Environmental ‘oasis’ provides natural diversity

By Benjamin Bassham , Staff Writer

In the bustle of daily college life it’s easy to become dulled to familiar sights and sounds. Becoming engrossed in the rush from class to class to lunch to class to home that what lies around is never really seen.

Life surrounds everything in a riotous cacophony of biodiversity. The plants, the animals, the insects, the fungi and assorted microfauna are everywhere, but Contra Costa College is a particular gem. Biotechnology professor Katherine Krolikowski said, “I think this is a real special oasis of life in the city.”

Biology professor Pam Muick said, “We have (on campus) a superb elevation gradient, which allows a lot of variety, even micro-climates.”

There is so much variety that it is hard to know where to start.

There are plantings everywhere, ranging from Jade Plants to Dwarf Pomegranate to Nandina, but those are just the start.

Rheem Creek is the centerpiece of the college. It divides the campus into distinct thirds, each section boasting its own blend of life.

The section of Rheem Creek that runs alongside the Student Services Center was the subject of the Rheem Creek Restoration Project, which stuffed its banks with native Californian plant life. There’s Deer Grass, Ocean Spray, Carmel Mountain Lilac, Coast Barberry, Yarrow, California Wild Grape, Manzanita and Hummingbird Sage, just to name a few. It’s an eclectic assortment to say the least. They’re all native to California, but wouldn’t naturally be encountered together.

Biological sciences department Chairperson Chris Tarp said, “Its plant diversity is fairly great, but that’s because people planted them, so it’s not a representative example of a natural habitat.”

There are naturally plants left from before the Rheem Creek Restoration Project too. There are Horsetails everywhere, growing thick enough to obscure the water, and in spite of the efforts of the restorers there is African Gazania and English Ivy and plenty more.

Farther in visitors will see a surfeit of pine and several species of Australian Eucalyptus, some Cork Oak and of course the palms. “The campus has a fair collection of Palm trees that were planted by a one-time faculty member (Warren Dolby) who liked them,” Dr. Tarp said.

Northeast of the college, across Campus Drive, is the culinary department’s garden which grows carrots, potatoes, mint, roses and more recently a collection of hybrid fruit trees.

It isn’t all trees and shrubbery (though a previous count found 82 distinct tree species), every ecosystem has its attendant animal life. The campus plays host to possums, feral cats, alligator lizards, raccoons, assorted rodents, deer and you can hardly go anywhere without tripping over a squirrel or two.

“The eastern fox squirrels are not native. They’ve been here for 40 years. I had never seen a turkey before 1992. (More recently I) saw a flock that had 28 in it,” Tarp said.

As for birds there are the turkeys who roam through, the hummingbirds that nest along the creek, the crows, the ravens, the hawks and not countless more, but only because Tarp has been counting. “I’ve been casually keeping track of the birds for the 30 years I’ve been here, and the list is well over 100 birds.”

The insectoid community buzzes and crawls its way over the campus too; there are Argentinian Ants, miscellaneous butterflies, French Snails, an array of different species of native bees, as well as European Honey Bees. At the creek over, on, and in the water there are Hoverflies, Water Striders and a few crawfish lurking in the depths.

The top contender to be the crown jewel of the college is the Arboretum. It’s a grove of startlingly large Coastal Redwood on the banks of Rheem Creek’s northern tributary, blended with the college’s usual contrasting mix of native and nonnative plants.