A Love-Hate Relationship

Another Christmas Present?

A long and event-filled Christmas day had one more surprise in store for Santa Barbara. About 9 PM, rain, and a very short “tornado-like” event whirled through a small section of Santa Barbara from Hollister Avenue to the coast. Its terrific and noisy wind caused flickering lights and, in less than a minute, it was over. Some small damage was reported in the news. But those venturing out onto More Mesa the next morning were in for a big surprise. A very large, and mostly dead, coastal eucalyptus had fallen. The debris covered large sections of two major trails, and looking at its shallow root system it was a miracle it had not fallen a long time ago!

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Treasure in Disguise: Branches that were dangerous were cut and the rubble carted away. Remarkably the whole scene now had tremendous potential. There were stumps and portions of the tree where one could sit and marvel at the 360°view. Talks and stories were now possible at this grand new gathering place. Youngsters also discovered that the whole area resembled a wonderful natural playground; one that was not plastic, colored purple, orange or blue, and possessed many paths to move around the various branches.

Science Too: Cuts made to arrange the tree in a stable resting position, not only created little stools, but presented an interesting and fascinating experiment. Maybe we could “read” the tree rings. If one knows how to do this you can determine not only the age of the tree, but something about the climate during the lifetime of the tree. This is a science known as “Dendrochronology”.*


Ubiquitous Eucalyptus: Although Eucalyptus trees are everywhere in California, they are not native. Ever wonder how they got here? The answer to that question set me upon a amazing journey. The victim of the “tornado” that hit More Mesa was a Eucalyptus species commonly known as Blue Gum, “blue” because its leaves have a blue cast and “gum” because of a fragrant, sticky, gum-like substance that the tree secretes. This gum contains anti-bacterial properties which make the tree extremely pest-resistant.

How It All Started: Rarely are we able to pinpoint when an invasive species was introduced into California. This is definitely not the case for Tasmanian Blue Gum, Eucalyptus globulus. It seems that “Gold Rush” immigrants, were not happy with the look of our native forests. They wanted an ornamental and decorative tree reminiscent of the forests in their previous homelands. And they wanted it right away! There was also some concern (maybe founded, and maybe not) that firewood was growing scarce.

The Winner: Heeding this hue and cry, a study was commissioned in 1850, one that would suggest a suitable ornamental tree to create the desired forest. Arborists studied many different species, with the Eucalyptus subspecies known as “Tasmanian Blue Gum” finally being selected. Its lure lay in the fact that it was possibly the fastest growing tree on earth, adding 6 feet or more every year (assuming average rainfall) and had little trouble reaching 300 feet in height, even in poor soils. It not only “looked good”, but was destined to do very well in our Mediterranean climate.
Beginning of the Love-Hate Relationship: Seeds were immediately procured from Tasmania, the native habitat of Blue Gum and half a world away from the California coast. Because only seeds, and not plants, were imported, none of the tree’s enemies (pests or pathogens) came along for the ride. The Blue Gum was in heaven and everyone loved it!

The Hate Side of the Coin: Disenchantment in the populace set in by the 1880s. Although Blue Gum had been advertised for use as railroad ties, pier pilings and woodworking, none of these uses were viable, as the wood cracked and split, and poles often rotted underground. The trees were fine for windbreaks but their shallow root systems and subsequent falls soon earned them the dubious title of “widow maker”; not too comforting. The trees adapted well to foggy environments and survived with limited rainfall on the Pacific Coast. However, seeking water, they often drained nearby wells; which did not improve their popularity.

Fire also became a big issue as Blue Gum trees have the highest possible ignition potential and sometimes explode. Flames consuming the peeling bark, also move swiftly up the tree to the top, where embers are carried away to set fire to other parts of the forest.

As far as tidiness goes, the bark strips, leaves and branches that litter the floor of the eucalyptus grove are not only messy, but contain chemicals that inhibit the growth of any other plants, so Blue Gums are a monoculture, and almost always, stand alone!

