Saturday, December 5, 2009

Incense Cedar

I was trying find the next logical tree to discuss, but it found us instead. We took Brian for a visit to Rancho San Antonio, a preserve in the nearby Santa Cruz mountains. It was a rough day, but-- right at the end-- we stopped to look at some conifers next to the parking lot.

These trees had scale-like leaves, rather than needles. That put them in the family Cupressaceae (cypresses, junipers, false cedars, etc.) rather than Pinaceae (pines, firs, spruces, etc.) Most twigs had little yellow tips.

We had some trouble finding any cones. But a lot of trees in Cupressaceae have cones that are quite different from your typical "pine cone", and I eventually spotted something on the ground that matched a picture in Conifers of California. In this case, the cones had only a few scales, arranged like the petals of a flower.

Unlike many tree species, Incense Cedar has prospered in recent centuries. The wood was not useful as lumber, so loggers would cut everything else and leave Incense Cedar. In this way, it has taken over vast tracts.

Incense Cedar wood is ideal for pencil-making. My guess is that the pencil business isn't doing so well, so this isn't much of a threat to the species.

There are two cousins of Incense Cedar in east Asia; that is, both are members of the genus Calocedrus, along with Incense Cedar, which is Calocedrus Decurrens. The wood of all three species is aromatic and rot-resistant. A Natural History of Western Trees says that depletion of the other species made Incense Cedar a popular export to east Asia for use in coffins. All authorities agree on this point, but I suspect all authorities are-- like me-- just parroting Donald Peattie.

Like Port Orford Cedar, Incense Cedar is not a "true" cedar. True cedars are native to north Africa, the middle east, and the Himalayan region. But, informally, every tree with wood that stinks good is a cedar.

The Incense Cedars we saw at Rancho San Antonio were arranged in a neat line. Remarkably, some tree species naturally form straight rows. This is because they grow from on top of other, downed logs-- so-called "nurse logs". But, in this case, I suspect the trees were just planted in a row. So we haven't yet seen Incense Cedar in its natural environment. This tree grows almost everywhere in California except for the bay area and the deserts, so we can't see it locally but we should see some on almost every trip.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


I'm sure there is some way to make links available in Blogger, but I haven't found it yet. So I'll put my collection here:

National registry of big trees:

Conifer Country, a site about conifers in northwestern California:

Ponderosa Pine

So far, I've discussed two relatively rare species: Port Orford Cedar and Weeping Spruce. In contrast, Ponderosa Pine is the western conifer. Its big, its useful, and its everywhere. We won't need to skulk around the Klamath Mountains in northwestern California to find Ponderosa Pine; I pass several just walking Brian over to his daycare.

Ponderosa Pine is a pine. (This may seem obvious, but Port Orford Cedar is not a Cedar, Douglas Fir is not a fir, etc.) The distinctive feature of pines is that the needles come in bundles of 1 to 5. The number of needles in a bundle is a good clue to the species. For example, Ponderosa Pine has 3 long needles per bundle.

The bark of Ponderosa Pine is fairly distinctive. It is gray with orange-ish regions and dark-colored cracks, and breaks off in thin puzzle-piece shapes.

Ponderosa Pine is so widespread that there is inevitably considerable variation within the species. This leads inevitably to a question: How different can two trees be while still being considered the same species? There seems to be no definitive answer, so botanists squabble and throw around terms like "subspecies" and "variety". Here are some interesting cases, which I'll discuss later in more detail.
  • Jeffrey Pine is a distinct species similar to Ponderosa Pine that generally lives at higher elevations and is more prone to exploding. More about that later.
  • Washoe Pine may be a rare species that grows near the elbow of California, or may be a subspecies of Ponderosa Pine that grows commonly elsewhere.
  • Arizona Pine typically has 5 needles per bundle, but sometimes has only 4 or even 3, like Ponderosa Pine. It is otherwise similar to Ponderosa Pine, but thinking about the relationship is evolving.
How should we visit Ponderosa Pine? The goal is to see the conifers of California in their natural habitat. So park trees by the daycare don't count. But there are still a ton of Ponderosa Pines, so how do we make a special trip?

Well, the largest Ponderosa Pine in the United States was discovered in 2008:

I think that tree should be our target. The location is described as, "a few miles north of Forest Glen Campground on the South Fork Management Unit of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest."

Another article says:

"Forester Tim Lovitt was taking a break for lunch last summer when a massive tree on the other side of the meadow made him put his food down. [...] There are not immediate plans to cut a trail to it."

