Two New Trees

Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) Gray birch (Betula populifolia)

Well, these little trees aren’t really new. One of them is a new specimen of an already discovered species. Ninety acres (the size of the park) offers plenty of hiding places. And sometimes the best place to hide is in plain sight. That’s the case with this Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia), which grows on the north side of the park in the Nature Area. It’s quite a bit bigger than the baby specimen we published last August in the Flora Friday column. It cleverly positioned itself with a bunch of Coyote Bush (Bacharis pilularis) as background, meaning that it would be readily visible only when backlit by early morning sun. Coast Live Oak is a much-valued California native, and is the only tree that City of Berkeley law protects against removal or excessive pruning. In exceptionally favorable situations, the tree may live for more than a thousand years.

Wikipedia offers this glance at the tree’s history:

At least twelve distinct cultures of Native Americans are known to have consumed the acorns as a dietary staple.[16] The seeds were ground into meal, which after being washed was boiled into mush or baked in ashes to make bread.[17] In the 18th century, Spaniards in the San Fernando Valley used the wood for charcoal to fire kilns in making adobe. Later this form of charcoal would be utilized in the baking, gunpowder and electric power industries.

In the 18th and 19th centuries shipbuilders sought out the odd angular branches to make special joints. Pioneers moving west would harvest small amounts for making farm implements and wagon wheels, but the greatest impact was the wholesale clearing of oak woodlands to erect sprawling cities such as San Diego and San Francisco. The irregular shape often let the tree escape widespread harvest for building timbers, and also led the early settlers to endow the coast live oak with mystical qualities. Its stateliness has made it a subject of historical landscape painters throughout California modern history since the mid-19th century.

In contrast, the birch (Betula populifolia) chose a tucked-away spot in a crease between two hills just outside the new boundary fence dividing the dog park and the Nature Area. This tree is a newly discovered entry for the Chavez Park Plant List. If this were a bird, it would be called a rare vagrant. Gray birches are an east coast tree, growing both wild and as landscape favorites in places like Connecticut and New Jersey. Calflora, the online register of plants found in California, doesn’t have an entry for it. Wikipedia gives a hint about its survival here when it says, ” It prefers poor, dry upland soils, but is also found in moist mixed woodlands. Living only about 30 years, it is a common pioneer species on abandoned fields and burned areas.” Poor, dry upland soils is what we have here in abundance, and much of the park resembles abandoned fields. Whatever its origin, it’s a very pretty tree, with a striking white to light grey main trunk and reddish branches. Its presence here in the park may inspire some local gardeners to give it a try, if they can get it.

Gray birch (Betula populifolia) leaf
Gray birch (Betula populifolia) trunk and branch detail
Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia)
Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia)

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