Local Plants

This will cover those plants found in the local area of the Southern Sierras.
By Carol Zeigler

(Carol is a Springville resident who has a BA in Biology and has been a naturalist for eight years.  She is passing on this information as a local resident who also just happens to work for the Forest Service.  Her own web site can be found at http://www.tarol.com, where you can find more local information and photos.)


Takin’ a Likin’ to Lichen by Carol Zeigler


Recently I was conducting an interpretive walk at the Trail of 100 Giants in Sequoia National Forest. I am quite comfortable with the subject manner that normally presents itself here, mainly of the omnipresent charismatic mega-flora, the giant sequoias. But every now and then someone stumps me with some related question. Recently it was a 14-year old girl from Bakersfield who was attending the walk with her classmates and teacher. “What is this?” the young girl with serious brown eyes asked me, holding a small clump of green in her hand.


“That is a lichen,” I replied. When I saw the look of non-recognition in her eyes I tried to clarify, “It’s a combination of two things, really, a fungus and an algae. The fungus is kind-of like a mushroom and the algae makes food like a plant and they grow together.”


This seemed to satisfy her, for a moment anyway. Then she asked, “Do they grow on rocks?” and I said, “Yes, some kinds do.” She asked if the kind she was holding had a name and I didn’t have an answer for her. So I went back home, and like I normally do when a visitor stumps me, I did some research and found the answer.


The type of lichen the girl brought to me is called a wolf lichen. It is bright neon-green in color and composed of thin filaments that are all connected together and bunched up in a clump. It is commonly found in the Sierra Nevada mid-elevation conifer forest. Sometimes you see it growing on fir or cedar trees, sometimes it’s just laying on the ground in small clumps. Interestingly you usually don’t see it growing on giant sequoias. Perhaps the bark is too soft and flaky for it to hold on to. Wolf lichen is native to the US and there are several species found throughout the northern hemisphere.


How did it get its name? Well, it turns out this type of lichen is poisonous, and native people in Russia and northern Europe used it to poison wolves. It is also the most widely used lichen that native people in North America used for dye. The Chilkat Tlingit people in southeast Alaska traditionally dyed their prized blankets with wolf lichen. They traded valuable coastal resources such as fish and shells to groups inland in exchange for the lichens. There are other types of lichen that were used as dyes as well. In Medieval Europe the Rocella species of lichen was used to produce a purple dye that became known as “Royal Purple” as only royalty was allowed to wear clothes that color.


Letharia vulpine is the scientific name for wolf lichen. It is not a type of moss or plant like most people would think upon spotting it. Remember, not everything that is living is an animal or plant. There are five kingdoms of life: animals, plants, fungi, algae (Protista), and bacteria (Monera). A lichen is the combination of two and sometimes three of these kingdoms of life. One is a fungus and the other is an algae and/or a bacteria.


The fungus is the dominant partner, as it provides the shape and form of the composite organism, but it is incapable of making its own food. So it has evolved to live with another organism that can. Most scientists describe the fungi as cultivating algae and/or the bacteria cells within its structure in order to make food. Lichenologist Tervor Goward once remarked that, “Lichens are fungi that have discovered agriculture.” Algae and some types of bacteria can photosynthesize and make food which the lichen then uses.


The other creative way of remembering what a lichen is was taught to me long ago and it usually gets a chuckle out of people I tell it to. “Freddy Fungus took a lichen to Alice Algae… and now their marriage is on the rocks.” Actually, I lied, it usually just makes people roll their eyes! Oh, well, do with the saying what you will, but I like it.


Lichens come in a huge variety of colors, shapes, and sizes and some are quite beautiful. There are three main growth forms that lichens exhibit: crustose, foliose and fruticose. Crustose lichens grow on rocks like a tightly attached crust. They can’t be removed without damage. Foliose lichens are flat and have an upper and a lower surface. Their lower surface can grow tightly on the rock or tree but they can usually be pried loose without too much damage. Fruticose lichens may grow upright and look like a clump or like a miniature shrub (like the wolf lichen the girl brought to me) or they may be hang down like hair or a beard (like Spanish Moss, which despite its name, is a lichen).


There are more than 3,600 species of lichen in the US and Canada and they grow worldwide from the arctic to rainforests to deserts. They often grow where conditions are harsh and nothing else can grow. They are pioneers species growing on bare rock and desert sand and they often help break down the rock chemically and physically into soil that other plants can then grow on. They can grow in harsh conditions because lichens are able to shut down metabolically during periods extreme heat, cold, and drought. When they do have water, though, they absorb it like a sponge.


Lichens grow very slowly and are thus sensitive to any kind of disturbance. They are often found in pristine, undisturbed environments and when they are absent it is often an early warning that something is amiss. They are also sensitive to air pollution and have been used as an indicator of air quality.


Lichens can be a very important food source for animals. 90% of a caribou’s diet in the wintertime is made up of lichen. They will claw through snow to get at a patch of lichen that they can smell beneath it. Deer and mountain goats also eat lichen. Northern flying squirrels eat lichen and use it for their nests. More than 50 species of birds in the US also use lichen for their nests.


