Living with the Lockdown – Treasure Hunt #9

tree-bannerThere are Trees…and Then There are “Trees”

If trees had personalities, I would have to characterize the Tamarisk, of our last Treasure Hunt, as the personification of evil, and today’s Treasure Hunt, as the personification of good. The California Sycamore is beautiful and interesting…in a different way…and during every season of the year. Moreover, it willingly offers sustenance, shelter, shade and safety to critters of all kinds…including us. After learning about our native Sycamore these past days, I can honestly say, I really love this tree!

California Sycamore

The California Sycamore, also known as the Western Sycamore, the California Plane and by several other names, can grow to 100 feet, with a trunk diameter as large as 3 feet. As a young tree, the Sycamore is pyramidal, but as it grows, the trunk generally divides into two or more large trunks which then split into many massive limbs and branches…giving the tree a wondrous rambling, often unsymmetrical, quality that just adds to its beauty.

Really BIG leaves
Really BIG leaves
Bark is beautiful

The five-pointed green leaves of this lovely tree are extremely large, in fact the largest leaves of any native plant in North America. Moreover, when leaves first emerge, they are “fuzzy” on the top side and “very fuzzy” on the bottom side. But unlike many of our native trees, our Sycamore is deciduous, so that when the weather gets colder and the days shorter, these huge leaves put on a “fall show” by turning a striking golden and orangish color. And to provide a color show in winter, the tree boldly displays its bark, which is an attractive patchwork of white, tawny beige, pinkish gray, and pale brown. Indeed, some have described Sycamore bark as looking like a jig-saw puzzle. This colorful and interesting tree is native only to coastal California and the Baja, with its favorite habitats being canyons, floodplains and along streams. And like a few of the native trees of our area, it can live up to 250 years.

It’s Spring and Procreation is in the Air

Male Flowers

The reproductive process for Sycamores starts in very early Spring. Both female and male reproductive organs can be found on the same tree. Male flowers form into small greenish spheres on “strings” that fall to the ground after the pollen of these flowers is released. The hope is that wind will carry

Female Flowers
Female Flowers

pollen from the male flowers to the dense reddish female flowers. These are larger spheres that look like fuzzy gum balls on a string, and are found on the same, or other, Sycamores. Once pollinated, the fruits of this tree are produced in the form of seed balls; golf-ball sized heads of tufted “fruits”, with each fruit containing a single seed. Three to seven of these balls hang on a stalk*, dry out, and then once again, call upon the wind to disperse the seeds for the new generation. To ensure seed dispersal, the individual carriers of the fruits have tufts of hair that act as parachutes…to catch the wind and travel long distances. This is especially helpful when there is a need to rapidly reestablish the species after a flood…smart Sycamore!

*Mature fruits can be seen in the photo at the top of this page.

The Sycamore is the Giving Tree

Sycamores give of themselves for critters all the way from small insects to large mammals like us. Starting with tiny animals, evidence of the use of Sycamore leaves for food may be found when you see holes its leaves. The holes tell you that the Sycamore Tussock Moth

Sycamore Tussock Moth Caterpillar
Sycamore Tussock Moth Caterpillar

caterpillar has been lunching. If you find a leaf with holes, you may also note that this caterpillar, and anything else that feeds on the leaves, does not particularly like the thick fuzzy coat on the leaves, or on new stems, so it pushes all that material to the side before dining. In some areas, the Western Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly also lays its eggs on Sycamore leaves…so its caterpillars may feast on them as well. Squirrels and other small rodents and birds, feed on the seeds of the Sycamore, while the bark is a dinner for beavers and fox squirrels. And at the top, these tall trees also provide safe nesting sites for many species of birds.

Sycamores have been giving to humans for a very long time. Native Americans used the inner bark for food and medicinal purposes, the leaves to wrap bread during baking, and branches in house construction. And after Europeans and “Yankees” arrived in California, our Sycamores were so prominent on the Central Coast that they were often used as landmarks. For example, newcomers to the Goleta Valley used sycamores as markers for property limits. Still living, and probably 250 years old, are two famous and gigantic Sycamores known as the Witness Tree and the Sister Witness Tree.

