Conifers of Big Sur & Santa Lucia Mountains

Conifers put on a show in California both in diversity and numbers. The most massive, the tallest, and the oldest, and more, all occur in California with a lot of the display going on right here along the central coast of California. When it comes to measuring, this region has represented the worlds: tallest living species — Redwood; longest cone — Sugar Pine; largest cone — Coulter Pine; most planted tree — Monterey Pine; rarest fir — Santa Lucia Fir.

Conifers are gymnosperms which are cone bearing plants that have the sex cells in cones as oppose to most other trees that have “true” flowers. Conifers of this area have both female, seed bearing, cones and male, pollen bearing, cones.

Pollen cones are short lived. Emerging in spring, growing quickly to let fly clouds of yellow pollen, and then dropping from the tree. Pollen cones are generally found on the lower branches of a tree while the seed cones are on the higher branches.
Being wind depended to spread pollen, this placement of the pollen cones on the lower branches is believed to make it less likely for trees to self-pollinate and thus keep a healthy genetic diversity.

Seed cones on the other hand can take from one to two years to develop but may stay on the tree from a year to the well past the life of the tree. Seed cones of some species will stay attached to the tree while the tree grows around the cone enveloping it completely. Still other seed cones are serotinous and will not open until reaching a sufficient temperature — usually by fire. Seeds can remain viable for decades inside the protection of the cone.

The leaves of conifers typically range from long narrow needle-like to small scale-like leaves that lay close on the branch.

Confers are found in the fossil record from about 300 million years ago and were once much more widespread than today. Flowering trees became more prevalent about 100 million years ago and then replace conifers as the dominant tree about 65 million years ago.

Two families of conifers are represented in the Santa Lucia Mountains: the Pine Family and Cypress Family.

The Pine Family PINACEAE

The Pine Family is represented by the genera of Pines, Douglas-firs, and True Firs. Trees in the Pine Family have slender needle-like leaves.

In the genus of Pines (Pinus) we have naturally occurring the Coulter Pine, Gray Pine, Knobcone Pine, Monterey Pine, Bishop Pine, Ponderosa Pine, and Sugar Pine. Also occurring in the range is a small population of introduced Jeffery Pines and Torre Pines which are native to California. Trees in the Pine genus have needles in bundles of 2 to 5.

The genus of Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga) conveniently includes the Common Douglas-fir.

The True Firs (Abies) we have represented the Santa Lucia Fir which is endemic to these mountains (only occurs naturally in this mountain range) and is considered to be the rarest fir in North America if not the world.

The Cypress Family CUPRESSACEAE

The Cypress Family includes the genera Cypress, Incense Cedar, and Sequoia. Most trees in the Cypress Family have small scale-like leaves.

Of the genus Cypress (Cupressus) we have the Monterey Cypress naturally occurring in the very northern part of the range and is widely cultivated and naturalized. The Sargent Cypress occurs in a few locations primarily in serpentine soils. The Gowen Cypress is perhaps the rarest Cypress (depending on the taxonomist) and grows in locations at the northern end of the range.

The genus Incense Cedar (Calocedrus) has the Incense Cedar as it representative to our area.

The genus Sequoia has the Redwood as the sole representative here along the central coast, however its close relative the Giant Sequoia (genus Sequoiadendron) occurs directly inland in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Back to Trees of Big Sur and the Santa Lucia Mountains