The Sonora Pass is located in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains and peaks in elevation at 9,643 feet. The Sierra Nevada itself contains more than 3,500 native plants species from Ponderosa Pines to Mountain Helenium. Many of these plant species can be found in the Sonora Pass. Identifying plants in this region requires a basic knowledge of plant characteristics, a regional plant field guide and a willingness to get out of the car and explore the mountainsides.
The Sonora Pass is in USDA Zones 6 to 7. The average annual minimum temperatures in these zones range from -10 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. This means that both trees and plants must be able to withstand relatively cold and wet winters. The wet winters of the mountains are followed by long dry summer periods when plants must exist with little water at times.
Exposed granite rock constitutes a majority of the soil conditions in the Sonora Pass. The soil is thin, rocky and low on nutrients. The Pass also contains many deeply shaded areas where steep canyon walls block out sunlight, leaving plants to grow in shaded, cool and sometimes damp conditions. To identify plants in the Sonora Pass you need to be familiar with the landscape's growing conditions. Determining whether a plant thrives in full sun or part shade, is drought tolerant or requires regular access to water will aid in your identification.
Types of Plants
In the Sonora Pass you will find low-growing shrubs, alpine wildflowers, and depending on the elevation, conifer trees. Wildflowers emerge in the early spring, after any snow has melted and the temperatures have begun to bloom. Peak bloom time for wildflowers is in mid-May through June. If you visit the Sonora Pass during this time your plant identification adventure will be made easier because you can see a variety of plant blooms.
Most plant identifications begin with the plant's leaves. Examine leaf edges, also called margins, for smooth, lobed or serrated edges. Do the leaves grow singularly on a stem or in clusters? What color are the plant's blooms? How many petals per bloom? Mountain Helenium, for example, has multiple yellow petals per bloom arranged much like a daisy or sunflower. Record the height of the plant and any other distinguishing characteristics, such as are the leaves variegated in color or does the bloom grow singularly on a stem. The Western Peony has distinguishing bluish gray foliage and ball like blooms that hang individually from a stem. These two features help to make the Western Peony distinguishable from other plants in the Pass.
Record your observations about particular plants in a notebook that you can refer to later when consulting your field guide (see Resources). Write down all of the distinguishing characteristics of a plant that you can. If possible, sketch a quick drawing of the plant. If you don't consider yourself an artist, bring a camera along with you to take pictures. Remember to keep a record of which photo corresponds to which list of plant features.