located in the Southern Sierras
This will cover those plants found in the local
area of the Southern Sierras.
By Carol Zeigler
(Carol is a Springville
resident who has a BA in Biology and has been a naturalist for eight years.
She is passing on this information as a local resident who also just happens to
work for the Forest Service. Her own web site can be found at
http://www.tarol.com, where you can find more
local information and photos.)
Takin' a Likin' to Lichen by Carol Zeigler
Recently I was conducting an interpretive walk at the Trail of
100 Giants in Sequoia National Forest. I am quite comfortable
with the subject manner that normally presents itself here,
mainly of the omnipresent charismatic mega-flora, the giant
sequoias. But every now and then someone stumps me with some
related question. Recently it was a 14-year old girl from
Bakersfield who was attending the walk with her classmates and
teacher. "What is this?" the young girl with serious brown eyes
asked me, holding a small clump of green in her hand.
"That is a lichen," I replied. When I saw the look of
non-recognition in her eyes I tried to clarify, "It’s a
combination of two things, really, a fungus and an algae. The
fungus is kind-of like a mushroom and the algae makes food like
a plant and they grow together."
This seemed to satisfy her, for a moment anyway. Then she asked,
"Do they grow on rocks?" and I said, "Yes, some kinds do." She
asked if the kind she was holding had a name and I didn't have
an answer for her. So I went back home, and like I normally do
when a visitor stumps me, I did some research and found the
The type of lichen the girl brought to me is called a wolf
lichen. It is bright neon-green in color and composed of thin
filaments that are all connected together and bunched up in a
clump. It is commonly found in the Sierra Nevada mid-elevation
conifer forest. Sometimes you see it growing on fir or cedar
trees, sometimes it’s just laying on the ground in small clumps.
Interestingly you usually don’t see it growing on giant
sequoias. Perhaps the bark is too soft and flaky for it to hold
on to. Wolf lichen is native to the US and there are several
species found throughout the northern hemisphere.
How did it get its name? Well, it turns out this type of lichen
is poisonous, and native people in Russia and northern Europe
used it to poison wolves. It is also the most widely used lichen
that native people in North America used for dye. The Chilkat
Tlingit people in southeast Alaska traditionally dyed their
prized blankets with wolf lichen. They traded valuable coastal
resources such as fish and shells to groups inland in exchange
for the lichens. There are other types of lichen that were used
as dyes as well. In Medieval Europe the Rocella species
of lichen was used to produce a purple dye that became known as
"Royal Purple" as only royalty was allowed to wear clothes that
Letharia vulpine is the scientific name for wolf lichen. It
is not a type of moss or plant like most people would think upon
spotting it. Remember, not everything that is living is an
animal or plant. There are five kingdoms of life: animals,
plants, fungi, algae (Protista), and bacteria (Monera). A lichen
is the combination of two and sometimes three of these kingdoms
of life. One is a fungus and the other is an algae and/or a
The fungus is the dominant partner, as it provides the shape and
form of the composite organism, but it is incapable of making
its own food. So it has evolved to live with another organism
that can. Most scientists describe the fungi as cultivating
algae and/or the bacteria cells within its structure in order to
make food. Lichenologist Tervor Goward once remarked that,
"Lichens are fungi that have discovered agriculture." Algae and
some types of bacteria can photosynthesize and make food which
the lichen then uses.
The other creative way of remembering what a lichen is was
taught to me long ago and it usually gets a chuckle out of
people I tell it to. "Freddy Fungus took a lichen to Alice
Algae… and now their marriage is on the rocks." Actually, I
lied, it usually just makes people roll their eyes! Oh, well, do
with the saying what you will, but I like it.
Lichens come in a huge variety of colors, shapes, and sizes and
some are quite beautiful. There are three main growth forms that
lichens exhibit: crustose, foliose and fruticose. Crustose
lichens grow on rocks like a tightly attached crust. They can't
be removed without damage. Foliose lichens are flat and have an
upper and a lower surface. Their lower surface can grow tightly
on the rock or tree but they can usually be pried loose without
too much damage. Fruticose lichens may grow upright and look
like a clump or like a miniature shrub (like the wolf lichen the
girl brought to me) or they may be hang down like hair or a
beard (like Spanish Moss, which despite its name, is a lichen).
There are more than 3,600 species of lichen in the US and Canada
and they grow worldwide from the arctic to rainforests to
deserts. They often grow where conditions are harsh and nothing
else can grow. They are pioneers species growing on bare rock
and desert sand and they often help break down the rock
chemically and physically into soil that other plants can then
grow on. They can grow in harsh conditions because lichens are
able to shut down metabolically during periods extreme heat,
cold, and drought. When they do have water, though, they absorb
it like a sponge.
Lichens grow very slowly and are thus sensitive to any kind of
disturbance. They are often found in pristine, undisturbed
environments and when they are absent it is often an early
warning that something is amiss. They are also sensitive to air
pollution and have been used as an indicator of air quality.
