Atlas Cedar

Amy Carter had the most boss treehouse in an Atlas cedar.

My generation can remember when Amy Carter, the daughter of former President Carter, got a treehouse built in a mature Atlas cedar, Cedrus atlantica, at the White House. It was so cool that it was ‘boss’! Besides being more luxurious than a typical treehouse, it was designed by President Carter to not damage the tree even slightly.

Here in the west, most Atlas cedars are cultivars (cultivated varieties) with blue foliage that often rivals that of Colorado blue spruce. Most have strictly horizontal or angular limbs with stiff, densely foliated branches. Some are so pendulous (weeping) that they need to be staked to be kept off the ground. They actually look great trained along the tops of retaining walls, even without staking, with their blue foliage cascading over. Others are strictly upright and narrow. Colorado blue spruce may have better color; but Atlas cedar has more interesting variation of form.

It is also better adapted to the local Mediterranean climate than spruces and other conifers are, and gets much larger. Mature Atlas cedars can get as tall as a hundred feet, with trunks as wide as five feet.

If A Tree Falls In A Forest . . .

If a tree falls in a forest of the tallest species of tree in the World, things might get messy. Understory trees often fall without much commotion, but the demise of this particular redwood was observed from all over the neighborhood. The forest that it inhabited is too crowded for good pictures of where it landed. I got what I could. Falling trees is one of the unpleasant and hazardous results of the recent epically abundant rain.

About twenty feet of trail dislodged with the massive root system that nearly inverted as it fell into the canyon below. The gap was less than fifteen feet long on the left and uphill side of the trail when this picture was taken, but widened as more soil collapsed into the muddy void below. Obviously, the trail is now closed. Repair is not a priority until after winter at the soonest.

The dislodged root system is about thirty feet wide. I did not estimate how far into the canyon it slid. Since I can not see the base of the trunk, I did not estimate how wide it is. The trunk extends diagonally to the right, where it is obscured by vegetation in the foreground. It broke many other trees as it fell, leaving the shattered trunks and limbs that are visible to the upper right and left. Some of the debris near the water was deposited by earlier flooding.

The trunk fell upstream into a curve in Bean Creek below, so almost crossed the creek twice. From this distance, it is difficult to estimate the width of the trunk. Because the top is not visible, it is impossible to estimate the height. If it did not burn up in the atmosphere, someone in Nevada might have received an unexpected delivery of lumber.

Grecian Bay

Grecian bay does not get as massive as the native bay laurel.

The native bay laurel should not be confused with the Grecian or sweet bay. Despite the similarities, the native bay laurel grows into a large tree. The foliage can be used as seasoning like Grecian bay, but has a very different and much more pungent flavor. It can often be found fresh in markets, labeled as Grecian or sweet bay, and has likely ruined all sorts of recipes.

Grecian or sweet bay,  Laurus nobilis, stays much smaller much longer. It takes many years to grow to thirty feet tall, often with many trunks flaring out from the center. Trees that are nearly twice as tall are ancient. Because of slow growth, Grecian bay can be happy in large containers as long as it is pruned to stay proportionate to the confined root system.

The three or four inch long, and inch or so wide leaves of Grecian bay can be difficult to distinguish from those of bay laurel. The minor differences are that Grecian bay leaves have slightly undulate margins with a few small and sometimes barely perceptible serrations (teeth) that bay laurel lacks. The leaf apexes of Grecian bay leaves are typically a bit more blunt. For culinary purposes, it is important to be aware that dried leaves and fresh leaves have very different flavors.


Cottonwood is now defoliated for winter.

The most common of a few species of cottonwood that are native to California seems as if it should not be. Populus deltoides is the Eastern cottonwood. This name implies that it should be native primarily to regions of the East. Yet, it naturally inhabits every American State except for Hawaii and Alaska. Since it is so familiar locally, it is simply cottonwood.

It grows wild in riparian ecosystems, and occasionally sneaks into adjacent landscapes. It is almost never an intentional acquisition. Cottonwood grows too aggressively and too large for refined home gardens. It works better as a grand shade tree for parks and urban waterway trails. As a riparian species, it requires either riparian ecosystems or irrigation.

Mature cottonwood trees may be almost a hundred feet tall, and rather broad if exposed. Their bark is handsomely furrowed. Yellow autumn color of the deciduous foliage can be surprisingly vibrant within arid climates, or if rain is later than frost. Vigorous trees can be susceptible to spontaneous limb failure, so may occasionally justify aggressive pruning. Roots might be voracious.

White Alder

White alder is mostly defoliated by now.