People can and have eaten some species of lichen as well. Some cultures grind it into a flour and make bread. Lichen has also been used as a source of medicine since ancient times.  It is estimated that 50% of lichen species have antibiotic properties. Some cultures steep it and drink it as a tea or grind it and use it in an antibiotic salve. And, who knew that oakmoss lichen, harvested in large quantities in Mediterranean Europe, is an important ingredient in fine perfumes? Not me! Until today, anyway¦


Well, I hope next time that you’re at the Trail of 100 Giants, you manage to shift your attention away from the awe-inspiring giant sequoias, and instead focus on the small clumps of green you see scattered here and there.  Remember to look for the lichen that is so useful to so many types of animals.  Remember that it is also important for people in so many different ways.  Finally, remember that when you see it, it’s usually a good sign, a sign that you’re in a healthy environment.


Oak Trees by Carol Zeigler

I’ve decided this winter to start tackling oak trees…  Tackling, you say?  Well, I can identify an oak tree as an oak tree, but what species of oak is it?  We have several species in our area and I don’t really know how to tell the difference between them all.  So I’ve decided to study up.


First things first – what makes an oak tree an oak tree?  Oak trees are in the family Fagaceae which is derived from the Latin word Fagus which means, “to eat.”  Trees in the family Fagaceae indeed have edible fruits called acorns. They are also monoecious trees which means you can find both male and female flowers on the same tree.  The flowers are small and inconspicuous because they have no petals.  The male flowers have between 4 and 40 stamens and are usually grouped in clusters called catkins.  The female flowers have a single pistil and are surrounded by a bract which becomes the acorn at full maturity.  The female flowers can be solitary or in small clusters often near the base of the male flowers.  The leaves are simple and pinnately veined with margins that are often lobed.  Leaves drop in the fall, thus the tree is deciduous.


Oak trees are in the genus Quercus, which is a Latin word that is thought to have been derived from the Celtic quer “fine” and cuez “tree.”  The oak tree I decided to learn about first is Quercus kelloggii, or the California Black Oak.  John Newberry named this oak tree in 1857 in honor of Albert Kellogg, a pioneer California botanist and physician.  They have a very dark-colored blackish bark, hence their common name.  I decided to start with the California Black Oak because there are more of them and they grow over a wider range in California than any other oak species.


California Black Oaks grow from west-central Oregon south to Baja, California.  They are common in the coastal ranges and the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada.  They grow where the summers are hot and dry but the winters are cool and moist.  Here in the southern Sierra Nevada they grow from about 4,000’ to 7,800’ in elevation amongst Ponderosa Pine, Incense Cedar, White Fir, and Giant Sequoia Trees.


California Black Oaks attain their largest size in the Sierra Nevada.  They can get up to about 130’ in height and 5 feet in diameter.  They can also live to be about 500 years old!


Most California Black Oaks get their start not by seed but by sprouting from fire damaged or cut parent stumps.  The reasons for this are many.  These oak trees typically don’t produce many acorns until they are at least 80-100 years old.  Then, for unknown reasons, acorn yields vary from year to year.  When acorns are produced, insects destroy many of them in their developmental stage.  After they fall they are often damaged by blue-gray mold.  If they escape the insects and mold, well then most are eaten by at least 14 species of song and game birds, many small mammals, bears, and mule deer.  In the fall acorns are the primary food source for many of these animals.  Domestic cattle and sheep and non-native wild pigs eat the acorns as well.


If an acorn does survive fall they usually lie dormant underneath leaves on the forest floor in the winter then germinate in the spring when the weather warms.  If the seedling gets enough water and survives insect and mold infestation, as well as pocket gophers, it can get up to 6 inches high and send roots down as far as 30 inches in its first growing season.


Because acorns have a low rate of germination and seedlings a low rate of survivability, most oak trees in California originate from sprouts.  How long they live is determined by a variety of factors.  A California Black Oak’s worst enemy is fire.  Both ground and crown fires are often fatal.  And if a fire doesn’t kill them outright, a fire scar can be the entry point for fungi.  The tree is especially susceptible to fungi, including heart rot.


So how can you tell apart a California Black Oak from other oaks in this area?  You can start with where the tree is growing…  Is it growing from 4,000’-7,800’ in elevation?  Yes?  Then examine the tree.  Is it a deciduous tree (does it drop its leaves in the fall?)  That would distinguish it from live oaks which keep their leaves year-round.  Are the leaves 4-10 inches long and pinnately lobed, usually with 7 lobes?  Are the lobes 3-toothed and bristle-tipped?  If they’re bristle-tipped, that would distinguish it from White and Blue Oaks whose leaves do not have bristles.  Now look for an acorn…  Are they from 1 to 2.5 inches long?  Are they reddish brown and do the caps cover about half the acorn?  In other oak species the caps cover less than ½ the acorn.  So, if the tree you’re examining has these features, then you’re looking at a California Black Oak!


