An in-depth look at a plant – what makes it special, it’s characteristics, where to find it in the natural landscape, and other notables. Common non-native and invasive plants are occasionally reported about.
Author: WOODY FREY, Professor emeritus, OH Department, CalPoly, San Luis Obispo. This article was first published in Pacific Horticulture and is reprinted here with permission.
Six miles north of San Luis Obispo, California, up a winding road off Highway 101 at an altitude of about 2,500 feet is what the locals call Cuesta Ridge. Here is found a remarkable grove of trees some 700 acres of Cupressus sargentii. The area, which is known as the Sargent Cypress Forest, was first mentioned in the 1900s by a U.S. Geological Survey team. Charles Sprague Sargent included the tree in the description of Cupressus goveniana in his Silva North America (1896). Willis Lynn Jepson named C. sargentii in honor of Sargent, author of the monumental Silva and first director of the Arnold Arboretum. Image: By Eric in SF
Sargent cypress forests form plant communities found only in California on serpentine soil atop fog-shrouded mountains from Zaca Peak in Santa Barbara County to Red Mountain in Mendocino County. The forest on Cuesta Ridge, in the Santa Lucia Mountains of San Luis Obispo County, is the only undeveloped site that can be easily visited. A paved road was built along the ridge and through the forest as part of a firebreak system in the late 1960s. Sargent cypress trees in this area grow close together and forty to fifty feet in height. Their lower branches fall and the trunks become bare with fibrous, rough, dark reddish or grayish brown to almost black bark. Many trees, especially along the road, have had additional branches removed as part of the early firebreak activities. Looking through the forest of older trees and seeing these pole-like trunks one may imagine that they have been conveniently placed to support a thousand hammocks. Sargent cypress forms a fire-dependent closed cone coniferous plant community. The cones, which remain on the trees for many years, need heat to open and to treat the seeds for germination. Since there has not been a significant fire in the area since the late 1930s, there are few seedlings. Sites of many old fires, however, are evident from the even-aged stands of reseeded trees that give the scene an undulating checker board pattern.
(Obispoensis editor’s note… since this article was published, the Highway 41 fire swept unevenly through the forest and hundred of trees sprouted in the ashes).
Many of the trees appearing to be seedlings are in fact stunted due to poor soil and harsh growing conditions on the exposed ridge. Pygmy forests of stunted trees can be seen in some areas. The soil is derived from serpentine rock formed during the Jurassic Age. Exposed to air and moisture it turns reddish from large deposits of waterborne iron. The soil is alkaline, coarse, gravelly, porous, highly mineralized, low in calcium and high in magnesium. Although thirty to fifty inches of rain fall each year, most is quickly lost through the loose soil. Plants in this area probably depend on moisture from fog to survive. The tree line seems to follow the mean fog line, and the forest starts and stops abruptly because of this. There are some unusual plants in the Sargent cypress forest, many of which show forms and shapes adapted to the serpentine soil darker green and thicker leaves, bushier, more compact habit, and brighter flowers. Many of these plants have considerable ornamental potential.
Sketch of Cupressus sargentii by Bonnie Walters
Bulbous plants, found deep in the soil, may last many years. One plant of Chlorogalum pomeridianum var. pomeridianum (soap plant) I have been keeping track of for twenty-five years. Zigadenus fremontii is most common, Friiillaria biflora and F. lanceolata, the chocolate and checkered lilies, are sparse. A special treat in late spring is Calochortus obispoensis, with its hairy, multi-colored petals.
Carex obispoensis covers the damp forest floor in many places, remaining green during the summer from the fog that condenses on overhanging branches and drips to the ground. Sidalcea hickmanii ssp. anomala is a rare spring-blooming herbaceous perennial in the Malvaceae that is endemic in the forest’s northwest edge. (Obispoensis editor’s note… after the Highway 41 fire the Sidalcea became very common for a few years) Chorizanihe breweri, a low and compact herbaceous buckwheat, grows in reddish drifts in open spaces on the rocky soil. A rock fern, Onychium densum (Indian’s dreams or cliff-brake), is common elsewhere, but rare this far south. Unusual strains of Ceanothus cuneatus (buck brush) have flowers of a much brighter blue than those found elsewhere in California. Monardella palmeri, a pennyroyal, is associated with the serpentine soil; on hot days it permeates the air with its pungent minty odor.
A visit to the area is always worthwhile if only to enjoy the outstanding views from the ridge. But spring is perhaps the best time to visit. Everything is fresh and green; most plants are in bloom; and the lichens present a kaleidoscopic display of color and pattern. The chaparral on the outskirts of the forest also is in bloom – Fremontodendron califomicum var. obispoense spills its yellow flowers over the ground; Ceanothus foliosus and
Dendromecon rigida with their blue and yellow flowers stand out against the backdrop of the magnificent Actostaphylos obispoensis, a taller shrub with pink or white flowers.
Although the forest and its surroundings have been touched by mining from the early 1900s to the 1950s and by the firebreak activities of the 1960s, the area has not experienced much development. For this reason, in 1968 the Sargent Cypress Forest and surrounding areas totaling 1,300 acres within the Los Padres National Forest were designated a botanical reserve.
(Obispoensis editor’s note…I thought we have enough about the Carrizo Plain, and as there is a new road into the Cypress grove, it would be a worthwhile excursion for coastal folks. Thanks to Heather and Jim Johnson for finding this great article Older members will recall that our chapter got formed as a result of conservation activism against a giant firebreak that USFS was planning through the heart of the tree grove. Visitors will now see a “doghair forest”, where trees are crowded together, small and in competition with each other for resources. This is typical after wildfire results in simultaneous seed release).
