Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Visit to an Alien Planet

I’m back. The Mendocino trip was wonderful. Of course, the reason for the trip – celebrating 10 years of a wonderful marriage- would have made it wonderful even if we’d gone to the Ramada in Lincoln, Nebraska, but the fact that it was in Mendocino made it all the sweeter.

This Next Section Seems Like a Tangent But Isn’t

When I was younger, I was way into science fiction. One of the things I liked about the genre was the descriptions of alien worlds, places completely unlike the world I knew. The more detailed the description the better. I once read a short story from the 1930’s that described a Venus on which 1 day was equal to a year, meaning that the same side faced sunward all year. One side was baking-oven desert, the other permanently frozen night. The habitable zone was a thin temperate ribbon on the edge, in permanent dusk/twilight, with adjacent ribbons of permafrost/tundra on toward the night-side, and sweltering jungle full of killer fungi toward the day-side. Now that was an interesting planet. I used to daydream about being an interstellar astronaut, and visiting alien worlds.

Tangent: So where are the spaceships, moon colonies and flying cars already? When I was a kid in the 70’s, we used to hear about how by the year 2000 we’d all be taking vacations on the moon, flying around in jet-cars and have cool robot-friends who did our laundry. Instead we got cell phones, laptops and hundreds of cable TV channels, at least half of which are showing some variant of “Law & Order” at any given moment. Are you f***ing kidding me? This is the “Future”?? This is so lame…

But as I got older, I lost both patience and interest with sci-fi. It seemed too shallow and unrealistic, and the worlds described seemed too one-dimensional, lacking any real interesting detail. The worlds of the “Star Wars” movies are great, if sad, examples. Luke what’s-his-bucket lives on Tatooine, the desert planet. That’s right, the whole planet looks like Great Sand Dunes National Monument. There are no oases or woodsy parts, or oceans or mountains or lakes or anything else. In the second movie, the rebel hideout is on the “ice moon” of Hoth, which is, apparently, the Greenland ice cap on a planet-wide scale. And that planet Yoda lives on? All swamp. Like nothing ever drains off anywhere, and there’s no dry part or high part, or low part, or nothing. Oh and then the last movie has that big showdown with the teddy-bear people on the “forest moon” of Endor, which is- you got it- forest.

I guess when you get down to it, I don’t like sci-fi anymore because it’s like going to a new mall. You think, “oh hey a new mall, I wonder what will be here?” and of course it’s the Gap and Nordstrom’s and Victoria’s Secret and Orange Julius and all the same crappy stores that are at all the other malls all over the country.

Wherein I Tie This Strange Intro Back Into The Topic of the Post

Which is why I now- since the advent my newfound, middle-aged, admittedly strange passion for botany- love going to California. For the botanist, California really is another world- not just another state with a different climate, but with an entirely different, rich and unique flora, simply loaded with endemics and rarities. The pines, spruces, firs, oaks, shrubs and wildflowers are all different and wonderful. When you get out of the car in California and start poking around at the shrubs and trees, you’re in a world more alien and fantastic than any in “Star Wars.” In this post, before I get back to what’s happening along the Wasatch Front, I’ll highlight just a few of the amazing plants I came across last week.

The 2-needled Bishop Pine (pic left), Pinus muricata, is all over the Mendocino coast, but never more than 30 miles from the sea. In areas of poor soil it grows in stunted form, forming “pygmy forests” of which there are a number around Mendocino. Bishop Pine grows in scattered locations clear down to Baja California. The Northern populations vary from the Southern populations; the needles of the Northern Bishops have a slightly bluer tint. In conifers, a blue-ish tint to the needles is cause by wax build-up on the stomata (plant version of pores.)

Another 2-needled coastal endemic is the Bolander Pine, Pinus conorta var. latifolia is actually a subspecies of the Lodgepole Pine, that can grow either in stunted form in the pygmy forests (pic right) or more tree-like form under more favorable conditions. It’s the only pine in the world whose needles lack resin canals, so when you break a needle in half and smell it, there’s no “piney” smell.

Cypresses are unlike anything in Utah, vaguely juniper-ish, but way different in structure, form and seed. The Mendocino Cypress (pic left), Cupressus Pigmaea, is another narrow coastal endemic. (“Narrow”, when talking of an endemic, means of very limited range/distribution.) California has a number of cypresses, and their taxonomy and classification has confounded botanists for years. The weirdest thing about Cypresses for me are their bizarre cones/seedpods (pic right), which are spherical, but comprised of plates. When it’s time to distribute the seeds, the ball expands and the plates separate, sort of like those creepy egg-pods in the “Alien” movies.

We were fortunate enough to visit 3 great old-growth redwood sites, including Montgomery Woods, home of the Mendocino tree, which until a couple years ago was thought to be the world’s tallest tree. There are so many superlatives about Coast Redwoods you could do a blog just about them and nothing else. Their height alone is a fascinating topic, and as I touched on briefly in a previous post, the height is cool not just because it’s greater than any other tree, but because it seems close to the theoretical functional limit of a xylem-contained, tension-supported water column; Redwoods push the physics of the tree model right up to its limit.