If you’re exploring a black oak stand that is near a creek you may also take the time to see if you can find mortar holes.  Native American families harvested acorns in the summertime and pounded them into meal in mortars they had worn into granite bedrock.  This meal was then leached with water in order to remove bitter tannic acid then it was cooked and eaten as soup, mush, bread, or patties.  Today, acorns are still gathered by people of many different tribes in California and southern Oregon.

California Sycamore Trees by Carol Zeigler


I’ve found that December is one of the best times to get out and go for a drive or a hike along the rivers and creeks of the Southwestern Sierra foothills.  Here’s my reasoning: It usually starts snowing in the higher elevations making outings up there more challenging, the foothills are pleasantly cool but generally not too cold, and the California Sycamore trees begin to show off their gorgeous autumn hues of orange and rust.


California Sycamore (Platanus racemosa) grow on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains along streams and rivers below 3,000 feet in elevation.  They also grow in some locations in the Coast Range.  They typically are about 40-60 feet high but some specimens can get up to 100 feet tall and 10 feet in diameter.  They have a spreading, open crown made up of forking and often zig-zagging branches.  Their bark is greenish-gray when young but it continually flakes off and reveals a smooth white inner bark.  A sycamore’s upper branches are usually completely white and I think this makes the tree stand out beautifully against the clear blue skies of winter.  This also provides the perfect structure for displaying the tree’s leaves that turn a beautiful burnt orange color in mid- to late November and early December.


The leaves of California Sycamores may remind you of large maple leaves; both are palmately lobed but sycamore leaves are much thicker and are arranged alternately along the twigs whereas maple leaves are opposite each other.  The leaves are 5-11 inches long and in the spring they are a bright green.  In springtime you can also find decorative clusters of greenish flowers amongst the leaves on the tree.  The flower clusters are round in shape and they develop into round spiky fruits about an inch in diameter.  These are often found hanging together like golf balls on a string.  The fruits often fracture and the seeds are wind dispersed.  Sometimes the fruits fall and float along a river or stream until they wash up on a bank and this is another way that new sycamores can establish themselves.  The young trees grow quickly if given enough sunlight.


Many bird species including Red-tailed Hawks, Hummingbirds, and Woodpeckers depend on a California Sycamore’s large canopy for nesting sites.  Native Americans used the sycamore’s strong branches for building.  And a large sycamore tree played a role in the establishment of this city of Los Angeles!  The native Gabrielino or Tongva people had a village called Yangna which was located near a huge California Sycamore Tree under which they held meetings.  Later the Spanish settlement that gave way to the pueblo of Los Angeles was located next to Yangna in sight of this sycamore tree.  The settlement was destroyed in 1815 by a large flood but the sycamore tree survived.  It later died in 1892 and was cut down and the rings of the tree were counted.  It was found that this tree was over 400 years old!


There are two other species of sycamore trees in the US: the Arizona Sycamore and the American Sycamore.  Arizona Sycamore trees grow in the Sonoran Desert and American Sycamore grow from the Atlantic Coast to the Mississippi River.  Locally you can find California Sycamore trees growing profusely along the lower reaches of the Tule and Kaweah Rivers as well as the larger Kings and Kern Rivers.  They also grow at Kaweah Oaks Preserve near Visalia and here you can take the self guided Sycamore Trail and learn more about these beautiful trees and the other plants and wildlife that live amongst them.


More information:






Farewell-to-Spring by Carol Zeigler


Farewell-to-Spring, Clarkia williamsonii, is a wildflower that’s aptly named as it blooms right when summer comes to the western Sierra foothills. Right now the foothills are turning from their characteristic springtime green color to their summertime gold color. When Farewell-to-Spring blooms it can cover an entire hillside turning it from gold to pink! It is one flower that I have grown to love since moving to the Springville area two-and-a-half years ago.

There are 72 species and subspecies of Clarkias and they are in the evening primrose family, Onagraceae. Onagra, I had to look this one up, means food of the Onager. Okay, so what’s an Onager? It’s a donkey like animal native to deserts in the Middle East. And I gather it apparently likes to eat evening primroses that grow there. Onagraceae is indeed a family of plants that are distributed worldwide and their flowers typically have 4 petals and 4 sepals. Their seeds are very small and their leaves are generally lanceleote in shape and in an opposite configuration.

All Clarkias have four petals that are generally pink to purple in color, though they can also be blue or white. The shape of their petals can differ quite dramatically, however, from broad and fan-shaped to slender and diamond-shaped. Clarkia williamsonii flowers are dark pink and fan-shaped and overall the flower is shaped like a bowl and it grows on a stalk that’s from 1 to 3 feet tall. It is common in the western foothills and lower forest areas of the Sierra Nevada. It is native and also endemic to California which means it is found nowhere else.