The Love Side of the Relationship: If you thought the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys was fierce and long lasting, you would be surprised by the intense Love-Hate relationship that exists with regard to the Blue Gum today. The material above pretty well describes the issues of the population that wishes the Blue Gum would disappear.

However, Blue Gum lovers have arguments for their usefulness. For example, in addition to providing windbreaks, Eucalyptus groves are wintering grounds for the Monarch Butterfly; a handy and effective switch from the native trees that were previously used … until they were chopped down for firewood or boards. Birds like Great Blue Herons, Common Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Double Breasted Cormorants and several species of Owls and Hawks use the Blue Gum for nesting. Even though these conclusions have been offered for several areas in Northern California, many argue that Eucalyptus stands do not provide an equivalent trade-off for the oak woodland and deciduous riparian environments they have replaced. Bottom line: Bird enthusiasts are really split on this issue.

There are also disputes that contend whatever replaces the Blue Gum could be an even worse fire hazard, and that the herbicides used to kill the trees would place harmful poisons into the environment.

Hard Choice: Finally, lovers of Blue Gum are facing some really hard facts. That is, they have to deal with a Blue Gum nemesis. You may recall that the enemies of the Blue Gum did not immigrate to California in the 1850s. But they have finally made it here; 150 years later! Trees are being infested with an aphid-like insect that sucks out plant juices. It is called Blue Gum Lerps. The secretions of these insects are sticky and create an unsightly mess on the trees … and everything else. Lerps love it when the weather is warm and dry, so our 15-year drought is perfect for them. Needless to say, they are thriving!

With many claims and counterclaims, and not too much real science available, the Tasmanian Blue Gum issue is complicated. I personally think the data on the “love side” is well-intentioned, but relatively unsubstantiated. For starters, the issue needs an agreed upon set of facts. And finally, as one Atlantic Monthly author put it, “Until then, the magnificent Tasmanian Blue Gum is, in some sense, a prisoner of dueling realities.”

*Watch for announcements about the Dendrochronlogy Party to be scheduled. At that event, and with the help of an expert, we will attempt to age the tree and look for climate signals as well.


Our many thanks to the photographers who helped with this issue; most especially to Chris Brems.

Rain… and Happy New Year!

Happy New Year and Other Treasures!

While our Treasure Hunt series ended last year, I am taking this opportunity to explore some exciting, new and incredibly beautiful treasures More Mesa has begun to present us. These treasures, courtesy of Mother Nature, some of whom have not been seen for many years, are brought to you courtesy of … RAIN!

Drought – Our current series of four back-to-back droughts began in 2006 and, until very recently, continued thru this year. Indeed, most weather experts are now are conceding that while there were brief respites in 2011, 2017 and 2019, we have actually been in “drought mode” for the better part of 15 years. Tree ring experts have also weighed in with what they describe as the worst drought in 300 years. We are all familiar with this bad news. However, we can now rejoice and celebrate a holiday season that has delivered a wonderful gift; the gift of rain!

More Than 10 Inches! As I write, we have recorded more than half of the average yearly rainfall on More Mesa. This means that More Mesa is “greening up” and looking very beautiful! It also means that the Vernal Pool at More Mesa is filling and advertising itself with frog calls that have not been heard for many years.

What is A Vernal Pool? The southeast corner of More Mesa boasts one of the rarest, and most threatened, of all natural communities; a vernal pool. A vernal pool forms as a result of distinctive climate, soil and topography, and is distinguished by the organisms it hosts. Moreover, these critters are ones that are restricted to special habitats that flood temporarily in winter and early spring, but are dry the remainder of the year, and as such, are among the most interesting organisms on earth. In winter the pools reach a maximum and support numerous aquatic insects and zooplankton; including rare and endangered species. In addition, Pacific Tree Frogs breed and lay eggs by the thousands. Vernal pools also provide a winter home for water fowl during the rainy season.

Research Is Important – The rains of 2017 and 2019 created relatively small vernal pools, and frogs were not always in abundance. However, in spite of the scant rainfall in 2019, the pool was was intensively studied and judged the most prolific in the area. The last time the More Mesa’s vernal pool was very large, and contained appreciable water was in winter of 2011, a year when we received 147% of our annual rainfall … ten years ago! To learn even more about these very special, and fast disappearing, places see the Vernal Pool feature on our web site.

