By Laura Lukes, UC Master Gardener of Butte County, April 19, 2019
“Gardening becomes increasingly difficult as we age, yet the garden beckons as strongly as ever,” notes Butte County Master Gardener Kay Perkins. Our bodies become less limber and agile, and more prone to injury, which makes tasks such as pulling weeds, pushing wheel-barrows, digging holes, pruning, hauling, and moving heavy objects ever more challenging with advancing years.
The workshop topics were summarized from a book by Sydney Eddison, Gardening for a Lifetime: How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older. Eddison is the author of six previous books on gardening, and was awarded the National Garden Clubs, Inc.'s Award of Excellence in 2010.
For over 50 years, Eddison (who was born in 1932) was an aficionado of time-consuming gardening choices: "It took a great deal of effort to make my garden as high-maintenance as it is….That was the point of it all” she writes. Then a bothersome hip replacement put a damper on her garden activities, one of which was "digging great big holes and moving plants around all the time.” Refusing to give up the gardening she loved, she began researching low-maintenance garden techniques. Those discussed at the workshop are explained below. A list of suggested tools and plants can be found at the end of this article.
Rethinking Perennial Borders: Eddison once designed, planted, and maintained huge perennial borders. Perennials are notoriously labor intensive, often demanding year-round attention, including staking, deadheading, pruning, dividing, and neatening and tidying. Granted, they offer enormous rewards in terms of color and texture, and add overall interest to the landscape. Eddison argues that shrubs can play the same role in the garden, with infinitely less trouble. Shrubs offer the same or more value, for less work.
Choose compact or dwarf varieties of popular shrubs (such as buddleia) that need pruning only one or two times a year. Shrubs that produce berries add a splash of bright color to gray winter days, and provide a source of food to overwintering and migrating bird species. Eddison is a fan of conifers because they offer year-round color and variegated foliage texture, and also add structural interest in the form of cones, globes, and mounds. But choose wisely and think carefully before planting shrubs as they are more difficult to move than perennials.
List, list, list: Making lists saves time, reduces aggravation, and increases organization and efficiency. Take the time to develop a Master List and a Daily List. The Master List should contain all garden tasks, large or small, organized by season and species (such as tree, shrub, or perennial), prioritized by importance. Your list may seem daunting and impossibly long at first, but Eddison promises that you will be surprised by how many of these tasks you will be able to accomplish. Nothing beats the satisfaction of crossing a task off the list for that season.
The Daily List is developed from the Master List and should be realistic for the time you can allot to the garden on any given day, and for your abilities. This list should also indicate if the task is essential or aesthetic in nature. These lists can help you keep from getting distracted or pulled in different directions by the garden's demands. If you are lucky enough to have a helper in for the day, a list for your helper will save him or her time.
Hire Helpers: The wisdom of age tells you that those days of “I can do it all without help” are over. Start by determining what kind of help you need (and this will change over time). Do you need help periodically with large jobs, on a weekly, monthly, or seasonal schedule, or would you like to be able to call on someone as needed? Do you need an experienced professional, or someone to whom you can teach the necessary skills? Places to find garden helpers include: horticultural programs at high schools, vocational schools, and community colleges; referrals from fellow gardeners; and contacts from local nurseries. Be sure to be clear about what you want your helper to do. And make sure you are realistic in your expectations, the number of hours you think tasks will take, and what you are willing to pay.
Realize which plants have grown beyond your ability to manage. Decide whether to 1) continue to invest time and money into them; 2) give them a brutal pruning to see if that revives them; or 3) remove and replace them. The hardest friends to remove are the old landscape trees which have contributed shade and beauty to the garden over many years. If one must go, don't be too quick to replace it – you may find the increased sun allows new landscape opportunities and that you enjoy the newly-opened space.
Container Gardens: Gardening in attractive containers of varying shapes and sizes is an excellent choice for yards with poor soil, and for those gardeners with increasingly limited mobility and/or strength. Containers placed along paths or around decks create a sense of structure and privacy, while providing displays of life and color.
Before you move on to the following lists of ergonomic tools and plants to consider for your garden, consider Eddison's sage advice for the aging gardener: “Our best hope of a simpler way to garden is to follow nature and learn to go with the flow.”