Lichens can be a very important food source for animals. 90% of
a caribou’s diet in the wintertime is made up of lichen. They
will claw through snow to get at a patch of lichen that they can
smell beneath it. Deer and mountain goats also eat lichen.
Northern flying squirrels eat lichen and use it for their nests.
More than 50 species of birds in the US also use lichen for
People can and have eaten some species of lichen as well. Some
cultures grind it into a flour and make bread. Lichen has also
been used as a source of medicine since ancient times. It is
estimated that 50% of lichen species have antibiotic properties.
Some cultures steep it and drink it as a tea or grind it and use
it in an antibiotic salve. And, who knew that oakmoss lichen,
harvested in large quantities in Mediterranean Europe, is an
important ingredient in fine perfumes? Not me! Until today,
Well, I hope next time that you're at the Trail of 100 Giants,
you manage to shift your attention away from the awe-inspiring
giant sequoias, and instead focus on the small clumps of green
you see scattered here and there. Remember to look for the
lichen that is so useful to so many types of animals. Remember
that it is also important for people in so many different ways.
Finally, remember that when you see it, it's usually a good
sign, a sign that you're in a healthy environment.
Oak Trees by Carol Zeigler
I’ve decided this winter to start tackling oak trees…
Tackling, you say? Well, I can identify an oak tree as an
oak tree, but what species of oak is it? We have
several species in our area and I don’t really know how to
tell the difference between them all. So I’ve decided to
First things first - what makes an oak tree an oak tree?
Oak trees are in the family Fagaceae which is derived from
the Latin word Fagus which means, “to eat.” Trees in
the family Fagaceae indeed have edible fruits called acorns.
They are also monoecious trees which means you can find both
male and female flowers on the same tree. The flowers are
small and inconspicuous because they have no petals. The
male flowers have between 4 and 40 stamens and are usually
grouped in clusters called catkins. The female flowers have
a single pistil and are surrounded by a bract which becomes
the acorn at full maturity. The female flowers can be
solitary or in small clusters often near the base of the
male flowers. The leaves are simple and pinnately veined
with margins that are often lobed. Leaves drop in the fall,
thus the tree is deciduous.
Oak trees are in the genus Quercus, which is a
Latin word that is thought to have been derived from the
Celtic quer “fine” and cuez “tree.” The oak
tree I decided to learn about first is Quercus kelloggii,
or the California Black Oak. John Newberry named this oak
tree in 1857 in honor of Albert Kellogg, a pioneer
California botanist and physician. They have a very
dark-colored blackish bark, hence their common name. I
decided to start with the California Black Oak because there
are more of them and they grow over a wider range in
California than any other oak species.
California Black Oaks grow from west-central Oregon south to
Baja, California. They are common in the coastal ranges and
the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada. They grow where
the summers are hot and dry but the winters are cool and
moist. Here in the southern Sierra Nevada they grow from
about 4,000’ to 7,800’ in elevation amongst Ponderosa Pine,
Incense Cedar, White Fir, and Giant Sequoia Trees.
California Black Oaks attain their largest size in the
Sierra Nevada. They can get up to about 130’ in height and
5 feet in diameter. They can also live to be about 500
Most California Black Oaks get their start not by seed but
by sprouting from fire damaged or cut parent stumps. The
reasons for this are many. These oak trees typically don’t
produce many acorns until they are at least 80-100 years
old. Then, for unknown reasons, acorn yields vary from year
to year. When acorns are produced, insects destroy many of
them in their developmental stage. After they fall they are
often damaged by blue-gray mold. If they escape the insects
and mold, well then most are eaten by at least 14 species of
song and game birds, many small mammals, bears, and mule
deer. In the fall acorns are the primary food source for
many of these animals. Domestic cattle and sheep and
non-native wild pigs eat the acorns as well.
If an acorn does survive fall they usually lie dormant
underneath leaves on the forest floor in the winter then
germinate in the spring when the weather warms. If the
seedling gets enough water and survives insect and mold
infestation, as well as pocket gophers, it can get up to 6
inches high and send roots down as far as 30 inches in its
first growing season.
Because acorns have a low rate of germination and seedlings
a low rate of survivability, most oak trees in California
originate from sprouts. How long they live is determined by
a variety of factors. A California Black Oak’s worst enemy
is fire. Both ground and crown fires are often fatal. And
if a fire doesn’t kill them outright, a fire scar can be the
entry point for fungi. The tree is especially susceptible
to fungi, including heart rot.
So how can you tell apart a California Black Oak from other
oaks in this area? You can start with where the tree is
growing… Is it growing from 4,000’-7,800’ in elevation?
Yes? Then examine the tree. Is it a deciduous tree (does
it drop its leaves in the fall?) That would distinguish it
from live oaks which keep their leaves year-round. Are the
leaves 4-10 inches long and pinnately lobed, usually with 7
lobes? Are the lobes 3-toothed and bristle-tipped? If
they’re bristle-tipped, that would distinguish it from White
and Blue Oaks whose leaves do not have bristles. Now look
for an acorn… Are they from 1 to 2.5 inches long? Are they
reddish brown and do the caps cover about half the acorn?
