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) 538-7201 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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: 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>