Bruce Willis. Mulholland Drive has also been made rather famous by the movie of the same name, which stars Naomi Watts and is directed by David Lynch.

I visited this famous area last month and drove around the many mysterious and narrow roads that ramified throughout the sheltered canyons. It was a fascinating trip, and one that I had never taken, even though I lived in Los Angeles in the 1990s. I had decided to visit here because of Clive Barker's novel Coldheart Canyon, which is about ghosts in a celebrity mansion that was hidden in one of the many beautiful canyons.

Crowds at Lake Hollywood Park, with the famous Hollywood sign in the background.

While driving through, I could not help but notice that purplish flowerheads decorated some of the canyon sides in very thick masses. I tagged it as Cenchrus setaceus (synonymous with the older name Pennisetum setaceum), which is commonly called fountain grass here in the USA. This species is from the subfamily Panicoideae, and has been heavily used as an ornamental because of its beautiful and abundant inflorescence. In fact, this species is one of the most commonly used ornamental grasses in Florida.

C. setaceus lines road, with hills and mansions in the background.

C. setaceus is a C4 bunchgrass that is not native to the USA, and hails instead from North Africa and Western Asia. It is particularly aggressive in warm, arid environments with full sun. Unfortunately, this makes Southern California an almost perfect place for it to grow, and it has escaped from cultivation and become invasive. It outcompetes other herbaceous native plants to decrease diversity and available habitats for wildlife, and also significantly increases the chances of fires in the area. To add insult to injury, the species is not good forage. 

C. setaceus with Washingtonia palm in background

All these negatives of course passed through my mind as I drove along Mulholland Drive and gazed at the passing masses of purple flowerheads. But I also had to acknowledge the beauty of the sight, one that tourists probably noticed as well. Perhaps they even think that the specimens along the road were planted deliberately to beautify the surroundings, an ironic twist to the current fate of this invasive grass, given that it was originally brought here as part of the horticultural trade.

C. setaceus pushing against native Opuntia (?) cacti

There are of course other invasive weedy grasses along that road, including the almost ubiquitous Avena fatua/Avena barbata, which dot the hillside, albeit in smaller numbers than in more natural settings. But fountainhead grass is surely the most noticeable, and the most attractive. So the next time you travel to Southern California and decide to visit the canyonlands of the City of Angels, keep an eye out for the Purple Sentinels of Mulholland Drive. 

PS. Coincidentally, it's been an interesting month that has just passed, one that was celebrated by and for the LGBTQ+ community. Its symbol, the Rainbow Flag, has a purple/violet band, which stands for spirit - for the courage, energy, and determination to stand up to bullying and oppression. This is something that is sadly needed in today's world, where it has become okay to persecute those who are "others". So here's to all the brave people who just want to be and show who they are. Be strong.

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