In other oak species the caps cover less than ½ the acorn.
So, if the tree you’re examining has these features, then
you’re looking at a California Black Oak!
If you’re exploring a black oak stand that is near a creek
you may also take the time to see if you can find mortar
holes. Native American families harvested acorns in the
summertime and pounded them into meal in mortars they had
worn into granite bedrock. This meal was then leached with
water in order to remove bitter tannic acid then it was
cooked and eaten as soup, mush, bread, or patties. Today,
acorns are still gathered by people of many different tribes
in California and southern Oregon.
California Sycamore Trees by Carol Zeigler
I’ve found that December is
one of the best times to get out and go for a drive or a hike along
the rivers and creeks of the Southwestern Sierra foothills. Here’s
my reasoning: It usually starts snowing in the higher elevations
making outings up there more challenging, the foothills are
pleasantly cool but generally not too cold, and the California
Sycamore trees begin to show off their gorgeous autumn hues of
orange and rust.
California Sycamore (Platanus
racemosa) grow on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains
along streams and rivers below 3,000 feet in elevation. They also
grow in some locations in the Coast Range. They typically are about
40-60 feet high but some specimens can get up to 100 feet tall and
10 feet in diameter. They have a spreading, open crown made up of
forking and often zig-zagging branches. Their bark is greenish-gray
when young but it continually flakes off and reveals a smooth white
inner bark. A sycamore’s upper branches are usually completely
white and I think this makes the tree stand out beautifully against
the clear blue skies of winter. This also provides the perfect
structure for displaying the tree’s leaves that turn a beautiful
burnt orange color in mid- to late November and early December.
The leaves of California
Sycamores may remind you of large maple leaves; both are palmately
lobed but sycamore leaves are much thicker and are arranged
alternately along the twigs whereas maple leaves are opposite each
other. The leaves are 5-11 inches long and in the spring they are a
bright green. In springtime you can also find decorative clusters
of greenish flowers amongst the leaves on the tree. The flower
clusters are round in shape and they develop into round spiky fruits
about an inch in diameter. These are often found hanging together
like golf balls on a string. The fruits often fracture and the
seeds are wind dispersed. Sometimes the fruits fall and float along
a river or stream until they wash up on a bank and this is another
way that new sycamores can establish themselves. The young trees
grow quickly if given enough sunlight.
Many bird species including
Red-tailed Hawks, Hummingbirds, and Woodpeckers depend on a
California Sycamore’s large canopy for nesting sites. Native
Americans used the sycamore’s strong branches for building. And a
large sycamore tree played a role in the establishment of this city
of Los Angeles! The native Gabrielino or Tongva people had a
village called Yangna which was located near a huge California
Sycamore Tree under which they held meetings. Later the Spanish
settlement that gave way to the pueblo of Los Angeles was located
next to Yangna in sight of this sycamore tree. The settlement was
destroyed in 1815 by a large flood but the sycamore tree survived.
It later died in 1892 and was cut down and the rings of the tree
were counted. It was found that this tree was over 400 years old!
There are two other species of
sycamore trees in the US: the Arizona Sycamore and the American
Sycamore. Arizona Sycamore trees grow in the Sonoran Desert and
American Sycamore grow from the Atlantic Coast to the Mississippi
River. Locally you can find California Sycamore trees growing
profusely along the lower reaches of the Tule and Kaweah Rivers as
well as the larger Kings and Kern Rivers. They also grow at Kaweah
Oaks Preserve near Visalia and here you can take the self guided
Sycamore Trail and learn more about these beautiful trees and the
other plants and wildlife that live amongst them.
Farewell-to-Spring by Carol Zeigler
williamsonii, is a wildflower that's aptly named as it
blooms right when summer comes to the western Sierra
foothills. Right now the foothills are turning from their
characteristic springtime green color to their summertime
gold color. When Farewell-to-Spring blooms it can cover an
entire hillside turning it from gold to pink! It is one
flower that I have grown to love since moving to the
Springville area two-and-a-half years ago.
There are 72 species and subspecies of Clarkias and they are
in the evening primrose family, Onagraceae. Onagra, I had to
look this one up, means food of the Onager. Okay, so what's
an Onager? It's a donkey like animal native to deserts in
the Middle East. And I gather it apparently likes to eat
evening primroses that grow there. Onagraceae is indeed a
family of plants that are distributed worldwide and their
flowers typically have 4 petals and 4 sepals. Their seeds
are very small and their leaves are generally lanceleote in
shape and in an opposite configuration.
All Clarkias have four petals that are generally pink to
purple in color, though they can also be blue or white. The
shape of their petals can differ quite dramatically,
however, from broad and fan-shaped to slender and
diamond-shaped. Clarkia williamsonii flowers are dark
pink and fan-shaped and overall the flower is shaped like a
bowl and it grows on a stalk that's from 1 to 3 feet tall.
It is common in the western foothills and lower forest areas
of the Sierra Nevada. It is native and also endemic to
California which means it is found nowhere else.