More Bounty from Rain – Even with the first small storm, More Mesa has “turned green’ and is getting lush. Its grasses have been quick to begin the cycle of growth that provides seeds as food for small mammals. These mammals can now prosper to become food for the myriad raptors and other critters that make More Mesa their home. There should also be enough to satisfy the young birds that will need to be fed in the Spring. Early rain will also bring on the plants of coastal sage scrub and, most spectacularly, the yellow blanket of California Brittlebush that covers the coast, on and around, the steps leading to the beach. And for upcoming months, rain will bring all the tiny and precious wildflowers that poke up all over More Mesa, and give us yet another, more subtle show.

Heeding Cautionary Tales

We All Fall Down! While storms bring moisture, they are often accompanied by wind. We had just such a storm on Christmas night around 9 PM. When I went for my stroll the next day, I was greeted with the remains of a very old and very large eucalyptus tree that was torn up and placed (not so gently) all over the intersection of the east and coastal trails, and next to the steps to the beach. There is a good reason the eucalyptus is known as the “widow maker”. It is always dangerous to go near them when the wind is blowing, and after a storm.

A Slide into the Sea – A second caution is also important. The two types of shale that make up the cliffs of More Mesa are extremely unstable. Therefore, while it is wise to always keep a sharp eye when using the Coastal Trail, it is equally unwise to even use that trail after a rain! If you have any doubt, look at the sinkhole that opened up after a storm in 2017.
In an echo of our recent Treasure Hunts, take a walk, look at the vernal pool, enjoy the green, look for the flowers and most of all …

HAVE A HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Unlocked

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The Most Wonderful Treasure….

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As the end of the Lockdown approaches, I have been musing about how to “wrap up” our Treasure Hunts. How does one describe the entirety of the treasures of More Mesa … those few that I wrote about, and the hundreds of others that exist in this magical and remarkable place. Indeed, the most wonderful treasure on the whole South Coast is More Mesa itself!
What were our Treasure Hunts about? Over the past months, we discovered many of the individual treasures of More Mesa. We did this in fun looks at its trees, plants, birds, Insects, arachnids, reptiles, animals and even some man-made stuff. We reported on treasures that are native to our area, and even some that were imported here for various reasons and have since become difficult-to-control nightmares.

c28b4297-ff21-4723-afda-e230ef49b0f4All of these treasures make their homes in one or more of the habitats of More Mesa. So … what’s the big deal? The big deal is that 80% of More Mesa has been identified as Environmentally Sensitive Habitat or ESH. ESH is the designation for a special place where plant and animal life, or their habitats, are rare or extremely valuable because of their special role in an ecosystem; one which could be easily disturbed or degraded … by us!
Now comes a really big AHA … More Mesa is extraordinary in that it contains five different, distinct and unique habitat types … more than any other open space on the South Coast! It begins with a distinct vegetation community created by differences in topography, soil types, sun exposure and moisture. Then each plant community, in its turn, determines the types of wildlife that will be present. Thus, three important factors, physical features, vegetation and wildlife, create a unique habitat. With that background in mind, we can explore where all the treasures we talked about for the past 15 months make their homes within their special habitats.

Trees Crave Lots of Water: We talked about four species of trees; Willows, Cottonwoods, Sycamores and Oaks. All these trees need water, and we typically find the first three somewhere very near water. Their habitat, Riparian Woodlands can be found on More Mesa near Atascadero Creek and its adjacent flood plains as well as canyons and ravines.

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3295d2a0-b199-4a56-9ad2-7e82507aaffeOaks need water as well, but are well adapted by having an extremely long tap root that eventually finds water … somewhere. Oaks have their own special habitat which is called, appropriately enough, Oak Woodland. For me, having been a climber in my youth, this beautiful habitat is hauntingly reminiscent of the forests in the foothills of the Sierras.