Witness Tree
Witness Tree
Sister Witness Tree
Sister Witness Tree

The Witness Tree still exists in the middle of the Butler Center on Hollister Avenue…surviving a recent fall of one large limb. Its relative, the Sister Witness Tree, just across the street, is credited with being the largest California Sycamore in the United States. These two trees are incredibly important as they were native before Europeans arrived on our coast and being genetically pure…they are extremely rare!

A little later, one tree, which stood on the south end of Milpas Street reportedly was used as a make-shift light house. Residents of Santa Barbara were purported to have hung lanterns in its upper branches to guide offshore sailing ships. However, this explanation for the lanterns probably does not tell the whole story.

shipThe Whole Story

During the period when California was part of the Spanish empire, “the Crown” insisted that all goods to California must come from Spanish merchants. To enforce this unenforceable edict, they levied onerous customs duties on all goods that came from “Yankee” ports…like Boston. Sometimes these duties were as high as 100% of the value of the goods. The law was unenforceable because, beside the fact that there were not enough Spanish ships or goods to meet the demand, there were not enough Spanish officials in the colonies to enforce the law. So…in the late 1790s and early 1800s smuggling became a way of life all up and down the California coast. Since it would be another 70+ years for Stearn’s Wharf to be built, goods destined for Santa Barbara were offloaded onto smaller boats or simply thrown overboard to be retrieved on shore. For smugglers, this clandestine activity went on during the night, when the Customs office was closed. It is therefore, most likely the light in the Sycamore was probably used to indicate to the smugglers where the goods should be put overboard. Yankee goods made life easier for early Californians, and once again, our lovely Sycamore was part of it!

The importance of caring for the tree that gives and gives may not be recognized by everyone. It is, however, recognized by the state of California! In 2006 the California Sycamore was added to the list of trees in our state that are “fully protected”.

Where Are They?

Once you can recognize Sycamores, you will see they can be found all
over Santa Barbara. they grow wild in creeks and canyons and have been

Sycamore on Atascadero Creek
planted in many beautiful and special places all around Santa Barbara…places like the Museum of Natural History, Oak Park and along the Atascadero Creek bike path.They have also been welcomed in private yards, as well as beautifying freeway entrances, exits and parkways. The Sycamore is a tree for all…and we should be very proud of this truly “giving” native being such a big part of our lovely and special little town.

We are indebted to Santa Barbara Beautiful, University of Redlands and Ken Knight for much valuable information on the California Sycamore.

Remember: Six Feet Apart and Stay Safe,

Living with the Lockdown – Treasure Hunt #8

Then a Treasure, Now Trouble…BIG Trouble…The Invasives

fennelSome invasive plants move from their home territories via stealth. They hitchhike on boots, backpacks, clothing, packaging containers and ship bottoms. But, by in large, most were purposely transported from their homeland by humans who thought they were treasures that would be valuable in other, far-away places.

For this reason, our current Treasure Hunt looks at plants that seemed like something “heaven sent” at the time they were introduced, but today they are veritable nightmares. We will look at just a few of the current nightmares that plague our beautiful South Coast.

Rose Clover…Excellent, Cheap Fodder

Rose Clover in Bloom
Rose Clover in Bloom

On a recent More Mesa walk, I became aware of lots and lots of pretty clover. This plant was low to the ground with thousands of pinkish colored flowers. It was everywhere, with huge patches beside the main trails. I had not remembered a lot of clover in the past, but this has been a strange year…on many fronts! So, I did some investigating. It appears that this is “Rose Clover” a native of Europe, Western Asia and North Africa and introduced to California, from Turkey, in 1944. I uncovered a pamphlet written by an agricultural branch of the University of California that was written in 1949. This document had nothing but kudos for a plant that could survive in the absolute worst of soils and was perfect for “Range Improvement”, that is, it is excellent fodder for cattle, sheep and deer. Today, Rose Clover, which is defined as “naturalized in the wild”, continues to be used extensively for these same purposes, as well as ground cover for vineyards. What does it do for More Mesa and other wild areas? It chokes out all the natives that were here for thousands of years.