Like many plants there is a story behind this pretty flower’s scientific name. The Genus Clarkia was named for Captain William Clark of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition to the mouth of the Columbia River in 1804 to 1806. Botanical discovery was of course one of the key goals of the expedition and they sent over 100 dried botanical specimens to President Thomas Jefferson in spring of 1805 and brought even more back in 1807. Botanist Frederick Pursh later described many of these plants in a Flora he published in England in 1814. Pursh’s Flora acknowledged Lewis and Clark’s discoveries; in fact, he created two new genera named after them, Lewisia and Clarkia.

Williamsonii was named after Lt. Robert Williamson, leader of a railway survey in the mid-eighteenth century. In 1853 he led a party looking for a railway route from the desert across the southern Sierra Nevada and the mountains of Southern California. He scouted out Walker and Tehachapi Passes and eventually located two routes, one over Cajon Pass and the other through Soledad Canyon. Mt. Williamson on the Angeles National Forest and Mt. Williamson on the Inyo National Forest (the second highest peak in California) were also named for him.

Clarkia williamsonii is also sometimes called Spring Beauty, Godetia, or Sierra Fairy-Fan. Its small seeds are edible and may be eaten raw or after grinding. Right now they can be seen covering many hills in the Springville area; but one of the best places I’ve encountered this year for seeing Farewell-to-Spring is on County Road M-56 from Fountain Springs to California Hot Springs. For miles and miles this flower lines the road along with foothill poppies, caterpillar plant, lupine, Mariposa lilies, and Chinese houses.

Springville is also home to a rare species of Clarkia, and you can probably guess its scientific name, Clarkia springvillensis. This flower is only found in Tulare County and it is threatened by urban development, livestock grazing, and road maintenance. Here is a website to find out more about this rare flower…


A good picture of Farewell-to-Spring can be found on this website, and hopefully within the next few days I’ll be able to get a photo of it covering a hillside… it’s magnificent!



Pacific Dogwood by Carol Zeigler

The dogwoods bloomed early this year, about a month early. I just got back from a hike up in the Mountain Home Grove where the dogwoods are just about at their peak and perhaps a little past. Was it ever beautiful up there! There were lots of clouds rolling through up there at 6,000 feet… I love that, to just sit and watch the mist move in and pass and swirl around the giant sequoias. Anyway, the dogwoods, wow, I’ve never seen so many blooms on them before! It’s definitely a great year for them.

Pacific dogwood (Cornus nuttallii) is considered by many to be the most beautiful flowering tree in West Coast conifer forests. In the Sierra they grow between 3500 and 6000 feet in elevation on the western slope in well-watered areas. They are a slender-trunked tree that can reach heights of 40 feet. They have smooth ashy gray bark and leaves that are 3-5 inches long and oval in shape.

Dogwood flowers are actually quite small and inconspicuous. It’s the 5 large white petal-like bracts that surround the cluster of small flowers that are beautiful and showy. Together the bracts and flowers can be called blossoms.

In the fall the flower clusters develop into bright red berries. The berries are quite bitter but some birds eat them. It has been suggested that the berries were called dog berries, dog being a term that means worthless. And thus the tree got the name of dogwood. There is one known use of the wood, though. Native Americans boiled the bark to make a laxative.

I believe the trees are far from worthless though. In my humble opinion there is nothing more beautiful than when they are contrasted against the rich red of a sequoia tree. I’ve tried to capture this image dozens of times, the perfect spray of dogwood blossoms in front of a sequoia tree. Thus far this image has eluded my camera, but I do intend to keep trying!

Reprinted from the Upper Tule News – June 2004 – with writer’s permission.

California Torreya Trees by Carol Zeigler


The California Torreya tree (Torreya californica) is commonly called the California nutmeg because its plum like fruit resembles that of nutmeg, the spice. That is the only similarity between the two trees, however. California Torreya are evergreen conifers that are in the yew (Taxaceae) family and grow only in California. The spice nutmeg comes from a broad-leafed tree that grows in the tropics.

The California Torreya was named by an American botanist, John Torrey, who discovered these trees in the 1830’s. Torrey’s work in identifying and classifying plants was very influential and he coauthored a pioneering book on plants titled A Flora of North America. The rarest pine in the United States, the Torrey Pine, which grows in only a very small area near San Diego, was also named for him.

There are only two types of Torreya that grow in the United States; the other grows in Florida. There are three more types that grow in China and Japan. These remaining populations are mere remnants of an ancient lineage of trees that once grew throughout the northern hemisphere, much like the relatives of giant sequoias once did. Because of climactic changes these trees are now limited to only a few different places on Earth. I am very lucky to have them growing in my backyard! But they are not an abundant tree and can be difficult to find.

Finding these trees requires a bit of knowledge. First of all, where to look? California Torreya grow amongst incense cedar and live oak in shady ravines and rocky gorges between 2,000 and 6,000 feet in elevation in the Sierra Nevada and slightly lower in the coastal ranges. I have found them growing in three nearby locations. The closest is about two miles up the Doyle Springs Trail near Camp Wishon in Sequoia National Forest. Next closest would be along the Crystal Cave Trail in Sequoia National Park. The third area is near Boyden Cave in Sequoia National Forest near Kings Canyon National Park. There, near the parking area, is a beautiful specimen, the largest I have seen!

