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 four 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.
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 explains. 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..
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. While Blue Oaks can manage southern exposures and high, shallow soils, Coast Live Oaks prefer low hills. Valley and Oregon Oaks are at home in meadows and the rich soil of bottom wetlands.
For this reason, under Young’s direction, volunteers for the fire restoration project were directed to collect and record acorns not from a single source, but from 12 different regions around the county.
At Laguna Foundation, Reed now maintains a database to match acorns from particular collection points –– such as Bennett Valley or Larkfield –– with residents and landowners in those areas. Altogether, Reed has documented and tagged more than 300 collections from seven types of oaks to ensure acorns can be planted near where they were collected.
Last weekend at a well-attended free Fire Recovery and Replanting event, Young, Reed and other project representatives explained the role of oaks and native plants to residents, how they could be used to restore home gardens and burned lands, as well as tips for determining whether burned trees might still be alive and survive. Plastic bags containing some of the 30,000 collected acorns were passed through the audience
On well-worn outdoor wood benches, Reed and a small team at the Laguna Foundation property near Sebastopol have begun transplanting about 2,000 acorns which have begun sprouting in the springtime weather into tube-type plastic sleeves. Once they’ve grown into oak seedlings, they’ll be given to residents and landowners for transplant in this fall.
Nearby, other wild plants native to Sonoma County which also form the local ecosystem, such as buckeye, monkey flower and manzanita, have been potted and await new homes as well. The steel frame of a brand new nursery structure, currently stacked on the ground, will soon be raised to house the seedlings and plants.
One of the event attendees, Steven Baker, was particularly interested in the information. He and his wife Melania Kang raised three children in their home on Bent Tree Place in Fountaingrove, surrounded by ancient oaks filled with birds. While ferns have surprisingly emerged on the burned property this month, an arborist determined the charred oak giants had succumbed to the intense heat that took their home, and would have to be removed.
“These oaks were part of our lives here. We could look out on one at the corner of the property here, and just experience nature, watch the changing seasons.” As they plan rebuilding, Baker is enthusiastic about creating a wildlife-friendly yard again, although he’s not sure whether he’s willing to wait a decade or two to regrow oaks from acorns.
Brent Reed notes that more than 50 vineyard and ranch owners have already taken acorns for direct planting, and the public is now welcome to take and plant them as well. Assistance on how to grow them is also being provided. Interested residents can visit the Laguna Foundation website, fill out a simple form to help staff determine the best type of oak for their location.
The unusual acorn recovery effort began in post-fire meetings hosted by the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, which is responsible for the perpetual protection of over 112,000 acres of working, natural and scenic open space lands here.
Brent Reed, with the Laguna Foundation, proposed the idea of growing native, locally-collected seeds for fire restoration. The local chapter of the California Native Plant Society immediately became a partner and with District funding, plans and volunteers were mobilized for acorn collecting. The Sonoma Resource Conservation District got involved to work with its network of local landowners.
“People in the community often ask what they can do to help,” Reed notes. “Here’s something hopeful everyone can participate in, from young to old. There’s a particular pleasure in the simple act of going out and collecting acorns in the wild, and starting new trees.” He notes that about one third of the interest they’ve received is from people who weren’t even directly impacted by the fires.
The Foundation has been involved for 27 years in efforts to restore wild and native plants, including 12 species of native oaks, throughout the entire Laguna de Santa Rosa watershed. Nearly 30 percent of the watershed burned in October’s fires.
But, Reed says, “It’s really encouraging to see the growing awareness, as people see how native oaks impact the entire county.” He and the project’s partners are confident efforts to re-oak Sonoma County will continue with public support.
Information on free acorns, volunteerism and other materials are available at firstname.lastname@example.org
Stephen Nett is a Bodega Bay-based Certified California Naturalist, writer and speaker. Contact him at email@example.com.