P90309KThere are thousands of them, these weird motionless caterpillar like ‘things’, in big herds under all the cottonwood trees. They make a squishy mess in the rain, and stain concrete. They may not look like much from a distance, and are merely ignored as a minor nuisance that must be swept from pavement, but on closer inspection, they really look unworldly, like something from another planet, or a bad Japanese science fiction movie.
They are just male catkins of the native cottonwoods. At least I believe they are. If there are female flowers mixed in, I would not know it. Nor would I know if they really are from another planet. I know that the cottonwoods will later make quite a mess with their cottony fluff that carries their seed away on the wind, so they must do what it takes to generate seed, which generally involves flowers of both genders. I just never look that closely. Their privacy should be respected in such matters, even if they choose to do it out in the open. Those that dropped this . . . whatever it is . . . were doing . . . whatever they were doing . . . right out in the big lawn of Felton Covered Bridge Park!
Why must cottonwood trees bloom so profusely? They must know what they are doing. Maybe they expect most of their tiny seed to get eaten by small seed eating birds. Perhaps all but a few of their seed stay in the same riparian situations from which they came, or blow far enough away to land in other equally hospitable riparian situations. Otherwise, almost all land in situations that are too dry for them to survive long after spring. It is difficult to know what their potentially nefarious motives are.


Greenhouse Envy

P90209KIf there were lawns and fences in this neighborhood, the grass would likely seem to be greener on the other side of the fence. In this situation, the greenhouse probably seemed to be more comfortable than being left out in the storm. This tall Douglas fir tree dropped in to find out. It did not go well. What remains can be seen in the middle of the picture above, just to the right of the fallen fir, and in the close up of the picture below.P90209K+
Miraculously, the two coastal redwood trees that caught and guided the fir to a direct hit on the greenhouse also prevented it from destroying the associated house. Well, at least the redwood on the left did. There would have been less damage if the fir had fallen farther to the right. Regardless, a deck was crushed, an eave was destroyed, but the rear wall of the home was barely nudged. Not even the windows there were broken!
Falling debris punched a few holes in the roof, but without structural damage. The patio of the big building to the right was littered with debris that was easily removed. After limbs are removed from the damaged house, much of the carcass of the fallen fir will remain on the forest floor. It decays efficiently here.
Incidentally, this fir was about to be removed. It had been identified as too risky for the neighborhood. Although they are not visible in the pictures, there are a few other homes in the neighborhood. The cabin that I stayed in for more than a week is just beyond where the top of the fir landed. The stovepipe that is visible in the background of the second of my ‘Six on Saturday – Cabin Fever’ pictures from January 5 is the same stove pipe that is visible on the roof of the home that was nearly destroyed by the fallen fir.
(The stove pipe circled by the yellow oval just above the center of the picture above is the same stove pipe circled by the yellow oval just right of the middle of the upper margin of the picture below.)P90209K+++

