Chaparral refers to the low, scrub vegetation of the dry regions of California and the Southwest. Chaparro is the Spanish name for the tough, broad-leaved evergreen scrub oak that grows in thickets in a dry Mediterranean climate. The word may come from the Basque txapar, which means “thicket.” It came into American English after the U.S. annexation of California and the inland West. Here is William Brewer, field leader of the first California geological survey, in a letter to his sister in early May 1861, describing the view of the Santa Lucia range from the Salinas Valley: “A very rugged landscape of mountains behind, steep, rocky, black with chaparral.” In his 1938 story “Flight,” John Steinbeck seems to be using the word a little more exactly: “As soon as the trail had parted from the stream, the trees were gone and only thick, brittle sage and manzanita and chaparral edged the trail.” It can refer to different plant communities at different altitudes in different locations. The name has been attached to species as diverse as Pickeringia montana, the chaparral pea, which grows on dry hillsides in coast redwood regions, and Yucca whipplei, the chaparral yucca native to the San Bernardino Mountains. In casual use, it is a synonym for brush.

Robert Hass