Wednesday, June 25, 2008

SoCal Pines Part 1: I Never Go Nowhere But Where There's A Plan

Quick Update: Sunday afternoon I spotted the Garage Black Widow in a new web on the other side of the brick pile, in a space plenty wide for my foot, and quickly squashed her. So much for disassembling the brick pile...

One of my favorite lines in any movie is in Raising Arizona, when the recently-escaped convict played by John Goodman says, to the protagonist (played by Nicholas Cage), “As you know, Neville here and I never go nowhere but where there's a plan…” before elaborating on a half-baked plan to rob some bank.

For the past 20 years I’ve traveled a ton for work. And though many of those trips have been meaningless, forgettable blurs in places like Dallas and Indianapolis, wherever possible, particularly in recent years, I’ve tried to take advantage of such travels to accomplish or visit some other personal objective or item of interest, and as I’ve done so, the theme in my head has been to Never Go Nowhere But Where There's A Plan.

Which brings me to today’s post. Right now I’m at my company’s annual user conference in San Diego. My company hosts this event every year, and it for me it’s basically a straight week of working from 7AM to 10 or 11PM, almost never leaving the confines of a large hotel. The conference is an important event in the continued growth and success of my company, but it’s a challenging week for me. I dislike large hotels, hotel food, cavernous hotel meeting rooms. I’m (ironically for a salesguy) not terribly social naturally, and find a steady week of greeting, conversing and/or selling clients, prospective clients and colleagues somewhat taxing. And the immersion into my work, company and client base badgers me with the unfortunate reality that I really don’t find what I do for a living all that interesting.

And so when I got on the plane Monday morning, I embarked With A Plan.

Last week I compared the flora of Northern California to that of an alien planet, and the flora of Southern California is no different, except that it’s completely different, meaning that it’s like another alien planet. So when I landed in San Diego mid-morning, I headed not for the hotel shuttle, but for the rental car pickup.

Tangent: Several colleagues were on my flight, and I was loathe to come clean about my geeky-wannabe-botanist reason for playing hooky for several hours when it was obvious I wouldn’t be sharing a cab with them, so I invoked the Fake Friend strategy. Fake Friend is a technique I came up with several years back for when I’m on the road with colleagues and looking for a way to not socialize with them in the evening, but still looking to get out of the hotel and eat/do something. The idea is that I’m –regretfully- passing on dinner with the gang so that I can meet up up with my old, dear friend, who lives here (wherever here is) and whom I haven’t seen in ages.

The specific “Fake Friend”(s) I used in this case were my godparents, who I said lived up in Carlsbad, far enough to justify renting a car for the round trip.

Nested tangent: My real godmother (I was baptized in a church that assigns the baby being baptized only a single godparent, not a couple) is (or was? I have no idea) married to this guy, the guy who wrote the book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask. My parents were friends with the Reubens when they lived in La Jolla in the mid 1960’s, though they haven’t been in touch in 40+ years. So like most of my Fake Friend invocations, this one contained a germ of truth.

My Plan was to visit 2 new pines. First up was Torrey Pine, Pinus torreyana, a hard Pine that’s an extreme narrow endemic; it grows naturally only on a stretch of headlands between La Jolla and Del Mar, and on Santa Rosa Island, 175 miles away. It’s a 5-needled hard pine, with large, woody, fairly spherical prickly cones that hang on the tree for several years, slowly dropping seeds.

Pines can be divided in up in a couple of different ways. One way is hard pines vs. soft pines, which we talked about way back when we looked at relic Ponderosas, and is pretty much an ancestry thing. Another is seed dispersal. Some pines have small seeds with little half-samara-like wings, that are dispersed by wind. Other pines have large, wingless seeds that require some external dispersal agent- usually a bird or critter of some sort. The wind/agent seed dispersal division isn’t necessarily ancestral; Whitebark Pine and Limber Pine are only distantly related, but have nearly identical seed dispersal methodologies (specifically corvids, most notably Clark’s Nutcracker.)

Torrey Pine has large seeds with a small vestigial wing and seems to be designed/evolved - like a pinon or Limber Pine or Whitebark Pine- for some type of dispersal agent- a corvid, a squirrel, something- but none seems to be present in the tree’s lifecycle as it exists today. And maybe that absence- something missing or broken in its seed-dispersal methodology- accounts for its rarity today

I visited the Torrey Pine in Torrey Pines State Park, a picturesque set of bluffs overlooking the Pacific, where I hiked around between groves for a bit. I wanted to collect a cone, but the park is well-visited, and good-condition cones at a reachable height or on the ground were hard to come by. And it’s *technically illegal to collect them.

*Whenever I say "technically illegal", that usually means "actually is illegal, but I'd probably do it anyway if I thought I could get away with it..."

Tangent: Torrey Pines has a great beach. Smooth sand, good surf, I stopped for a swim on the way out the park.

But although the park is now hemmed in by development, Torrey Pines are cultivated for several miles South, in office parks and golf courses, and on the return drive I pulled into a hospital parking lot, where I picked a perfect-condition, seed-laden cone. When I pulled into the lot, I thought about the name of the hospital: Scripps Memorial Hospital. Why was that name so familiar? As I walked back to the car, I remembered where I’d seen it: on my birth certificate. I realized that this hospital was the actual hospital at which I was born, way back in 1964. ( I previously mentioned my SoCal origins at the end of this post.) How weird is that?


Anonymous said...