More Smoke

P81110KFire has always been a part of life in most of California. That is why almost all native flora benefits from it, and has developed an efficient system and schedule for not only living with it, but exploiting it.
Within a few years after a fire, the pioneer species are the first to regenerate. They are aggressive, but short lived. Some are annuals. Others are trees that grow fast and then die out as the slower growing but longer lived trees dominate. Some of the longer lived trees might have been there all along, since they have developed ways of surviving fire.
Big valley oaks and coast live oaks that live out in the open away from other forest trees can survive for centuries because the grasses around them burn off fast and relatively harmlessly. Giant redwoods and some pines survive by standing high above the more combustible fuel below. Coastal redwood survives for centuries by being less combustible than other species. Desert fan palms protect their single terminal buds inside their massive non combustible trunks, while their beards of old dead foliage burns hot enough to incinerate competing species. There are too many ingenious ways that plants survive fire and even use it to their advantage to write about; but the point is that they know what they are doing, and they know how to live with fire.
This system of ecology has been disrupted, but not just by people cutting down too many trees and starting too many fires. The problem now is that not enough trees are getting cut down, and fires are unable to burn that which relies on burning.
In this region, pioneer species and an unnatural mix of forest trees moved in where the redwoods were harvested. This makes what had been less combustible redwood forest more combustible than it naturally is. It will take centuries for the redwoods to reclaim their territory and crowd out more of the hardwood trees. Also, because the redwoods regenerate with many trunks from each individual trunk that was harvested, even the redwoods are more crowded and combustible than they would naturally be. While they are still relatively young, their foliar canopies are low and intermingled with the other more combustible trees. It is certainly not possible to cut down enough trees to repair the damage, but protecting too many of the wrong trees and outlawing selective harvest of second growth redwood only promotes combustibility of the local forests.
Other forests, whether formerly harvested or not, experience similar problems. Because they are not burning as frequently as they used to, they are not being regularly purged and restored, but are instead becoming more crowded and combustible than they would naturally be. Diseases and pathogens are proliferating in the geriatric vegetation, and vegetation that succumbs provide more fuel, which also enhances combustibility.
Although there are many (MANY) more fires that are started by human activity now than there ever was naturally, such fires can not burn the vast areas that naturally occurring fires had naturally burned. There are just too many of us living and working here. Forests that are deprived of fire continue to proliferate more combustible biomass. Again, there is no remedy to this. Fires must be controlled and confined as much as possible.
Paradise is gone now. It burned on Thursday. Our region more than two hundred miles to the south is gray with abundant smoke from the Camp Fire that continues to burn there. Two other major fires burn in Ventura and Los Angeles Counties, more than three hundred miles to the south of here. Paradise Park just to the south of here was protected from the much smaller Rincon Fire that filled the Valley with harsh smoke for days after it was contained. Sadly, for this region, this is all part of nature.P81110K+

I do not remember on what days these pictures were taken. The first picture at the top was taken toward the sunrise, just prior to sunrise. The second picture above was taken later after noon, probably on the same day. The two pictures below were taken in the evening, perhaps on the day after. P81110K++P81110K+++

Horridculture – Blame

P81106The response to the brief article that I wrote about the smoke from a small and localized wildfire on Sunday is not easy to dismiss. The original article is at . It is about the smoke from the small and localized Rincon Fire, and goes on to discuss how the clear cut harvesting of redwood more then a century ago enhanced the combustibility of the forest. It was shared to Facebook, including the Facebook page of Felton League.

The article did not blame anyone for starting the fire. I read it again just to be certain. I said nothing about arsonists, the homeless, homeless arsonists, or anything of the sort! Blame, in regard to the Rincon Fire, is not relevant to horticulture, forestry, arboriculture or anything that I write about.

We all know that there are mentally ill people who are homeless because they do not function well enough to maintain a domestic lifestyle. Some are potentially dangerous because they can do things, such as start fires, without thinking about it. There are also those who can accidentally start fires as they are just trying to stay warm when the weather gets cold out in the forests where they live.

Do we really believe that blaming and vilifying the homeless or mentally ill helps? Chasing them from their encampments and farther out into the forests, as so many suggest, only increases the innate hazards by relocating them into areas that are more inaccessible and more combustible. If we really are so concerned, we should want such hazards relocated to more localized and accessible situations. The severely mentally ill who can not manage a descent lifestyle simply should not be homeless.

Furthermore, what about the vast majority of fires that are caused by electrical malfunction? Why are we not wanting to outlaw electricity? What about the fires that are caused by sparks from lawn mowers and weed whackers? Shouldn’t such machines be outlawed? What about forest fires that start as house fires? Should we blame those who live in homes? Who do we blame for all those combustible trees that grow wild in the forests?

I intend to resume writing mostly and perhaps nearly exclusively about horticultural topics after today. It is what I am qualified to write about. I apologize for this deviation. If I eventually establish a blog regarding homelessness, I will be sure to share a link to it here.