The quiet cathedral-like ambiance of an old-growth Redwood grove is like nothing else- open, cool, quiet and seemingly timeless- about as close to a holy place as you can find in a forest.

The sad thing about Redwoods of course is how little old-growth there is. There’s loads of 2nd growth, and some of it- like the remarkable Redwood “tunnel” along the Navarro River on Highway 128- is wonderful in and of itself, but wherever you go in 2nd growth Redwoods, you see those incredible stumps, and you’re reminded of how incredibly magnificent the same forest was just a century or two ago.

Speaking of logging, this shot of a recently crashed and splintered old-growth Redwood in Montgomery Woods give you a feel of the stupendous sheer quantity of wood in a single old-growth giant; that’s a lot of decks right there.

I saw several other conifers- Sitka Spruce, Douglas Fir, Western Hemlock- but to blog about them all would take more time than I’ve got. But I’ll mention one more that I’m kicking myself over today: Gray Pine, also known as Digger Pine, Pinus sabineana. Gray Pine is a three-needled pine that thrives on dry, semi-arid hillsides, but grows only in California, and only in the greater drainage of the Central Valley (pretty much the same range as the wonderfully-named Blue Oak, with which it's typically found.) A scrappy, often-fork-trunked pine with huge cones and grayish, wispy looking, almost ghostly-needles, it’s almost like a weird other-world analog to pinon pine (to which it’s not particularly closely related.) I’d never seen it before yesterday.

One the way back to the San Francisco airport yesterday afternoon we were tight for time, largely due to- well actually completely due to- my making yet another Redwood stop. On the West side of 101, between Healdsburg and Santa Rosa, I passed a great stand of Gray Pine, huge cones hanging in the breeze. Now, if I’d been alone, I’d have pulled over into the emergency lane, traffic be damned, skidded to a halt and scramble up the embankment for a cone. But I was with my wife, already runnig late due to my repeated botany-related stops and side-trips, and loath to sour a great anniversary trip with my obsession. So I drove on past. And today I’m kicking myself. I need a Gray Pine cone.

Conifers were the highlight of this trip, but California is also an Oak-lover's paradise. Here in Utah the only live oak we know is Shrub Live Oak, Quercus turbinella. But in California, live oaks, such as Canyon Live Oak, Quercus Chrysolepis, grow as magnificent trees in their own right, growing alongside equally stately deciduous Blue Oak, Quercus Douglasii and Valley Oak, Quercus lobata.

I Have a New Favorite Wildflower

It’s this guy, Blue Flag, Iris Versicolor, a wild Iris that grows across the West but was growing all over the place in Mendocino. I think this is simply the most beautiful flower- wild or cultivated- I have ever seen. I have a serious crush on it. If it were a woman I’d run away with her. And it’s dangerous. The roots and leaves contains a type of chemical called iridin. Iridin is a glycoside, which is a class of molecule in which a sugar part is bound to some other (non-sugar) part. Glycocides are used in lots of living things, often to store the non-sugar part until needed. Like Low Larkspur, Blue Flag is a common poisoner of cattle, and occasionally humans. Indians used to make arrow poison from the roots (how cool is that??)

Beautiful and deadly, Blue Flag is like the floral version of a James Bond girl-villain. And it’s a monocot, of the order Asparagales, and so fairly closely related to the Joshua Tree. What more could I want in a wildflower?

So much more I could go on about, but I’ll leave it there, lest this blog turn into one of those California Tourism commercials. I’m back now, but for a few days. A bit of work, catch up with the kids, a big race on Saturday, then out-of state again, this time for work and for an entire week, in… California.

Homecoming Surprise

So after we got home last night, my wife and I were poking around the yard and she said, “Oh look, my wild geraniums have come out.” I didn’t know she’d planted them, but apparently she had, and when I checked them out, they were none other than my sought-after, paracarnivorous Sticky Geranium, Geranium viscosissum, right in my own back yard!


Phil O. said...

In the future, "Law & Order" reruns will guide us to a greater truth and elevated plane of enlightenment. There are flying cars if Jack McCoy says it is so. Claire Kincaid will rise again!

Florene said...

You have come the closest to identifying a tree in Mendocino (actually Caspar). There's a dirth of online information on Mendocino cypress (Cupressus pigmaea), which your recent photo resembles quite well. The tree I've been seeing over the years spreads like an umbrella over quite a huge footprint.

We vacation in Mendocino twice a year, staying in the same oceanfront home each time. The tree is next door. I have a picture, but don't see a way to post it.

West Sacramento, CA

Watcher said...

Hi Florene- if it's a Cypress in Mendocino, I'd be real surprised if it were not Mendocino Cypress. Using the range maps in Ron Lanner's "Conifers of California", only McNab and Sargent Cypresses even come close, but even they look a ways North and inland from Mendo.

You're welcome to email me a photo if you like at


M. D. Vaden of Oregon said...

Nice page.

Redwoods are among my favorite forests, and coastal woods in Oregon too - even the short pine woods near Nehalem Bay.

Really liked that cypress foliage and cone photo on your page in the larger view.

M. D. Vaden of OregonBeaverton