A July 2008 article says:

"California National Guard's "Task Force Pick" came to the rescue when the wildfires in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest threatened the nation's tallest Ponderosa Pine tree. [...] With low-hanging branches, the tree was immediately threatened by sparks and embers from nearby fires that could easily ignite the tree if the wind shifted just right. The team of Guardsmen spent hours trimming these low-hanging threats and also cleared a wide area around the tree that would eliminate any fuel source on the ground. Two Guard members spent the entire day cutting down neighboring trees, and the rest of the team stacked piles of wood that would burn a safe distance from the tree. They also set up a water sprinkler system that would keep the cleared area moist."

(Sounds like they tried hard, but I wonder if the tree is vulnerable to wind without neighbors?)

The challenges will be to locate this tree precisely and then get there without a trail.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Weeping Spruce

The northwestern corner of California is particularly rich with conifers. The tallest trees on earth grow along the foggy coast. And the mountains inland somehow avoided recent rounds of glaciation, so they are a haven of biodiversity. In fact, Weeping Spruce survives nowhere else.

Weeping Spruce is also called Brewer Spruce, which can be confusing. Its scientific name is Picea Breweriana. Scientific names are suppose to remove the confusion caused by variation in the common name. But this only sort of works, because scientists also disagree all the time.

Scientific naming is apparently an involved topic, but the basics are simple enough. A bunch of species forms a genus. A bunch of genus-es ("genera") form a family. The first part of a scientific name is the genus and the second identifies the species within that genus. So, for example, Weeping Spruce is the species Breweriana within the genus Picea. In fact, the genus Picea consists of all spruces.

Stepping back a bit, remember that a bunch of genera form a family. Conifers of California fall into two families:
  • Pinaceae, which have needles. This includes Weeping Spruce as well as pines, firs, larches, hemlocks, and all other spruce.
  • Cupressaceae, which have scales. This includes Port Orford Cedar and a few miscellaneous species, but is dominated by cypresses and junipers.
There are also one or two other small families that I'll come to later.

Back to Weeping Spruce. The name "Weeping Spruce" gives away the tree's distinctive feature: each needle-covered branchlet droops straight down from the branch, sometimes extending several feet. Even the cones are long and thin, hanging down from the branch as in all spruces.

Not only does this tree grow naturally only in northwestern California, but also it grows only in remote, upper elevation areas. And, remarkably, there aren't even any close relatives of Weeping Spruce in the region; aside from the obvious weeping aspect, this tree differs radically from all other Californian trees at a chemical level.

This is a sole survivor hiding out in a land of the lost. Visiting this one should be great fun!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Port Orford Cedar

Cedars are native to north Africa, the middle east, and the Himalayan region-- not North America. So the several California conifers informally called "cedars" aren't, according to the experts.

Port Orford Cedar is one of those non-cedar cedars.

California conifers are about evenly split between those with needles (like a Christmas tree) and those with scales (like a juniper bush). Port Orford Cedar is in the cypress family, so its on the scaly side. True cedars have needles. Not a subtle difference.

But, unlike your average juniper bush, Port Orford Cedar grows up to about 200 feet, which is tall by most standards. For comparison, few species in the world break 300 feet. The tallest Coastal Redwoods are close to 400.

There are two really good books about California conifers. One is A Natural History of Western Trees, by Donald Culross Peattie, written in 1953. The other, Conifers of California, was written by Ronald Lanner about a half-century later, in 1999. I'll cite these books a lot.

Anyway, both books note that Port Orford Cedar has fragrant, rot-resistant wood, which explains the otherwise wildly-inaccurate "cedar" in the name.

But 50 years make for one big difference in the aacounts. Peattie noted that logging had taken a heavy toll on this tree by the middle of the last century. Lanner is more concerned with an additional threat, a fungus called phytophthora lateralis, which was apparently imported from Asia.

Phytophthora lateralis complicates a visit to Port Orford Cedar. Cars are generally blocked from areas where the tree grows, because tires might carry the disease. And cleaning shoes on the way in and out seems the considerate thing to do.

California Conifers

I like to tromp around in wilderness. A lot. But now I've got a cute little baby, so my tromping opportunities are pretty limited. For now, I'm limited to dreaming and planning.

Here's my dream: I want to see all the conifers of California in their natural habitats.

This seems like a good dream to me. There's an educational aspect: learning about trees, the geography of the California, and odd bits of natural history. And this seems like a family-friendly goal. Brian (the cute little baby mentioned above) won't be ready for long backpacking trips for some time. But visiting trees is not so difficult, for the most part. And lots and lots of planning will be-- if not necessary, then at least possible. This should keep me out of trouble.

Finally, if you're going to take an interest in trees, then California is a pretty good place to be. The oldest, tallest, and largest trees in the world are all found here.

My plan for this blog is to review the "targets" and then, hopefully, record our attempts to find them.