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.


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.

Looks Like Rain

P90202KSupposedly, all this rain has not been too terribly excessive. It seems to have been raining more frequently than it normally does, with only a few days without rain in between, and more often, many consecutive days of rain. The rain also seems to be heavier than it normally is. Yet, the total rainfall is not too much more than what is average for this time of year, and well within a normal range.
The volleyball court at Felton Covered Bridge Park looks more like a water polo court at the moment. The pair of ducks out of focus on the far side seem to dig it. The water is not as turbulent at it is the San Lorenzo River where they live.
Speaking of the San Lorenzo River, it has been flowing very well and at a relatively continuous rate. It came up high only for a short while. None of the heaviest downpours lasted long enough to keep it very high for very long. The ivied log laying in the river in the middle of the picture below was an upright cottonwood tree only recently, but fell into the river as many riverbank cottonwoods do when the ground is softened by rain and higher water.P90202K+
When things get as soggy as they are now, this great blue heron strolls the lawn at Felton Covered Bridge Park, probably because the San Lorenzo River is too turbulent, and also because the worms that live in the lawn come to the surface as the lawn gets saturated. He or she is never in a hurry, but just strolls about slowly, occasionally prodding the muddy soil. However, when it wants to move fast, it is quick enough to catch small frogs. Supposedly, this great blue heron caught and ATE a small gopher!P90202K++


P80805When a plant that should be compact or shrubby gets too lanky with exposed lower stems, it is described as ‘leggy’. We do not hear much about plants that develop ‘knees’. Perhaps that is because there is only one species that does so. That one species happens to be very rare here. If there are other specie that develop knees, I do not know what they are.

‘Knees’ are weird appendages that grow upward like stalagmites from the roots of bald cypress Taxodium distichum, particularly where the trees grow wild in swampy conditions. Knees can get quite tall. One of our professors used to tell us that they could do some serious damage to a canoe. Perhaps knees are why bald cypress is locally unpopular in landscapes.

However, I happened to notice that bald cypress is a common street tree in downtown Oklahoma City. Just like most other street trees, they are installed into small tree wells, but otherwise surrounded by pavement. They were remarkably healthy and well structured specimens that were too young to have damaged the pavement. Yet, I could not help but wonder what they will do as they mature. Even before the trunks grow as big around as the small tree wells that they are in, what would happen if knees develop?

There happens to be not one, but two bald cypress at work. The smaller is alongside a small stream. The larger is adjacent to a lawn where the soil is seemingly dry on the surface, but quite soggy just below the surface. This larger specimen is already developing distended burls that seem to be rudimentary knees. Although there is no pavement to break, the tree happens to be shading a picnic area where knees, if they develop, would be quite an obtrusive problem.P80805+

Corndog Orchard

P80728KUrban sprawl replaced the formerly vast orchards of the Santa Clara Valley a long time ago. Nowadays, it is difficult to imagine that they were ever here. Apricots, prunes, cherries, almonds, walnuts and all that the region was once famous for are all now rare commodities.
Only a few minor corndog orchards remain. They survive only because they are not actual orchards that are grown on land that is useful for something else, but instead grow wild on otherwise useless marshland and along the few creeks that flow through the region. Some marshland that could not be converted into usable space was developed into parks, and within many such parks, the remaining marshlands are protected as native habitat.
Vasona Lake County Park and the small Vasona Lake within were once a large marshy area that sustained what was probably the biggest corndog orchard within the Santa Clara Valley. It is at the transition where the Los Gatos Creek flows swiftly from the slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and then slows as it reaches its flat alluvial plain within the Santa Clara Valley. Although not nearly as abundant as they were prior to development, corndogs still inhabit the banks of Los Gatos Creek and Vasona Lake. We know them as cattails.
Because they are a native species that had historically been more common locally than anywhere else nearby, and because of their common name that is coincidentally associated with cats, cattails had been nominated to be the official Town Flower of Los Gatos (which is Spanish for The Cats). There are not many natives that would be as appropriate, and the only comparably culturally significant flowers would be those of the old fruit orchards, such as apricot blossoms. No other flower is both native and so culturally significant.


80418It is not easy to forget annual forget-me-not, Myosotis sylvatica. Even if it dies back early in the heat of summer, it will probably throw plenty of seed to regenerate through next winter, and bloom again by next spring. It can easily naturalize in damp or riparian areas, and might be considered to be a weed; but like nasturtium and foxglove, it is a polite weed that is not aggressively invasive.

The tiny blue flowers start to bloom while winter is still cool, and then get a bit more abundant as the weather warms in the beginning of spring. Some modern garden varieties bloom with pink or white flowers. Tender leaves are about two or three inches long, and less than an inch wide. Soft stems creep laterally, but do not get far. Mature plants are less than a foot tall, and two feet wide.

Between autumn and early spring, seed can be sown directly where plants are desired. Because they are so tender, plants are not often available in nurseries. Forget-me-not is a nice understory plant to larger rhododendrons and up-pruned shrubbery, or covering for daffodils, freesias and other spring bulbs. They want regular watering and rich soil, and can be happy in cool partial shade.

Six on Saturday: New Leaf


New foliage develops immediately after the earliest spring flowers. All six specie shown here are locally native to the San Lorenzo Valley in Santa Cruz County of California. With the exception of #4 (California) black oak, these specie are riparian specie found near the San Lorenzo River, which is the wet thing in the background behind #3 red willow. #4 (California) black oak naturally prefers drier situations a mile or so away, but happens to be in the area. #6 gooseberry is unidentified, and could have a color in the name like most of the others. #1 box elder has no color in the name, and is not related to #5 blue elderberry. Nor are #2 black cottonwood and #4 (California) black oak related to each other. #5 blue elderberry really is blue, unlike the black elderberries of eastern North America and elsewhere, which incidentally, are related to neither #2 nor #4. This is getting confusing. #3 red willow is also known by a few other names.

1. box elderP80331
2. black cottonwoodP80331+
3. red willowP80331++
4. (California) black oakP80331+++
5. blue elderberryP80331++++
6. gooseberryP80331+++++
This is the link for Six on Saturday, for anyone else who would like to participate:

Six on Saturday: Vegetation Management


It sounds so unglamorous; probably because it is. We had been working on this project for three weeks, and just finished on Thursday. Most of the work was cutting back thickets of native (but installed) redtwig dogwood. It was neither coppicing nor pollarding, but something in between. They could not be coppiced completely because they are in trafficked areas where they might be tripping hazards until they regenerate. They were not quite pollarded because there were no real trunks remaining, just short stubs of canes. We also needed to removed brambles that were mixed with the redtwig dogwood, as well as a few exotic (non-native) plants that had grown in amongst the whole nasty mess. There were a few nice pyracanthas and privets that needed to be removed. In a better situation, they would have been nice specimens. This was not the right situation for any of them. Besides, privets seed profusely and are quite invasive.

1. Now you see it. This is a privet that needed to be removed.P80324
2. Now you don’t. This is the same privet noticeably absent.P80324+
3. Evidence. There really was a privet here.P80324++
4. And there it goes!P80324+++
5. Except for the foliage that just recently developed, this thicket of redtwig dogwood that will not be pruned is what the rest of it looked like.P80324++++
6. This is what it looks like now.P80324+++++
This is the link for Six on Saturday, for anyone else who would like to participate: