California Sycamore

California sycamore is a stately native.

California sycamore, Platanus racemosa, is a riparian species that wants to be a chaparral species. It seems to passively mingle with valley oaks and coast live oaks in chaparral regions. Yet, it stays close to rivers, creeks, arroyos, or low spots where water drains from winter rain. California sycamore does not follow waterways far up into forests though, as if it dislikes the deeper shade.

In urban situations, California sycamore is best for large scale landscapes, such as parks or medians of broad boulevards. It is complaisant enough for smaller landscapes, and tends to disperse roots too deeply to damage pavement. However, it grows so fast and so very big. Mature trees get to a hundred feet tall. Massive trunks are picturesquely irregular, with mottled tan and gray bark.

All the deciduous foliage generated by such large trees is generous with shade for summer, but stingy with color for autumn. Defoliation starts early and continues late, so is messy for a long time. Foliar tomentum (fuzz) is irritating to the skin, and much worse if inhaled. Anthracnose often deprives trees of their first phase of foliage in early spring. Although harmless, it makes another mess.


91204Not to be confused with the Canadian rock band from the 1970s, this rush, Juncus patens, is native to riparian areas between western Washington and San Diego County. It is also known as the common rush because it is, obviously, the most common species of the genus on the West Coast. It is only occasionally planted intentionally, but more often sneaks into well irrigated landscapes.

Those planted intentionally are mostly cultivars with slightly bluish or grayish foliage, such as ‘Elk Blue’, ‘Occidental Blue’ and ‘Carmen’s Grey’. Those in the wild, or that sneak into landscapes from the wild, are dark green like avocado skin. The upright foliage is really very slender stems that look more like leaves than the vestigial leaves do. It forms dense clumps about one to three feet tall.

Although it is a riparian plant that survives soil saturation and inadequate drainage through winter, rush can survive as soil drains and dries somewhat through summer. It prefers somewhat regular watering in landscapes and home gardens. If cut back to the ground at the end of winter, and perhaps divided, fresh new growth regenerates through spring. Growth is sparse and floppy in shade.

California Sycamore

41119Out in rural chaparral regions, where water is scarce, the big and bold California sycamore, Platanus racemosa, somehow seems to find the spots where groundwater is not too far below the surface of the soil. It is technically a riparian tree, that is just as comfortable competing with cottonwoods and willows along forested rivers and floodplains. It eventually get too big and messy for refined urban gardens, but is somewhat popular nonetheless.

The bulky trunks and limbs are just too striking to ignore, especially as trees defoliate to expose the mottled beige and gray bark. Trunks are typically leaning and irregularly sculptural. Many trees have multiple trunks. The biggest trees are a hundred feet tall. The big palmately lobed leaves can be eight inches wide, but unfortunately do not color well in autumn. The foliar tomentum (fuzz) can be irritating to the skin when leaves need to be raked. Athracnose causes much of the early spring foliage to fall, and sometimes distorts and discolors later summer foliage.

Red Willow

P91108It is almost never planted in home gardens, but the native red willow, Salix laevigata, has a sneaky way of getting where it wants to be. The minute seeds go wherever the wind blows them. Because it is a riparian tree, red willow prefers well watered spots. If not detected and pulled up in the first year, it can grow rather aggressively, and overwhelm more desirable plants, although the somewhat sparse canopy makes only moderate shade.

With a bit of grooming, red willow can be a handsomely asymmetrical tree, with upright branch structure. However, even the healthiest trees rarely get more than thirty feet tall, or much more than forty years old. The leaves are a bit shorter and wider than those of the more familiar weeping willow, and do not color as well in autumn. There are actually a few other native willows that are also commonly know as red willow. Some are quite similar, while others are very different.P91108+

Suckers For Street Trees

P90804This grand sycamore has likely been here since the third day of Genesis. A few of the top branches got broken off when Noah’s Ark floated over. When I was a little kid, it was on the edge of a vacant field where road debris was dumped, and older kids rode their dirt bikes. Now it is on the western edge of the parking lot of Felton Covered Bridge Park. I write about it sometimes.

California Sycamore‘, ‘Hanging Gardens Of Babylon‘, ‘Nature Is Messy‘ and ‘Tufts‘ are some of the articles that feature this exquisite specimen. The last three of these examples describe some of the difficulties of old age for sycamores. Something that I may not have mentioned in these article though, is that such mature sycamores eventually develop root suckers.

I use the term ‘suckers’ loosely. For those of us who grow grafted trees, ‘suckers’ are stems that develop from below the graft unions of grafted trees, even if above the roots. They are from the understock below, so are genetically different from the scions above. Unusually vigorous stems above graft unions or on ungrafted trees, including the roots, are known as ‘watersprouts’.

For all other intents and purposes, ‘suckers’ really are just vigorous stems that emerge from roots, which is what we have here. Because no one was here to graft this grand sycamore on the third day of Genesis, these ‘suckers’ are genetically identical to the main tree. Unfortunately, their appearance indicates that the tree is finally acknowledging that it is slowly deteriorating.