More Mesa’s Plants Live in all Habitats: Our plant Treasure Hunts had us looking for plants that live in soil, wet soil and water as well. We searched for Miner’s Lettuce, Elderberries, Datura and various water plants. We even devoted a whole issue to dreaded invasive plants; species brought to the Goleta Valley as cash crops, good feed for cattle or just by accident!

The Miner’s Lettuce we looked at in Spring likes the shade of an Oak Woodland, while Elderberry prefers a little water in its life and does well in Riparian Woodlands. Datura seemed to thrive in almost all habitats.
Vernal Pool 2002

fcc93dad-0353-470d-a740-48b995fc7537Our issue on water plants looked at plants that populate Wetlands … like Atascadero Creek and its adjacent marshes, canyon and ravine bottoms, meadows and open water pools.

However, the most remarkable Wetland we have on More Mesa is a Vernal Pool on the southeast corner. These very special and fast disappearing wetlands, are seasonal pools that fill with winter rainwater, and then dry out gradually thru the Spring and early Summer. Vernal Pools support a variety of rare water plants. Our own Vernal Pool was studied extensively the last time it filled, in Spring of 2019, and was subsequently identified as the most prolific Vernal Pool in all of the Goleta Valley. To learn more about Vernal Pools, and why the ones that remain are so very important, read about these unusual wetlands on our website.

b0847a7f-993a-4fc9-8d2f-47817725ff3fThe Coast Has a Special Habitat All its Own: As one strolls along the coast at the southern edge of More Mesa, you are likely to discover Deerweed, an extremely interesting plant we talked about when we wrote about bees. Remember how bees can see in the ultraviolet? This coastal path is also likely to give the visitor a good look at a Western Fence Lizard and perhaps a lone, impressive, and completely harmless, large Gopher Snake. A look skyward over the ocean might also include a Western Gull hunting for a sea food dinner.

The coastal walk, includes all of the fourth habitat on More Mesa, Coastal Bluff Scrub, a habitat that, when we are fortunate enough to get enough rain, offers us a spectacular late winter show. The star of this show is the California Brittle Bush, with its cast of hundreds of thousands of yellow blossoms decorating the top of the cliff and many feet below as well.

Mostly It’s Grass: The last habitat on More Mesa is also the largest … Grasslands … a habitat that can be found throughout level mesa areas and on some canyon slopes.

In the mid 1800s, when More Mesa was occupied by grazing cattle, grass was really important. And while More Mesa is no longer home to even a single cow, grasslands continue to play a critical ecosystem role. First, Grasslands are home to myriad species of small birds who eat seeds. And of vital importance, seeds and grasses provide food for small mammal populations … think Voles, Mice, Gophers, Rabbits and Squirrels. And you might remember the progression we talked about in earlier issues, wherein grass seeds provide food for small mammals and then small mammals serve as food for sensitive raptors as well as larger mammals. In other words, Grasslands are the cafeteria for almost all birds and many mammals.However, while small birds also make their homes in the Grasslands, raptors only use it as a cafeteria and generally live in other habitats … habitats with trees.

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For example, and of major importance, in seasons with adequate rainfall, More Mesa can become home for up to 4 nesting pairs of our famous signature bird, the White-tailed Kite. Remarkably, in this year of extremely low rainfall, we have two adult pairs that are, even as I write this, feeding 6 hungry offspring!

We also looked at other birds in our Treasure Hunts, among them Great Blue Herons, Owls and Roadrunners. All of these, as well as the Kites, find food in the Grasslands of More Mesa, with the Roadrunner living there as well. Even the Peregrine Falcon, preferring birds for breakfast and dinner finds sustenance from the smaller birds that make their homes in the grasslands of More Mesa.
What about those larger mammals? We often have sightings of Bobcats, medium sized cats that feed on smaller mammals found on More Mesa. And, on another remarkable front, two Mountain Lions were spotted on the northwest part of More Mesa this year!

Big and tiny … our Treasure Hunts also looked at the Butterflies and Spiders found all over More Mesa’s Grasslands. And finally, the “man made stuff”, was a look at an important chapter in our country’s history and a fun departure from our usual hunts.