Pampas Grass…Great “Cash Crop”

Originally from Argentina, Pampas Grass is an attractive ornamental grass that is popular in landscapes and extremely easy to grow. Pampas Grass was originally introduced to California by sailors of clipper ships during the gold rush. However, our very own Joseph Sexton (of the Sexton House on Hollister) created an entire, and extremely lucrative, industry in 1872, when he imported seeds of Pampas Grass from Argentina and raised several hundred plants. These first plumes were exported to Europe and became a huge fad…and a huge business for Sexton. For a complete, and wonderfully illustrated story of Pampas Grass in Goleta, visit Goleta History.

Not only was Pampas Grass very easy to grow but each individual plume produces up to 100,000 seeds…seeds that are widely dispersed by wind, and develop without fertilization! Moreover, California’s climate was a veritable heaven to the Pampas Grass plant. It spread quickly all over the state and became a rampant weed*. It took over, clogging waterways and wetlands and crowded out native plants and tree seedlings. It also crowded out the native plants that wild animals feed on. And to add to the fun…when dry, Pampas Grass becomes a fire hazard! In short, it created and still creates, nothing short of environmental chaos.

Pampas Grass in a Garden
Pampas Grass in a Garden

Although this plant is difficult to eradicate and has been described as a veritable scourge, it is still used extensively for landscaping gardens. Until about 10 years ago there were several large stands of Pampas Grass on More Mesa. We have not seen any recently, but they are still to be found in various spots around the Goleta Valley.

*This behavior does not occur in its native South American environments, where Pampas Grass grows on river plains where part of the year the crown is under water while the rest of the year the plant is stressed by drought.

Fennel…Good for What Ails You

Fennel history dates back to early Ancient Rome when the aromatic herb was used for a large number of medicinal and other purposes. The Greeks used it as a diet aid and the Romans, Chinese and Hindus used it as an antidote to various poisons. And, in medieval times, British Royalty used is as a condiment and appetite suppressant. Some folks during this period also believed that fennel could protect them from evil spirits…so they hung it over doorways. (Myself…I prefer mistletoe.)  As for Fennel’s medicinal properties, Alphonse Karr, a writer of the late 1800s tried to put claims of fennel’s healing properties to rest with his announcement, “At the end of three or four hundred years, it began to be perceived that fennel had never cured anyone.”  Having said this, I found pages and pages of sites touting Fennel’s medicinal benefits…especially for digestive issues.

Feathery Fennel Stalk
Feathery Fennel Stalk

In general, Fennel has followed civilization, especially where Italians have colonized an area. It was originally introduced to North America by Spanish missionaries for cultivation in their medicinal gardens. However, after it escaped cultivation from the mission gardens, it may also have been aided and abetted by Italian immigrants who settled in the Goleta Valley. Among these newcomers was the family that ran the More Ranch Dairy and also began Jordanos. And speaking from personal experience, when I was a kid, my Italian family ate fennel root instead of celery…only we called it Finocchio…very tasty!

Fennel will reproduce from both root crown and seed. Seeds are dispersed by water and on vehicles and clothing. Birds and rodents eat the seeds and may disperse them as well. Fennel is all over the Goleta Valley and the coastal trail of More Mesa especially…outcompeting many natives…many of whom have disappeared. Fennel’s only “saving grace” is that it is a preferred food for Anise Swallowtails…as you may remember from our last Treasure Hunt. For more on Anise Swallowtails check out the butterfly section of our web site.

Tamarisk…Control Erosion

Since river running was a big part of my adult life, you are about to get another river camp story. We were again relaxing after an eventful day of Colorado River rapids in the deepest part of the Grand Canyon. I remarked that the trees we were sitting under were very pretty. The nearest river guide scowled and said they were Tamarisks. His face was not a happy face and the story that follows explains why.

What is Tamarisk?

tamariskThis treasure, also known as salt cedar, is a shrub or small tree originally from Eurasia and Africa. It took root, literally and figuratively, about 200 years ago…and did so with the blessing of the federal government. After importation, it was sometimes used as an ornamental or as a windbreak.
However, since Tamarisk loves water, its most important job was to prevent erosion. For this overriding consideration, it was subsequently planted along riverbanks across the United States, but mostly in the Southwest. It thrived and proliferated via seeds…with a single large tree producing 1,000,000 seeds per year.

