We’re Number One!

In losing trees, that is.

According to a study done by LawnStarter, California leads the nation in deforestation.

LawnStarter compared the 50 states and District of Columbia across eight key metrics and over four time periods to determine where tree cover has shrunk most. They found that California led significantly over second-place Oregon in overall ranking, one-year, five-year and ten-year rankings.

Our ignominious accomplishment was described by LawnStarter in this way: “California not only ranked No. 1 overall among the States That Lost the Most Tree Cover, but it also swept every single metric.”

Now, don’t start cheering. Fire was described as a leading cause of tree loss in 2020, resulting from our worst wildfire season ever, “destroying some of its oldest green giants: redwoods, sequoias (sic.) and Joshua trees. California wildfires ravaged over 4 million acres – an area bigger than Connecticut – accounting for 40% of the total acres burned across the U.S.

“California lost more tree canopy than any other state in every time period we logged, mostly due to wildfires but also to drought and pests.” LawnStarter’s press announcement reported.

Why this matters is that the world is losing trees fast. The U.S. is no different. “Between 2009 and 2014, U.S. cities and rural communities collectively lost 36 million trees, per year.” LawnStarter translates that to the equivalent of saving “$96 million annually by lowering our energy bills, cleaning the air and capturing harmful carbon that contributes to climate change.”

Sadly, 2020 may not be California’s record year for wildfire. It could well be in front of us, as this is a drought year with barren reservoirs and high levels of evaporation already recorded.

Being number one in this category is an achievement we ought not celebrate.

Photo credit: B Street, Arcata (12/5/20) Michelle Pontoni


Fascinating Frozen Facts

Swinging Bridge, Yosemite Valley (2/6/21) Steve Arita

In winter, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports, when other trees are dormant, quaking aspen are energy producers. That’s because they “continue to photosynthesize in their greenish-tinged bark, even after their leaves have dropped.”

It is this living bark layer, which contains chlorophyll and can carry out photosynthesis, that makes the aspen so remarkable a winter survivor.

The USFWS continues in its Kenai NWR “Refuge Notebook,” that quaking aspen are well-adapted to the cold. They survive at higher altitudes by staying small. It’s a response to their tolerance for cold and a lack of moisture at higher elevations. Because of this, aspen are often stunted near tree line, but fully grown several hundred feet lower.

Even their root structure is designed for survival, as the aspen’s fibrous sprouts and suckers are “a handy adaptation in marginal climates,” the USFWS explains. The propagation of aspen clones from one massive root network is why aspen tend to all change color at the same time in fall or leaf out together in spring.

Additionally, in summer, it is the shape and thinness of the aspen leaf that allows it to quake (flutter) in the slightest breeze. Its flexible stem prevents wind damage or stripping and may also “improve the photosynthetic rate,” USFWS vegetation ecologist Elizabeth Bella writes.

Who knew that the quaking aspen would be as fascinating when frozen, as it is lovely during autumn?

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A Dry Spell For Mycophiles

Magpie Mushroom (1/8/21) Gabriel Leete

While most Californians are enjoying this winter’s warm, sunny days, mycophile Gabriel Leete is out wandering the woods in disappointment as he dejectedly walks past the ink caps of Coprinopsis picacea, commonly called the Magpie Mushroom in Anderson. Normally, a wet winter causes all sorts of mushrooms to push up. So far, it’s been “fairly slow.”

Few mushrooms at lower elevations have appeared, and at higher elevations, freezing temperatures have retarded their development.

Redlead Roundhead (1/8/21) Gabriel Leete

In his wanderings, Gabriel found a large colony of Leratiomyces ceres commonly known as the Redlead Roundhead pushing up from shredded bark.

Parasola conopilus (1/8/21) Gabriel Leete

Gabriel sent images of Parasola conopilus (formerly called Psathyrella conopilus) and made the point that they soon will be known as Parasola conopilea.

It seems the mushroom was misidentified as a Psathyrella species, when under the microscope mycologists found it to be a Parasola. Then, an error in Latin agreement got the second half of its name corrected from conopilus to conopilea.

That seems too great an amount of attention and revelation for so common a brown mushroom. Parasola conopilea number from the hundreds to the thousands when they are flourishing. Unfortunately, such scenes are infrequent in this dry winter. 


Smoketree, Why Not?

Smoketree, Cotinus coggygria, Mountain View (11/17/20) Ken Robesky

Smoke has been a theme this autumn, what with wildfire smoke closing national forests and discouraging fall color viewing. So, why not a Smoketree?

Ken Robesky sends this image of one in Mountain View. Cotinus coggygria is a small multi-stemmed tree (10-15′) that turns a smoky pink color in summer and yellow-red-purple in autumn.

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Don’t be afraid of those Ghostberries

Ghostberry (Symphoricarpos), Green Creek Trail (10/4/20) Lyle Gordon

Boo! It’s October, so naturally we have to haunt this site with an apparition of ghostberry leaves, commonly known as snowberries or waxberries, though we prefer “ghostberry” during October.

Color spotter Lyle Gordon was hiking the Green Creek Trail in Mono County when these ghostberry leaves appeared.

Symphoricarpos is a deciduous shrub, native to western China, North and Central America and a member of the honeysuckle family. Its nickname refers to its fruit clusters of white berries.

  • Snowberry plants, Green Creek Trail, Mono County (7,500′) – Peak to Past Peak (75-100%) GO NOW, You Almost Missed It!

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Serviceberries at Big Bear

Surrounding the town of Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains, the national forest is officially closed, but a forest closure does not mean the trees stop what they do naturally.

