Finding an Ecological Niche: Selected Foothill Woodland and Chaparral Species, Part 1 of 3: The Blue Oak
By Laura Lukes, UC Master Gardener of Butte County, February 22, 2019
[Note: Blue oak (Quercus douglasii), gray pine (Pinus sabiniana), and buckeye (Aesculus californica) are three species that thrive in rugged local foothill woodland and chaparral habitat. Today and in the following weeks, this series will look at these species and the adaptive strategies they have evolved over time to thrive in their challenging environment.]
What drives the evolutionary journey of the flora and fauna that populate our globe?
Some species cooperate by sharing resources. For example, in Tortuguero, a tiny strip of beach along the northeastern shoulder of Costa Rica, four separate species of sea turtle lay their eggs each year. They migrate to the beach at different times, ranging from early March to October, and feed on different resources. Millions of turtles, and untold numbers of their babies, have shared the same tiny piece of real estate for eons.
Here in our own backyard, there are species that have evolved to exploit ecological niches that very few others claim. These are the various oaks, conifers, and woody shrubs that populate the foothill woodland and chaparral zone of the Western Sierra Nevada and Coast Range mountains. A dominant species in this environmental nook is the blue oak (Quercus douglasii). According to Andrew Conlin, Soil Scientist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), “the presence of blue oak woodlands indicates really rough growing conditions: shallow, tough soils” as opposed to the rich loamy soils of the valley, which are preferred by valley oaks.
Quercus douglasii also goes by a number of other common names, including white oak, mountain oak, mountain white oak, and iron oak. But it acquired its most familiar and descriptive common name from the same person from whom its Latin binomial (scientific name) is derived. In 1831 David Douglas, a Scottish botanist, christened it the blue oak for the bluish cast of its deeply lobed leaves. (A digression: Douglas, for whom the Douglas-fir and hundreds of other western plants are named, lived from 1799 to 1834. He made three trips to the American Northwest between 1823 and 1831, encountering the blue oak on his last trip while traveling from the Columbia River in Oregon to San Francisco. He died under curious circumstances, apparently after falling into a bull trap while climbing Mauna Kea in Hawai'i.)
Blue oaks are native to California's foothills, South Coast Range, North Coast Range and San Francisco Bay Area, forming a botanical loop around the Central Valley. Depending on the source consulted, these trees average between 30 and 80 feet tall. But all sources agree that the blue oak is the most drought tolerant of all the deciduous oaks in the state.
Surviving Drought and Fire:
Adaptations to survive the long, hot, dry summers and sparse winter rains of our Mediterranean climate include thick leaves with a bluish-green color. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), blue-gray-green leaf color reduces heat absorption. During severely hot and dry years, blue oaks will sometimes shed their leaves and go dormant to conserve energy, allowing these tough little oaks to survive temperatures above 100° F for several weeks at a time. Like many plants growing in marginal soils, blue oaks are slow growers, usually increasing only a few inches each year.
Although blue oaks can tolerate fast-burning grass fires, they have less success in surviving hotter brush fires, according to University of California Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources (UCANR). If a tree does survive a fire event, it can reproduce both through seeds and by sprouting from burnt stumps. Blue oaks can produce sprouts after a low- to moderate-severity surface fire, and younger trees have the edge on older trees for fire survival odds. On younger trees, the light-colored bark (hence “white oak”) is thick and helps reduce fire damage, the USDA notes, whereas the bark of mature blue oaks is thin and will flake off as the trees age, making older blue oaks less insulated against fire. After a fire, blue oaks can also re-establish from acorns that have dropped from surviving parent trees and/or been dispersed by animals, among other possibilities.
USDA research also reveals that the blue oak's post-fire recovery is likely aided by the fact that it withstands extreme drought by dropping leaves under water stress and producing a flush of new leaves when wet weather returns. In fact, in wet years, crown-scorched blue oaks may produce a flush of new leaves soon after fire.
Native American Uses:
All parts of the blue oak were woven deeply into the culture and survival of California's native peoples. It was one of more than a dozen oak species whose acorns contributed a major source of dietary nutrients and calories. Because of their superior flavor, blue oak acorns were among the most commonly gathered.
A Plant Guide published by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provides an exhaustive list of the ways California Native Americans used blue oak wood, bark, and acorns, including as “medicine, dyes, utensils, games, toys, and construction materials.” Locally, the Maidu used oak shoots to frame cradleboards and oak posts to construct shelter, and the Yana used an oak paddle in cooking. Traps for birds were baited with acorns, and split acorns became dice for gambling.
Besides providing physical sustenance to native peoples, I imagine that the peaceful beauty of blue oak woodlands fed their souls. Twisted, dwarfed blue oak silhouettes are a classic component of the California landscape. These trees are prime examples of successful adaptation to truly demanding habitat and climate conditions.
Sources and further information:
Rising From the Ashes
Master Gardeners are taking note of the vegetation emerging on property destroyed by the Camp Fire. On Fay Crociani's Upper Paradise lot, native salvia reappeared in early January, sprouting from roots of plants that had burned to the ground. A potted erodium (Alpine geranium) also showed leaves in January, followed in February by green leaves emerging from desiccated black iris rhizomes. More irises, planted in plastic pots, survived the fire even though the plastic melted around them, and other plants and leaves continue to rise from the scorched ground. Fay encourages folks to watch and see what comes up before totally digging up an area. She says “there is real magic and joy in my heart when I spot new growth. I know hundreds of plants will never come back, but many, many will if we have the patience to wait.”/h2>