Like many plants there is a story behind this pretty
flower's scientific name. The Genus Clarkia was named
for Captain William Clark of the famed Lewis and Clark
expedition to the mouth of the Columbia River in 1804 to
1806. Botanical discovery was of course one of the key goals
of the expedition and they sent over 100 dried botanical
specimens to President Thomas Jefferson in spring of 1805
and brought even more back in 1807. Botanist Frederick Pursh
later described many of these plants in a Flora he published
in England in 1814. Pursh's Flora acknowledged Lewis and
Clark's discoveries; in fact, he created two new genera
named after them, Lewisia and Clarkia.
Williamsonii was named after Lt. Robert Williamson,
leader of a railway survey in the mid-eighteenth century. In
1853 he led a party looking for a railway route from the
desert across the southern Sierra Nevada and the mountains
of Southern California. He scouted out Walker and Tehachapi
Passes and eventually located two routes, one over Cajon
Pass and the other through Soledad Canyon. Mt. Williamson on
the Angeles National Forest and Mt. Williamson on the Inyo
National Forest (the second highest peak in California) were
also named for him.
Clarkia williamsonii is also sometimes called Spring
Beauty, Godetia, or Sierra Fairy-Fan. Its small seeds are
edible and may be eaten raw or after grinding. Right now
they can be seen covering many hills in the Springville
area; but one of the best places I've encountered this year
for seeing Farewell-to-Spring is on County Road M-56 from
Fountain Springs to California Hot Springs. For miles and
miles this flower lines the road along with foothill
poppies, caterpillar plant, lupine, Mariposa lilies, and
Springville is also home to a rare species of Clarkia, and
you can probably guess its scientific name, Clarkia
springvillensis. This flower is only found in Tulare
County and it is threatened by urban development, livestock
grazing, and road maintenance. Here is a website to find out
more about this rare flower...
A good picture of
Farewell-to-Spring can be found on this website,
and hopefully within the next few days I'll be able to get a
photo of it covering a hillside... it's magnificent!
Pacific Dogwood by Carol Zeigler
The dogwoods bloomed
early this year, about a month early. I just got back from a hike up
in the Mountain Home Grove where the dogwoods are just about at
their peak and perhaps a little past. Was it ever beautiful up
there! There were lots of clouds rolling through up there at 6,000
feet... I love that, to just sit and watch the mist move in and pass
and swirl around the giant sequoias. Anyway, the dogwoods, wow, I've
never seen so many blooms on them before! It's definitely a great
year for them.
Pacific dogwood (Cornus nuttallii) is considered by many to
be the most beautiful flowering tree in West Coast conifer forests.
In the Sierra they grow between 3500 and 6000 feet in elevation on
the western slope in well-watered areas. They are a slender-trunked
tree that can reach heights of 40 feet. They have smooth ashy gray
bark and leaves that are 3-5 inches long and oval in shape.
Dogwood flowers are actually quite small and inconspicuous. It's the
5 large white petal-like bracts that surround the cluster of small
flowers that are beautiful and showy. Together the bracts and
flowers can be called blossoms.
In the fall the flower clusters develop into bright red berries. The
berries are quite bitter but some birds eat them. It has been
suggested that the berries were called dog berries, dog being a term
that means worthless. And thus the tree got the name of dogwood.
There is one known use of the wood, though. Native Americans boiled
the bark to make a laxative.
I believe the trees are far from worthless though. In my humble
opinion there is nothing more beautiful than when they are
contrasted against the rich red of a sequoia tree. I've tried to
capture this image dozens of times, the perfect spray of dogwood
blossoms in front of a sequoia tree. Thus far this image has eluded
my camera, but I do intend to keep trying!
Reprinted from the Upper Tule News - June 2004 - with writer's
California Torreya Trees by Carol Zeigler
The California Torreya tree (Torreya californica
) is commonly
called the California nutmeg because its plum like fruit resembles
that of nutmeg, the spice. That is the only similarity between the
two trees, however. California Torreya are evergreen conifers that
are in the yew (Taxaceae) family and grow only in California. The
spice nutmeg comes from a broad-leafed tree that grows in the
The California Torreya was named by an American botanist, John
Torrey, who discovered these trees in the 1830’s. Torrey’s work in
identifying and classifying plants was very influential and he
coauthored a pioneering book on plants titled A Flora of North
. The rarest pine in the United States, the Torrey Pine,
which grows in only a very small area near San Diego, was also named
There are only two types of Torreya that grow in the United States;
the other grows in Florida. There are three more types that grow in
China and Japan. These remaining populations are mere remnants of an
ancient lineage of trees that once grew throughout the northern
hemisphere, much like the relatives of giant sequoias once did.
Because of climactic changes these trees are now limited to only a
few different places on Earth. I am very lucky to have them growing
in my backyard! But they are not an abundant tree and can be
difficult to find.