During the summer, the native white alder, Alnus rhombifolia, is a nice shade tree that looks bigger than it really is. By late winter, the bare deciduous canopy has an appealingly picturesque silhouette. This time of year is actually when white alder is typically less appealing, with dead foliage that provides no interesting fall color, but lingers until knocked down by rain or late frost. Yet, even now, it sometimes surprises with these funny looking floral structures that are interesting both in the early winter landscape, and with cut flowers.

In past decades, white alder was an ´expendable’ tree that was put into landscapes for quick gratification while slower but more desirable trees matured. By the time the desirable trees matured, the alders were removed to make more space for the desirables. This technique was practical because, like many fast growing trees, alders do not live very long, so start to deteriorate after about twenty five years anyway. However, alders often live longer than expected.

Mature alders are usually less than fifty feet tall where they are well exposed. They can get at least twice as tall where shaded by other trees or big buildings. Their plump trunks with mostly smooth silvery gray bark make them seem larger than they really are though. Too much water promotes buttressed roots which can displace pavement.


Cherries are fruit of early summer.

Cherry, Prunus avium, is one of the more popular fruits of summer. However, winter is the season for planting new trees and pruning mature trees. Pruning is comparable to that of other stone fruits, but to a lesser degree. Their sweet fruits are typically less than an inch and a half wide, so are relatively lightweight. Docile trees may not need annual pruning.

Home garden trees with dwarfing rootstocks should grow no taller than about fifteen feet. Some stay less than ten feet tall. Orchard trees with standard rootstock grow significantly taller. Wild or feral trees can grow forty feet tall, with their fruit beyond reach. Old cultivars mostly require another compatible cultivar for pollination. Some modern cultivars do not.

Cherry fruits are mostly rich deep red, but can be dark blackish red or pale orangish pink. Early spring bloom is brief but profuse and splendidly clear white. Three to four inch long leaves that are deep green through summer become bright yellow or golden yellow prior to defoliation during autumn. Even the silvery young bark of some cultivars is appealing.

Valley Oak

‘Foggy Oak Morning’ by Karen Asherah

‘Foggy Oak Morning’ by Karen Asherah, is another example of the local scenery that I miss while not taking a bus or walking. I drove past this scene for years on my way to work outside of San Martin without ever bothering to take a look at it. This happy tree is a native valley oak, Quercus lobata, like those that had been common throughout the Santa Clara Valley until only about two centuries ago. It is not exactly the sort of shade tree that everyone wants in a compact suburban garden, but is grand enough for large spaces like parks.

Mature specimens may not seem to get as tall as oaks in the Appalachian Mountains, but are actually the largest oaks in North America, and live more than five centuries. The tallest trees are mostly less than seventy feet tall, but can get taller. Trunks of the oldest trees are commonly six feet wide or wider. The distinctively and uniformly furrowed bark is as classically ‘oakish’ as the rounded prominent lobes of the deciduous leaves, and the sculpturally irregular branch structure. Odd stem galls, commonly known as ‘oak apples’, are home to the larvae of tiny wasps that rely on valley oaks for everything they need. Incidentally, Paso Robles, or ‘El Paso de los Robles’ is named for the valley oaks in the area, which Spanish immigrants thought resembled the ‘robles’, the European oaks that inhabit Spain.

More information about ‘Foggy Oak Morning’ can be found at the website of Karen Asherah at

Live Christmas Trees Eventually Grow Up

Small coniferous trees do not stay small for long.

One of the problems with driving my favorite vehicles that were old long before I learned to drive them is that I spend considerable time waiting for a bus or walking. The cool thing about that is that I get to seem so much scenery that I would otherwise drive past. While waiting nearly an hour for a bus at the Cavallero Bus Terminal in Scott’s Valley, I went across the street to see the landscape of the somewhat new Post Office, which has actually been there for many years now.

The landscape is a bit sparse in front (I think because of architectural modifications after the landscape was designed), so was outfitted with recycled live Christmas trees. Although none of these particular trees seem happy in the local climate or sandy soil, I had wanted to get better acquainted with them for some time. They are an odd assortment of spruce and fir that are rare here.

The more typical concern with the more common live Christmas trees is not that they are not well suited to local climates and soils, but that they actually do too well and grow much larger than expected. Except for the small rosemary, holly and English ivy ‘trees’, most coniferous evergreen live Christmas trees are young pines that get remarkably large; and some waste no time doing it! The most common live Christmas trees are Italian stone pines, which happen to be the two very large and broad trees in Blaney Plaza in downtown Saratoga!

Canary Island pines, which had been more common than they are now, do not get quite as broad, but do get very tall and messy. Years ago, Aleppo, Eldarica and Monterey pines all took their turns being popular live Christmas trees. Each of them grows large enough to require significant garden space.