It is interesting that the two previous plants and Tamarisk, all have feathery, fragile looking structures that totally belie their ability to “tough it out”, proliferate and totally eliminate natives; natives that probably have been here for thousands of years.

The Nightmare Begins

As it turned out, not only does Tamerisk have an insatiable thirst, but it has many qualities that are definitely not attractive!  First, its tap root can reach down as much as 25 feet for water. Moreover, in the arid southwest most of water is very alkaline. So…the wily Tamarisk sucks up this alkaline water and then deposits the salt on its leaves…thereby increasing the salinity of surface soils when the leaves fall to the ground. Under these conditions, native trees like cottonwood and willows have no hope of survival. Tamarisk also burns hot in wildfires, complicating efforts of firefighters. And, to add insult to injury, after any burn, a reaction in the tree allows it to sprout back more vigorous than it was before the fire!

It Gets Worse

Erosion continued to be important but Tamarisk did not become a nightmare invasive until the beginning of the last century; a period when America began its love affair with dams. As a river runner, dams are not one of my favorite topics. However, as a scientist, objectivity must prevail.

Here’s how it works

With the construction of dams, rivers are no longer able to flush salt from ecosystems, and soils become even more alkaline. Since salt deters general plant growth, more salt makes matters worse for most plants. In addition, there are many more dry spells during which native plants die. But the Tamarisk is able to simply shut down and wait it out. This means that, in a Tamarisk laden, post-dam era, even greater amounts of salt will be brought up and deposited on their leaves and then onto the surface. Bottom Line:
Tamarisk plants, hoarding light, water and nutrients, have impacted natural systems and destroyed native wildlife habitat throughout the Southwest. Indeed, the Colorado River Corridor…where we were at the beginning of this story…is a national treasure, where Tamarisk has spread to such an extent that it has effectively wreaked havoc on all the natural functions and processes of the entire ecosystem.

Tamarisk now dominates riparian zones of arid climates over a million acres of the western United States. Indeed, it has the dubious distinction of being one of the top 100 invasives on the Global Invasive Species Database…which ranks all living material on the planet!

Can Anything Be Done?

Larger Tamarisk Beetle
Larger Tamarisk Beetle

When Tamarisk was first recognized as a problem, there was talk of eradication. However, since the period of dam building, Tamarisk is so prevalent that it will never be completely eradicated…the best we can hope for is managing it. Since the late 1980s various methods to deal with Tamarisk have been tried…with little success. Millions of dollars have been spent by government and non-profit groups in attempts to remove, or even subdue, Tamarisk. You can’t burn it – it grows back. You can’t pull it out without great effort, and herbicides don’t necessarily work. However, over the last 20 years a successful biological pest control method is showing great promise. A leaf-eating beetle from the Tamarisk’s native range has been introduced into areas infested with the plant. Results have shown that if the beetles feed on a given plant for 3-5 years, it eventually dies. Many success stories in various states show that the beetles seem to be doing their job, as well as spreading out to find new areas of Tamarisk to defoliate and eventually wipe out. Some states have backed away from the beetle solution because an endangered bird now nests in Tamerisk. It’s complicated.

You can find Tamarisk along creeks on the South Coast.

Remember: Six Feet Apart and Stay Safe

Living with the Lockdown – Treasure Hunt #7

monarchsFirst the Birds, then the Bees and now … the Butterflies

Decades ago I married into a family that loved insects, and most especially butterflies. As a result of this Lepidopteran love affair, we started raising butterflies as soon as our offspring could appreciate them. In fact, I seem to remember we were always writing excuse notes for our children’s lateness. The reason … the butterflies … perverse as they are, often chose to emerge just as the kids were getting ready for school. We still raise butterflies, and they continue to be a big part of our lives, to this day.

common buckeyes
Common Buckeyes

Happily, Santa Barbara is home to many kinds of butterflies, with more than twenty different species being recorded on More Mesa alone. Indeed, while researching our last Treasure Hunt, I came across a “West Coast Lady” on a Deerweed plant, and while researching this piece, I came across two “Buckeyes”. The butterfly season has arrived!