Finding these trees requires a bit of knowledge. First of all, where
to look? California Torreya grow amongst incense cedar and live oak
in shady ravines and rocky gorges between 2,000 and 6,000 feet in
elevation in the Sierra Nevada and slightly lower in the coastal
ranges. I have found them growing in three nearby locations. The
closest is about two miles up the Doyle Springs Trail near Camp
Wishon in Sequoia National Forest. Next closest would be along the
Crystal Cave Trail in Sequoia National Park. The third area is near
Boyden Cave in Sequoia National Forest near Kings Canyon National
Park. There, near the parking area, is a beautiful specimen, the
largest I have seen!
Second, how do you identify this tree? At first glance its foliage
looks like that of a white fir. Its needles are deep green,
flattened, and 1-2 inches long. Their needles are aromatic and this
has led to them sometimes being called a “stinking cedar.” Their
fruit is a modified cone, blue-green, plum-like, and about 1 inch
long. They are small trees, rarely attaining heights of 60 feet and
2 feet in diameter. They grow slowly, however, so although they do
not reach a great size, they can live to be several centuries old.
Their branches are slender and they spread out making for a slightly
ungainly appearance. Unlike other conifers, they are dioecious,
meaning that there are separate male and female trees. The fruits
hang from the tips of the outer branches from the female trees in
late summer and autumn. Male trees produce pollen but never fruit.
Once you find a California Torreya tree you’ll find it is adapted to
its foothill environment. They can sprout permanent new trunks from
their base when they are cut or burned, thus they are adapted to
foothill fires. Their wood is durable and flexible and was used by
Native Americans for making hunting bows. Their seeds were harvested
and roasted for eating and their roots were used for making baskets.
They do produce small quantities of taxol, a drug that has been
found to limit the growth of cancerous tumors, but the Pacific Yew
produces more and is the tree that’s harvested for this use.
Reprinted from the Upper Tule News - May 2004 - with writer's
The Redbud - by Carol Zeigler
The California or Western
Redbuds (Cercis occidentalis) are just now starting to bloom in the
Tule River Canyon. They are small trees or large shrubs with a rounded crown
of many spreading branches. Around March and April they bloom with a showy
magenta pea-like flower. These harbingers of spring are so beautiful and
dramatic when mixed in with the various greens of the oaks and chaparral.
Cercis is from kerkis, the ancient Greek name for the redbud.
Occidentalis means of the west and these trees indeed grow in the
western United States in California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. They are
common in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and in the Coast Range as well.
They grow on dry slopes often near a small spring or creek.
Redbuds typically grow to about 16 feet high and have multiple trunks.
These trees are in the pea family (Fabaceae) and their fruit is indeed like
a pea pod. Their leaves, which emerge in the spring after the flowers do,
are heart-shaped and are reddish when they first bud then later turn blue
green. In the fall the leaves turn a brilliant yellow and later fall to the
ground. In the winter they are still beautiful trees, although stark without
their leaves, and you can often you can see the brown seedpods still
dangling from the bare branches.
Deer browse on redbud foliage and early settlers ate the blossoms in
their salads. The bark was sometimes used to treat common maladies and
sometimes even leukemia. And many Native Americans chose the wood of the
redbud for their bows. But perhaps the springtime beauty of this tree may be
its greatest contribution to the human spirit.
Reprinted from the Upper Tule News - April 2004 - with writer's
Lesser Known Giant Sequoia Trees - by Carol Zeigler
Many people have seen the General Sherman Tree, the largest tree in the world
measured by volume. It stands in Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park just a
short walk away from a large parking lot on a paved trail. Its total trunk
volume is approximately 52,500 cubic feet, it is 275 feet tall, its diameter is
36 feet, and its ground perimeter is 103 feet. But who has seen the sequoia with
the greatest ground perimeter (155 feet)? It is an unnamed tree that grows up in
the Alder Creek Grove just north of Camp Nelson near the community of Sequoia
The Stagg Tree is in the Alder Creek Grove as well, it is the 6th largest tree
in the world. It is also the biggest tree on private land (can you imagine
saying you own the 6th largest tree in the world?) Recently the magazine
National Geographic Adventure published an article that contained a magnificent
composite photograph taken by Jim Balog who climbed the Stagg Tree then
rappelled down. I wonder what it would be like to sit in the top of a giant
Do you know about the sequoia with the largest branch (12 feet in diameter) that
grows in the Atwell Mill-Eastfork Grove near Mineral King in Sequoia National
Park? That one branch is probably bigger than most trees! Three of the top 40
largest sequoias also grow here in this grove which is split by the East Fork
The Ghost Tree and Packsaddle Giant (#33) are in the Packsaddle Grove, one of
the southernmost groves near California Hot Springs in Giant Sequoia National
Monument. Another interesting fact about the Packsaddle Grove is that the last
condor nest in the Sierra was found in 1984 in a sequoia tree in this grove.
The Teeter-Totter tree, a dead sequoia that you can actually lift, is in the
McIntyre Grove just east of Camp Nelson. The Patriarch Tree also grows here, it
is #40, and it has a base nearly the size of General Sherman’s, it is just a
shorter and thus smaller tree overall.
