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There are several rare plants in Orange County.

rvanderhoff

In fact, I’ve written about a few of them here in this column over the years; a rare coconut palm in Newport Beach, an improbable Royal Poinciana in Placentia, a mature Traveler’s Palm in Fountain Valley. These are indeed rare trees.

However, each of these are planted trees, tended to by a gardener. With enough attention and some clever manipulation it amazes me what we can grow here in the wonderful climate of Orange County. But what about those plants that don’t have the benefit of a gardener? What about those trees that are rare here for other reasons; not because of cultivation, but natural rarities. I’m fascinated by these wild, but rare plants.

Valley Oaks (Quercus lobata) are one of California’s signature trees. The largest of all of North America’s oak species, these are majestic plants and are native only to California. Throughout California’s central valley to as far north as Mendocino County these majestic trees are visible for many miles. The largest trees shade an area 150 feet in diameter, above a trunk that can measure 12 feet in girth. Picture a grassy pasture, a huge spreading tree and maybe an old farmhouse in the far distance. This is that tree.

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Valley Oaks don’t much care for the southern one third of California. It’s just a little too warm and dry for them down here. The San Fernando Valley, North of Los Angeles, is about the furthest south they will wander.

However, back in 1983, one of our state’s top field botanists discovered a single Valley Oak tree right here in Orange County, growing wild. A young Fred Roberts took a sample, pressed it, noted the location and sent it off to a herbarium – sort of a museum for plant specimens. Fred found the lonely tree growing in Moro Canyon, which is now part of Crystal Cove State Park.

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I have hiked Moro Canyon several times and each time I have looked for this tree. But looking for one tree among thousands, in a wide canyon almost four miles long, is like looking for one life raft in the Pacific Ocean. Still, I wasn’t giving up. I had found other rare native trees in Orange County; a small stand of Madrones in Trabuco Canyon, Tecate Cypress in the Northern Santa Ana Mountains and a few Summer Holly trees on a hillside South of Laguna Beach. So on Sunday, July 31, I decided I would take another trip through Moro Canyon and search again.

I have a habit of not planning my hikes very far in advance. I enjoy the spontaneity of deciding where I might be travelling as I back out of the driveway. But on the evening before this trip I decided to send Fred a note and let him know I was heading out the next morning to again look for the tree he had found 28 years earlier. At 9:37 PM I hit the “send” button.

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To my surprise, thirty minutes later I got an encouraging note back from Fred. “Glad to hear you’re looking for that tree Ron. I haven’t checked on it in many years.” Fred continued, “The area burned in 1993 and it may have been lost. Let me now what you find”. He then checked his notes and relayed a general description of the tree’s location. Next morning, off I went.

The morning was damp. An unusual summer rainstorm had fallen during the night, complete with lightning and thunder. Drizzle was still falling as I made my way up the canyon. I was scanning every tree, both near and far, searching again for what had eluded me on prior visits. But this time I had Fred’s advice.

After a couple of miles I noticed a dead snag rising out of the prolific toyon and sumac in the canyon. I stopped and looked a bit closer. There, just to the left of the old, dead tree were a few distinctively lobed leaves. It was a Valley Oak! I had found it – one of OC’s rarest plants!

The original tree, never as large or majestic as its happier Northern family, had indeed burned in 1993. Essentially killed, the tree’s dead, dry carcass was broken and rotting.

But all was not lost. At the base of the old, burned tree, three or four young sprouts had emerged several years ago from the roots. Fed by the ashes of the fire, they had now reached through the dense brush and had managed about twelve feet in height. The leaves were healthy and the tree, although precarious in the event of another fire, was re-growing.

One of Orange County’s rarest trees, our only Valley Oak tree, was still alive.

Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar.

Questions from Readers August 13.

Are Lisianthus annuals or perennials?

Gladys, Newport Beach

Answer:

Technically, most references still state that Lisianthus are perennials, growing from year to year. But the reality is here in Southern California Lisianthus are pretty miserable once cool weather is upon us. They stop growing, decline quickly and usually rot away in the cool, wet winter. They are great summer flowers Gladys, but rather that try to nurse them through the winter, you’re better off replacing them with a cool season alternative like, stock, cyclamen, snapdragons or calendulas.

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