P81104K.JPGWhat a surprise. There was none when I went in to use the computer as the sun came up into a clear blue sky this morning. When I came outside just a few hours later, it was everywhere. It was so thick and so aromatic that it was obviously very close, but it did not smell like it was in the ponderosa pines around Scott’s Valley where I happened to be at the time. Once I got on the road back to Felton, I could see that besides the monochromatic ambient smoke that obscured the surrounding hills, a prominent and much thicker brown cloud of smoke hovered low over the San Lorenzo Valley. The smoke was even thicker in Felton, and obscures the range to the west where Bonny Doon is. As I write this in Felton Covered Bridge Park, ash is falling onto the computer screen.
The fire has apparently been burning since last night in the Pogonip, closer to Santa Cruz, and is now contained. Paradise Park has been evacuated. Highway 9 is closed between here and there. Sirens announce the arrivals and departures of firetrucks as they migrate into town from the south on Highway 9, and back south toward Santa Cruz on Graham Hill Road and Mount Hermon Road, as if even they can not get through on Highway 9. Heavy helicopters can be heard but not seen off to the south. A cumbersome airplane is circling the area.
There is not much of a breeze. It seems as if it has not gotten as warm as predicted for today. The smoke and sirens sets the mood. It is not good, even though we know that the fire is contained.
Fire is part of life here. Clear cut harvesting of redwood more than a century ago allowed more combustible specie to proliferate over the area and among the redwoods as they recover and regenerate. The forest is now more combustible than it has ever been, but can not be allowed to burn with so many of us living here. Without burning, it becomes more combustible.

Nature Is Messy

4This sort of weather pattern does not happen very often. Late spring is normally pleasantly warm, and the weather gets progressively warmer through summer, which typically includes a few unpleasantly warm days. It rarely gets too hot here, and when it does, it does not last for more than a few days, and tends to cool off at least somewhat at night. The air is normally arid. Humidity is uncommon in a chaparral climate.
While so many in the Northern Hemisphere were experiencing unseasonable warmth, the weather here was unusually mild. When the weather became warm, it did so suddenly. There was nothing unusual about the warmth. It was well withing the normal range for this time of year. The suddenness of the change was what made it unusual.
Humidity complicated matters. Again there is nothing too strange about humidity. Although rare, it does sometimes happen. The problem was that it happened at the same time that the weather suddenly changed from pleasantly mild to somewhat warm.
This combination of the weather changing so suddenly from mild and arid to warm and humid caused an outbreak of spontaneous limb failure. It was very evident in Felton Covered Bridge Park, where several trees that experienced it could be observed in the same place.5
The most recent victim was the biggest old California sycamore in the area. Half of the top of the canopy broke away and got hung up on an adjacent trunk, but started a cascade of other limbs that broke off more major limbs all the way to the ground. A large cavity that contained a very established beehive was exposed. A car parked below was clobbered (but somehow sustained only minimal damage!). The remaining trunks and limbs of the old sycamore are now even more scarred and disfigured than they were before this happened. The biggest gash is about fifteen feet long! What a mess!
Spontaneous limb failure is technically very damaging to the trees who experience it, but not all of them see it that way. Many of the riparian trees that are so inordinately susceptible to it might use it to their advantage. Fractured limbs that remain attached to the original tree while they sag onto the ground can develop roots where they touch the soil, and develop into new trees. These new trees are more stable at first, but eventually develop structural inadequacies like their parents did, and repeat the process. Willows excel at this technique. Cottonwoods and box elders do it too. Sycamore do it only rarely, but sometimes destabilize and fall over so that some of their limbs can grow into new trees as the original trunks decay. It may not be the sort of behavior that we want in our home gardens or parks, but as far as the trees are concerned, it works.6

Six on Saturday: Redwoods


Both coastal and giant redwoods, are the most excellent trees. The giant redwoods are endemic to isolated colonies in the Sierra Nevada. The coastal redwoods are endemic to the coastal region from the Oregon Border to San Luis Obispo County, which happens to include this region.

Coastal redwoods are so awesome that even the dead stumps from trees harvested a century ago are awesome. Most of the stumps in this region have been charred by forest fires. Yet, even after a century, they are still quite solid. They decay very slowly, which is why their timber is such a popular and important building material. Because the stumps are so big and would be difficult to get rid of, not many of us even try.

