Seasonal Gifts of Color

Chinaberry, LA County Arboretum, Arcadia (12/1/20) Frank McDonough

Backlit and dripping with color, the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Gardens in Arcadia is at its peak. Frank McDonough shares these seasonal gifts of color.

  • LA County Arboretum and Botanic Gardens, Arcadia (171′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
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A Colorful Ending

American smoketree (Cotinus obovatus), UC Berkeley Botanical Garden (11/30/20) Sandy Steinman

Weather has been kind to fall color this autumn, allowing it to last and last and last, right to its colorful ending.

At the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, Sandy Steinman found American smoketree (Continus obovatus) brilliantly toned in crimson, orange, green and yellow; American beautyberries robed in purple, and Japanese maple leaves as confections of red, magenta, orange, pink and yellow.

Similar vibrant display are appearing in Southern California where Kathy Jonokuchi found golden yellow gingko leaves and hot pink Honk Kong orchid at the Conejo Valley Botanic Garden.

Nuttall’s woodpecker, Conejo Valley Botanic Garden (11/28/20) Kathy Jonokuchi

Finally, Salil Bhatt made my day by submitting these images and scoring a First Report for the Sunol Regional Wilderness where valley oak and western sycamore have just crested peak.

Salil points out that the Sunol Regional Wilderness, in the mountains east of Silicon Valley, is one of a few areas where significant collections of winter deciduous native trees can be seen at peak in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Wilderness is east of Milpitas and south of Sunol on Calaveras Rd.

  • UC Berkeley Botanical Garden (171′) – Peak to Past Peak, GO NOW, You Almost Missed It!
  • Conejo Valley Botanic Garden, Thousand Oaks (886′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
  • Sunol Regional Wilderness, Sunol (500′) – Peak to Past Peak, GO NOW, You Almost Missed It!

The Southern Forest

Japanese maple, Descanso Gardens (11/30/20) Julie Kirby

California’s southern forest is cultured, bold and manicured. It is not wild. It is civil. This urban forest is found in parks, arboretums, gardens and neighborhood yards.

Color spotter Julie Kirby reports a SoCal cold snap (overnight temps in the 40s) moved crepe myrtle near her Glendale home from Patchy to Past Peak within a week.

Nearby in La Cañada Flintridge at Descanso Gardens, Japanese maple and crepe myrtle are providing vibrant peak color, but its landmark ginkos are still Patchy.

Descanso is a place where gardens are presented as art. Presently (until Jan. 10), its Wishing Tree made of reclaimed downed oak by artist Kaz Yokou Kitajima allows visitors to participate in making a wish for the new year. Descanso reports they’re on fall color watch with peak appearing in the Rose Garden and near the stream where birch are raining gold.

  • Glendale (522′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
  • La Cañada Flintridge (1,188′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
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Monarch Magic

Female Monarch Butterfly, Long Beach (11/27/20) © Steve Shinn

Late autumn is when Monarch magic happens along the California coast. From Presidio Park in San Diego north to Bodega Dunes in Sonoma County, Monarch butterflies establish their winter residences.

Monarch caterpillar and chrysalis, Long Beach (11/27/20) © Steve Shinn

Long Beach color spotter Steve Shinn photographed this lady as she emerged from her chrysalis at his home. Monarchs are amazing creatures. Some migrate as far as 1,000 miles.

California State Parks writes, “The journey is hazardous and many never make it. By November, most are sheltering in trees stretching from the San Francisco Bay Area south to San Diego. Pismo State Beach hosts one of the largest over wintering congregations, varying in numbers from 20,000 to 200,000. The winter monarchs live about six to eight months. On sunny winter days they will fly away from the sheltering trees, searching for nourishment in flower nectar and water to drink. In late February, as the weather turns warm, the great migration north begins.”

“After a flurry of mating, the female Monarchs fly north seeking milkweed plants where they must lay their eggs. Their job done, the winter Monarchs soon die. It would seem as though the migration had come to a halt before it even got under way. This though, is where it gets interesting. The eggs hatch after a few days and the tiny larvae voraciously begin eating milkweed leaves day and night. 

Monarch Butterflies, Santa Cruz (1/15/2006) © John Poimiroo

“Milkweed is the only food the larva can eat but it eats enough to increase its weight 2,700 times in just two weeks. This is equivalent to a human baby growing to the size of a gray whale in just two weeks. Once it’s eaten its fill, the full-grown caterpillar attaches itself to a solid object, sheds its skin, and forms a hard, green and gold colored outer skin, called a chrysalis. For the next two weeks inside the chrysalis, the fat, striped caterpillar rearranges its body’s molecules and then emerges as a beautiful orange and black Monarch butterfly.

“The new summer Monarchs continue to fly farther north, mating, laying their eggs on milkweed, then dying. The summer monarchs only live about 6–8 weeks but each new generation flies farther and farther north, following the growing milkweed. This cycle repeats itself 4–5 times throughout the summer. It is unknown how the successive generations of butterflies inherit the information needed to return to the over wintering sites but with the shortening days of October, the new winter generation of Monarchs does not mate and die but instead migrates south.”

Monarch butterfly populations are declining dangerously. Individuals can help by planting butterfly and pollinator gardens and encouraging the creation of monarch habitats in their communities. CLICK HERE to learn how you can help. To purchase Monarch Butterfly Seed Balls, CLICK HERE.

And, for guidance to places where you can see Monarchs near where you live, CLICK HERE.

  • Monarch Butterfly Migration, California Coast – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
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Valley of the Moon

Valley oak, Valley of the Moon, Kenwood (11/29/20) David Laurence Sharp

Jack London loved the Sonoma Valley. He called it the Valley of the Moon. It’s where London planned his dream home, Wolf House, which burned to the ground days before the great outdoor adventure novelist was to occupy it in 1913.