More Mesa is Part of a Bigger Picture: Habitats aside, it is important to remember that the canyons and ravines of More Mesa are linked to Atascadero Creek and larger regional ecosystems; systems providing wildlife migration corridors that reach all the way from the foothills to the shore.

Walking on More Mesa is a voyage back more than two centuries. Saving it preserves an important look at what was, all that we have lost and what we still can save. It is the last great place in Santa Barbara.

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It has been an honor and a privilege to explore the treasures of More Mesa with you during this difficult and tumultuous time. Thank you for letting me come into your homes to share the wonder of this beautiful, magical piece of our history.
Look for more traditional news updates about More Mesa in the upcoming months and, most of all, thank you for reading the Treasure Hunts and thank you for caring about More Mesa … Valerie

Living With the Lockdown – Treasure Hunt #24

This Treasure is FAST: While internet searches may tell you that the Cheetah is the fastest animal on the planet, they are dead wrong. Today’s treasure can reach speeds faster than a moving Formula One race car. In fact, while in its spectacular dive, called a “stoop”, the Peregrine Falcon can reach speeds of up to 230 mph!

A Peregrine Falcon has two important needs … food, and a high place to live.

Body Designed for Hunting: Though no bigger than a crow, and weighing about 1½ lbs., a Peregrine (sometimes called a “Duck Hawk”) is the largest and most powerful species in the falcon family. It sports a blue-grey back, barred white underparts, a black head and a distinctive yellow circle around the eyes. Its pointed wings can span almost 4 feet and
allows it to leisurely cruise at speeds up to 67 mph. If you are wondering why Peregrines need to cruise at such high speeds … the answer is that they eat highly mobile birds and sometimes bats.

Peregrine hunts get serious when prey is spotted during the cruising phase. At that point the high speed “stoop” begins from a great height. Due to their velocity, Peregrine Falcons aim not to catch their prey but to stun it with a blow before grabbing it as it falls. This maneuver is critical, as a hunting Peregrine is travelling so fast that a direct strike on prey could injure the Falcon itself.

95bc8d78-6e25-4d81-84ee-de755ffa26b9The bodies of Peregrine Falcons have many adaptations for hunting at high speeds. For starters, the shape of the Peregrine in a stoop has been compared by many to the shape of the B2 bomber. In addition, their nostrils guide shock waves of air to prevent the high pressure from damaging their lungs while they dive. This natural design actually influenced the design of the first jet engines!

Peregrines also have excellent binocular vision, with resolution eight times better than that of humans, enabling them to see prey from more than a mile away. Like Owls, Peregrines have a third transparent eyelid. Its function is to spread tears and clear debris away, without obstructing vision during a high-speed stoop.

Four formidable yellow talons sport sharp, strongly curved toes. The Peregrine uses its large feet, with their powerful toes, to capture prey in the air or to knock it down. The final blow is then delivered when their unique notched beak bites through the neck of the prey to kill it. You can watch the whole hunt happening, in Rome … courtesy of David Attenborough.

Our many thanks to Thomas Kaestner for this wonderful photo of a Peregrine looking like a B2.
Digestion begins right after dinner and is a complex process involving storing food in a crop, then passing it through a two-part stomach; one section devoted to chemical breakdown of food (using acids and digestive juices) and one to mechanical breakdown of food (into smaller bits by grinding). The job of the intestinal tract is to absorb nutrients. Like owls, falcons regurgitate a pellet containing the undigestible body parts of what they have eaten. The pellet is not very recognizable because the falcon lacks the “garbage compactor” used by owls to produce a neat familiar package.

Home is a High Place: Because of the way Peregrines locate and hunt their prey, “hanging out” in high places makes a lot of sense. But they also nest in high places, such as cliffs up to 1300 feet high, choosing a ledge about a third of the way down the cliff face.