Ergonomic Tools and Tool Suppliers: Loppers and pruners with soft grips; ratchet loppers and pruners; pole saws with extension handles; lightweight durable ultra-flexible kink-free garden hoses such as those made by Zero-G; digging and weeding tools such as those made by Radius Garden tools; hori hori knives; short- and long-handled weeders; shovels with U-handles; kneeling pads and benches; rolling seats; aprons with deep pockets.
Battery-Operated Tools: Blowers, hedge trimmers, lawn mowers, weed whackers, hand spreaders.
Other Tips: Use lightweight containers or rolling carts for hauling; plant in raised beds; use a pool siphon for cleaning ponds and water features; keep a cell phone or whistle with you when gardening; take frequent breaks to stand and stretch; stay hydrated.
List of Easy-Care Plants for Butte County (compiled by Dana Drennan, UC Master Gardener of Butte County)
Shrubs: Callistemon (bottlebrush); Cercis (redbud); Chaenomeles (flowering quince); Cistus (rock rose); Cotinus (smoke tree or smoke bush); Dodonaea (hop bush); Grevillea; Echium; Lavandula (bush lavender); Osmanthus (sweet olive); Prostanthera (mint bush).
Perennials: Achillea (yarrow); Anigozanthos (Kangaroo Paw); Caryopteris (Bluebeard); Epilobium (California fuchsia); Hemerocallis (day lily); Iris (see below); Origanum (oregano); Nepeta (cat mint); Perovskia (Russian sage); Salvias; Solidago (golden rod); Teucrium (Germander); Westringia (Coast rosemary); grasses such as Bouteloua, Carex, Muhlenbergia, and Stipa.
List of Lower-Maintenance Perennials (compiled by Eddison)
Sedum 'Autumn Joy', Agastache “Blue Fortune”, ornamental grasses, Liriope, Boltonia asteroides “snowbank”, Amsonia, Aster 'Raydon's Favorite', lamb's ears, Siberian iris, and daylilies.
Sydney Eddison, Gardening for a Lifetime: How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older (Timber Press, Timber Press).
Susan Harris, 10 Great Things about Gardening for a Lifetime, at www.gardenrant.com
By Kim Schwind, UC Master Gardener of Butte County, April 5, 2019
In recent months there has been disturbing news about the decline of the Western Monarch population. The North American Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is a familiar and charismatic insect. It is known for its amazing migration and its reliance on one plant in particular: milkweed.
There are many hazards along the way. The monarchs that start their migration in the spring will not live long, so in order to lay their eggs they must locate a stand of milkweed. Once laid, it takes three to five days for the eggs to hatch into caterpillars. Monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed. They grow and molt through five developmental stages over a span of 14 to 18 days. Each caterpillar then spins silk attaching itself to a milkweed leaf or stem and forms a chrysalis (hardened outer protector). After about 10 days it emerges from the chrysalis as an adult butterfly. The lifespan of this adult butterfly is very short – just two to six weeks. In that time it feeds on nectar and continues the migration journey. It might take three or four generations to reach the end of the migration. The last generation (which has a lifespan of months rather than weeks) flies back to its ancestral start where it overwinters in large trees. In Pacific Grove, California they overwinter in a large grove of eucalyptus trees.
The reasons for Monarch decline are varied, and include habitat loss, disease and predation, use of herbicides and pesticides, and climate change.
What can be done to help these beautiful pollinators?
Backyard gardeners can help restore breeding and migratory habitat here in
Milkweed is a perennial plant. It is named for its milky, latex sap. Milkweed is drought tolerant and deer resistant. The native species are not invasive. Milkweed plants develop large fleshy seed pods. When the seeds are mature, the pods pop open, freeing the seeds. Attached to the seeds are fine tufts of hairs (called pappus) which aid dispersal of the seeds: as the wind blows, it catches the silky hairs, carrying the seeds away from the plant. The seeds can be collected from the pods for later propagation or left alone to re-seed themselves.
Home gardeners can aid the Monarch population by adding milkweed to their landscape, pollinator garden, herb garden, or even a patio container. If you own a larger plot of land you might consider letting some of it remain wild, so that the wild nectar producing flowers are available not only for butterflies, but for other pollinators as well. Hedgerows that include milkweed and nectar flowers are a wonderful way of attracting wildlife and pollinators. Creating a monarch way station (a garden that includes milkweed, nectar flowers and a water source) is a nice addition to a community or school garden.