1. Compared to some of the tacky garden art that some people pay significant money for, this old redwood stump is strikingly sculptural. It stands so proudly out on this knoll on the edge of a small creek just above where it flows into Bean Creek. It is difficult to see in this picture, but a landscaper tried to obscure this stump with potato vine. Only a bit of twiggy growth can be seen at the top of the stump. The rest of the vine is now overwhelming the adjacent dogwood above. The trunk of the dogwood is to the right. Coastal redwood forests are innately shady. The potato vine is not very happy there. Even if it were happy, and were able to obscure the stump, would it really be an improvement?P80142. These two bigger stumps are just a short distance uphill and across the small creek. Old stumps are more often single, but surrounded by multiple trunks that emerged from the roots. Because almost all of the trees here had been harvested about a century ago, there are now many more secondary trunks per area than there would naturally be. It is not much of a problem yet, but these trunks will likely become more crowded as they mature.P8014+3. These are the same two stumps from the other side. This trunk coming up from within is likely from the same original root system. All trunks that develop from the same root system are genetically identical, so they look very similar from a distance. Some genetically identical groves can be quite broad, and include many trunks.P80714++4. This small coastal redwood trunk is not happy about the fence that is nailed to it.P80714+++5. This is more what you expect coastal redwoods to look like. It is impossible to determine from this picture if these trunks are genetically identical secondary trees that emerged from the same root system, but their proximity to each other suggests that they likely are.P80714++++6. This epiphyllum is the flower that I promised to those who expressed a concern than my Six on Saturday lacked adequate bloom. I shared a picture of this same epiphyllum earlier, but it has continued to bloom.P80714+++++

This is the link for Six on Saturday, for anyone else who would like to participate:


Six on Saturday: Tree Ring Circus


When a tree falls in a forest and there is no one around to hear, it makes a big noise, as well as a mess, and it leaves some if its root in the ground. If a redwood tree falls in a forest, and there is no one around to hear, it is probably better that way. It wold be dangerous to be too close to a redwood when it comes down! They are so big and tall, and are typically so crowded amongst other trees, that they bring down tons of debris with them.

Falling redwoods are rare. They live for centuries or thousands of years. Yet, sooner or later it happens. In more modern history, after the ecology of the redwood groves was disrupted by extensive harvesting, redwoods sometimes get killed by forest fires. (Redwoods are some of the few trees in California that survive forest fires by being fire retardant, but can be killed if enough of the more combustible trees around them burn hotly enough. Extensive harvesting allowed more of the other combustible trees to mix into redwood forests than would normally be there.)

The one thing that redwoods do even less frequently than fall is die. Even after they fall, burn to ‘death’ or get cut down, they regenerate from their stump or roots. Sometimes, several or many genetically identical new trees that are all attached to the same root system develop around a dying parent before it falls. They sometimes do so after a parent burns or gets cut down. Eventually, the original tree decays, leaving a circle of new trees around where it once was. Outsiders often refer to them as ‘fairy rings’. To us, they are just tree circles or rings. Larger and more impressive circles might be known as ‘chapels’ or better yet, ‘cathedrals’.

They are impressive features in the forests. When the area nearby gets landscaped, they are typically ignored because they are so excellent that they can not be improved. There are not many plants that live in the debris of redwoods anyway.

1. This is a nice small but crowded chapel where I work.P80512
2. How does such a chapel get landscaped? It doesn’t. Ours happens to have a nice patch of azaleas nearby. This picture was taken earlier. Bloom finished a while ago.P80512+
3. These azaleas are just so excellent that I had to get a better picture to show them off.P80512++
4. Forget-me-not happens to be one of those few plants that does not mind light redwood litter, so we often let it grow and bloom if it shows up in a good spot.P80512+++
5. Columbine just seems to look good with redwoods for some reason, but it dislikes the litter. This columbine is in a nearby planter that does not get much litter.P80512++++
6. I can not explain the red freesias that bloom earlier in spring. There are yellow and purple ones too. No one knows where they came from, but they do not seem to be bothered by a bit of redwood litter.P80512+++++This is the link for Six on Saturday, for anyone else who would like to participate:

Little League

P80217+K1There are so many big trees in the Santa Cruz Mountains that keep most of us looking up. It is easy to miss much of the understory plants that grow on the forest floor.

