Grandmother oak

5 03 2019

A few years ago I encountered an ancient coast live oak that was so magnificent, it took my breath away. At first sight the oak was barely noticeable, hidden behind a wall of young Douglas fir and bay laurel trees. But after slipping past the young trees Grandmother oak appeared. Her trunk was massive, at least 20 feet in girth, and was clearly pollarded by the native people. I estimated her age to be about 500 years, possibly older.

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Grandmother oak has spent most of her life under the care of native people, who employed fire to manage the oak woodlands and other ecosystems. They would burn frequently enough to keep fuel loads down, so that the fires stayed on the ground and did not damage the canopies. These fires kept young trees, potential competitors for light and other resources, from encroaching on the oaks. They pollarded the oaks, a common practice of repeatedly cutting the lead stem so as to encourage multiple large spreading branches. This, as any orchard farmer knows, is the most efficient shape for maximizing fruit or nut production. In this case, the native people were managing for efficiency in the production and gathering of acorns.

After the California native people were forced from the land, ranchers followed in many places, such as here where Grandmother oak resides. For nearly a century this land was heavily grazed by cattle and horses, which, like fire, kept the young trees from encroaching.

The land was eventually sold about 30 years ago and stopped being a working ranch. Without any fire or grazing disturbance, dozens of young fir and bay trees quickly started growing around and under the oak. By the time I arrived in 2017 many of the fir were taller than Grandmother oak and were shading out the edges of her canopy. With the added competition for light, water, and nutrients, Grandmother oak was clearly beginning to suffer. Thus, the owner’s called on me for help.

I proposed trying fire mimicry, and they agreed. In early March of 2017 I, and my dedicated crew, began treating Grandmother oak, first clearing away the encroaching fir and bay trees, pruning the dead branches, and removing the mosses and lichens from the trunk. We then fertilized the soils beneath the canopy with compost tea, followed by alkaline-rich minerals, and applied a limewash (a kind of poultice) to the trunk.

The results after just two years of treatments are exciting. as the photos below show Grandmother oak is clearly recovering. If all goes well, she may live another 500 years!

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Living with fire: The fire ecology of the Central Coast

28 11 2018

On Thursday, December 6, 2018 I’ll be presenting and discussing the fire ecology of the Central Coast at the Santa Cruz Public Library (224 Church St.) starting at 6:30 pm. Topics will include the California native people’s use of fire in land management, modern fire regimes, fire mimicry, and the role of climate change. For more information on this free event see: https://www.santacruzpl.org/news/permalink/793/

Big Sur 2008 fire





Saving the redwoods with fire mimicry in Oakland, CA

28 10 2018

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Two years ago I began treating these coast redwood trees growing in Oakland, CA using a fire mimicry protocol. Here are the results. The redwoods are showing noticeable improvement in canopy size and density after only two years.

Saving the redwoods isn’t just about keeping them from being cut down. It also requires that we tend them, as the California native people did for thousands of years!

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Coast live oaks in Piedmont, CA after 3 years of fire mimicry . . .

18 10 2018

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Yesterday I inspected a grove of coast live oaks, some of them Indian-era (pollarded) trees, to assess their response after 3 years of fire mimicry treatments. The photos here show a pretty dramatic increase in canopy greenness and fullness.

Just curious – are the results and information I post here useful to any of you readers? I’m not much of an IT person and would rather focus on working in the woods, but people keep saying that blogs and social media are the best way to share this information. I dunno, I don’t get many visitors to the blog and almost never a comment. Anyone with an opinion on whether or not these results are useful, please feel free to like or comment.

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Do lichens play a role in oak decline?

20 07 2018
Lichens in tree

(image downloaded from web June 2013)

Any careful observer of oaks in California cannot help but notice a dense covering of lichens growing on the trunks and branches of many of the trees. In some cases, the biomass of lichens in the canopy rivals and even exceeds the biomass of the oak foliage. Under extreme conditions of lichen cover, the oaks appear sickly and in decline.

Lichens in oak

Coast live oaks covered in epiphytic Usnea and Ramalina lichens. (February 2018, Aptos, CA)

There is a popular meme in naturalist and conservation circles that lichens do not harm trees and merely use them for support. Adherents to this ‘harmless lichen’ meme point out that lichens are photosynthetic and, thus, do not draw any resources from the trees. Some note that lichens support nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which can add to the nutrient pool and benefit the trees. Furthermore, lichens are known to be highly sensitive to air pollution, so the presence of abundant lichens in a tree is a sign of good local air quality.

I have long been doubtful about the science behind this meme. As an experienced researcher of forest decline I have frequently noted that sick and dying trees often have a dense growth of lichens in their canopies. Defenders of the ‘harmless lichen’ meme describe this as the opportunistic growth of lichens on sick trees, as the reduced foliage allows for additional light for the lichens to grow. It is certainly true that lichens benefit from sick trees in this way, but I believe that lichens are not merely innocent bystanders or benefactors in the demise of a tree. Read the rest of this entry »





Portola Valley oaks respond quickly to fire mimicry

1 03 2018
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Culturally-modified, Native American-era oak showing rapid improvement after fire mimicry.

Last February (2017) I treated and photographed 25 coast live oaks in Portola Valley using fire mimicry practices. A couple days ago I revisited the site and re-photographed the oaks to assess their response. The results show noticeable improvements in the density and greenness of the canopies of most of the treated oaks in just one year. This is becoming a common finding in many of the case studies – that the positive response of the oaks to fire mimicry appears to be rapid.

These results are part of a significant body of evidence showing that oaks and other trees can be brought back to health using fairly simple methods that mimic the effects of fire. If you care to learn more about these methods, please enroll in my upcoming course, “Sudden Oak Life: The Science and Practice of Forest Restoration”.

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Upcoming talk – “The cultural modification of trees and forests by California’s Native Peoples”

4 11 2017
CMT madrone

Culturally modified madrone tree in Big Sur, CA

In January 2018 I will be giving a talk “The cultural modification of trees and forests by California’s Native Peoples“, co-sponsored by the Sempervirens Fund and REI. Details of the talk are here. The talk is free but you will need to sign up through Eventbrite. Hope to see you there!