Milkweed is also a great host plant for many other beneficial insects including bees, beetles, and lady beetles (ladybugs). It will also attract a yellow aphid known as Oleander aphid. This aphid will not destroy the plant and it will not infest nearby roses or vegetable gardens. It is plant specific: think of the Oleander aphid as food for the lady beetles.
Avoid using pesticides or herbicides that might damage these breeding and feeding areas. Use caution where you plant the seeds, as milkweed can be toxic to livestock.
Area specific milkweed seeds can be purchased online. You can also find milkweed plants at our upcoming Master Gardener plant sale on Saturday, April 20th, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at our Demonstration Garden at Patrick Ranch, located at 10381 Midway, Durham. For more information on the plant sale, see the Butte County Master Gardener website at https://ucanr.edu/sites/bcmg/
For more information on Monarchs and milkweed, visit the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Their website also includes area-specific nectar plant lists.
Finally, local butterfly experts highly recommend Monarchs and Milkweed: A Migrating Butterfly, a Poisonous Plant, and Their Remarkable Story of Coevolution by Anurag Agrawal (2017).An interview with Agrawal on this subject recently aired locally on the North State Public Radio program Cultivating Place, and is available as a podcast here.
For more information on gardening in our area, visit our website Butte County Master Gardener. If you have a gardening question or problem, call our Hotline at (530) 538-7201 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finding an Ecological Niche: A Three-Part Series on Selected Foothill Woodland and Chaparral Species, Part 3 of 3: The Buckeye
By Laura Lukes, UC Master Gardener of Butte County, March 22, 2019
[Note: Buckeye (Aesculus californica), gray pine (Pinus sabiniana), and blue oak (Quercus douglasii) are tree species that thrive in rugged local foothill woodland and chaparral habitat. In the last two editions, we covered the blue oak and the gray pine. This final installment explores the buckeye. All three species rely on adaptive strategies evolved over time allowing them to thrive in their challenging environment.]
Aesculus californica is a woody shrub or small tree that has adapted to a variety of microclimates in our state: it can be found along the central coast and in the foothill and lower montane elevations of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Ranges. It grows as far north as the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains, and as far south as northern Los Angeles County. Native buckeyes can grow in elevations as high as 4,000 feet (one source claims 5,500 feet), but most commonly these plants colonize the foothill altitudes. A true California native, it is found nowhere else in the world.
The California buckeye's variable height attests to its nuanced response to climatic conditions: in northern reaches, the buckeye is shrubby and squat (about 12 feet tall). Further south, it can reach tree-like statures of up to 30 feet. In the kinder habitat conditions of the Coast Range, an Aesculus californica has attained sufficient proportions to be registered as a California Big Tree. That one, in Swanton Pacific Ranch, measures 46 feet high, has a trunk circumference of 176 inches, and a crown that spreads to 60 feet.
The seeds of Aesculus californica are contained in a thick leathery husk, which splits when dried, and are the largest of any non-tropical plant species. These seeds (also called nuts) are the origin of both of its common names: buckeye and horse chestnut. According to Cal Poly's Select Tree web page, Native Americans called the seed "hetuck" (buck eye) because its markings resemble the eye of a deer. The seeds also resemble those of the European sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa). And there the resemblance ends, as the heavy seeds of the California buckeye are toxic, thus limiting its reproductive dispersal strategies to rolling downhill or being conveyed by water.
In addition to toxic seeds, the buckeye's leaves, shoots, and flowers are poisonous. All contain the neurotoxin glycoside aesculin, which is destructive to red blood cells. Although ruminants can feed on very young shoots without harm, and squirrels are able to tolerate the nuts, this toxin protects the buckeye from damage or death by grazing animals. As Ridgeway points out, “the sweetly fragrant flowers of this tree provide a rich pollen and nectar source for native bees, hummingbirds, and many species of butterflies” and are toxic only to non-native honey bees. Honey bees that do survive after ingesting buckeye toxins reproduce “buckeyed-bees” that hatch with deformed, crippled wings or malformed legs and bodies.
A deep taproot allows the buckeye to find water in even the driest of years. A fully developed root system also helps mature California buckeyes to survive drought by enabling the plant to both save and draw on food and water reserves. According to USDA research, California buckeyes recover rapidly following a fire, sending out new shoots during the first growing season, and growing rapidly in following seasons. Some buckeyes can exceed their pre-fire biomass within a few years. They can sprout from their root crown after top-kill by fire within a few weeks, even in the summer months. The USDA also notes that buckeye seeds will probably not survive fire because they are highly susceptible to desiccation by heat.