This is of course not a problem for the few live Christmas trees that happen to get planted where they have plenty of space. However, those that get planted where they do not have room to grow can cause serious problems. Because they seem so cute and innocent while they are young, and are so often expected to stay cute and innocent, many often get planted dangerously close to houses, where they can displace porches, walkways and even foundations! Large pines, particularly Italian stone pines, are also too messy and potentially combustible (if not pruned and groomed regularly) to be too close to houses.

Sadly, large pines do not like to stay in containers too long. They can be pruned for a few years, but eventually get congested roots. (Bonsai techniques of root pruning can maintain even the largest types of pines in containers indefinitely, but not many of us know these techniques.) Small pines, like Austrian black, Japanese black and Scott’s pine (which has no relation to Scott’s Valley), as well as other small coniferous evergreens, like certain junipers, can stay in containers much longer, but these are the sort that are small enough to get planted in the garden, so do not necessarily need to stay in containers anyway.

If space is not sufficient, pines and other live Christmas trees that eventually get too large really should be given to friends and neighbors who have space to accommodate them. Fortunately, most do not require much attention once they get established after two years or so.

English Walnut

English walnuts are popular among squirrels.

It has been in cultivation for several thousands of years. Throughout that time, it escaped cultivation to naturalize in many regions between the Balkans and the Himalayas. It most likely originated from a much smaller natural range within Persia. An interesting certainty of its dubious original range is that English walnut, Juglans regia, is not actually English.

English walnut likely arrived at Spanish Missions of California prior to 1800. It became a major agricultural commodity of both the Sacramento Valley and the San Joaquin Valley. A few old trees survive within urban areas that were formerly orchards of the Santa Clara Valley. Newer trees are unfortunately rare within home gardens because they get messy.

English walnut trees rarely grow more than forty feet high and wide here. Their abundant foliar, floral and fruit debris is toxic to young plants though, and stains hardscapes. Each type of debris sheds during a different season. Squirrels might claim most or all nuts, but drop shredded hulls. The deciduous and pinnately compound leaves can be a foot long.

Arborists Are Physicians Of Trees

This specimen would be a challenge for an arborist.

(This article is recycled from a decade ago.)

Pasadena sustained the worst of the damage caused by the strongest Santa Ana Winds in three decades. Huge piles of debris from broken trees are much more than can be removed any time soon. Falling debris and trees damaged many roofs, cars and anything else that happened to get in the way.

Other towns and neighborhoods throughout the area, particularly those at the base of mountains, also sustained major damage. At the same time, severe winds ravaged the San Francisco and Monterey Bay Areas as well, particularly in the Santa Cruz Mountains and the hills of the East Bay.

Some of the damage caused by wind in urban areas might have been less disastrous if trees had gotten the respect and attention that they deserve. Some trees develop structural deficiencies that need to be corrected by pruning, either to eliminate the problems, or at least to decrease the strain exerted onto the structurally deficient parts. A few trees that become unstable as they mature may likewise need to be pruned or even removed.

It is not always possible to prune trees to remove all structural deficiencies without damaging the affected trees more, or causing more structural problems to develop. For example, major pruning to remove all parts that may get blown down by wind, such as pollarding or ‘topping’, may seem to be effective for the short term, but actually stimulates the development of vigorous secondary growth or watersprouts that are disproportionately heavy and even more likely to tear off from the older limbs.

Structural pruning more often involves thorough reduction of weight and wind resistance. Weight of foliage and stems directly applies leverage against unions where smaller stems are attached to the larger stems from which they originate. Wind resistance adds more leverage as foliage gets blown about by wind. Thinning obviously removes significant weight, and also decreases wind resistance to allow wind to blow though the affected canopies.

Besides helping to compensate for structural deficiency, structural pruning is also beneficial to potentially unstable trees for the same reasons. However, unstable trees typically need even more reduction of weight and wind resistance. Some of the most unstable trees and those that are deteriorating need to be removed because their instability cannot be accommodated.

During winter, while deciduous trees are bare, evergreen trees are more susceptible to wind damage, obviously because they retain their weight and wind resistance through winter while the weather is the most severe. Unstable trees become even more destabilized as rain softens the soil. Regardless of the potential for susceptibility to wind damage, this would be a good time of year to get any needed tree maintenance done, prior to any more windy and rainy winter weather.

Arborists certified by the International Society of Arboriculture are the most qualified to identify potential structural problems or instability, and to prescribe corrective procedures. A list of certified arborists can be found at the website of the International Society of Arboriculture at