Fall color is Patchy (10-50%) at Big Bear Lake, though serviceberry bushes, as local color spotter Trent Vierra found, are Near Peak.

Trent took these from the forest hillside behind his cabin in the Moonridge area. He admits that his “little hillside seems to be much farther along than other areas, probably due to it being north-facing. The serviceberry bushes on the hillside, which are pictured, are very golden, while the one by our deck is more green. Black oak, also pictured, on the hillside are about 40% changed into their beautiful autumn russet color.

“Elsewhere around town, the bigleaf maple and some cottonwood are starting to turn, about 40% or less as well. On the drive up the 330, some willows and ferns are beginning to change and there are cool, shaded pockets, especially after the dam on the way into town, where there is some really great golden color in the deciduous ground cover,” Trent posted in a very thorough and appreciated report.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier), deciduous shrubs within the rose family, have beautifully delicate blossoms in springtime and the Autumn Brilliance variety is rich with deep orange and red in fall. The shrub needs little care or attention, though occasional pruning will accentuate its form and remove dead, crossing or dry stems.

  • Big Bear Lake (6,752′) – Patchy (10-50%)
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California Poplar

Black cottonwood, Jenkinson Lake (9/25/20) John Poimiroo

California poplar, better-known as black cottonwood (Populus balsamifera spp. trichocarpa), are often confused with Frémont cottonwood (Populus fremontii spp. fremontii).

It’s easy to mistake these siblings from a distance, as their size, bark, shape and colorations are similar, but look closely at their leaves and the difference is evident.

Black cottonwood have a darker, spear-pointed leaf, while Frémont cottonwood have a lighter-green, heart-shaped leaf, similar to aspen but with a toothy edge. Black cottonwood are the only poplar with willow-like leaves, though unlike willow, which are not aromatic, California poplar emit a strong odor from their buds in springtime.

The young specimen (pictured above) stands in a parking lot near Jenkinson Lake in Sly Park (Sierra Nevada, El Dorado County – US 50). It was planted there, though black cottonwood grow naturally near water. They thrive beside rushing streams “where water, rich in oxygen,” Jim Paruk writes in Sierra Nevada Tree Identifier, “speeds their growth.”

Native to both the east and west slope of the Sierra Nevada, black cottonwood are more often found on the west slope, growing up to 6,000 feet. However, the finest example of California poplar is found along Pine Creek, north of Bishop (Inyo County), where dense groves line the creek, as they have for millennia.

Cottonwood will peak after aspen do, because California poplar grow – on average – well below the 10,000′ upper limit for aspen. Cottonwood also lack the varied red, pink, orange, yellow and lime that appear in peaking aspen. They are uniformly gold at peak and thus aren’t photographed as often, though they have poignant sculptural beauty and are more widely dispersed.

Unlike aspen (which are limited to the Eastern Sierra, San Bernardino mountains and Cascades at elevations from 6,000′ to tree line), cottonwood are found throughout California, typically below 7,000′.

Within the two varieties, black cottonwood grow to the highest elevations (some as high as 9,000′), while Frémont cottonwood aren’t usually seen above 5,000′. Elevation is a good way to tell if the cottonwood is black or Frémont, at least until you can get close enough to see its leaf.

Presently, both California poplar and Frémont cottonwood are Just Starting (0-10%), but look for them to peak beginning in two weeks and continuing into December in Southern California drainages (i.e., Big Tujunga Canyon).

  • Jenkinson Lake (3,400′) – Just Starting (0-10%)

Flowers and Fruit

Strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo, El Dorado Hills (11/7/19) John Poimiroo

The Strawberry Tree, Arbutus unedo, is one of a few ornamental trees that carry both flowers and fruit in autumn.

The exotic evergreen is native to the western Mediterranean and produces a sweet, fragile fruit used in jams, folk medicines (astringent, diuretic, urinary anti-septic, antiseptic, intoxicant, rheumatism, tonic, and to relieve hypertension and diabetes) and as the fruit in Portuguese medronho, a powerful eau de vie (fruit brandy).

What’s lovely about the tree during November are its delicate blossoms and brightly toned yellow, orange and crimson berries.

Point Lobos Orange

Trentepohlia aurea, Pt Lobos State Park (11/1/19) Susan Hanlon

It covers the trunks and branches of oaks and Monterey Cypress with an orange flocking.

Trentepohlia aurea is filamentous terrestrial green alga whose orange coloration comes from carotenoid pigments in its cells.

Susan Hanlon was visiting Point Lobos State Park on the Monterey Peninsula when she was impressed by its bold orange display.

Point Lobos is most famous for Trentepohlia, though the alga is commonly found in humid areas along the California coastline including the San Francisco Bay Areas, Great Britain and Ireland.

Although not technically an autumn color, it shares orange carotenoid pigments with autumn leaves.


Going, Going, Gone

Going, 50/50 Tree, Quincy Airport (10/14/19) Robert Kermen
Going, 50/50 Tree, Quincy Airport (10/20/19) Jeff Luke Titcomb
Gone, 50/50 Tree, Quincy (10/29/19) Jeff Luke Titcomb

The 50/50 Tree, so-called because – when first noticed by Robert Kermen – it appeared to be one tree that was half Just Starting and half Peaking, has now gone Past Peak.

After Kermen’s discovery, the tree was revealed by Jeff Luke Titcomb to be side-by-side mountain maples. However, we also learned that this phenomenon can happen in circumstances where the sunny side has peaked and the shaded side has not.

It’s another of the weird discoveries of Autumn 2019.