Many trees do it, especially old riparian trees. When they know that they will not be around much longer, but still have some time to do so, they divert resources into their own replacement. Suckers are expected to mature into new trees after the original is gone. They recycle the mature original root system until they eventually replace it with younger and more vigorous roots.

Arborists may try to interfere with this process by removing suckers and watersprouts, and diverting resources back into older stems. This is actually helpful for trees that are distressed, but not yet decaying. For trees as mature as this sycamore, removal of vigorous suckers and watersprouts is mostly cosmetic, because thickets of such rampant growth becomes unsightly.

As violent as it sounds, it is best to abscise suckers like these when they first appear, and any that appear afterward. That involves literally tearing them from their roots to remove some of the callus growth from which they emerged. Cutting them at the ground not only leaves the callus growth to develop into distended burls, but also stimulates more vigorous sucker growth!

Now that these suckers have been cut down repeatedly over the past several years, simple abscision is no longer possible. Callus grown has expanded and fused into broad subterranean burl growth. Removal of such extensive burl would severely distress and possibly contribute to the destabilization of the already distressed tree. Suckers can now only be cut down to the ground.

Several years ago, when the first of the suckers started to appear, they were much easier to abscise. The process was delayed until winter dormancy. The small defoliated suckers were then abscised along with much of their associated callus. It did not accomplish much for the massive tree, and only delayed the inevitable for a few years, but generated an interesting byproduct.

The bare suckers with their bit of callus were ideal for growing into copies of the same tree. Most were plugged back into the riparian area nearby, but later killed by necessary vegetation management. A few others were canned (potted), and grew into small sycamore trees that were planted, with other sycamores, into broad medians and parkstrips in Mid City Los Angeles.

It is a long story about how those few trees ended up in Los Angeles, and were added to the fifty or so Birthday Trees that we plant annually on January 18. Sadly, their identities were lost in the process. If the other sycamores are genetically identical clones of each other, it may eventually be possible to distinguish genetic variations of those that were once root suckers here.

Six on Saturday: Under And Over


These are some of the bridges in the neighborhood where I work. There are several others that I did not get pictures of, as well as several more closer to town. Bean Creek happens to flow into Zayante Creek here, and Zayante Creek flows into the San Lorenzo River just a short distance away. Bean Creek flows through the farm a few miles upstream. Zayante Creek flows right past my home.

If you happen to know who Miley Cyrus is, she was photographed in the waterfall where Ferndell Creek flows into Bean Creek, which is literally just a few feet upstream from where Bean Creek flows into Zayante Creek. I do not know who she is, but I can understand why she came here to have her photograph taken.

1. Under the Conference Drive Bridge over Zayante Creek, East Zayante Road, Roaring Camp Road, Roaring Camp Railroad, and an access road to a (Rhody’s) baseball field, one would not guess that this bridge covers so much territory. The two roads below are on opposite sides of Zayante Creek. I posted pictures of this bridge before, but during winter while the box elders were bare. One box elder off to the left fell not too long ago.P90706

2. Over Zayante Creek, just a short distance upstream and around a bend to the east, this small pedestrian bridge is closed until it can be repaired or replaced. Rhody does not seem to mind. Except for the light green box elders off in the distance, the trees to the left are some rather nice specimens of white alder. The foliage to the right is that of California buckeye, which is a weirdly ‘twice deciduous’ species that can defoliate during summer.P90706+

3. Under Roaring Camp Railroad Bridge over Zayante creek, just another short distance upstream from the pedestrian bridge (#2), we can see some more white alders, as well as some coast live oaks in the background. The lighter foliage to the left is likely box elders. This railroad passes under the significantly higher Conference Drive Bridge (#1) just a short distance in the opposite direction. They are almost perpendicular to each other.P90706++

4. Over a nicely landscaped section of Ferndell Creek, this small pedestrian bridge is probably the best place to see most of the rhododendrons when they bloom. Most are off the left, but that unrecognizable shrub to the right is one of the biggest. It is about ten feet above the bridge, and about twelve feet below! The big camellia that was killed by gophers earlier was just to the left at the far end of this bridge, just in front of the redwoods.P90706+++

5. Under another pedestrian bridge just a very short distance downstream from the bridge pictured above (#4), recently planted Boston ivy is beginning to climb the pair of pillars in the background. Now that we know it does well here, we will eventually add more to climb the closer pair of pillars, after the English ivy gets removed. The site from which I removed sedge earlier is just upstream to the left, between the two pedestrian bridges.P90706++++

6. Over Conference Drive, and a short distance up the road form the Conference Drive Bridge (#1), this small pedestrian bridge was built at a time when Conference Drive carried much more traffic. The road was closed to through traffic and bypassed in 1968. I like how the bridge leaps up into the redwoods and back down again on the far end. I need to prune these redwoods for clearance, but try to leave them cozily close to the bridge.P90706+++++

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

Flowering Maple

60622It is impossible to say who the parents were. So many specie were hybridized to develop the many cultivars of flowering maple that the Latin name of the collective group is simply Abutilon X hybridum, which means exactly what it looks like. They are hybrids of various and rarely documented species of Abutilon. The ‘X’ dispels any doubt. ‘Chinese lantern’ is another common name.

