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Seeing Red

Crimson Knotweed, Cliff Lake, Lassen Volcanic NP (9/12/15) Shanda Ochs

One of the earliest fall colors to enjoy in California’s mountains is red.

Though if you seek it, look downward. As, the red of which I write is crawling along the ground.

In the Shasta Cascade, it is the Crimson Knotweed that carpets volcanic slopes above 7,000′ in the Northern Sierra and Southern Cascade.

Dwarf Bilberry, Cascade Lake, Hoover Wilderness (9/5/18) David Senesac

In the Sierra Nevada, Dwarf Huckleberry or Sierra Bilberry (Vaccinium nivictum) grows in subalpine fir forests and alpine fell fields usually between 8,000 and 12,000′,  John Hunter Thomas and Dennis R. Parnell write in Native Shrubs of the Sierra Nevada.

Naturalist David Senesac hiked up into the 20 Lakes Basin of the Hoover Wilderness in early September to find ruby Dwarf Bilberry (Vaccinium caespitosum), “a turf height species of the blueberry family” blushing near timberline elevations in the weeks before autumn.

This plant is often red-purple in color, but ignites when backlit with light, adding vermillion vibrance and verve to its otherwise austere environs. 

Peak (75-100%) – Bilberry and Knotweed

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Identifying NorCal Plants

Plants of Northern California, Falcon Guides

With more than 7,000 species of native plants in California, it’s easy to misidentify one. As a journalist, not a scientist, I’ve made more than a few wrong identifications on this site. Hopefully, few misidentifications are still posted here, though – admittedly – I come across one, now and then. When I do, I correct it.

However, when you combine California’s native species to the thousands of non-native (exotic) plants in our gardens, parks and cities, it’s easy to imagine the difficulty involved in reporting accurately 100% of the time.

In order to identify obscure plants, I’ve sent photos of them to naturalists, botanists and foresters who’ve then identified them, but that takes time. So, increasingly, I refer to books and sites for answers. Recent additions to my library are field guides published by Falcon Guides.

In a previous post, I referenced Dr. Eva Begley’s Plants of Northern California. It illustrates, through color photography and text, native plants that grow west of the Sierra Nevada. This area includes the north San Francisco Bay, North Coast, Klamath and Cascade Ranges, and the Sacramento Valley.

Trees, Falcon Pocket Guide

Sierra Nevada Wildflowers, Falcon Guides

In the book, species are organized by color and family, and text describes their blooming period, elevation and habitat, plant characteristics, and other interesting facts. It is particularly useful in identifying flowering plants.

What has often bothered me about some field guides is that they’re written for scientists by scientists. So, common plants are often omitted, I suppose, because the author might think they’re so common that everyone must know what they are.

Dr. Begley did not make that mistake. Ordinary, as well as extraordinary plants are illustrated with sharp, colorful photographs and simple, direct and helpful text.

Falcon Guides even thought to print a ruler on the back cover, to help take the guesswork out of measuring blooms in the field and includes a glossary of terms (e.g., pinnate) that might otherwise be confusing to users.

Plants of Northern California has little within it to help in identifying deciduous trees or Sierra Nevada plants, though combine it with Falcon’s pocket guide Trees by Todd Telander and Sierra Nevada Wildflowers by Karen Wiese, and you have solid foundation of reference materials that will help you identify California plants when searching for California Fall Color. 

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Bracken Ferns – A Carpet of Gold

Bracken Fern, Kyburz (9/9/18) Walt Gabler

Bracken Fern, Kyburz (9/9/18) Walt Gabler

Bracken ferns are carpeting the forest floor near Kyburz (4,058′) with golden yellow color.

The Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) flourishes in life zones from sea level to 10,000′ in elevation and is found in meadows, pastures, woodlands and forests (source: Plants of Northern California, by Eva Begley, A Falcon Guide).

North Coast color spotter Walt Gabler was returning from a Search and Rescue conference at South Lake Tahoe, when their bright yellow color attracted his eye during a rest stop in Kyburz, near U.S. 50. 

Near Peak (50-75%) – Bracken – These showy autumn ferns vary, presently, in fall color from Just Starting to Peak, depending on locale. They’re near peak in Kyburz, off US 50.

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Fall Color Begins in Spring

Eastern redbud, El Dorado Hills (3/29/18) John Poimiroo

Many deciduous trees are budding out with blossoms and new foliage, providing for a fresh and colorful spring show.

This Eastern redbud tree (exotic) in our side yard is now flocked with magenta blooms, while Western redbud shrubs in Sierra foothill canyons are carrying rose  blossoms.

Although this website is  dedicated to fall color, what happens in autumn begins in spring.

