Living With the Lockdown – Treasure Hunt #23

cottonwood wide
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

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

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 #3

Willow and Water Go Together

Meet the Family

The Willow Family consists of over 400 different species of trees and shrubs of the Salix genus – a group of moisture-loving plants that are native to temperate and cold regions in the Northern Hemisphere. Depending on the species, willows range in size from towering giants of 90 feet or more, down to the Arctic Willow … a pinkish shrub that only reaches 6 inches in height and is the northernmost woody plant in the world!

Water, Water, Everywhere

The Arctic Willow aside, most willows thrive in temperate areas that provide sunlight and lots of water. That is why they are most often found near streams, lakes or ponds. Indeed, willows can absorb so much water that they are often planted to stabilize stream beds, or in flooded areas. Their leaves turn yellow in late fall and are shed in winter when the

Female willow flowers. Photo by Chris Brems
Female willow flowers.
Photo by Chris Brems

tree is dormant. But willows are among the first plants to leaf in the spring. Several willow species are found on More Mesa and other open spaces in Santa Barbara. They can be easily identified in spring by their flowers, and very soon after by the fuzzy white cottony parts that are so familiar to lovers of willows. These fuzzy white structures are the carriers of willow seeds … as you can appreciate from the complex and fascinating story below!

What are they fuzzy white things anyway?

What are these fuzzy, white structures (called comas) and where do they come from? Start with the fact that willows have separate male and female plants and each produces flowers. Male flowers form into catkins … remember the Oaks from Treasure Hunt #1? These catkins, laden with pollen, are released and, hopefully, carried by wind to the female flowers on another plant. If that lucky happenstance occurs, pollinated female flowers will produce vast numbers of minute seeds surrounded by tufts of cottony hairs (the coma). As the season progresses to hotter and drier days, the seed and coma are dispersed randomly by the wind. This morning I walked the bike path beside Atascadero Creek and there were thick deposits of these dispersed comas everywhere.
I inadvertently initiated the last few steps of the process above in my den. The left photo shows a small branch I harvested from a willow during an early morning walk. You can just barely see the cottony hairs peeking out. I left the branch on my desk and went off to do something else for a few hours. When I returned to my office there had been an explosion of cottony hairs. They were all over! Apparently, the higher temperature inside my home had encouraged all the seeds to emerge, and there were comas EVERYWHERE!
Branch Photo by Carol George
Photo by Carol George

Common Uses

The Chumash and other indigenous people used the various willow species in several ways:
  • As a traditional medicinal plant, infusions of the leaves, bark, or flowers were  used for several disease remedies, especially for fever, pain and inflammation. The bark contains salicin, which is metabolized in the body to create salicylic acid, a precursor to aspirin. 
  • The inner bark was used to make rope.
  • The large, long shoots  of Arroyo Willow may have been favored for use in coiled and twined basketry.
  • Branches were used to make acorn storage baskets, for arrow shafts and tool handles.
And finally … in historical times, willow has been the wood of choice for cricket bats.

Symbolism etc.

The term “willow” has Celtic origins and its meaning is appropriately, “near the water”. Both from a natural and symbolic point of view, the willow is strongly linked to the element of water and the magic associated with it. In some parts of the world it is a symbol of immortality and the afterlife, in others a sign of grief. In more primitive and ancient settings, willows trees were associated with mysticism and superstition. In Britain, the willow was linked to the world of witches.
And … how could we forget the Whomping Willow of Harry Potter fame?

Remember: Six Feet Apart and Stay Safe,

Living with the Lockdown – A More Mesa Treasure Hunt #1

No one would dispute we are in very troubled times. But while we are “Sheltering in Place” we are definitely not “Under House Arrest”. So, if you are tired of fixating on the Ups (number of cases of the virus) and the Downs (the stock market), the More Mesa Preservation Coalition offers you … a Treasure Hunt.
Santa Barbara is a wondrous place to live, especially in Spring. And, with recent rains, we are having an absolutely beautiful bloom … one that should be seen. Add to this happy thought the consul that, for both mental and physical health, we should go outside. While we would love to encourage you to go to More Mesa, any number of public parks or pathways will do just as well. PLEASE MAKE SURE THAT YOU ARE 6 FEET AWAY FROM ANYONE ELSE … even though you may have to shout out “Look at this!” very loudly.
Today’s treasure is our incredible Coast Live Oak Trees that are currently in bloom. YES … in bloom. Oaks produce two types of flowers. First are the tiny yellow male flowers that cluster on long strands known as catkins. A catkin can contain 25-100 flowers and there can well be thousands of catkins in any given tree. The task of the male flower is to


pollenate female flowers … preferably from another tree. Why does the tree produce so many male flowers? The answer is that pollination is done via wind power and not insects. Oaks are actually flowering plants; plants set apart from all others by a unique set of characteristics including their pollination technique and production of the acorn “fruit” that we see so many of in the fall.

While Coast Live Oak Trees can be found on the northern edge of More Mesa, they can also be seen on Ellwood Mesa, San Marcos Foothills Park, Hope Ranch and many public parks and bikeways throughout the Goleta Valley. Go find this first unique treasure!

May 2016

Another Chapter in our “Cautionary Tales” Book:  It seems as though we have been relaying cautionary tales quite frequently. Exactly a year ago, and even more recently, we warned of the unstable nature of More Mesa’s cliffs and the heavy erosion that takes place, not only after rain, but even in dry weather. There is no doubt that the record-breaking drought we have been experiencing is the source of many of the issues we have already discussed. Now another weather element has entered the picture to complicate and exacerbate the situation even further … WIND!

As we have described, More Mesa’s trees have been severely stressed with the drought, especially non-natives like eucalyptus. For example, the trees at the southeast corner have been especially hard-hit as they have no accessible water at all. In addition eucalyptus have extremely shallow root systems, and topple so easily that they are known as “Widow Makers”. Add to this the fact that, of late we have been experiencing consecutive days of heavy winds, many with gusts up to 40 mph. Coping with these conditions is difficult enough for healthy trees, let alone those that are severely compromised. We have already lost two of our giant trees, as well as many large branches of standing trees, to the heavy winds of the past 2-3 weeks.

We don’t want to lose any of you! Please go out and enjoy this place that is still incredibly beautiful … despite the drought. But do not linger under these big trees … especially when it is windy … or has been windy for several days. It is both risky and courting danger. Enjoy More Mesa, but please stay safe!