California State Stuff

I will often stop in the middle of a naturalist outing and give a
spontaneous quiz on the California State “things.” I tend to start
out with the easiest and work up to the harder ones. You might want
to cut out this column and save it. Could be useful at parties or
in trivial pursuits.

State Flower: Everyone knows the California poppy, Eschschoizia
californica. It’s found in many plant communities all over the
state, at least below 6500 feet. But did you know that April 6th is
officially designated as California Poppy Day? There are about 200
varieties of this plant that range in color from bright yellow to
deep orange with every shade in between. J. T. Howell, author of
Marin Flora, said it best, “No poet has yet sung the full beauty of
our poppy, no painter has successfully portrayed the satiny sheen
of its lustrous petals, no scientist has satisfactorily diagnosed
the vagaries of its variations and adaptability. In its abundance,
this colorful plant should not be slighted: cherish it and be ever
thankful that so rare a flower is common!” Amen.

State Bird: California Quail. This chunky bird, made famous in Walt
Disney cartoons, is readily identified even by avid urbanites. The
brighter males with their distinctive top knot are often seen up on
fence posts keeping guard and chanting “Chicago, chicago, chicago.”
I remember hearing that call once in the background of the TV show,
MASH. I guess it must have been a Korean Quail. The female lays a
large clutch of eggs that soon turns into a dozen little fuzzballs
with legs. She may have two or even three more batches of
youngsters in a season. By late summer all of the quail family
groups in an area combine into one hugh aggregation of teenagers
with a few adult supervisors. That’s my idea of a nightmare. It
seems odd to me that our State bird is also a game species. So you
can get fined fifty bucks for picking a poppy but you’re encouraged
to shoot quail. Every year thousands of them are blasted out of the
sky by hunters. It doesn’t seem to affect the population though,
California quail are numerous everywhere throughout their range.

State Tree: California Redwoods. Aren’t we lucky? We have two trees
rather than just one as our state tree — the coast redwood,
Sequoia sempervirens, and the giant sequoia, Sequoia gigantea. Both
are considered ancient relics by botanists. During the heyday of
the dinosaurs over 100 million years ago, there were great forests
of these trees scattered across the entire Northern Hemisphere. As
the world’s climate slowly became drier and cooler, most coast
redwoods died out. The only place that now approximates that
ancient climate is a narrow belt along the central California coast
and southern Oregon. It is the presence of summer fog that allows
coast redwoods to tolerate those hot drying days of August and
September. Where the summer fog stops, the redwoods stop. This tree
is the tallest living thing on the planet. There’s one in the
Redwood National Park in Humboldt county standing 367 1/2 feet
tall. That’s taller than the Statue of Liberty.

The giant sequoia now exists in only 75 groves scattered on the
western slope of the Sierra Nevada between 4,700′ and 7,500′. These
groves are relics of extensive forests, most of which were wiped
out by glaciers during the last Ice Age. Words cannot describe the
size of giant sequoias. You must see them for yourself. I can’t
believe that they named the biggest living thing in the world after
an aggressive General who maliciously burned the South during the
Civil War. The magnificent General Sherman tree is 275′ tall, 36.5′
in diameter, and 83′ in girth. It weighs over twelve million pounds
and has enough timber to build forty mid-sized homes. Not only are
sequoias big, they’re ancient. One tree is estimated to be 3,500
years old. California has an amazing pair of state trees.

State Animal: Grizzly Bear. How many wild grizzlies left in
California? You’re right, none. These magnificent predators once
roamed all over the state, munching on manzanita berries, acorns,
salmon, elephant seal pups, deer and occasionally a Miwok. How sad
that the symbol of our state has been permanently removed. The last
grizzly was shot at Horse Corral Meadows in the mountains of Tulare
County in 1922. I must confess that I have hiked in Ursus
horribilis country and it is a bit unnerving to take a nature walk
in an area where the nature can eat you. Too bad there seems to be
no room for modern man and large predators.



Posted on

August 22, 2009