Butterfly Life Cycle is Very Short, but Complex …

The life cycle of most butterflies is two months or less, and has four distinct stages; Egg, Caterpillar, Pupa and Adult. Most of us see only the adult stage.

  • butterfly life cycleEggs begin a new cycle and are laid on plants that the caterpillar likes to eat … and the caterpillar is usually a very picky eater!
  • The caterpillar’s job is to eat and grow. A tiny caterpillar emerges from the egg. Over several weeks, it will shed its skin 4 times to accommodate the growth needed to eventually become an adult. Indeed, when the caterpillar is ready to pupate, it weighs 3000 times what it weighed when it hatched from the egg. Its final task is to find a convenient and safe place to do its work as a pupa. At that spot, it will literally generate a hook to “hang” itself and turn into a pupal shape.
  • The pupa is the transformative stage. This is the time a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. It is at the very end of the pupal stage that a butterfly emerges.
  • The only job of the adult butterfly is to begin the cycle again. That is, it must find a mate, mate, and lay eggs. However, immediately after emergence, the butterfly must do some ‘prep’ work. First it pumps fluid into its wings and then dries them. Now it can fly. But it must also construct its proboscis, a long straw-like body part that will enable the butterfly to feed itself during the adult phase. During these 2-3 weeks, the butterfly only consumes enough food to stay alive until it lays eggs. Its food is the nectar of flowers and thus the process is called “nectaring”.  (Notice that the food the adult uses to stay alive is different from the food the caterpillar needs to grow … and grow … and grow.)

* Thanks to the Museum of Natural History Butterfly Docent Program for the Life Cycle Graphic above.

Some Well Known Species Live Out the Whole Cycle on More Mesa…

There are at least two butterfly species that go through their entire life cycles on More Mesa; the Anise Swallowtail and the Common Buckeye. For the Swallowtail, that cycle can be anywhere from 6 to 10 weeks.

anise swallowtail
Anise Swallowtail

To start, eggs of the Swallowtail are deposited on the ubiquitous Fennel all over More Mesa. But while Swallowtails have been native to this area, Fennel is an introduced European plant. I wondered how that could work. Here’s how … Fennel is a member of the carrot family; a large family with many domesticated members, and many wild members as well. For example, the Swallowtail caterpillars may have used native Hemlock as caterpillar food before Fennel came on the scene.

The Common Buckeye life cycle is similar to the Swallowtail. However, Buckeye caterpillars are not as picky as most caterpillars. They eat several species of Plantain, a family of low growing flowering plants … also readily available on More Mesa. On the other side of our country, Buckeyes from Florida prefer False Foxglove, as well as other eastern plant types. Buckeyes tend to be found closer to the ground, whereas Anise Swallowtails fly much higher. Look for them throughout the Spring, Summer and Fall.

They Are Beautiful, But What Are They Good for?

There should be no argument that butterflies are beautiful and watching them makes us all feel really good. They are a truly charismatic family. But they are also a functioning part of their ecosystem. Although they are often referred to as pollinators, that service is more of an accident, and not extremely effective. While a butterfly can inadvertently fly away with some pollen on its legs after it has been nectaring, that surface area is extremely small compared to what a bee can carry off.

Caterpillars are food for other animals. For example, a tiny bird like the
Eurasian Blue Tit, which weighs less than ½ an ounce, will need to find
nearly 20,000 caterpillars to raise one average clutch of youngsters.

Grandaughter Discovering Caterpillars on More Mesa
Grandaughter Discovering Caterpillars on More Mesa

Most importantly, because butterflies are indicators of a healthy environment and healthy ecosystems, they become effective indicators of environmental disturbances and can be used to find answers to complex scientific questions.

All of the above aside, and in the final analysis, most of us would agree with Alan Watts when he said …


Remember: Six Feet Apart and Stay Safe,
Valerie …

This Treasure Hunt is a family affair … all photos by Donley Olson