Brand 'X'

The meadow which runs along the driveway in front of the house slopes towards the confluence of Bear creek and the nameless seasonal stream that runs to the east of the property. Closest to the house is a flat area where the septic leach field is installed and the rocks that were excavated during its construction are tumbled down below it except around the meadow's lone tree: a wolf oak.

Wolf trees are unusual in nature. It stands to reason: where one specimen succeeds other trees might reasonably follow, generated most likely, by the seed of the first. Loneliness is a condition nature abhors and attempts mightily to mitigate. Thus when we come across a singular tree it is reasonable to implicate the hand of man.

When I first met our neighbor Margot and visited her house across the street I marveled at the way it had been sited with an oak at each of its corners. It took a little while for the Duh..... moment to arrive (and I mean several weeks) when I understood that these four oaks were all that remained of a grove which had been unceremoniously destroyed to build the house.

The coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), is not truly a part of the chaparral plant community. At a dinner the other night, someone visiting from Baltimore asked me what the word chaparral meant. I burbled on about it being a plant community adapted to the mediterranean climate zone which is characterized by long dry summers and wet winters - and how summer is really winter for the chaparral - and that things were starting to green up right now in what is Fall for the east coast - but I fear she is returning to Maryland with no clear picture of what this plant community is all about. I need a sound-bite for such occasions. But the oak, which is really a part of the southern oak woodland, is an example of how sound-bite-resistant this ecology is.

We look across at the north facing slopes of Sulphur Mountain, and there southern oak woodland predominates. It's comparatively damp across the way and the oaks need moisture; but while usually out-competed in riparian woodlands by sycamores, bays, willows, alders and cottonwoods they also thrive in areas of seasonal streams, even on south facing meadow slopes like ours.

The oak of the chaparral is the scrub oak (Quercus dumosa) and in this tree lies the origin of the name for Southern California's signature plant community or, as Rick Halsey proposes "California's State Ecosystem". In Mexican Spanish, chapparo, literally means short or squat, but also refers to a grove of scrub oaks, or more generally to the dry scrub of Baja. A small step, then, to the American word chaparral. (The Spanish quickly realized that specialized clothing was required while riding through these nigh-on impenetrable thickets: hence chaparejos or chaparreras and their American diminutive, chaps.)

All of that is way too verbose for dinner conversation - you have to eat after all - and would rightly be dismissed as TMI (too much information). A short plant list might include, chamise, ceonothus, mountain mahogany, holly leaved cherry, laurel sumac, toyon (with a brief nod to the fact that Hollywood is named for this bush whose berries resemble those of English holly) and scrub oak (segue to etymology).

I remember that I did mention holly-leaved cherry and actually recalled the latin name Prunus ilicifolia when she quizzed me as to whether it was a truly a holly or a cherry (both old world species). This was apparently familiar territory, but ceonothus stopped her in her tracks although various varieties have long been sold around the world as decorative shrubs.

Rick Halsey produced a Public TV show about chaparral and a little while later Huell Howser called him up and gushed (cue Texas accent) "I've been all over this state filming our show the last few months and you know what I've seen? Chaparral! I had no idea. It's everywhere!"(Fire, Chapparal and Survival in Southern California, Richard Halsey, Sunbelt Publications, San Diego, 2005).

We were eating at Monte Grappa, on Signal - had it been light I probably could have skipped the exposition and been more effective by pointing in the general direction of the hills above; the chaparral starts directly beyond Shelf Road. In Ojai, it truly is everywhere above the irrigated valley floor (Citrus Belt ).

I like Rick's notion that we should re-name the Los Padres National Forest (and So Cal's three other National Forests) National Shrublands (good luck with that); but I believe much effort and expense could be saved by inserting the word Elfin on existing signage, with a caret perhaps, so that we get 'National Elfin Forest'. This is a nod, of course, to W.S.Head (Chaparral - Got to go through it) , and could be attempted as a guerilla stencil campaign (the results of which might last for a few hours or days at least).

The U.S. Department of Agriculture notes that, "Coast live oak occurs in a mediterranean climate characterized by mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers" - which while true, does not separate them from chaparral, or riparian habitats. Our meadow wolf oak is a single-trunked specimen and thus less romantically spreading than the multi-trunked oaks that result from the root crown sprouting after a fire. The trees around Margot's house are multi-trunk and they all exhibit fire scarring subsequent to this re-sprouting. Our property too, has many such examples, but along the spine between east and west meadows there are several young single trunk oaks. The meadow specimen is older, but not old. Sited below the leach field it has grown perceptibly since we purchased the property almost three years ago.

Fire is not the only threat an oak faces: as seedlings and young trees they are susceptible to drought and browsing herbivores (primarily deer). Of the many oak seedlings that sprouted after our wet winter, few survived the summer. Those that did are often shaded by rocks (and rocks too, can deter deer) or nurse crops amongst which the USDA lists California chamise, coyote bush (Baccharis pilularis), purple sage (Salvia leucophylla), bush monkeyflower (Mimulus brevipes), bush lupine (Lupinus logifolius), California sagebrush (Artemisia californica) and poison-oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) - a mix of coastal sage scrub and chaparral species all to be commonly found on our property.

There's a healthy 24" tall oak (shaded by deer weed and artemesia) within spitting distance of the wolf tree. Once grown, the new oak's canopy will link one with the other and then beyond to the sentry oaks along the spine as a resurgent grove.

The meadow will then be restored in part as (if anyone asks) southern oak woodland, verging on coastal sage scrub and then tending, as you move east, to chaparral. Yes, it's everywhere: but look closely and it is ever-changing: elevation, directional exposure, latitude, soil type, available moisture and fire history all impact the mix and type of plant communities.

I am not a chaparral ecologist - nor do I play one when when seated next to an out-of-state guest at dinner - but I do spend a lot of time observing (and weeding): I'm a chaparralian, an independent enthusiast and now I'm looking for a simple way to convey the glorious complexity of our eco-system.

God help me, I want to brand it!