The Great Bonsai Tree, a monstrous but short sequoia that has limbs extending to
the ground, grows near the Genesis Tree, #8, and six more of the top 40 largest
sequoias that grow in the Mountain Home Grove in Mountain Home State Forest.
#29 Great Goshawk Tree grows in the Freeman Creek Grove, the easternmost grove
and also the biggest grove in wilderness condition on Giant Sequoia NM. There
are more than 700 trees here that are 10 feet or more in diameter at breast
#32 Black Mountain Beauty grows in the Black Mountain Grove on the ridge south
of Camp Nelson in Giant Sequoia NM. This grove also has the longest continuous
road within a grove, 8 miles. There are more than 1,000 trees here that are more
than 10 feet dbh. And both times I have been to this grove there has never been
a single soul up there with me! It is definitely one of my favorite groves.
The King Arthur Tree, #10, is in the Garfield-Dillonwood Grove. The Dillonwood
section was until recently in private hands. But with the help of federal and
state funds as well as private donors, it was bought by the Save-the-Redwoods
League and given to Sequoia National Park. You can access this grove from Giant
Sequoia NM lands just north of Springville.
The Ishi Giant, #14, grows in the Kennedy Meadow Grove in Giant Sequoia NM near
Kings Canyon NP. This tree was not measured until 1993.
The Boole Tree, #7, the biggest tree on National Forest land, grows up in the
Converse Basin Grove in Giant Sequoia NM near Kings Canyon NP.
I have only seen one of these trees, the Stagg Tree, although I have been to
most of these groves. Why? Because to see these trees one needs to get off the
beaten path and that requires some time, patience, map reading and compass
navigation skills, and it is best to do these sorts of treks with a buddy. So it
is my goal to find a few hiking partners who would like to go seek out these
least visited big trees with me. And who knows, maybe we'll find one bigger than
Sherman in the process...
References and for more information:
A Guide to the Giant Sequoia Groves of California by Dwight Willard
To Find the Biggest Tree by Wendell D. Flint
Forest Giants of the Pacific Coast by Robert Van Pelt
Reprinted from the Upper Tule News - February 2004 - with writer's
Gray Pine - by Carol Zeigler
Winter is a great time to explore the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The higher
elevations are snowed in but the foothills are cool and pleasant this time of
year. One tree you'll see growing in the foothills is Gray Pine (Pinus
sabiniana). This tree was once known as Digger Pine. Some of the first
pioneers in the Central Valley of California called the Native Americans
"Diggers" because their diet consisted largely of roots and bulbs. When they
learned that they also ate the large, rich seeds of a foothill pine during part
of the year, they called the tree "Digger Pine." Now this name is seen as
disrespectful to Native Americans and most botanists have settled on calling
this tree a Gray Pine.
Gray Pine are solitary and airy gray-green trees that are endemic to California.
They are drought tolerant and they grow in the foothills of California's coastal
ranges and the Sierra Nevada. In the Sierra they grow only on the western slope
between 1,000 and 4,000 feet in elevation. They are typically 40 to 70 feet tall
and their trunks are often curved and forked. Their trunks are from one to three
feet in diameter and their needles are 8-12 inches long and grow in clusters of
threes. Their cones are huge; they can weigh up to 4 pounds when they're green
and they are 8 to 10 inches long! The cone bears huge seeds that are almost
twice the size of pinyon pine nuts. On the tip of each cone scale is a curved
spine that makes the cones quite prickly to pick up and you definitely don't
want to drive over one with your vehicle, you might puncture your tires!
Gray pines are often found growing alongside blue oak (Quercus douglasii)
and historically this community experienced periodic fires every 15-30 years.
Gray pine is highly flammable but it does have two adaptations that allow it to
withstand fire. First, some of the largest trees will withstand
moderate-severity fire because of their thick bark and self-pruning trunks.
Secondly, regeneration is favored following fire because fire creates a
favorable bare mineral soil seedbed, and heat from the fire helps open the seeds
and increases germination rates..
Gray Pine and blue oak woodland is a preferred habitat for mule deer, California
quail, and mourning dove. Many animals eat the seeds of the Gray Pine including
scrub jays, acorn woodpeckers, and California gray squirrels.
John Muir wrote of the gray pine, "No other tree of my acquaintance so
substantial in body is in foliage so thin and so pervious to the light. The
sunbeams sift through even the leafiest trees with scarcely any interruption..."
I think a gray pine's delicate foliage is certainly beautiful especially
compared to its dry surroundings. It is also unique in that it can support such
huge, heavy cones.
Reprinted from the Upper Tule News - January 2004 - with writer's
The Sugar Pine - by Carol Zeigler
The sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana) is the largest and tallest species of
pine in the world and it grows in California and western Oregon. In the Sierra
it grows amongst ponderosa and Jeffrey pines and red and white fir on the
western slope between 4,500 and 7,500 feet in elevation. Sugar pines grow to
heights of 250 feet tall with diameters of up to 10 feet and are second only to
giant sequoias in their total volume of wood. Their cones are the longest in the
world; they can be up to 22 inches long and they dangle like Christmas ornaments
from the ends of the pine's long limbs. Their limbs typically reach lengths of
40+ feet. Their needles are bluish green, about three inches long, and are in
clusters of five. Sugar pines may live 500-600 years.