Flowers can be yellow, orange, red, pink or pale yellowish white. They look like small hibiscus flowers that do not open all the way, and some only open half way. Many hang vertically. Some hang at about forty-five degrees. Bloom is sporadic all year, and more abundant while weather is warm. The rather sparse evergreen foliage looks somewhat like maple foliage, with variable lobes.

The largest flowering maples do not get much taller than the eaves. Short types stay shorter than two feet. Stems can be awkwardly angular, even if pruned back to promote fluffier growth. Roots can be unstable, necessitating staking or pruning to lighten the load. Flowering maple prefers partial shade, and can tolerate significant shade, but can also do well in full sun if watered regularly.

Box Elder

90605This ain’t no ordinary maple. Although there are other maples with trifoliate leaves (divided into three distinct palmately arranged leaflets), box elder, Acer negundo, is the only maple with pinnately compound leaves (divided into three or more distinct leaflets that are arranged pinnately on a central rachis). Leaflets might be solitary too. Almost all other maples have palmately lobed leaves.

Box elder is considered to be the ‘trashy’ maple. It grows fast, but only lives for about half a century. The happiest barely get to be twice as old. Because it gets more than forty feet tall, possibly with multiple trunks wider than two feet, it can become quite a big mess as it deteriorates and drops limbs. Yet, it is aggressive enough to have naturalized in many regions where it is not native.

Despite all this, and the lack of good foliar color where autumn weather is mild, a few cultivars of box elder have been developed for landscape use. ‘Flamingo’, which is likely the most popular, is variegated with white through summer, after pink new growth fades. ‘Violaceum’ develops smoky bluish growth in spring. ‘Auratum’ starts out yellowish. Mature leaflets are about three inches long.


P90519There happen to be quite a few campgrounds in the region, with one about a quarter of a mile upstream from where this picture was taken, and another less than three miles past that. Both are primarily used by school age children. The vast redwood forests with creeks flowing through are ideal for such campgrounds.
This is a campground too. I know it does not look like it. It is located between a creek and an industrial building, the eave of which is visible in the top right corner of the picture. The herd of dumpsters that is barely visible at the bottom of the picture might include a dozen dumpsters at at time. (I tried to get both the eave and the dumpsters in one picture.) There really are two rows of barbed wire on top of that fence behind the dumpsters.
Nonetheless, it is a campground. You see, individuals who lack adequate shelter occasionally camp on a flat spot next to the creek, right below the big cottonwood tree in the middle of the picture. It is not a big space, so can only accommodate one or maybe two people at a time. No one has been there for quite a while. Yet, on rainy days like today, it is saddening to imagine someone camping there, so close to inaccessible buildings.
Because the area is outside of landscaped areas, I do nothing to make it any more comfortable as a campground. I only cut away the limbs that fall onto the fence.
The trees are a mix of mostly box elders, with a few cottonwoods and willows, and even fewer alders, with one deteriorating old bigleaf maple. They concern me. Box elders, cottonwoods and willows are innately unstable. All but bigleaf maple are innately structurally deficient. Although bigleaf maple should innately be both stable and structurally sound, the particular specimen in this situation is in the process of rotting and collapsing.
I really do not mind if limbs or entire trees fall into the forested riparian zone. If they fall outward, they do not damage the dumpsters. Only the fence needs to be repaired. What worries me are the potential residents of the campground. Part of my work is to inspect trees for health, stability and structural integrity, and if necessary, prescribe arboricultural procedures to make them safe. I just can not do that here.

UPDATE: Just after this article posted at midnight, a very big box elder off to the right of those in the picture fell with a loud but quick crash. It was probably the biggest and most deteriorated of the box elders in this area, and pulled completely out of the ground to reveal that the roots were so decayed, that none stayed attached to the stump. Seriously, you should see the pictures when they get posted next Sunday.

Bleeding Heart

90501There is something about the delicately intricate bloom and foliage of bleeding heart, Lamprocapnos spectabilis (formerly Dicentra spectabilis) that suits informal woodland gardens splendidly. Not only to they look like natural companions to small coniferous evergreens, but they are also quite tolerant of the acidic foliar debris, and to some extent, the shade that most conifers generate.

The small and distinctively heart shaped flowers hang vertically from arching limber stems in May or June. They can get as high as three feet if crowded, although they prefer to stay about two feet tall. The most popular varieties bloom with red or pink ‘hearts’ with white tails. ‘Alba’ blooms with white hearts. The palmately compound and lobed leaves are like soft light green anemone leaves.

Bleeding heart not only tolerates significant shade, but it prefers at least partial shade as the weather warms in spring. As the weather gets too warm and arid through late spring and summer, it is likely to defoliate and go dormant until the end of the following winter. Bleeding heart wants rich soil and regular watering too. The tender foliage is intolerant of traffic, so is best in the background.