The same toxin that limited the buckeye seed to a food source only in times of hunger was used to snare a more delicious high protein food source. Native California tribes, including the Pomo, Yokut, and Luiseño, cleverly used the ground-up powder of buckeye seeds to stupefy schools of fish in small streams, making them easier to catch. And the smooth, straight branches of the buckeye made it useful to native peoples as a bow drill and a fire drill.
Our native buckeye is a California beauty and a hardy survivor in some of the least hospitable habitats. In the biological contest for survival, this tough, gorgeous plant holds a winning hand.
For more information on gardening in our area, visit the Butte County Master Gardener web page at: http://ucanr.edu/sites/bcmg/. If you have a gardening question or problem, call our Hotline at (530) 538-720l.
Sue Ridgeway, The Bisexual California Buckeye – sinner or survivalist? UCANR website: http://sonomamg.ucanr.edu/Plant_of_the_Month/Aesculus_californica_-_California_buckeye/
M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural Resources (University of California Press, 2005).
Urban Forests Ecosystem Institute at CalPoly SelecTree: https://selectree.calpoly.edu/tree-detail/Aesculus-californica
Stanford Trees: https://trees.stanford.edu/ENCYC/AEScal.htm
USDA: FEIS: FIRE EFFECTS INFORMATION SYSTEM: https://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/tree/aescal/all.html#FIRE%20ECOLOGY
Carol Bornstein, David Fross, and Bart O'Brien, California Native Plants for the Garden (Cachuma Press, 2005)
Buckeye's namesake is its large nut: By John Morgan from Walnut Creek, CA, USA - IMG_8269, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25021982
Buckeye flower spike: By Eugene Zelenko - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2103608
Buckeye leafs out early in the spring: By Eugene Zelenko - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18732498
Finding an Ecological Niche: A Three-Part Series on Selected Foothill Woodland and Chaparral Species, Part 2 of 3: The Gray Pine
By Laura Lukes, UC Master Gardener of Butte County, March 8, 2019
[Note: Gray pine (Pinus sabiniana), buckeye (Aesculus californica), and blue oak (Quercus douglasii) are tree species that thrive in rugged local foothill woodland and chaparral habitat. Last edition, we covered the blue oak, and today the gray pine is featured. The final installment will explore the buckeye. All three species rely on adaptive strategies evolved over time allowing them to thrive in their challenging environment.]
But underneath that homely exterior lies a true gem. This tree's many common names testify to its importance: gray pine, California foothill pine, foothill pine, nut pine, bull pine, and ghost pine. Its pejorative historic name, digger pine, is no longer in use. The Maidu named it “towáni” and the Yana called it “c'ala'I.” Its scientific name derives from the English lawyer, naturalist, and writer on horticulture Joseph Sabine (1770 to 1837). Sabine had a lifelong interest in natural history and was an original fellow of the Linnean Society. It was Sabine who was responsible for sending David Douglas on specimen collecting trips, specifically to supply plants to the Royal Horticultural Society Gardens.
We are not certain of the lifespan of the gray pine, because older specimens were cut down by early settlers, but it is believed that these trees can live for over 200 years. When mature, they average from 40 to 80 feet tall. About 15 to 25 feet off the ground, gray pines develop two or more twisted stems that can grow at irregular angles to one another, resulting in a crown that appears open and ragged. Gray pine is self-pruning, and the remaining lowest branches will end up high above the understory. Where soils allow, gray pines can develop a deep taproot, but in hardpan soils their roots are spreading and shallow, and the bark thickens as the tree ages.
The female cones are the largest and heaviest in the entire pine family. They could be mistaken for a football lying amongst shed needles, as they can be up to one foot long, and when dry are dull orange/brown. A green cone can weigh over two pounds. That, and their sharp spines, warn one to be alert while treading under this tree!