So, if you see similarly bright spring foliage, email images to us and we’ll publish them here. editor@californiafallcolor.com

 

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LA County Owns December

Viburnum, LA County Arboretum and Botanic Gardens (11/28/17) Frank McDonough

Cotoneaster carry late autumn berries, LA County Arboretum and Botanic Gardens (11/28/17) Frank McDonough

The Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Gardens in Arcadia owns December.

Over recent years, California Fall Color has consistently received reports and photographs of autumn foliage from this arboretum between mid November and mid December, but it is early December when fall color there is most beautiful.

That is largely consistent among coastal arboretums and botanic gardens, including the UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley, Descanso Gardens, Huntington Botanical Gardens, San Francisco Botanical Garden, Balboa Park Botanical Garden and Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Garden. Though, not all feature as broad a range of varieties with fall color.

At the LA County Arboretum, Frank McDonough, its Botanical Information Specialist and one of our perennial color spotters, will be leading a Fall Foliage Walking Tour of the LA County Arboretum on Saturday, Dec. 2. He worries, however, that this year’s fall color is “way late.” Warm temperatures and dry skies have kept the color from developing, as seen in his photos of cotoneaster and crepe myrtle.

Crepe myrtle show patchy color, LA County Arboretum and Botanic Gardens (11/28/17) Frank McDonough

Frank, who has recorded the beauty of autumn there for years, will be speaking about what triggers the change among the broad mix of foliage to be enjoyed at the LA County Arboretum, including: gingko biloba, fishtail gingko, Eastern white oak, horse chestnut, Japanese maple, Japanese lacquer trees, Daimyo oak, crepe myrtle, sweet gum (liquidambar), sour gum, red maple, Eastern redbud, American elm, Chinese tallow, Chinese parasol trees, Chinese pistache, birch, pomegranate, cotoneaster, California fan palm, tulip trees, sticks on fire, pin oak, Chinaberry, Jerusalem thorn, blaze maple, horned maple, California wild grape, flame leaf sumac and California fan palms.

So, as December arrives, peak color does as well, though this autumn it is late in appearing at the LA County Arboretum and Botanic Gardens in Arcadia.

LA County Arboretum and Botanic Gardens, Arcadia – Patchy

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Pushups in the Woods

Amanita spp, Anderson (11/15/17) Gabriel Leete

Recent rains have caused mushrooms to push up out of the detritus, as Gabriele Leete found in Anderson.

Amanita, Anderson (11/15/17) Gabriel Leete

Split-gill mushroom, Schizophyllum commune, Anderson (11/15/17) Gabriel Leete

Among the mushrooms emerging are Amanita, among the most poisonous mushrooms on Earth, the most toxic of which cause liver failure and death.

There are 600 varieties of Amanita, including a few edible ones, though eating them is like playing Russian roulette with five bullets in a six-shooter.

Split-gill mushrooms, or Schizophyllum commune, are the only known type of mushroom to retract when touched. They are found on decaying trees during dry periods following a rainfall. Its beautiful gills or “gillies” resemble coral.

Honey fungus, Armillaria mellea, Anderson (11/15/17) Gabriel Leete

Honey fungus, Armillaria spp, Anderson (11/15/17) Gabriel Leete

Sticky when wet, the honey fungus, Armillaria mellea, grows around the base of trees it infects. The mushroom is a plant pathogen that causes root rot in many of the plants it infects, causing discolored foliage, dieback of branches and death, according to Wikipedia.

Psathyrella is a smaller version of Psathyra, Greek for “Friable.” However, do not mistake these for being “fryable,” as they are toxic.

Psathyrella are in a large genus of mushrooms, containing some 400 types, including CoprinellusCoprinopsisCoprinus and Panaeolus.

Psathyrella spp, Anderson (11/15/17) Gabriel Leete

OK, you get the idea, they’ve all been given Greek names. Aside from that, what also is common about Psathyrella is that they’re boring.

They are often “drab-colored, difficult to identify, and inedible,” Wikipedia reports, “So they are sometimes considered uninteresting,” perhaps that’s what makes them so fascinating to Gabriel and me.

No, we’re not Greeks, just geeks.

Mushrooms, Shasta Cascade – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!

 

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East/West Redbud Debate

Western redbud, cercis occidentalis (11/10/17) Robert Kermen

Eastern redbud, cercis canadensis (11/7/17) John Poimiroo

When it comes to redbud, it’s debatable as to which is prettiest in autumn… East or West.

The eastern variety, cercis canadensis, displays bright gold and green heart-shaped leaves.

Whereas, western redbud, cercis occidentalis, display orange, red, gold and lime heart-shaped leaves.

Both are equally stunning.

Redbud is often overlooked by color spotters who give up looking for great fall color as soon as the forests of aspen have turned, but not Robert Kermen or me.