Native Americans harvested sugar pine nuts which are about the size of a grain
of corn. They also ate the sugary sap that exudes from wounds on the pine's
trunk, which is how the pine got its name. Famous conservationist, John Muir,
wrote that he liked this sap better than maple sugar. He also called the sugar
pine the "noblest pine yet discovered, surpassing all others not merely in size
but also in kingly beauty and majesty."
He goes on to describe the tree further in his book The Mountains of
"No lover of trees will ever forget his first meeting with the Sugar Pine, nor
will he afterward need a poet to call him to "listen what the pine-tree saith."
In most pine-trees there is a sameness of expression, which, to most people, is
apt to become monotonous; for the typical spiry form, however beautiful, affords
but little scope for appreciable individual character. The Sugar Pine is as free
from conventionalities of form and motion as any oak. No two are alike, even to
the most inattentive observer; and, notwithstanding they are ever tossing out
their immense arms in what might seem most extravagant gestures, there is a
majesty and repose about them that precludes all possibility of the grotesque,
or even picturesque, in their general expression. They are the priests of pines,
and seem ever to be addressing the surrounding forest. The Yellow Pine is found
growing with them on warm hillsides, and the White Silver Fir on cool northern
slopes; but, noble as these are, the Sugar Pine is easily king, and spreads his
arms above them in blessing while they rock and wave in sign of recognition. The
main branches are sometimes found to be forty feet in length, yet persistently
simple, seldom dividing at all, excepting near the end; but anything like a bare
cable appearance is prevented by the small, tasseled branchlets that extend all
around them; and when these superb limbs sweep out symmetrically on all sides, a
crown sixty or seventy feet wide is formed, which, gracefully poised on the
summit of the noble shaft, and filled with sunshine, is one of the most glorious
forest objects conceivable. Commonly, however, there is a great preponderance of
limbs toward the east, away from the direction of the prevailing winds."
"No other pine seems to me so unfamiliar and self-contained. In approaching it,
we feel as if in the presence of a superior being, and begin to walk with a
light step, holding our breath. Then, perchance, while we gaze awe-stricken,
along comes a merry squirrel, chattering and laughing, to break the spell,
running up the trunk with no ceremony, and gnawing off the cones as if they were
made only for him; while the carpenter-woodpecker hammers away at the bark,
drilling holes in which to store his winter supply of acorns."
Unfortunately, the sugar pine, along with other species of white pine, is
susceptible to a fungus called white pine blister rust which man accidentally
brought over from Europe in the early 1900's. One of the alternate hosts of this
fungus is a currant or gooseberry bush, and starting in the 1930's foresters
began to remove currant and gooseberry bushes from British Columbia to the
central Sierra. This program had questionable success and now efforts are
largely concentrated on breeding resistant sugar pines.
Reprinted from the Upper Tule News - December 2003 - with writer's
Quaking Aspen - by Carol Zeigler
Quaking aspen trees (Populus tremuloides),
with their shimmering golden fall leaves, are one of my favorite trees. I
grew up in Bishop, California, on the eastern side of the Sierra, where they
grow abundantly in canyons above 8,000 feet including Bishop Creek and Rock
Creek. However, we are very fortunate to have them growing on the western
side of the Sierra as well. They can be found up a long the Great Western
Divide Highway in the Giant Sequoia National Monument. Where should you go
to view them? Well, starting at Quaking Aspen Campground would be a good
bet! The best time to view the fall colors are generally after the first
frost of late September or early October.
Quaking aspen have a wider range than any North American
tree. they grow from Alaska and Newfoundland south to central Mexico.
They love cold weather and are thus found at higher elevations and in northern
An aspen grove looks as if it is made up of separate trees,
but the trees usually share a root system. Essentially, they're one
organism with many roots, an organism that can grow to huge proportions, cross a
meadow or climb a mountain. Thee is a 106-acre stand of aspen south of
Salt Lake City, Utah, that contends with the General Sherman giant sequoia tree
to be the largest living organism on earth. Visitors to this stand may
think they are hiking through an aspen forest, but it is all one tree, about
47,000 genetically identical stems rising from a common root system.
Populus is the genus name, which will remind some of
poplars. Popular trees, cottonwood trees, willows and aspen are all in the
same botanical family, Salicaceae. Salicaceae will remind perhaps the more
inquisitive of Salicylic acid, or another derivate of this chemical, acetyl
salicylic acid, a.k.a. aspirin. Salicylic acid can be derived from willow
bark and willow bark tea is one of the oldest natural remedies for our everyday
aches and pains.
Tremuloides comes from the Latin word tremulus meaning
trembling or quaking. Look closely at one of the leaf stalks and your will
see it is flattened and thus allows the leaf to quake in a breeze and create a
rustling noise. There is nothing nicer than walking through an aspen grove
on a beautiful autumn day and seeing the leaves shimmer and hearing their
The golden leaves contrast wonderfully with their whitish
gray bark. Aspens are usually around 20-50 feet high with a spread of
10-30 feet. They typically live to be 80-100 years old.