Female peregrine protecting her clutch on the James River Bridge in Virginia.Family Life: Mated for life, Peregrines return to their nest in February, to perform incredible courtship displays during which the male executes acrobatic aerial feats designed to woo his mate. He starts by suppling the female with food, often dropping it for her to catch mid-flight …. sometimes while she is flying upside down! She needs more food than he does, as is the case with many birds. This is because the female has greater body mass than the male. Some theories speculate that this dimorphism occurs so that she can produce larger eggs and easily incubate them.

Courting, completed in March or April is followed by nest building. This activity is minimal, merely a ritualized scraping of the nest ledge to create a depression in the sand, gravel or other substrate of the nest site. “Scrape” is the name given to this rudimentary nest. No additional materials are used to house the 3-4 eggs she will lay and incubate for about 30 days; during this period the male will provide her with food. After hatching, young falcons will rely on their parents for food until they fledge, and become fully independent; this juvenile  period lasts about 39 days.
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6b0add7d-94c9-409b-ae09-e9ce5d52a1b0You Find Them Where? Remember the two things that Peregrines need, “food and a high place to live”? As it turns out this requirement can be met in some very unlikely settings. While cities are generally thought to be the complete antithesis of wildlife habitat, some species actually thrive in concrete jungles … and the Peregrine Falcon is one of them. They nest on window ledges of skyscrapers and feed on introduced species such as doves, pigeons, and ducks. Urban living thus meets the same needs as would the more natural setting of an ocean sea cliff!

As a result, there are falcons in many surprising places. For example, they have been welcomed and cherished for more than 25 years at the second tallest building in Seattle. And the most famous city of skyscrapers, the “Big Apple” may now have the largest urban population of Peregrine Falcons anywhere.  Not to be outdone by populations in New York City, Peregrines nest on every Hudson River bridge south of Albany, as well as on buildings and bridges in Syracuse, Rochester, Binghamton and Buffalo! These urban dwellers certainly live up to their name because both the English and scientific names of the species translates to “wandering falcon”. They also wander into More Mesa several times a year and have often been observed on the tall Eucalyptus trees near the coast. They are, if nothing else, extremely adaptable!

07d94cbe-05d3-4647-9b08-8f04dcbad3a2We Almost Lost Them Forever: Since the first half of the twentieth century, Peregrine Falcons have been exposed to dangerous threats that almost annihilated them. At first, they were heavily persecuted by gamekeepers and landowners, who were concerned about their stocks of game-birds. Then, during WW II, in a time before our digital world was even imagined, primitive methods of delivering messages were used. Specifically, thousands of Peregrines were also killed to protect the carrier pigeons carrying “important” military messages. After the war Peregrine numbers began to recover, and a full 10 years later, legislation finally outlawed their killing.

However, soon after this law was introduced, the numbers of many birds of prey, including Peregrines, began to plummet. Scientists eventually discovered the culprit to be agricultural pesticides … think DDT. This toxin, used to protect crops from insects, also poisoned birds, thinned their egg shells, killed developing embryos and pushed the Peregrine to the edge of extinction. (We had our own version of this nightmare with Bald Eagles on the Channel Islands.) DDT was eventually banned in 1972. This legislation, with additional large-scale protection of nesting places and releases into the wild, allowed the Peregrine to make a full recovery. Indeed, by 1999, President Clinton had the honor of announcing that, after being pushed nearly to the edge of extinction, Peregrines had been removed from the endangered species list. Today they are still listed as a “Bird of Special Concern”.

61cc888b-da57-4092-922e-f815bbf8fcdbFalconry has Been Around a Long Time: The recovery of North American Peregrines was greatly aided by the activities of falconers dedicated to raptor conservation. With the sport originating somewhere between the Near and Middle East, there is ample evidence that falconry has been practiced for at least 3,500 years, (While various groups through the ages have used raptors to catch birds, falconers use only falcons for this purpose.) Falconry also became especially popular with European nobility during the Middle Ages. Little has changed fundamentally in the sport — or, as some would argue — the art of falconry since the practice first began. Today, falconry continues in the same fashion as it began thousands of years ago. (You might even remember the use of falcons in an effort to discourage Western Gulls from invading the Oakland Baseball Stadium.) Finally, although subjected to shifting popularity and restrictions, interest in falconry continues, and the intense relationship between falconers and their birds remains extremely and mysteriously strong.
Stay safe … Valerie

