Saving the California oaks

They’re majestic, they’re imperiled, and they’re the most Californian of all trees. Follow our guide to see them in their spring glory.

Bill Marken

I was an Acorn. Our school was named after the oaks that carpeted my Northern California valley before the ranchers cut them down to plant fruit trees, and our yearbook was called La Encina, Spanish for live oak. It didn’t occur to me, as a teenager, that having your high school football team nicknamed after a tree’s nut might be considered odd or even a sign of weakness.

Oak memories popped into my head as I walked Cosumnes River Preserve, south of Sacramento. If you want to see California oaks, this is the place: 50,000 acres with oak meadows and oak forests, oaks as far as the eye can see. And here you also begin to understand what a bad deal these majestic trees have until recently gotten.

Glance at any map of California and you see how oaks have marked the state, dotting it with oak-inspired town and city names: Encino and Encinitas (the live oak again), and Paso Robles (Oaks Pass, but this time roble, Spanish for the valley oak). Then, in English, Oakland, Oak Glen, Oakhurst, Oakdale, Sherman Oaks, Thousand Oaks. Not to mention countless schools, like my alma mater, Live Oak High in Morgan Hill.

Natural landscapes dominated by oaks once covered more than a third of California. (Oaks grow in other Western states too, but not so abundantly.) There is the blue oak of the Sierra Foothills, and Southern California’s Engelmann oak. There’s the coast live oak, which grows from Mendocino County south to Baja. Most impressive of all is the massive valley oak—sometimes more than 100 feet tall, with twisted branches that look like aerial sculpture. The best book on the trees, Oaks of California, likens the valley oak woodland to “a Gothic cathedral on rich floodplain.”

For California’s Native Americans, such as the Ohlone who were the original residents of my part of the state, oaks were an invaluable source of food, which is why my fourth-grade teacher taught us how to make irredeemably bitter cookies from acorns ground into meal. Oaks also inspired Wild West legends: Not far from town, we gaped at a “hanging tree,” an oak where childhood tales had it that bandito Tiburcio Vásquez met one of his many deaths in 1875.

All this makes it more peculiar that California’s oaks have not received the respect they deserve. There are national parks devoted to redwoods, to Joshua trees, even to a petrified forest. There is no national park devoted to the oak. Perhaps oaks grew in such abundance we took them for granted. Perhaps they grew in the wrong place at the wrong time, this most Californian of trees particularly vulnerable when California changed out from under them.

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