Second, how do you identify this tree? At first glance its foliage looks like that of a white fir. Its needles are deep green, flattened, and 1-2 inches long. Their needles are aromatic and this has led to them sometimes being called a “stinking cedar.” Their fruit is a modified cone, blue-green, plum-like, and about 1 inch long. They are small trees, rarely attaining heights of 60 feet and 2 feet in diameter. They grow slowly, however, so although they do not reach a great size, they can live to be several centuries old. Their branches are slender and they spread out making for a slightly ungainly appearance. Unlike other conifers, they are dioecious, meaning that there are separate male and female trees. The fruits hang from the tips of the outer branches from the female trees in late summer and autumn. Male trees produce pollen but never fruit.

Once you find a California Torreya tree you’ll find it is adapted to its foothill environment. They can sprout permanent new trunks from their base when they are cut or burned, thus they are adapted to foothill fires. Their wood is durable and flexible and was used by Native Americans for making hunting bows. Their seeds were harvested and roasted for eating and their roots were used for making baskets. They do produce small quantities of taxol, a drug that has been found to limit the growth of cancerous tumors, but the Pacific Yew produces more and is the tree that’s harvested for this use.



Reprinted from the Upper Tule News – May 2004 – with writer’s permission.

The Redbud – by Carol Zeigler

The California or Western Redbuds (Cercis occidentalis) are just now starting to bloom in the Tule River Canyon. They are small trees or large shrubs with a rounded crown of many spreading branches. Around March and April they bloom with a showy magenta pea-like flower. These harbingers of spring are so beautiful and dramatic when mixed in with the various greens of the oaks and chaparral.

Cercis is from kerkis, the ancient Greek name for the redbud. Occidentalis means of the west and these trees indeed grow in the western United States in California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona.  They are common in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and in the Coast Range as well. They grow on dry slopes often near a small spring or creek.

Redbuds typically grow to about 16 feet high and have multiple trunks. These trees are in the pea family (Fabaceae) and their fruit is indeed like a pea pod. Their leaves, which emerge in the spring after the flowers do, are heart-shaped and are reddish when they first bud then later turn blue green. In the fall the leaves turn a brilliant yellow and later fall to the ground. In the winter they are still beautiful trees, although stark without their leaves, and you can often you can see the brown seedpods still dangling from the bare branches.

Deer browse on redbud foliage and early settlers ate the blossoms in their salads. The bark was sometimes used to treat common maladies and sometimes even leukemia. And many Native Americans chose the wood of the redbud for their bows. But perhaps the springtime beauty of this tree may be its greatest contribution to the human spirit.


Reprinted from the Upper Tule News – April 2004 – with writer’s permission.





Lesser Known Giant Sequoia Trees by Carol Zeigler

Many people have seen the General Sherman Tree, the largest tree in the world measured by volume. It stands in Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park just a short walk away from a large parking lot on a paved trail. Its total trunk volume is approximately 52,500 cubic feet, it is 275 feet tall, its diameter is 36 feet, and its ground perimeter is 103 feet. But who has seen the sequoia with the greatest ground perimeter (155 feet)? It is an unnamed tree that grows up in the Alder Creek Grove just north of Camp Nelson near the community of Sequoia Crest.

The Stagg Tree is in the Alder Creek Grove as well, it is the 6th largest tree in the world. It is also the biggest tree on private land (can you imagine saying you own the 6th largest tree in the world?) Recently the magazine National Geographic Adventure published an article that contained a magnificent composite photograph taken by Jim Balog who climbed the Stagg Tree then rappelled down. I wonder what it would be like to sit in the top of a giant sequoia?

Do you know about the sequoia with the largest branch (12 feet in diameter) that grows in the Atwell Mill-Eastfork Grove near Mineral King in Sequoia National Park? That one branch is probably bigger than most trees! Three of the top 40 largest sequoias also grow here in this grove which is split by the East Fork Kaweah River.

The Ghost Tree and Packsaddle Giant (#33) are in the Packsaddle Grove, one of the southernmost groves near California Hot Springs in Giant Sequoia National Monument. Another interesting fact about the Packsaddle Grove is that the last condor nest in the Sierra was found in 1984 in a sequoia tree in this grove.

The Teeter-Totter tree, a dead sequoia that you can actually lift, is in the McIntyre Grove just east of Camp Nelson. The Patriarch Tree also grows here, it is #40, and it has a base nearly the size of General Sherman’s, it is just a shorter and thus smaller tree overall.

The Great Bonsai Tree, a monstrous but short sequoia that has limbs extending to the ground, grows near the Genesis Tree, #8, and six more of the top 40 largest sequoias that grow in the Mountain Home Grove in Mountain Home State Forest.

