California's Southern Oak Woodlands
Photo by Melody

California's Southern Oak Woodlands

By Kelli Kallenborn (Kelli)July 12, 2011
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Dawn-Falcon was worried. Her baby Solstice had scratched his forehead. It wasn't getting any better and now he was feverish. Twice she had had the shaman over to chant and blow smoke, but it hadn't done any good. A friend recommended that she take Solstice to Berry Place Village. A old woman lived there who knew much about healing plants. "Take the Fern Trail," her friend said, "And you'll be back before anyone notices that you are gone."

Gardening picture

Coast live oak branchesThe trail to Berry Place Village went through a narrow canyon along the north side of the hill.  There were not many trees in Dawn-Falcon's land, and most of them were found in shady canyons like this.  Even on a sunny winter day, the shade was dark and deep, for most of the trees were evergreen oaks.  Though some nights could be frosty, this was the growing season and the ferns were adding a cheerful green.  The first milkmaids were blooming, starting a sequence of wildflowers that would last for five months.  Animals were stirring.  An acorn woodpecker drilled on a tree.  A spotted towhee scratched in the underbrush.  A gray squirrel froze and then darted to a further branch.  The damp air smelled rich from the carpet of fallen oak and bay leaves.  Solstice started to fuss.  Dawn-Falcon sat down on a rock to tend to him.  Nearby were several very old and stout trees.  Dawn-Falcon called them grandmothers.  Dawn-Falcon remembered one fire going through this canyon in her lifetime, but the black scars on the "grandmothers" showed that they had experienced and survived many fires.  This was a nice place to sit, but Dawn-Falcon had to move on.  When Solstice was settled, she continued.  She crossed a tiny creek.  The water was very cold, but it would be dried up in a few months.  In a short time she came to the thicket of blackberries that gave Berry Place Village its name.  Soon she could hear the sharp ping of manos hitting metates and she knew she was very close to the village. 

Southern oak woodlands are found in cismontane, lower elevation southern California.  They are found on the north sides of hills and along small canyons, where the soil and microclimate can support trees.  They cover relatively small individual areas and thus are called woodlands, rather than forests.  Robert Lewis Stevenson described oak woodlands as "woods for murders to crawl among", but nowadays, people are more likely to find them welcoming, with a bit of shade on a hot summer day.  They are similar in appearance to broadleaf woodlands and forests found across the temperate zones.  Thus they have served as the backdrop for much filming, representing places from Sherwood Forest to Hazzard County.  Southern oak woodlands are in a mediterranean climate zone, so they usually experience mild, wet winters and dry, warm-to-hot summers.  However, the topography, soil, and the plants themselves help to hold water in these canyons, and even when the creeks go dry above ground, there is underground water to keep many of the plant species green all summer.  The picture below was taken in September, a time of the year when the surrounding grasslands and scrub would be dry and bleak. 

Point Mugu State Park

The backbone of southern oak woodland is, of course the oak.  In this case it is the coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) or in some areas, the Englemann oak (Quercus engelmannii).  Both of these species are stocky and relatively short, but have a wide spread, with arching and twisting branches.  They can be very sculptural trees and can live to be hundreds of years old.  Where soil and moisture conditions are right, a full spectrum of understory plants is present, from the California bay tree (Umbellularia californica) to lichens.   A few of the understory shrubs include snowberry (Symphoricarpos mollis), California blackberry (Rubus ursinus), and poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum).  A sampling of wildflowers, both annual and perennial are shown in the figure below. 

Chinese houses Canyon sunflower Milkmaids Wild rose

Chinese houses (Collinsia bicolor)

Canyon sunflower (Venegasia carpesioides)

Milkmaids (Cardamine californica)

California wild rose (Rosa californica)

Crimson pitcher sageFiesta flower Humboldt lily

Crimson pitcher sage (Salvia spathacea)

Fiesta flower (Pholistoma auritum)

 Humboldt lily (Lilium humboldtii ssp. ocellatum)

 Where the undergrowth is not thick, ferns may be found. A few of these are shown below.

Coastal wood fern 

 Goldback fern

Maidenhair fern 

 Coastal wood fern (Dryopteris arguta)

 Goldback fern (Pentagramma triangularis)

 California maidenhair fern (Adiantum jordanii)

Many communities have laws to protect mature oak trees, and the trees can sometimes be seen in residential areas, industrial parks, shopping centers, urban parks, and the like, though the full range of woodland Coast live oakplants has usually been destroyed or greatly altered.  The native oaks require special attention, or it may be more accurate to say that they require special inattention.  With a healthy tree, the best thing to change nothing.  Treat the tree like a venerable elder that is set in his or her ways. 

The photo at the right shows a coast live oak that is hundreds of years old.  It is in a city park and is being cared for in the appropriate manner, as follows:

  • There is nothing planted under the tree that requires frequent watering.
  • Leaves are left on the ground to keep the soil from being baked hard by the sun.
  • The road does not go over the tree roots.
  • The natural grade of the soil has not been altered.
  • The ground under the tree has not been paved with an impervious material.
  • The tree receives no supplemental irrigation beyond what the rain and the canyon provide. In some cases, watering once a month in the dry season is all right, but sprinklers should not spray onto the trunk of the tree.

Two hundred years ago, the branches were cut off of this tree for firewood, but that is not the best way to care for a tree like this. Dead branches can be removed, but large live branches should not be cut unless there is a very good reason to do so.

Most other southern oak woodland plants are not as often seen in landscaping, though they are deserving of a try given the correct situation.  Observe the plants in nature and notice that parts of the woodlands are more mesic than others and that many of the species tend to segregate themselves in that regard.  Wild rose and blackberry grow in the canyon bottoms, sometimes right in intermittent streams and are not xeriscape plants.  Some perennials like coastal wood fern and crimson pitcher sage are suitable for dry shade.  Chinese houses are probably the most widely available and widely adaptable of the southern oak woodland plants.  They can be grown in virtually any zone in the lower 48 states, provided they get regular water during the growing season.  The species is an annual and is usually sold as seeds.

The topography and climate of southern California allow for many different plant communities.  The southern oak woodland is one of the less famous but might be one of the more appreciated.  It is a restful environment.  The shade is welcome most of the year.  The largest trees are admired.  The presence of water provides for relatively rare plants.  The whole place seems to say, "Slow down.  Stop and look.  Sit a spell.  There's no need to leave just yet."  It is the kind of calm place that everyone needs from time to time. 

What happened to Dawn-Falcon and Solstice?  The old woman knew exactly what to do.  She hunted around among her baskets and found a small stone jar.  Inside was an ointment that she rubbed on Solstice's cut.  Then she took a couple of handfuls of dried leaves and put them into a pouch and handed it to Dawn-Falcon.  "Make a tea and give it to him twice a day until all of the leaves are used up."  Dawn-Falcon followed the directions and in five days, Solstice was back to his cheerful self again.

Here is a video of a walk through some southern oak woodland.  The quality is a bit primitive but it will give you a feel for the place.


  About Kelli Kallenborn  
Kelli KallenbornKelli has lived in California for 25 years and really enjoys the climate and all of the varied natural ecosystems. You can also follow Kelli on Google.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
That was a delightful hike. Thank you Elena 5 21 Jul 16, 2011 11:26 AM
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