The ruins remain on Sonoma Mountain, above Glen Ellen where Jack London State Historic Park memorializes the California author’s fabled life.

Below, arcing through the crescent-shaped Valley of the Moon, vineyards are now mostly past peak, reports wine country photographer David Laurence Sharp, “though the trees are looking great.”

Blending fascinating history and glorious nature, Jack London State Historic Park offers more than 29 miles of back-country trails that roam through mixed forests, redwood groves, oak woodlands, and grassy meadows.

The four-mile Ancient Redwood Trail loops from the parking lot to a 14-foot wide old growth redwood affectionately known as “the Grandmother tree.”  Two scenic and relatively short historic trails lead to the Wolf House ruins and a tour of London’s Beauty Ranch.

Jack London was one of the most prolific and popular authors of his time, the first to earn a million dollars at his trade.   Many of his books are considered classics, including “Call of the Wild,” “White Fang,” “The Sea Wolf,” and “Martin Eden.” Jack’s Shop offers more than 50 of Jack London’s titles as well as writings about his life, and books by and about his wife, Charmian London.  

While the Park’s indoor facilities – the Museum and Cottage – are currently closed, Jack’s Shop, the park’s gift store, is open outdoors adjacent to the Cottage on weekends from noon to 4 p.m. Park admission fees apply.

Jack London State Historic Park will remain open for holiday shopping and outdoor recreation through the holiday season, Jack London Partners has announced. JLP is the first non-profit organization to manage a state park on behalf of the people of California. For more about visiting the park, CLICK HERE.

  • Sonoma Valley (423′) – Peak to Past Peak, GO NOW, You Almost Missed It!

All The Leaves Are Brown

Mule deer (11/29/20) Robert Kermen

Even a four-point buck can’t find fall color to use as cover in the Shasta Cascade. As, to quote a song I heard somewhere, “All the leaves are brown.”

Robert Kermen headed north for Thanksgiving Day, sending back these images of the vestiges of fall color in northeast California.

  • Shasta Cascade – Past Peak, You Missed It.


Gingko biloba trees are survivors. They survived the Permian–Triassic extinction event 250 million years ago, during which 90% of marine species and 70% of land species died, then flourished during the early Jurassic period, spreading worldwide.

The division of Ginkgophyta began declining during the Cretaceous geologic time period and by two million years ago, all that remained of native forests was limited to a small area of central China. Gingko biloba is now the only living species of Gingkophyta, all others being extinct.

Gingkos (also called Maidenhair) are a living fossil that provides beauty in landscaping and use in cooking and as a health supplement. Xingshen Qian enjoyed their beauty on a morning walk through Mountain View.

  • Mountain View (105′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!

Empire Strikes Back

Maple Lane, Empire Mine SHP, Grass Valley (11/28/20) Steve Arita

As he vowed this week, color spotter Steve Arita returned to Empire Mine State Historic Park, to see if Maple Lane (his name for the path of maples leading to Empire Cottage) was finally at full peak.

For padawans who haven’t had the chance to visit this extra-beautiful terrestrial location, Steve wrote, “Maple Lane is still only half its length at peak, the other half is oddly still green to lime green.” State Park rangers told Steve that “this has been an odd year, usually all the colors go off at the same time,” sorta like a Death Star blowing up.

  • Empire Mine SHP, Grass Valley (2,411′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!


Seagulls Overhead, Look Up!

California gulls, valley oak, Nimbus Flat (11/28/20) John Poimiroo

It’s not usually a good idea to look up when seagulls are overhead, but I did that at Nimbus Flat (Folsom Lake SRA) and caught them swirling and singing above peak valley oak.

Several thousand seagulls have been spending late autumn on Lake Natomas (formed by Nimbus Dam on the American River in Folsom) on their way to the coast. California gulls breed during summer on isolated islands at inland lakes such as Mono Lake in the Eastern Sierra. They migrate to spend winter along the coast.

For the past few weeks, a mile-long colony of California gulls has been floating in the middle of Lake Natomas, occasionally lifting off in huge swirling cyclones of squawking seabirds.

  • American River (150′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!

Page Turner Peaks in Cupertino

Cupertino Library (11/28/20) Xingsheng Qian

A tree-lined green, south of the Cupertino Library, is a page-turner as good as any mystery novel inside the library.

The trees, as Xingsheng Qian notes, have the form of Chinese pistache but not the coloration. Hmm, what are they?

At this late date in autumn, Chinese pistache (pistacia chinensis) leaves would have turned bright pink, red, orange and yellow, not the golden-orange seen in Xingsheng’s photograph (above). Also, Chinese pistache might have already dropped their leaves, but these trees are at peak.

Wait a minute. Xingsheng included a second image and … Ah, it was not Colonel Mustard in the library with a candlestick. Those are Chinese pistache, after all. Oh, I’m sorry. Did I give the ending away?

Chinese pistache, Cupertino Library (11/28/20) Xingsheng Qian

Like many California cities, Cupertino has a tree planting program in which property owners may request a street tree. The city is encouraging the development of an urban forest by offering property owners the choice of 13 tree varieties, including several of our favorite street trees: Chinese pistache, Gingko biloba, London plane tree, Marina strawberry tree (evergreen but with colorful fruit in fall), Aristocrat and Chanticleer flowering pear, crepe myrtle, Chinese flame tree and autumn purple ash. Cupertino also has “themed streets” where specific varieties are planted for a more uniform and impressive display. As California cities discover the energy-saving value of urban forests, cities like Cupertino are becoming more beautiful and colorful in autumn.

  • Cupertino (236′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!