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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%)
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Early Signs

Chinese pistache, El Dorado Hills (8/15/20) John Poimiroo

Some trees are showing early signs of color change. This is normal.

Sycamore, Chinese pistache, Liquidambar have all exhibited tonal change in summer. In the Sierra foothills, Chinese pistache and sycamore are evolving from green to yellow-green foliage, as seen above.

However, many native oak – responding to record-high, late-summer temperatures, dryness and particulate dust from wildfire smoke are turning brown much earlier than in previous years.

Reports of healthy stands of quaking aspen seen in the Hope Valley and at Lake Tahoe encouraged a suvey of North Lake Tahoe and Truckee this weekend. I found the aspen at Lake Tahoe to be in general good health, though stands surrounding the derelict cabin beside Upper Martis Creek (CA-267) are in trouble.

The aspen at Upper Martis Creek cabin (a favorite spot for wedding photos, portraits and easily accessed fall color) have not been healthy for some years.

I found the small grove surrounding the cabin full of yellow-green leaves, not from early change, but from a lack of nutrients.

Other trees in the grove vary from healthy to deathlike. In some instances holes in leaves indicate that the aspen appear were attacked by insects, while paper-dry brown leaves suggest a lack of water is killing off the aspen. In support of that, the meadow surrounding the cabin is bone dry and crunches when stepped upon, not a good sign for a meadow which should be moist.

That’s unfortunate, as while this is just one small location, it is a popular one for North Tahoe visitors in search of fall color.

0-10% – Just Starting – Sierra Foothills

0-10% – Just Starting – North Lake Tahoe

0-10% – Just Starting – Upper Martis Creek Meadow

0-10% – Just Starting – Blue Oak, Sierra Foothills

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Capitol Color

Capitol Park, Sacramento (12/3/19) Steve Arita

Today was the Christmas Tree lighting ceremony at the State Capitol in Sacramento, though it wasn’t the only tree at Capitol Park that was lit up with color.

Steve Arita was there this week and sends these images of late peak color. Sacramento’s neighborhoods are now past peak, though spots of bright color – as seen in Capitol Park – can still be found in this city of trees.

  • Capitol Park, Sacramento – Peak to Past Peak, GO NOW, YOU ALMOST MISSED IT.
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Leaf Sunday

English oak, University Arboretum, CSU Sacramento (11/17/19) John Poimiroo

Everyone ought to have a leaf Sunday.

It’s a Sunday drive just to see peaking leaves. Mine was spent on a route I’ve taken many times with stops in El Dorado Hills, Folsom, Fair Oaks and Sacramento.

Brown’s Ravine, Folsom Lake SRA, El Dorado Hills (11/17/19) John Poimiroo
Mormon Island Wetlands Reserve, Folsom (11/17/19) John Poimiroo

El Dorado Hills has trees yet to turn, but more than half have dropped leaves, so it’s between peak and past peak. Fremont cottonwood and Toyon are nearing the end of their peak at Folsom Lake SRA; and landmark Fremont cottonwood at Mormon Island Wetlands are at peak and crowed with bright yellow.

Fair Oaks Park is nearing the end of peak. The approaching storm is likely to remove whatever color is still hanging, and the village’s chickens seemed to know a storm is approaching, as they were crowing anxiously.

The University Arboretum was mostly past peak, though lovers didn’t mind. They sat on benches in quiet corners of the arboretum, ignoring arguments between squirrels, as they whispered to one another and kissed.

Fabulous Forties, Sacramento (11/17/19) John Poimiroo

Along the Fabulous Forties in east Sacramento (avenues numbered in the 40s), large dumps of leaves from towering London plane trees planted near the curbs have littered the avenues. Owners of these stately homes are out each weekend, blowing, raking and sweeping the detritus into piles to be hauled away by city workers.

Holly and her daughter blow leaves into a pile (11/17/19) John Poimiroo

I happened upon Holly and her daughter who were rushing to blow a week’s fall of folioles, so that party guests would have room to park along the curb that night.

There was autumn in the air in downtown Sacramento. Couples dressed in sweatshirts and light sweaters, even though temps were in the low 70s.

The constant fall of leaves from the city’s canopy of color (see “Rollin’ Thru SacTown” posted earlier today), makes Sacramento seem like it should be colder than it is. Perhaps that will change this week, as snow in the Sierra is predicted.

William Land Park, Sacramento (11/17/19) John Poimiroo

Leaf-dressed picnics, touch football, golf and Sunday strolls were happening at William Land Park, and I closed my Leaf Sunday Drive stopping at the Freeport Bakery to purchase a couple of … what else? Leaf Cookies.