#29 Great Goshawk Tree grows in the Freeman Creek Grove, the easternmost grove and also the biggest grove in wilderness condition on Giant Sequoia NM. There are more than 700 trees here that are 10 feet or more in diameter at breast height (dbh).

#32 Black Mountain Beauty grows in the Black Mountain Grove on the ridge south of Camp Nelson in Giant Sequoia NM. This grove also has the longest continuous road within a grove, 8 miles. There are more than 1,000 trees here that are more than 10 feet dbh. And both times I have been to this grove there has never been a single soul up there with me! It is definitely one of my favorite groves.

The King Arthur Tree, #10, is in the Garfield-Dillonwood Grove. The Dillonwood section was until recently in private hands. But with the help of federal and state funds as well as private donors, it was bought by the Save-the-Redwoods League and given to Sequoia National Park. You can access this grove from Giant Sequoia NM lands just north of Springville.

The Ishi Giant, #14, grows in the Kennedy Meadow Grove in Giant Sequoia NM near Kings Canyon NP. This tree was not measured until 1993.

The Boole Tree, #7, the biggest tree on National Forest land, grows up in the Converse Basin Grove in Giant Sequoia NM near Kings Canyon NP.

I have only seen one of these trees, the Stagg Tree, although I have been to most of these groves. Why? Because to see these trees one needs to get off the beaten path and that requires some time, patience, map reading and compass navigation skills, and it is best to do these sorts of treks with a buddy. So it is my goal to find a few hiking partners who would like to go seek out these least visited big trees with me. And who knows, maybe we’ll find one bigger than Sherman in the process…

References and for more information:
A Guide to the Giant Sequoia Groves of California  by Dwight Willard
To Find the Biggest Tree by Wendell D. Flint
Forest Giants of the Pacific Coast by Robert Van Pelt

Reprinted from the Upper Tule News – February 2004 – with writer’s permission.



Gray Pine by Carol Zeigler

Winter is a great time to explore the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The higher elevations are snowed in but the foothills are cool and pleasant this time of year. One tree you’ll see growing in the foothills is Gray Pine (Pinus sabiniana). This tree was once known as Digger Pine. Some of the first pioneers in the Central Valley of California called the Native Americans “Diggers” because their diet consisted largely of roots and bulbs. When they learned that they also ate the large, rich seeds of a foothill pine during part of the year, they called the tree “Digger Pine.” Now this name is seen as disrespectful to Native Americans and most botanists have settled on calling this tree a Gray Pine.

Gray Pine are solitary and airy gray-green trees that are endemic to California. They are drought tolerant and they grow in the foothills of California’s coastal ranges and the Sierra Nevada. In the Sierra they grow only on the western slope between 1,000 and 4,000 feet in elevation. They are typically 40 to 70 feet tall and their trunks are often curved and forked. Their trunks are from one to three feet in diameter and their needles are 8-12 inches long and grow in clusters of threes. Their cones are huge; they can weigh up to 4 pounds when they’re green and they are 8 to 10 inches long! The cone bears huge seeds that are almost twice the size of pinyon pine nuts. On the tip of each cone scale is a curved spine that makes the cones quite prickly to pick up and you definitely don’t want to drive over one with your vehicle, you might puncture your tires!

Gray pines are often found growing alongside blue oak (Quercus douglasii) and historically this community experienced periodic fires every 15-30 years. Gray pine is highly flammable but it does have two adaptations that allow it to withstand fire. First, some of the largest trees will withstand moderate-severity fire because of their thick bark and self-pruning trunks. Secondly, regeneration is favored following fire because fire creates a favorable bare mineral soil seedbed, and heat from the fire helps open the seeds and increases germination rates..

Gray Pine and blue oak woodland is a preferred habitat for mule deer, California quail, and mourning dove. Many animals eat the seeds of the Gray Pine including scrub jays, acorn woodpeckers, and California gray squirrels.

John Muir wrote of the gray pine, “No other tree of my acquaintance so substantial in body is in foliage so thin and so pervious to the light. The sunbeams sift through even the leafiest trees with scarcely any interruption…” I think a gray pine’s delicate foliage is certainly beautiful especially compared to its dry surroundings. It is also unique in that it can support such huge, heavy cones.

More info… http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/tree/pinsab/index.html

Reprinted from the Upper Tule News – January 2004 – with writer’s permission.



The Sugar Pine by Carol Zeigler

The sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana) is the largest and tallest species of pine in the world and it grows in California and western Oregon. In the Sierra it grows amongst ponderosa and Jeffrey pines and red and white fir on the western slope between 4,500 and 7,500 feet in elevation. Sugar pines grow to heights of 250 feet tall with diameters of up to 10 feet and are second only to giant sequoias in their total volume of wood. Their cones are the longest in the world; they can be up to 22 inches long and they dangle like Christmas ornaments from the ends of the pine’s long limbs. Their limbs typically reach lengths of 40+ feet. Their needles are bluish green, about three inches long, and are in clusters of five. Sugar pines may live 500-600 years.

