How dedicated Sonoma County volunteers are re-sprouting oak trees burned in the fires
Consider the acorn. By kindergarten, most children know that the smooth, brown shell hides a secret: it’s a ‘baby oak with a lunch box,’ recalls Brent Reed, now Ecological Program Manager with Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation.
Inside its weather and insect-resistant coat, every acorn is a live packet of waiting pre-programed cells, primed for growth, surrounded by a dense store of energy-rich carbohydrates and minerals.
When conditions finally trigger its cells to begin growing, there’s enough food in the acorn’s pantry to build and drive a tap root as much as 4 feet down into the soil, create and unfurl a set of sugar-making leaves, and hoist them on a rigid mast into the sunlight.
Scattered among the Wine Country’s hillsides, mountains and valleys, the oaks that produce these acorns are part of the unique defining character of Sonoma County.
But to naturalists, they’re also something more. Essential to the health of the local environment, mature oak trees are a combination of high-rise condominium, supermarket, water management and superhighway systems. In short, they are teeming centers of life.
The towering and ancient oaks are also part of the human community.
Once a primary food source for native people, today they provide shade for homes, backyards and parks.
They line neighborhood streets, bridge urban and rural boundaries, clean the air, sequester carbon and shelter wildlife.
In October’s wildfires, more than 31,000 acres of oak woodlands burned. And in the wake of that devastation this past fall a partnership of community groups, looking for way to help jumpstart the region’s recovery, came up with a novel approach. Oaks drop their acorns in the fall.
What if some from surviving forests could be gathered for planting the following year in areas where forest was lost? The window to find acorns was very short, and closing fast.
Within weeks, thousands of volunteers had stepped forward to help. Mobilized and advised by the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation and the Milo Baker Chapter of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) they fanned out into oak woodlands across dozens of square miles of Sonoma County, from Cloverdale to Petaluma, to rescue and gather acorns from the surviving forests.
Seeking public help
Today, after careful cleaning, cataloging and sorting, staff at the Laguna Foundation’s small nursery are making the sprouting acorns and seedling oaks available to the public.
They’re hoping to enlist the community to restore these iconic trees where they’ve been lost, and are encouraging homeowners, vineyards and ranchers to raise native plant communities, which displaced wildlife depend on.
Betty Young is a silver-haired and passionate expert in native California plants with the California Native Plant Society, and an oak advocate. Now living in Sonoma County, for many years she designed and ran some of the most important native plant restoration nurseries in California, including the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, which grew more than 400 species.
“An oak tree and oak woodlands support more than 300 types of birds, insects and animals, as well as lichens, mosses, entire ecosystems,” she said.
They’re filled with life. Butterflies, bees and owls, salamanders and multitudes of hungry birds and mammals find food and shelter among and beneath their branches.
Oak woodlands also provide protective corridors for animals to move across the landscape, she said.
Not an easy process
So, can residents interested in fire restoration just start planting oaks? It’s not quite that simple, Young cautions, since not every oak will grow just anywhere.
In fact, she says that oak trees are remarkably adapted to living in their own regional site, and even their own neighborhood microclimate.
Lineages of oaks have their own particular happy places.
“Before I knew this, years ago, I bought 15-gallon oaks from a commercial Fresno nursery out in the valley, and brought them back to the coast. And they failed,” Young says.
“The acorns all mildewed. But acorns of the exact same species that had been collected locally, thrived. They were adapted to coastal fogs, and the Fresno oaks were not.”
Scientists from UC Davis have recently confirmed that oaks of the same species, but growing in different locations, can actually be genetically distinct.
The reason has to do with the oak acorns. They’re fairly heavy, which mean that in nature, they don’t get carried far from their parent trees. As a result, over centuries, descendant trees growing in the same local spot become specially adapted to those particular conditions.
Different types of oaks also prefer different environments.