Leaf Cookies, Freeport Bakery, Sacramento (11/17/19) John Poimiroo
  • El Dorado Hills (768′) – Peak to Past Peak, GO NOW, YOU ALMOST MISSED IT.
  • Mormon Island Wetlands Reserve (372′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
  • Folsom (220′) – Peak to Past Peak, GO NOW, YOU ALMOST MISSED IT.
  • Fair Oaks (174′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
  • CSU Arboretum – Sacramento (30′) – Past Peak, YOU MISSED IT.
  • Fabulous Forties – Sacramento (30′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
  • Downtown – Sacramento (30′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
  • William Land Park – Sacramento (30′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
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Rollin’ Thru SacTown

Here’s how Niven Le rolls.

  • Video: GoPro
  • Music: Avicil – The Days; Jess Glynne – Hold My Hand
  • Sacramento (30′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
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Above Ground

Owner’s Cottage, Empire Mine SHP, Grass Valley (11/10/19) Steve Arita

Hard rock gold miners didn’t have much opportunity to enjoy the beauty of autumn. They spent most of their day underground.

However, at Empire Mine State Historic Park in Grass Valley the gold to be found today is all above ground. Steve Arita visited this past weekend and found the mine’s surrounding forests to be at peak and beautiful.

Empire Mine was in operation for more than 100 years, starting during the 1850s. In that century, 5.8 million ounces of gold were removed, valued at $8.5 billion in today’s dollars.

The park contains many of the mine’s buildings, the owner’s home and restored gardens, as well as the entrance to 367 miles of abandoned and flooded mine shafts.

856 acres of forested backcountry and fourteen miles of trails for easy hikes, mountain biking and horseback riding can be experienced in the park.

Visitors can enter the actual shaft, but visit only 1/367th of the mine’s five square miles of underground workings, as everything deeper is under water.

So, Steve wasn’t able to bring back any golden souvenirs, other than these photographs of the park’s fall color. After all, he was keeping it all above ground.

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

Newtown Rd., Placerville (11/9/19) John Poimiroo

California’s mid-19th-century gold rush towns are links in a golden chain of backroads that wind through the fabled Mother Lode. I explored a few of them today, in search of fall color and impressions.

The byways rise, twist and drop alongside creeks and rivers that spill out of the western Sierra. The drainages are presently gilded with yellow bigleaf maple, orange black oak and golden black locust.

My Saturday drive traveled through Placerville, whose surrounding hills are dotted with deep orange black oak, then traveled south to Pleasant Valley by way of Newtown Rd. The South Fork of Weber Creek hugs Newtown Rd. and is backlit with dazzling clusters of yellow maples and orange oaks.

From the junction of Newtown Rd. west toward Diamond Springs on Pleasant Valley Rd, the twisted limbs of venerable valley and black oak overhang the road, enveloping it and creating a boulevard of deformed branches heavy with color. Large orange and yellow leaves tumble from the canopy in a gentle fall to eventually chase passing vehicles.

At Pleasant Valley’s wineries (Narrow Gate, Holly’s Hill, Sierra Vista, Miraflores and others), tasters swirl glasses of ruby Syrah and repeat a common soliloquy of how warm and dry this autumn is.

  • Newtown Rd., Placerville(2,447′) – Peak to Past Peak, GO NOW, YOU ALMOST MISSED IT.
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Ripe as an Apple

Bargain apples, Boa Vista, Apple Hill (11/8/19) John Poimiroo

Apple Hill is as ripe for fall color as its apples are for picking.

A visit to Camino in El Dorado County was stuffed full of tasty images, as delicious as one of their apple pies or wines.

Zinfandel, Boeger Winery, Apple Hill, Camino (11/8/19) John Poimiroo
Zinfandel vines, Boeger Winery, Apple Hill, Camino (11/8/19) John Poimiroo
  • Apple Hill, Camino ( ) – Peak to Past Peak, GO NOW, YOU ALMOST MISSED IT.
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Dried Grapes

California wild grape, Vitis californica, were at peak a year ago this week. So, as I passed through Cameron Park, I stopped, expecting to find them full of color.

They were, but not as I’d have preferred to see them.

So, I continued east on US 50, the Lincoln Highway (America’s first transcontinental highway) to Placerville, the El Dorado county seat.

As I climbed the west slope of the Sierra toward Placerville, clumps of orange black oak and golden Fremont cottonwood glowed from surrounding woods.

Placerville is at peak with the oaks particularly good in the midday sun.

  • Placerville (1,867′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
  • California Wild Grape, Cameron Park (1,198′) – Past Peak, YOU MISSED IT.
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Sacramento Valley Still Patchy, but Approaching Peak

Mormon Island Wetlands Reserve, Folsom (10/26/19) John Poimiroo

Fremont cottonwood at the Mormon Island Wetlands Reserve in Folsom and in open space wetlands are crested with gold, as peak approaches.

Chinese pistache, El Dorado Hills (10/26/19) John Poimiroo

This area has peaked, traditionally, in mid November, though the color is already beautiful.

Wetland areas of Folsom’s Humbug-Willow Creek Trail are full of ruby foliage, and streets throughout the area are lined with iridescent exotic Chinese pistache.

  • Folsom (220′) – Patchy to Near Peak (10-75%) GO NOW!