Robert found western redbud growing along Big Chico Creek in Chico’s Bidwell Park.

Cercis occidentalis are native to the Sierra and North Coast foothills. Native California indians used their barks for basket weaving and as a red dye. In springtime, their showy pink and magenta blossoms grow in clusters all over redbud shrubs that garnish foothill river canyons.

Western redbud, cercis occidentalis (11/10/17) Robert Kermen

Western redbud, cercis occidentalis (11/10/17) Robert Kermen

I have the pleasure of enjoying an Eastern redbud all year long. It grows in my side yard (El Dorado Hills) and provides an inspiring show when autumn light backlights the leaves in kelly green and yellow.

Eastern redbud are a popular landscape and street tree, appreciated for their shape, shade and autumn color (best from late October to early November).

Their heart-shaped leaves flutter in a soft autumn breeze, as if they’re beating.

OK, there’s no debate. East or West, who couldn’t love redbud with all they have to show?

Cercis Occidentalis Range – Wikipedia

Redbud – Peak (75-100%) – Their range forms an upside down fish hook, leading from the SF Bay Area north through wine country and the Redwood Highway, then bending east through Trinity County to the northern Sierra foothills, then south to the Southern Sierra. GO NOW!

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Autumn Accipiters and Asteraceae

Redtail Hawk (11/5/17) Robert Kermen

Ferruginous Hawk (11/5/17) Robert Kermen

Coopers Hawk (11/5/17) Robert Kermen

Robert Kermen was looking skyward to find these hawks watching him from autumn posts spare of leaves.

Accipiters are the largest genus of birds, writes Encyclopaedia Brittanica, with more than 50 species of falconiform birds.

Kermen found these on one morning in Northern California. Though, many others have been attracted to Northern California to prey on migratory waterfowl.

In autumn, hundreds of thousands of duck, geese and other migratory birds pass through the Central Valley, providing a flying feast for these raptors.

After looking skyward, Robert looked down to see another form of living autumn color in full bloom…  exotic Asteraceae, a flower native to South Africa.

Central Valley Flyways – Peak (75-100%) – GO NOW!

Kiss Bronze Star Gazania (11/5/17) Robert Kermen

 

 

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San Rafael’s Maidenhair

Gingko biloba, San Rafael (10/29/17) Anson Davalos

Each autumn, maidenhair coifs the streets of San Rafael with bright yellow.

The maidenhair of which we speak are the gingko biloba trees, a good choice to be planted along city streets, not just for their dazzling autumn color, but also because the trees don’t uproot sidewalks and roadways.

Gingko biloba is called a “living fossil,” as it is one of the world’s oldest living species, dating back 270 million years.

Extracts from the gingko are often associated with curing memory loss and sorts of ailments from dementia to Alzheimer’s disease to altitude sickness. Though, it’s never been established, scientifically, that they can do any of this.

And, while gingko seeds are sometimes found in Asian cooking, eaten in large quantities they can be hazardous.

Perhaps someday we will find beneficial uses for the gingko biloba beyond their beauty, though in the first two weeks of November they provide lovely color and form along the streets of San Rafael.

San Rafael – Near Peak (50-75%) – Maidenhair have coiffed the streets of San Rafael. GO NOW!

 

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Tree of Heaven: The Devil’s Work

Tree of Heaven, Ailanthus altissima, Anderson (10/18/17) Gabriel Leete

Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima)  is less angelic than it is the devil’s work.

It is one of many invasive, non-native species that, once established, takes over the natural landscape preventing native trees from growing.

While beautiful in autumn with its bright red color, Tree of Heaven will produce over 52 million seeds during its 100-year life.

That’s much more than other trees like maples and oaks. And, while oaks will take decades to produce acorns, Ailanthus produce viable seeds in just a few years.

Modern Farmer writes that “the book,  A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, was about an Ailanthus, using its ability to thrive in cement or garbage, with poor soil, poor light, and poor water supply, as a metaphor.

“If you cut it down, it’ll regrow from its own roots. It also blocks out native plants, altering local ecosystems, partly because it grows so fast and efficiently, and partly because it is allelopathic, meaning that it produces chemicals that inhibit the growth of nearby plants. It isn’t content to just box out native plants; it cheats.”

Native to China, Ailanthus is prized there for its use in traditional Chinese medicines and as a habitat for silk worms.

However, here it has only ornamental value and takes over habitat that would otherwise be populated by native species.

Modern Farmer writes, “Currently, there are no easy options (to eradicate them); some solutions involve hacking notches into the trunk with a machete before applying herbicide, or pulling out the entire root system of younger trees.”

So, enjoy the beauty of Tree of Heaven, but don’t encourage them. There really are devils beneath those angels’ wings.