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The Birder’s Tree Guide

‘So if the bird flies away, or if you’ve identified it, you can turn your attention to the tree in the same view, without moving your binoculars or telescope, and have a whole new challenge of something to identify.’ Sibley

Sibley came out with a tree guide! I haven’t yet seen any mention in the garden world, but the birding blogs are on it. 10,000 Birds has a review and an interview, and there’s a 3-part interview with him in Birder’s Magazine. He put together the guide as a birder rather than as a botanist, writing with birders as his target audience, and it’s interesting to see the elements of his bird book carry over into a tree guide.

The most obvious carry over is the life list at the back of the book. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who keeps a life list for trees, though the idea is intriguing. Bristlecone Pines were certainly something I felt I needed to see, and the east coast members of my trail crew this summer arrived out here determined to see a Giant Sequoia before they headed home, so the idea does make some sense. It might be interesting to keep track of how many different trees I can see just in the Bay Area.

Instead of photographs, the book uses paintings, which work better for birds and seem to work better for trees, too. The guide includes native and non-native species, making it more useful to me than, for instance, my Audobon guide which only includes native species. I find I already know a lot of the California species, but that it’s the tall non-native shade trees, trees I rarely plant or buy at the nursery but sometimes find in clients’ yards, that I need help identifying. I tried out the book with a couple of trees, the English Walnut in our yard and the Red Oaks where I was working today, and it seemed easy to use.

And it was nice that I went through the ID process without a key. Keys went out of style in the birding world a long time ago, and I’ve never liked using them for trees; they seem like a relic from old-fashioned, rote-style learning. In the Birder’s magazine interview, Sibley says he wants readers to engage more directly with the book.

‘I really wanted the book to work the same way the bird guide does. That is, if you see something interesting, whether it’s a leaf or some odd bark or an unusual type of fruit, you can open up the book and just start flipping through the pages and try to find a picture that matches.

‘I think in the long run, that’s actually more helpful and more educational than working through a key, because after you’ve done that a few times — flipped through the pages of the book, looking for things that match — you’ll realize that if you’ve seen an odd fruit and it’s not an acorn, you can skip the whole 40 pages of oaks in the middle of the book. You start to get a sense of what the variation is in all the types of fruit. Pretty soon you’ll be out in the field somewhere and say, “There’s an odd fruit. I don’t know what that tree is, but I know I’ve seen that picture in the book, and I think I remember it being toward the end of the book,” and flip through the pages and find it and put a name to it.

‘By flipping through the pages and getting an overall sense of what’s out there, you subconsciously begin to understand larger patterns — which families are similar, which families are different, what makes all the oaks similar to all the other oaks, what makes willows and poplars so similar that they’re put in the same family. You’ll develop an understanding of that simply by flipping through the pages of the book.’

I know I became a more knowledgeable birder when I discovered Sibley’s bird book. It’ll be interesting to see what I learn from his tree book.

— Addendum —

I have noticed signs that the guide was written by someone from the east coast. For instance, the guide does not include ceanothus or manzanitas, an omission in my opinion. Sibley’s definition of a tree is ‘anything that you can walk under,’ and manzanitas and ceanothus definitely meet that standard, though I suppose the 30 foot tall manzanitas and treelike ceanothus are known primarily within California native plant circles. And at the same time as the guide excludes manzanita and ceanothus, the guide includes the less treelike Toyon and the less common or iconic Western and Utah Serviceberries and the Mountain Mahogany, probably because there are large old specimens in some of the arboretums back east and in England. I say this not so much a complaint, but rather as an observation, something to maybe fix in future editions; the book is a national guide with a national perspective. And as I was saying, I already have plenty of books for the native trees. Interesting, though, that I find it most helpful for identifying the east coast and european specimens that I find in California gardens.