While getting the pictures for the ‘Six on Saturday’ article posted earlier, I happened to notice these few small pale flowers that contrasted more with their own dark green foliage than they would have if they were more brightly colored. Perhaps that is a technique to get the attention of pollinators. It certainly got my attention.P80217+K2.JPGThe flowers were not completely white. They were very pale hues of pink. The wood sorrel in the last picture was slightly more pinkish than the unidentified cruciferous (of the family Cruciferae) flowers of the first two pictures. Pale flowers, particularly those that seem to be adorned with barely perceptible patterns, are typically those that use infrared and ultraviolet color to attract pollinators that can see such color. If that was their intention, they would not look so bland to the pollinators whom they prefer to attract.

Much of the surrounding dark green foliage is exotic (non-native) English ivy. It climbs some of the redwood trees and makes quite a mess of the forest. Native specie are too docile to compete with it. The two species in these pictures might have been more common years ago, before the English ivy invaded.

Neither of these specie are the sort that I would plant in my own garden. I do not even know what the first species is. The wood sorrel looks too much like related oxalis. Although several specie of oxalis are popular in home gardens, I still think of them as invasive weeds. Yet, in their natural environment, they are too happy and pretty to not be appealing.P80217+K3

Tree Monster

P71203Matthew McDermott got this picture, which was actually part of a video, of a tree burning from within during the devastating fires in Sonoma County last October 9. Many of us saw it in the news. It is actually not as uncommon as it would seem to be. Interior wood is more combustible, and sometimes already well aerated from decay, so can burn if exposed to fire through wounds or cavities, while the exterior of the same tree resists combustion. This is why there are so many big and healthy coastal redwoods with burned out hollow trunks. Of course, trees more commonly burn from the outside.

Once burned, charred wood is resistant to decay. Redwoods and cedars are resistant to decay anyway, so once charred and doubly resistant, they can stand for decades.

When my younger brother and I were little tykes, one such charred cedar lived at our maternal Grandparent’s summer house outside of Pioneer. That is, it ‘lived’ there before it got charred by a fire a very long time before the forest that was there in the early 1970s grew up around it. I never actually saw it living. It was VERY dead long before my time.

The problem was that my younger brother and I did not KNOW for certain that it was dead. It was a big charred trunk at the bottom of the clearing downhill from the house. We could see it from almost anywhere, except from inside or uphill of the house. It was ominous. It was creepy. It seemed to watch us. The rest of the pines, firs, cedars and everything else in the forest was so green and lush; but the big black carcass was always there.

We were not totally afraid though. Our Uncle Bill was there too. He was the greatest superhero in the entire universe! He was bigger and stronger than any man. He was tall enough to hang our swing in the big tall black oak tree. He had already protected us from the bats. (We did not know what bats were, but we knew they were scary.) He breathed smoke, and from a white and gold can with a picture of a waterfall and a horseshoe on it, he drank a magical potion that might have given him some of his superpowers. (My brother and I tried it, but it tasted icky.)

Uncle Bill had a chainsaw.

Uncle Bill started to cut the base of the big dead Tree Monster while everyone else watched from a distance. To us kids, it seemed to take a long time. Eventually, the Tree Monster wobbled a bit, and fell forward towards us, landing on the ground with a big dusty thud. The top broke off and slid a bit farther from the rest of the carcass, which only made the secondary death of the Tree Monster seem that much more violent. After a bit of a pause, my brother and I approached in disbelief. It was twice as dead as it was before! Uncle Bill had killed the dead Tree Monster!

We walked on top of the fallen carcass just to be certain, and found no signs of life. We inspected the low and wide dead stump and found only sawdust. When we looked back at where the Tree Monster had always been, we saw only lush green pine, fir and cedar foliage.

Through the following year, Uncle Bill cut and split the Tree Monster into firewood for my Grandmother to cook with. It kept us warm at night. Uncle Bill kept us safe.