The wallpaper photo on my mobile phone is a spectacular towering old-growth redwood that somehow survived being cut down in Samuel P. Taylor State Park. Its trunk ascending to the stratosphere, it is uplifting to behold, even on the phone’s small screen. Redwoods like it are the symbol of this region, and for good reason. But the more ubiquitous old-growth hardwoods, mainly oaks and buckeyes, are also spectacular in their way. Perhaps it’s time we gave them the respect they’re due.
In terms of sheer numbers, Northern California is the land of oaks and other hardwoods. It is really the Oak Empire, and our oaks are amazing. Old-growth oaks and buckeyes can have incredible character with their twisted limbs and thick trunks. They have different stories to tell than redwoods. And they are often breathtaking works of art, dancing without moving, speaking without making a sound. They make California unique, and they are uniquely Californian, some of them found nowhere else.
With all the work that volunteers do in the Bay Area taking care of the native landscape, we should not forget to let the native landscape take care of us. It’s possible to go “forest bathing” in the presence of one magnificent tree. In this guide to enjoying old growth specimens, I focus on three species that are easy to see around the Bay: valley oak (Quercus lobata), coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), and California buckeye (Aesculus californica). All can live for hundreds of years and age in magnificent ways, with twists, knots, scars, holes, and burls that turn them into living art pieces.
Of the three, old valley oaks tend to be the showiest, having the most mass, height, and girth (150 feet tall and trunks up to 10 feet across). Coast live oaks are often found in tight stands, but lone old individuals can be almost as large as valley oaks (nearly 100 feet tall with canopies nearly as wide). California buckeye is the smallest of the three (35 feet tall and wide) but is able to contort and twist itself into knot-like structures that boggle the mind.
Here is a pictorial list of some good ones to check out when you have the time.
— Randal DeLuchi, Point Isabel revegetation volunteer, worked with the West Contra Costa School Garden Program for ten years, using gardens in education.