Introduction to Trees

When I bring visitors into the coastal wilderness I often introduce them to the natural history of this area through its plants. Plants are generally accessible, easy to find, and rarely run or fly away. They are low on the food chain, occur in communities, and interrelate with many other plants and animals helping us to connect with the larger natural environment. Plants engage our senses with lush colors, rich smells, intricate textures, complex tastes, and, yes, even sounds.

Trees in particular are a great way to begin to learn plants and are easy for most people to learn to identify. Trees tell us a great deal more about the environment than just the tree itself. By simply knowing a tree species we can also know something of the geology, the climate, available water, the habitat, the animals, and plants that exist in relationship to the tree. Practice using all of your observational capacities to know the trees and develop your “nature literacy.”

What is a tree?
Surprisingly after all these years science still does not have an agreed upon definition of a tree! So for the sake of keeping it simple I loosely synthesize the definition of a tree to a perennial plant that has a single trunk of 6 inches in diameter or great at 4.5 feet from ground level (Diameter at Breast Height, DBH), grows to 20 feet or more, and branches to a crown.

Given a multitude of variable conditions many “trees” will occur only as bushes in some areas, while many “bushes” will grow as trees given the right conditions. There are many exceptions and the line between tree and bush and the definition is necessarily fuzzy.

Tree Names and Classification
I have used common names with the Latin name to follow. Common names vary from place to place, while Latin names stay the same — in theory. In practice there are many debates among scientist about what makes a plant fall into a particular genus and be named as a unique species. Other sources may classify or name the same tree differently than you will find here. I have attempted to use the most agreed upon local sources and names.

Tree leaves have the job of gathering sunlight for photosynthesis in a manner that conserves water. To do this work their shapes, textures, and sizes vary greatly. Leaves gather sunlight and use this energy to convert water and carbon dioxide into simple sugars. One result of this process is that leaves expire oxygen. This is great for us oxygen dependent life forms!

Some trees in our areas are deciduous while others are evergreen. A deciduous tree looses its leaves annually, while an evergreen tree will keep leaves on the tree year round. Leaves may stay on an evergreen tree anywhere from 2 to five or more years. Generally, as you go up in elevation and inland to locations where temperatures vary more greatly, you will find more deciduous trees.

Cones, Flowers, Fruit, and Seeds
Conifers are gymnosperms and do not have a "true" flower. Instead their sex cells are found in cones. The female (or seed) cones are large and usually easy to find, while the male (or pollen) cone is less conspicuous and falls off shortly after releasing its pollen.

Flowering plants, which include the broad-leafed trees, are angiosperms and have “true” flowers with encase ovaries that produce seeds. Flowering plants (angiosperms) are the most diverse group of land plants replacing conifers as the dominant tree around 60 to 70 million years ago.

If in season, observing the cone, flowers, fruit, and seeds of trees are key to identifying many of the trees we have in this area. Some species can only be identified positively through its flower, cone, or fruit.

Trees of Big Sur and the Santa Lucia Mountains
I have grouped the trees of this region into three general categories: Broad-leafed; Oaks; Conifers. While oaks are broad-leafed trees I have separated them out, as they are so distinct to the California landscape. Conifers are cone-bearing plants with needle or scale-like leaves.

When it comes to measuring, this region has represented the world's: tallest living species — Redwood; longest cone — Sugar Pine; largest cone — Coulter Pine; most planted tree — Monterey Pine; rarest fir — Santa Lucia Fir. Beyond measurement is the wonder of the incredible diversity and variation nature has unfolded along the central coast of California.

Feet on the Ground
If nothing else, this guide will hopefully inspire you to get out in the wilds with your feet on the ground, pay attention to what is around you, and build your sense of place. Enjoy!

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