Living With the Lockdown – Treasure Hunt #23

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cottonwood 2A Grove of Cottonwood is a Sight to Behold: Today’s treasure is native to the Western States, a member of the Willow family and closely related to Poplars and Aspen. It’s the Black Cottonwood. Deriving its name from a rough and dark colored bark, Black Cottonwood is one of the fastest growing trees in North America. During spring and summer, it will increase its height by up to 6 feet, a yearly growth spurt which allows Cottonwoods to routinely reach a height of 100 feet. And there is a need to hurry … since they are not a long-lived species and may survive only 70-100 years in conditions that are less than ideal.

However, the environment is obviously ideal for the United States National Champion Black Cottonwood; a tree that resides at Willamette Mission State Park in Oregon. This grand old tree stands 158 feet high, has a circumference of 27 feet and is estimated to be about 265 years old. (The photo on the right was taken when leaves were first making an appearance.)

cottonwood leavesThe lovely Cottonwood is tough and easy to grow as long as it is in sun, has good drainage and is near a water source. And while water is extremely important for young trees, larger trees are more drought resistant. Black Cottonwood leaves are 2-6 inches long, light green and oval to heart-shaped, with a point on the end. The leaf itself is attached to a long “stem-like” structure called a petiole, with the other end of the petiole being attached to a woody stem of the tree. Attachment of the petiole to the leaf is an important part of the story of Cottonwoods and Aspen.

What’s the Story? If you are lucky enough, as I was during research for this Treasure Hunt, you may get to be with Cottonwoods when there is some wind. In a fashion similar to their Quaking Aspen relatives, the More Mesa Cottonwoods provided a serenade of shimmering, tinkling and soothing music that created a truly magical time.

Back in front of the computer I wanted to know why this magic happened. It turns out the magician is the petiole. Its end is shaped to allow the thin, flat leaves of the trees to turn in any direction with the slightest bit of breeze. (Think of this mechanism as if it were a hinge.) As leaves all turn in different directions in a flurry and flutter, the tinkling can be heard and felt. In spring it is a delightful whisper. In autumn the leaves that have now dried a little, and turned a brilliant yellow, provide more of a rattle; but one that soothes and comforts.

Populus trichocarpaIt’s Spring Again … Procreation Time: Cottonwoods are dioecious, meaning that there are male trees and female trees. Early in spring, even before we see new leaves on the tree, both male and female trees flower, with inconspicuous catkins from 1 ½ to 3 inches long; males red and females green. Males catkins fall from the tree fairly quickly, releasing windborne pollen to find the catkins of a female tree. Pollenated female catkins become a series of buds, then flowers and finally thousands of seeds with their famous attached cottony parachutes. These windborne seeds create the famous Spring-early Summer “snow storms” that give Cottonwoods their name and reputation. Alas, male trees do not provide any snowstorms.

Female Tree with Snowstorm in the Making
Female Tree with Snowstorm in the Making

The Snow has Fallen
The Snow has Fallen

In addition to propagating from seeds, Black Cottonwood most often reproduces itself, and sprouts roots, from both large stumps, as well as small cuttings. Not only do they root where they fall, but survive being dispersed by water, to establish a new Cottonwood far from the original tree.

cottonwood 4Cottonwood -The love-Hate Relationship: While fast growth and wonderful shade are reasons enough to cherish Cottonwood, these trees possess many other fine qualities. In the wild, Cottonwood is one of the fastest trees to colonize unplanted areas, making it a solid choice for regions prone to flooding and soil erosion. It is used to stabilize streambanks, acts as a natural waterway filtration system to reduce sedimentation and creates groves that become natural windbreaks.