The cover drawing and article for this issue of the OBISPOENSIS was written and drawn by Alice Meyer. She was a very active member (and first Hoover Award Recipient in the 1970 and 80’s. She is the one who named our newsletter, OBISPOENSIS, and served as its editor...read more
Dirk Walters, illustration by Bonnie Walters Oaks have been in the news a lot recently. Essentially all of it has been bad from the Oak’s point of view. First, there was the clearing of valley (Quercus lobata) and blue (Q. douglasii) oaks in the Paso Robles area. and...read more
Common (White) Yarrow (Achillea millefollium) The plant discussed in this issue of the Obispoensis is one that I’ve wanted to take on for a long time, but could never bring myself to ask Bonnie to draw. Since we are using photos to illustrate it by, I think it’s time....read more
Caliente Mountain is the highest spot in the County, and forms the western side of Carrizo Plain National Monument The oak on Caliente Mountain. is Tucker's oak, a scrub oak with blue-green, spiny leaves that stands a little over head height but can reach to 7 meters....read more
O.K.... so we’re not Vermont. However we do have some pretty fall color displays. If you like the gold of aspen, you will see the same colors in our closely related cottonwood stands, both trees belonging to the genus Populus. Cottonwoods are riparian trees, and the...read more
Introduction October and November are when our Chapter gets serious about growing native plants. We have a November meeting devoted to it as well as our annual plant sale. This got me to remembering some articles written and drawings drawn by Alice G. Meyer that are...read more
California Goldenrod (Solidago velutina ssp. californica or S. californica) The photo by Dr. David Chipping that accompanies this note are of the California goldenrod (Solidago velutina ssp. californica or Solidago californica). According to Dr. Hoover in his Vascular...read more
Desert Evening Primrose (Oenothera deltoides) Desert evening primrose (Oenothera deltoides) is in full bloom at Shell Creek as I write this. So it seemed appropriate to resurrect a drawing Bonnie drew back in 1981. It is one of her earlier drawings since it shows a...read more
Coyote melon Bonnie’s drawing for this issue of Obispoensis is based on a picture sent to me by George Butterworth. The species, Cucurbita palmata, has many common names. The ones I found on the web include coyote melon, coyote gourd, desert gourd, palmate-leafed...read more
Kellogg Oak The following is an article from February 1993. It was chosen by the editor to spare me the choice since Bonnie and I were away in late October. We totally agree with his choice; we had totally forgotten about it. The repeat of this article reminds me that...read more
Oval Leaved Snapdragon Drawing by Bonnie and article by Dr. Malcolm McLeod below appeared in the November, 1991 Obispoensis. When you read it you will see lots of similarities with our current drought situation as well as the much hoped for possibilities of an...read more
Creek Dogwood For this issue of the Obispoensis, I’m going out on a limb so to speak. Since the plant is a very small tree or moderately sized shrub, that limb will prove to be slender. The plant is the red osier, creek, or as stated in the new Jepson California...read more
Spear Orache, Spear Salt Bush As I write this article, it’s August in the year of California’s third most severe drought. There’s not much out there in bloom. So I’ve retreated to one of the few places where plants are doing anything. Yes, I’m returning to the coastal...read more
Red Maids Bonnie’s drawing for this issue of Obispoensis is of a plant that is found throughout the western United States as well as spreading north into British Columbia. It has also been recorded in a couple of South American countries. It is especially common in...read more
We are going back into the archives for this cover of Obispoensis. The landscape is a drawing of the Shell Creek area that Bonnie drew for the December 1991 cover. The inset is an ID drawing of the leaves and acorn of the valley oak. Why would one want to combine...read more
Filaree Erodium moschatum & E. cicutarium I assume it is not news to anyone that California in general and the Central Coast in particular has been experiencing an extreme drought. That means that most native plants that are adapted to this situation have been in...read more
Vernal Pools occur where there is moderate to large sized “natural” depression with no outlet. The depression has to be large enough to capture enough rainfall to fill the pond to some depth. The water collects in the lowest point in the depression. There also must be...read more
All three of Bonnie’s drawings this time are of manzanitas. One is a repeat of the endemic rare plant commonly known as Morro manzanita or Arctostaphylos morroensis. As you will see, it is included here to serve as a basis of comparison. The other two drawings are...read more
Bermuda Grass It’s November in a very dry year which was preceded by a dry year. Most native plants are waiting for the rains. The small amount of rain that fell in the last week in October I doubt will be considered significant, i.e., sufficient enough to initiate...read more
Bush Poppy A funny thing happened while Bonnie and I were working on the drawing and article for and about the plant discussed in this issue of Obispoensis. Before we started, we consulted Dirk’s list of past drawings and could not find any entry for Bush Poppy,...read more
Coastal catchfly Late summer or early fall (or more appropriately “late dry season”) is a downtime in our local wilds, especially true when we've had no significant rain after December. Even the animals seem to be resting. But if one looks carefully in our coastal...read more
Coastal Morning Glory (California) The plant featured on the June 2013 cover of the Obispoensis was chosen because of a request. It is the California, coast, island, or wild morning glory (Calystegia macrostegia). The common name, false bindweed, is sometimes used...read more
Flannel Bush This month’s cover drawing by Bonnie Walters is a repeat of flannel bush, Fremontodendron californicum. It was last used on the Obispoensis cover back in 1991. Does anybody remember it? Fremontodendron classification It is being reused now due to a...read more
Asparagus Fern or Bridal Creeper This month’s plant is a South Africa native that has become naturalized in Southern California where there has the potential to become an extremely troubling weed species. It is already considered so in some localities in Southern...read more
Why is the Death Cap mushroom so deadly? On New Year's Day I visited a favorite, and normally productive, chanterelle patch outside San Luis Obispo to discover an enormous fruiting of the dangerously toxic death cap mushroom (Amanita phalloides). My culinary...read more