Native Americans harvested sugar pine nuts which are about the size of a grain of corn. They also ate the sugary sap that exudes from wounds on the pine’s trunk, which is how the pine got its name. Famous conservationist, John Muir, wrote that he liked this sap better than maple sugar. He also called the sugar pine the “noblest pine yet discovered, surpassing all others not merely in size but also in kingly beauty and majesty.”

He goes on to describe the tree further in his book The Mountains of California:

“No lover of trees will ever forget his first meeting with the Sugar Pine, nor will he afterward need a poet to call him to “listen what the pine-tree saith.” In most pine-trees there is a sameness of expression, which, to most people, is apt to become monotonous; for the typical spiry form, however beautiful, affords but little scope for appreciable individual character. The Sugar Pine is as free from conventionalities of form and motion as any oak. No two are alike, even to the most inattentive observer; and, notwithstanding they are ever tossing out their immense arms in what might seem most extravagant gestures, there is a majesty and repose about them that precludes all possibility of the grotesque, or even picturesque, in their general expression. They are the priests of pines, and seem ever to be addressing the surrounding forest. The Yellow Pine is found growing with them on warm hillsides, and the White Silver Fir on cool northern slopes; but, noble as these are, the Sugar Pine is easily king, and spreads his arms above them in blessing while they rock and wave in sign of recognition. The main branches are sometimes found to be forty feet in length, yet persistently simple, seldom dividing at all, excepting near the end; but anything like a bare cable appearance is prevented by the small, tasseled branchlets that extend all around them; and when these superb limbs sweep out symmetrically on all sides, a crown sixty or seventy feet wide is formed, which, gracefully poised on the summit of the noble shaft, and filled with sunshine, is one of the most glorious forest objects conceivable. Commonly, however, there is a great preponderance of limbs toward the east, away from the direction of the prevailing winds.”

“No other pine seems to me so unfamiliar and self-contained. In approaching it, we feel as if in the presence of a superior being, and begin to walk with a light step, holding our breath. Then, perchance, while we gaze awe-stricken, along comes a merry squirrel, chattering and laughing, to break the spell, running up the trunk with no ceremony, and gnawing off the cones as if they were made only for him; while the carpenter-woodpecker hammers away at the bark, drilling holes in which to store his winter supply of acorns.”

Unfortunately, the sugar pine, along with other species of white pine, is susceptible to a fungus called white pine blister rust which man accidentally brought over from Europe in the early 1900’s. One of the alternate hosts of this fungus is a currant or gooseberry bush, and starting in the 1930’s foresters began to remove currant and gooseberry bushes from British Columbia to the central Sierra. This program had questionable success and now efforts are largely concentrated on breeding resistant sugar pines.

More information:



Reprinted from the Upper Tule News – December 2003 – with writer’s permission.




Quaking Aspen – by Carol Zeigler


    Quaking aspen trees (Populus tremuloides), with their shimmering golden fall leaves, are one of my favorite trees.  I grew up in Bishop, California, on the eastern side of the Sierra, where they grow abundantly in canyons above 8,000 feet including Bishop Creek and Rock Creek.  However, we are very fortunate to have them growing on the western side of the Sierra as well.  They can be found up a long the Great Western Divide Highway in the Giant Sequoia National Monument.  Where should you go to view them?  Well, starting at Quaking Aspen Campground would be a good bet!  The best time to view the fall colors are generally after the first frost of late September or early October.
Quaking aspen have a wider range than any North American tree.  they grow from Alaska and Newfoundland south to central Mexico.  They love cold weather and are thus found at higher elevations and in northern latitudes.
An aspen grove looks as if it is made up of separate trees, but the trees usually share a root system.  Essentially, they’re one organism with many roots, an organism that can grow to huge proportions, cross a meadow or climb a mountain.  Thee is a 106-acre stand of aspen south of Salt Lake City, Utah, that contends with the General Sherman giant sequoia tree to be the largest living organism on earth.  Visitors to this stand may think they are hiking through an aspen forest, but it is all one tree, about 47,000 genetically identical stems rising from a common root system.
Populus is the genus name, which will remind some of poplars.  Popular trees, cottonwood trees, willows and aspen are all in the same botanical family, Salicaceae.  Salicaceae will remind perhaps the more inquisitive of Salicylic acid, or another derivate of this chemical, acetyl salicylic acid, a.k.a. aspirin.  Salicylic acid can be derived from willow bark and willow bark tea is one of the oldest natural remedies for our everyday aches and pains.
Tremuloides comes from the Latin word tremulus meaning trembling or quaking.  Look closely at one of the leaf stalks and your will see it is flattened and thus allows the leaf to quake in a breeze and create a rustling noise.  There is nothing nicer than walking through an aspen grove on a beautiful autumn day and seeing the leaves shimmer and hearing their voices.
The golden leaves contrast wonderfully with their whitish gray bark.  Aspens are usually around 20-50 feet high with a spread of 10-30 feet.  They typically live to be 80-100 years old.
Quaking aspens are quick to spread into disturbed areas, such as areas devastated by fire or an avalanche.  Many animals depend on aspen groves, some eat the twigs and bark including beaver, elk, and deer.  Many birds such as Mountain Chickadees, Violet Green Swallows, and Red-breasted Nuthatches use aspen as a nesting site, some building on branches, some making cavities in the trees’ trunks.
For more info…  http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/tree/poptre/

Reprinted from the Upper Tule News – October 2003 – with writer’s permission.