At first glance the glorious, beautiful, colorful, unusual Cottonwood seems like a tree everyone would love; specially when we think about the wonderful “snowfall” that the cottony seed carriers create. But a friend who lived in Alaska offered the opinion that “They had quite enough snowfalls in the winter and definitely did not need another one in the summer!” The snowfall sounds wonderful in principle, but can be frustrating and annoying to clean up and take out of clogged drains. It is especially frustrating when it gets wet and turns into an icky mess.

Bottom line: Cottonwood makes a stunning tree — planted in the right spot. It is a spectacular sight when it can grow unrestricted and host wildlife … like White-tailed Kites. The best place to grow Black Cottonwood is away from structures, on a ranch, in a wilderness area or on More Mesa … like the lovely grove on the East side shown above!

cottonwood nestsWildlife Values Important: In spite of the fact that Cottonwoods are not worth much on the timber market, their cottony seeds cause problems in urban areas and they have several other annoying habits, they are one of the most widespread and important wildlife trees in the western United States and Canada. Their value lies not only in their beauty but the habitats they provide.

Cottonwoods are extremely important to wildlife because rabbits, deer, elk, and moose feed on the tree’s shoots, stems and bark. And because insects thrive on them, birds and other predators that feed on insects also prosper on these trees. Raptors like Eagles, Osprey, Hawks as well as smaller birds use Cottonwoods for nest sites and once Cottonwoods start to die, cavities in the trees are used by over 40 animal species for nesting or roosting.

Useful … But Not Furniture: Black Cottonwood is a commercially valuable tree and generally known as a good light wood. Its economic uses include coarse lumber, plywood and the manufacture of wood products for pallets, boxes and crates. The pulp is also used for tissues and high-quality book and magazine paper. Cottonwood resin is used in medicine, as well as for perfume and cosmetics.

Useful for a Long Time: Black Cottonwood has been utilized for thousands of years in our area. Chumash people employed Cottonwood poles for structural supports in construction of their homes, for bowls and occasionally for dugout canoes. Medicinal teas were made from the bark of the Cottonwood to bathe broken or bruised limbs.

And for clothing, Dr. Jan Timbrook offers us the following description in her book “Chumash Ethnobotany” …

“Poorer women wore skirts made from Cottonwood fiber, as opposed to the tanned animal hides, including deer, fox and sea otter that wealthier  women wore. To make a skirt from Cottonwood, they stripped the bark from the green tree, dried it and then softened it, by bending it and rubbing it with their hands. This fiber skirt was worn belted at the waist and consisted of two parts, a front flap and a back flap. Both these parts were woven across the top with cordage of the same Cottonwood fiber, leaving the remainder to hang in strips like long fringe that reached the knees.”

alamoFamiliar Sounding Places: Cottonwoods are in the Poplar genus, and the Spanish name for Poplar is “álamo,” “Alamo” has lent itself to some famous places in America, such as the Alamo in San Antonio, site of a famous battle for Texan independence, as well as Los Alamos, New Mexico, site of American nuclear laboratories. However, the romantic sounding name of another New Mexican town, Alamogordo, actually means “the fat cottonwood tree.” (Not so glamorous.)

Where Are They? You can find Black Cottonwood in many wild places in the Santa Barbara area. Indeed, the Spring “snowfall” is happening right here, as I write. If you hurry out now you can see it along the Atascadero Creek Bike Path. There are also three beautiful Cottonwood stands on More Mesa. Some of the tallest of our Cottonwoods are in a grove that is clearly visible from the heavily used main North-South trail on the eastern edge of More Mesa. There is also another lovely group at the end of the “railroad cut” on the northern edge of More Mesa … right below the S.B. County owned “More Mesa Open Space”. Visit these places, feast your eyes and listen for the magic.

cottonwood grove

San Marcos Foothills: There is currently a chance to save yet another beautiful, wild place in Santa Barbara. It is the vision of a group of concerned citizens to permanently protect and preserve the remaining 101-acre property of the San Marcos Foothills, and add it to the 200-acre San Marcos Foothills Preserve. For additional information visit www.foothillsforever.org.

Our thanks to Chris Brems for all the beautiful More Mesa photos and to Eric Huish for the photo of the Oriole nest

Stay safe … Valerie