Like the blue oak, a common co-habitant, the gray pine is endemic to the California Sierra Nevada and Coast Range foothills. The two trees are so often found together that "oak/foothill pine vegetation" or "oak/gray pine vegetation" describes a type of habitat characteristic of the chaparral and woodlands ecoregion in California. Gray pines even surpass blue oaks in their ability to tolerate harsh conditions: they are found in the Transverse and Peninsular Ranges, and the Mojave Desert sky islands. They can handle from as little as 10 inches of rain per year to an annual 70 inches in parts of the Sierra Nevada. While these pines prefer rocky, well-drained soil, they will grow in notoriously poor serpentine soils and heavy, poorly drained clay soils. Their ability to withstand extreme soils comes from a special adaptive strategy: they are able to regulate uptake of soil nutrients as needed.
Surviving Drought and Fire
In an evolutionary adaptation to the dry hot summers of a Mediterranean climate, the gray pine has thin, gray needles up to 12 inches long that help it deflect heat and retain water. Surprisingly, this species is not fire resistant. On the contrary, it is highly flammable: its needles contain ether extracts; its wood, bark, cones, and needle sheaths all contain pitch; and its trunk often is coated with resin that has dripped from wounds. Its fire survival strategy lies in two specific adaptations. First, large trees will better survive moderate-severity fires because the thickened bark of mature trees and the self-pruned trunks with high branching limbs are best able to avoid fatal scorching. Second, seed regeneration is actually favored post-fire. As noted by the USDA, fire creates a receptive “bare mineral soil seedbed, and heat scarification of the woody seed coat increases germination rates.”
For California's native peoples, the gray pine was (and still is) a nutritional jackpot! Pine nuts are densely caloric, loaded with protein, easy to harvest, and store well for long periods. While many of California's pines provided food to native populations, the nuts of the gray pine were the most highly valued. They could be eaten raw, parched in baskets, and steamed in earth ovens. They were pounded into flour that was made into butter, soup, or bread; mixed with meal made from other dried seeds; and combined with dried salmon. In spring, green cones were roasted to yield a syrupy treat.
Every part of the pine tree had a use. Deadfall was used for firewood; needles served as tinder or were fashioned into torches and were also burned as a smudge for spider bites. Fresh, frangrant needles were spread on the floor of earth lodges. Supple branches were used as stirring sticks and to lift hot rocks from fires. Pine roots were used in basketry and the pine's abundant resin was used for medicinal purposes. Traditionally this species provided vital resources to native peoples. One can only imagine how horrifying it must have been for the tribes that relied so heavily on this tree, to see most of the old growth pines “harvested” during the Gold Rush era to fuel the engines at quartz mines.
Crooked, ragged, and awkward as the gray pine may appear, its ability to thrive under environmental hardship, and its value to native peoples' survival make it an ecological and cultural champion. After all, handsome is as handsome does.
For sources and further information, see the following:
M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural Resources (University of California Press, 2005).
Laura Brodhead, “Native Plant Society: An appreciation of the gray pine,” Redding Record Searchlight, February 4, 2017:
Conifer Society: http://conifersociety.org/conifers/conifer/pinus/sabiniana/
Trees of Stanford: https://trees.stanford.edu/ENCYC/PINsab.htm
For more information on gardening in our area, visit the Butte County Master Gardener web page at: http://ucanr.edu/sites/bcmg/. If you have a gardening question or problem, call our Hotline at (530) 538-7201.
Pine against the sky: http://www.treebuzz.com/forum/media/mature-digger-pine-trees-pinus-sabiniana.509/
Needles and cones: : https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pinus_sabiniana.jpg
Rising From the Ashes, March 8, 2019
The UC Master Gardeners of Butte County are taking note of vegetation re-emerging on property destroyed by the Camp Fire. Robert DiPietro reports that while the fire destroyed everything on his Lower Pentz Road property between Stearns and Country Club, he is now seeinggarlic, red onions, artichokes, day lilies, primrose, columbine, and bluebells appearing, along with all of the grasses and some succulents and cacti. Fay Crociani has a daffodil blooming on her Upper Paradise lot – its leaves and stem are shorter than usual, but the color is beautiful, and she says tulips and naked ladies (amaryllis belladonna) have also survived the fire, while stachys (7-up plant), ceanothus (mountain lilac), penstemon and aastache have put up identifiable shoots. She, too, says some of her succulents are showing signs of life. “Snooping around my neighborhood,” Fay reports, “I saw a badly damaged camellia blooming its heart out and a rhododendron with hundreds of new strong leaf buds. Mother Nature strong!!!”
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>