Bristlecone Pine

Bristlecone Pine

While I was out on the east side, I visited the Schulman Grove of Bristlecone Pines in the White Mountains. Bristlecone Pines are the famous “oldest trees in the world,” and, checking them out in person, I found they have a suitably amazing presence. They grow on a very dry, barren mountainside, sometimes with other plants — mountain mahogany, sage (Salvia and Artemisia), penstemon, thistle, paintbrush, lupine — but with the oldest ones growing in pure stands of gnarled, low-growing, ancient trees. There is a four mile loop trail that passes through the grove that has the Methuselah Tree, the oldest tree on earth at almost 5,000 years old, though it’s not disclosed which one is the actual Methusaleh, the forest service keeps its identity secret and doesn’t let anyone publish any photos of it. (There was an older one, Prometheus, but it was cut down by a scientist, and a NOVA program about the bristlecones claims that someone has found another one older than Methusaleh; the NOVA link has some cool interactive photos.) They are concerned that people would walk close to it and cause erosion, risking it health as erosion is apparently what eventually finishes these trees. They survive lightning strikes, pests, drought, etc., but in 5,000 years on the side of a dry, sandy mountainside, they’re going to see some serious erosion. Living 5,000 years, they’re not even on tree time, they’re starting to be on geologic time.

The most striking feature is how much dead wood they have. One 4,000 year old tree has a four foot diameter trunk with only a ten inch wide strip of living wood. And even after the wood dies, it doesn’t rot. Scientists have found wood that is 9,000 years old; they used the tree rings on these trees to calibrate the process of carbon dating, they are literally the standard by which we determine how old things are. Which makes sense, as there is something almost archaeological about the grove. Serious patience and endurance; these trees abide.

Bristlecone Pine

Bristlecone Pine

Bristlecone Forest

Bristlecone Forest

There’s a nice photo from the Schulman grove in photographer Rachel Sussman’s project the oldest living things in the world. She also has photos of redwoods, alerces, a 400,000 year old bacteria, an “underground forest,” and clonal trees like aspens where the genetic material is 80,000 years old. Bristlecone and redwood photos are always cool, but I think the best photos in the series are of the plants I’ve never heard of, the ones that are not visually impressive but have been unobtrusively living for thousands of years. (Hat tip: Studio G)

Another photo of a bristlecone and a few other old trees is at the blog for friendsoftrees.org.

— Somewhat off topic, but I feel like bookmarking the link, a slideshow of the world’s most famous trees includes a bristlecone.

Tree Racing with Leptospermum Dark Shadows

leptospermum 'dark shadows'

Leptospermum 'dark shadows'

These are two Leptospermum “Dark Shadows” that we’ve been racing. They have both been in the ground for almost two and a half years. The one on the left we planted as a 1 gallon, the one on the right as a 5 gallon. The race happened by accident (we originally planted three fives, but I messed up on the irrigation and one of them died, to be replaced two months later with a one gallon; so, technically, the one on the right had a head start) but we’ve been watching the two plants grow with about as much excitement as a race between two immobile objects can generate. 

Supposedly, the one gallon tree will catch up after three years, and be the larger, healthier, more drought-tolerant specimen after five. That’s a bit of garden lore we’ve been repeating to clients, and this was our accidental test case. As you can see, the one gallon has caught up in height, after only two and a half years, though the five gallon is much fuller and has a significantly thicker trunk.

Sadly, the race has now concluded. The client moved to a new site and decided to try to take his tea trees with him. One tree has been moved already, and the others have been severely root pruned in an unfinished or aborted transplant attempt. We’re pretty sure they’re all going to die. I wish I had a better photo of them.

ryan 1/3/09

— Update 9/20/09 — The client left the largest specimen behind, probably because it was too big to transplant. It survived the root pruning and looks healthy. One of the transplanted trees is dead, but the other one — the one gallon — was is still alive, though with very little foliage.

— Update 6/15/10 — The race is back on. The one gallon tree survived its transplant. I guess it was still young enough and I should never doubt the resilience of young plants.

Leptospermum Dark Shadows, 5 gallon

Leptospermum Dark Shadows, original location

The five gallon tree that was root-pruned but not transplanted is still healthy. The one gallon is smaller but has more foliage.

Leptospermum Dark Shadows, transplanted

Leptospermum Dark Shadows, transplanted

Specimen Trees as Art

tree #8

Tree #8 by Myoung Ho Lee

If you ever wondered about the term ‘specimen tree,’ this is it. The photo is done as art, but it might as well be for a class on garden design. This is the affect you want when you plant a Japanese Maple.

The photo is from an art exhibition called “TREE,” by Korean artist Myoung Ho Lee. There is a slideshow at Lens Culture and an interview at The Morning News. He uses a cherry picker, out of sight behind everything, to hang a giant canvas, and he has some big ideas when he does it — “seeing trees in a refreshing way or restoring the value of trees is to awaken all beings on earth in my work.” It’s probably best not to quibble with anyone who aims to awaken all beings on earth and who creates images this cool in the process.

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