I found your blog today interesting insights especially your tree related insights. I was reading your Torrey Pines post and was wondering why you didn't mention two of the fascinating mystery's related to Torry Pines. One the lack of any fossil's of Torry pine and second the fact that Torry Pines are genetically identical. They are all virtual clones of each other. On another note how are those large coned Mexican Pinyon's doing?

Watcher said...

Craig, Thanks for stopping by and for the comment (Anyone with a blog named "Tree-Geek" is my kind of guy!)

Thanks for the mention of genetic uniformity and "bottleneck" history of Torrey Pine. Following your comment I found and read Tom Ledig's 1981 paper that detailed the research behind it- great stuff.

Speaking of Tom Ledig, he's also the guy he did the research on the apparent P. maximartinezii research that got me obsessed with that pine (I contacted him prior to my trip- he's a great guy, very helpful.)

Which brings me to the seedlings. They're doing well thanks, though even the 2 oldest (32 months) are still in the juvenile stage; they haven't yet developed fascicles. I'll try to find an excuse to post some pics in the coming weeks.

Anonymous said...

Another possibility besides the "bottleneck" hypothesis could be that Torrey Pine is a relatively new species. This would explain the lack of genetic variation and the lack of fossils. This could be an example of Gould's punctured equilibrium or a newer "design".

Question: If Torrey Pine is more closely related to Coulter pine than Coulter pine is related to Jeffery pine why does Coulter pine readily hybridize with Jeffery and not with Torrey pine? If that's a stupid question forgive me.

Next time your in San Diego you'll have to check out our interesting Cypresses. Tecate and Cuyamaca Cypress both have small populations and are within an hour of town. I planted a couple of the Tecante cypresses on the property a couple of weeks ago that sprouted from seed i gathered last winter.

Watcher said...

I don’t think it’s a stupid question- so far as I know it’s unanswered! First, I’m not a botanist, and probably shouldn’t hazard a guess, but since I can’t resist here goes: With closely-related organisms, genetic distance alone probably isn’t always the sole determinant of whether hybridization is possible, because different genetic changes may have different impacts on fertility. For example, if one of the small genetic differences between Torrey and Coulter affected the morphology of pollen grains, that could result in non-fertility between the two, whereas if that difference didn’t exist between Coulter and Jeffrey, the pollen grains might still be morphologically compatible, even if their genomes had greater cumulative differences than those between Torrey and Coulter.

Cuyamaca Cypress was another candidate for me to seek out on that trip but fell victim to my limited time! We are Cypress-less here in Utah, so they’re especially interesting to me. Hopefully I’ll get there on my next trip out your way.

Anonymous said...

Let me know if you want a couple of seed cones. I'll drop them in the mail for you if you have something you'd like to trade. Drought tolerant confers are my primary interest. I live next to the Guatay Mountain grove its only about 5 to 10 minutes from my house. My 7 year old son knows it as the secret forest :). The seeds are easy to germinate and the seedlings grow quickly to about 12 FT then grow slow down after that. The coulters are another seed that germinates without difficulty. I've germinated quite a few that i have planted on the property. I gathered them up on Mount Laguna in a grove that looks like it was planted by the forest service. The trees were to close together for a natural stand. The forest service thinned out the grove cutting some of the trees and letting them lye where they fell. I just went with a hatchet and cut off a few of the cones. Most where still full of seeds. I found a natural grove a couple weeks ago while motor cycle riding south of the 8 near Corta madera mountain in the middle of a Forest Service area called Corral Canyon OHV area. The trick is to protect the seedlings from the various chapprel birds like the scrub jay that will kill them by snipping them off at the base in the spring. They don't even seem to want to eat them just cut them. My theory is that are either mistaking them for insects like spiders or have a habitat preservation mechanism. Maybe if they kill the young trees they'll keep out competitors like the steller jay? I know its a stretch but the destructive behavior begs some kind of rational even if none exists. Not sure really its kind of disturbing though to check on the seedlings and finding them mostly cut at the base. Last spring when i found all the dead coulter seedlings i felt like Anakin Skywalker when he when ballistic on the sand people :) I was about ready to do get the shootgun and do me some bird killing. I resisted the temptation and so far have yet to cross over to the dark side:) Then come the rabbits that eat them from the top down. Those little basards can be destructive to the young Coulters that survey the bird onsluaght. Then come the gofers that eat them from root up leaving the tops sitting in a gofer hole. The literature says Coulters prefer steep rocky slopes but my theory is that the only place that they survey the various animal assaults. I've gotten wiser and have purchased plastic seedling protectors for the trees and have protected the roots with chicken wire to guard of the gofers the other coulter menace. Though the process I've acquired a real appreciation for what it takes for a seed to naturally become a pine in the wild. This year the seedlings will be protected under chicken wire until they are big enough to not attract the bird killers. I've definitely shed my Lion King circle of life vision of the nature world. On another note I found a couple Sierra Juarez pinyons at the local Nursery in Descanso that i planted last weekend that they had mistakenly labeled as single leaf pinyon. Of course the 5 needles bunches gave away the true identity.

Watcher said...

Craig, I sympathize with your campaign to protect seedlings from the scrub jays. A couple years ago I lost 2 of my original Martinez Pinon seedlings to a squirrel in my back yard. The squirrel dug them out of the pots- why I can't tell.

I may still have some Martinez Pinon seeds left over from my Feb 2006 trip down to Zacatecas. They're a bit old but I'll bet some are still good, and I'll be happy to send a few your way. Send me mailing info to if you'd like some (I'll confirm tonight that I still have them) and I'll reply with mailing info in kind. Thx!