The Buckeye Tree – by Carol Zeigler


It’s that time of year again when the buckeye trees start to turn brown and loose their leaves.
Why is it that you an live in a place that has the world’s largest trees, yet what species of tree do people ask about the most?  These buckeye trees!
“Why are those bright green trees with clusters of white flowers shaped like bananas?”
“Why are those trees still blooming and everything else is dead?”
In the fall:
“What are those dead trees with brown pears hanging off of them?”
“What are those trees all brown?”
“Is fall coming early this year or something?”
“How come those pear trees are all dead?”
So, are ya’ll ready for a little tree education?  A California buckeye tree (Aesculus californica) is a bushy foothill tree, 10-25 feel tall that grows amongst the Canyon Live oaks and gray pine mostly between 1,000 and 3,000 feet in elevation.  It is the first tree to leaf out in spring, the last to bloom and the first to lose its leaves.  It grows from Siskiyou and Shasta counties to northern Los Angeles and Kern Counties.
Several other buckeyes are native to the United States.  The seeds of the buckeye are poisonous, and resourceful Native Americans used ground-up seeds to catch fish.  They poured them into pools in streams and caught the fish that floated up!
The seed pods do look like a pear from a distance.  They are actually a leathery husk that harbors just one seed each.  Botanically speaking, it’s kind of odd that a cluster of flowers only produces one fruit and one seed.
I love buckeyes.  In the spring they are almost a fluorescent green and that color contrasts beautifully with the not-quite-green oaks and chaparral.  In the late summer they are a rusty brown, again contrasting beautifully with the now-we’re-green oaks and golden grass.  In the fall they are skeletal trees with their Christmas-ornament-like seed pods dangling from their branches.
The seed is considered a good luck charm.  If you grind the seeds and leach them enough, they can be eaten.. They also have medicinal properties; they can relieve the pain of arthritis and rheumatism.
More info…


Reprinted from the Upper Tule News – September 2003 – with writer’s permission.



Portrait of a Giant
Jim Balog’s groundbreaking photograph of the Stagg Tree (read an excerpt from Quest for the Green Giant) required a trusty digital camera, plenty of warm clothes, and a slight disregard for personal safety. The details:


NAME: Stagg
CLAIM TO FAME: World’s fifth largest tree (based on volume of wood)
SPECIES:Sequoiadendron giganteum
HEIGHT: 242 feet (73.8 meters)
DIAMETER AT BASE: 25.5 feet (7.8 meters)
VOLUME:44,100 cubic feet (1,249 cubic meters)
AGE:Approximately 2,000 years
CAMERA:Digital Nikon D1X

Tree researchers Billy Ellyson and Jim Spickler used a crossbow to install a rope stretching laterally from the top of Stagg to an unnamed neighboring giant sequoia. Balog rappelled down alongside Stagg on a line fixed to the middle of that rope, taking 451 photos as he made his descent. “The whole system is at the mercy of the atmospheric swells rolling into the Sierra in advance of a Pacific winter storm, and I heave up and down with them,” Balog writes in the February issue of Adventure.

“Just about the time I clipped the jumars onto the rope to start climbing, it started to rain. The temperature was just about a half a degree above freezing. I had on a full Gore-Tex suit with a bib and two thick layers of fleece, and yet I was soaked to the skin by the time my feet returned to Earth? about four hours after I’d left it.”

“When I started this project, I spent my first week in the field shooting redwoods on film because I really didn’t trust that a digital camera could hold up to the moisture conditions. When I got back home, I realized I had about 75 pictures, and I began arranging them on a big sheet of matchboard. I knew that to compose the final shot I would eventually have to scan each of the pictures, which is not cheap. It became obvious that digital was the solution.”

“After the first pass to assemble the composite [more than 400 individual photos were used], we’ve been tweaking and perfecting the Stagg photo for nearly two years now? color, density, and in a few cases there were compositional things that needed improvement. Between the first composite and what appears in Adventure, easily 200 plus hours were spent in post-production on the picture.”

“Despite the fact that this was shot looking through a rainy snow or a snowy rain, it comes out looking like it’s an average, pearly light kind of a day. The tree has singularity and presence. I consider myself a photographic artist who looks for fresh ways for humans to look at nature and to understand themselves in relationship to it. I hope that somewhere in this tree project, I’ve started to evoke the personality and individuality of each tree. That’s the goal.”