Quaking aspens are quick to spread into disturbed areas, such
as areas devastated by fire or an avalanche. Many animals depend on aspen
groves, some eat the twigs and bark including beaver, elk, and deer. Many
birds such as Mountain Chickadees, Violet Green Swallows, and Red-breasted
Nuthatches use aspen as a nesting site, some building on branches, some making
cavities in the trees' trunks.
For more info...
Reprinted from the Upper Tule News - October 2003 - with writer's
The Buckeye Tree - by Carol Zeigler
It's that time of year again when the buckeye trees start to turn brown and
loose their leaves.
Why is it that you an live in a place that has the world's largest trees, yet
what species of tree do people ask about the most? These buckeye trees!
"Why are those bright green trees with clusters of white
flowers shaped like bananas?"
"Why are those trees still blooming and everything else is dead?"
In the fall:
"What are those dead trees with brown pears hanging off of them?"
"What are those trees all brown?"
"Is fall coming early this year or something?"
"How come those pear trees are all dead?"
So, are ya'll ready for a little tree education? A California buckeye
tree (Aesculus californica) is a bushy foothill tree, 10-25 feel tall that grows
amongst the Canyon Live oaks and gray pine mostly between 1,000 and 3,000 feet
in elevation. It is the first tree to leaf out in spring, the last to
bloom and the first to lose its leaves. It grows from Siskiyou and Shasta
counties to northern Los Angeles and Kern Counties.
Several other buckeyes are native to the United States.
The seeds of the buckeye are poisonous, and resourceful Native Americans used
ground-up seeds to catch fish. They poured them into pools in streams and
caught the fish that floated up!
The seed pods do look like a pear from a distance. They
are actually a leathery husk that harbors just one seed each. Botanically
speaking, it's kind of odd that a cluster of flowers only produces one fruit and
I love buckeyes. In the spring they are almost a
fluorescent green and that color contrasts beautifully with the not-quite-green
oaks and chaparral. In the late summer they are a rusty brown, again
contrasting beautifully with the now-we're-green oaks and golden grass. In
the fall they are skeletal trees with their Christmas-ornament-like seed pods
dangling from their branches.
The seed is considered a good luck charm. If you grind
the seeds and leach them enough, they can be eaten.. They also have medicinal
properties; they can relieve the pain of arthritis and rheumatism.
Reprinted from the Upper Tule News - September 2003 - with writer's
Portrait of a Giant
Jim Balog's groundbreaking photograph of the Stagg Tree (read
an excerpt from Quest for the Green Giant
) required a trusty
digital camera, plenty of warm clothes, and a slight disregard
for personal safety. The details:
THE TREE IN NUMBERS
CLAIM TO FAME: World's fifth largest tree (based on volume of wood)
SPECIES: Sequoiadendron giganteum
HEIGHT: 242 feet (73.8 meters)
DIAMETER AT BASE: 25.5 feet (7.8 meters)
VOLUME: 44,100 cubic feet (1,249 cubic meters)
AGE: Approximately 2,000 years
CAMERA: Digital Nikon D1X
Tree researchers Billy Ellyson and Jim Spickler used a
crossbow to install a rope stretching laterally from the top
of Stagg to an unnamed neighboring giant sequoia. Balog
rappelled down alongside Stagg on a line fixed to the middle
of that rope, taking 451 photos as he made his descent. "The
whole system is at the mercy of the atmospheric swells
rolling into the Sierra in advance of a Pacific winter
storm, and I heave up and down with them," Balog writes in
the February issue of Adventure.
"Just about the time I clipped the jumars onto the rope to
start climbing, it started to rain. The temperature was just
about a half a degree above freezing. I had on a full
Gore-Tex suit with a bib and two thick layers of fleece, and
yet I was soaked to the skin by the time my feet returned to
Earth? about four hours after I'd left it."
"When I started this project, I spent my first week in the
field shooting redwoods on film because I really didn't
trust that a digital camera could hold up to the moisture
conditions. When I got back home, I realized I had about 75
pictures, and I began arranging them on a big sheet of
matchboard. I knew that to compose the final shot I would
eventually have to scan each of the pictures, which is not
cheap. It became obvious that digital was the solution."
"After the first pass to assemble the composite [more than
400 individual photos were used], we've been tweaking and
perfecting the Stagg photo for nearly two years now? color,
density, and in a few cases there were compositional things
that needed improvement. Between the first composite and
what appears in Adventure, easily 200 plus hours were
spent in post-production on the picture."
"Despite the fact that this was shot looking through a rainy
snow or a snowy rain, it comes out looking like it's an
average, pearly light kind of a day. The tree has
singularity and presence. I consider myself a photographic
artist who looks for fresh ways for humans to look at nature
and to understand themselves in relationship to it. I hope
that somewhere in this tree project, I've started to evoke
the personality and individuality of each tree. That's the
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Friday September 22, 2006