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What Spring Smells Like in Orange County’s Wildlands

April 13, 2012

Yesterday’s barefoot hike/run at Santiago Oaks Regional Park (between rainstorms) was sweet fun. I’m finally un-sore enough to be barefoot trail running again! After two years of shoeless hiking/trail running, I had worked my way up to 90 minutes of running as of January. Then pain shooting down the back of my left leg slowed me down for the last couple of months. Self-diagnosis (I’ve been at this running-pain game long enough to start to figure these things out): my left-side piriformis getting its shorts in a bunch, so to speak, and . . . well, here’s a useful article about it if you’re interested.

Anyway, there I was, setting a slow but steady pace along the Santiago Creek trail–and my outing became literally sweet with the wafting and washing of elderberry perfume on the cool afternoon breeze. It sneaks up subtly; one minute you’re hiking along the trail, enjoying all the shades of gray in the clouds, and all of a sudden you wonder why you’re smiling on a gloomy Friday after a stressful work week. The air itself seems cheerful with such a scent of floral bliss. Look around for the creamy, umbeliferous blooms of Mexican elderberry.


Inhale, greet a speeding mountain biker (or 20) with a smile, and trot on down the trail.

Until . . . you smell maple syrup. That would be this delicate, papery beauty: California everlasting.


Then there’s the scent of excitement: when I smell black sage (flowers or leaves), I’m ready to take on the highest hill–aroma-therapy to keep you running barefoot forever:

One smell I didn’t come across yesterday, but another “olfactory ambush” I love being surprised by, is thick-leaved yerba santa. When you’re out on the trails, and get a whiff of fruit punch, look around you for a group of head-high shrubs with thick, fuzzy, aromatic leaves. (I took the pictures below this morning in my back yard, where I grow as many California native plants as I can stuff into my 50×50 plot.)


Santiago Oaks has a special allure this time of year, in terms of being smell heaven: a nice little grove of orange trees flanks the parking lot. I can close my eyes and imagine myself right back to my childhood in the city of Orange, when groves were still plentiful (and surrounded our house on two sides. Mmmm….)


Such a wonderful time yesterday, sniffing away, trotting up and loping down Mountain Goat, Bumbeblee, and Grasshopper trails. Then I saw this, and got pissed:


If you’re going to hike, learn what to do with your sh*t. Leave no trace, even in your local wildlands.

To end on a more positive note: here’s a California native plant that won’t reach out and grab you with its aroma, but if you see a narrow-leaved  perennial with these odd blossoms, you need to stop whatever schedule you’re on and take a sniff: wooly blue curls is one the best scents out there in the chaparral or coastal sage scrub habitats. Fruit and spice notes in such a combination–and highly valued by native people, who had (and have) many uses for it. I took the photo below in my back yard just now:

Happy trail-time at Santiago Oaks always ends well . . . in Santiago Creek:

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