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California’s Native Oaks

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By Nina Bynum Master Gardener

Having grown up in the Central San Joaquin Valley, I have always loved the distinctive golden-brown landscape of California´s valleys and foothills. This terrain, studded with evergreen and deciduous native oaks, seems to burst into a glorious velvety-green with the onset of fall and winter rain. Before long, we can be assured that our native poppies will be blooming and then after that, once again, our hillside grasses will return to their beautiful golden dormant state.

I could not agree more with the following statement by botanist Glenn Keator in his book The Life of an Oak: an Intimate Portrait. “The rolling oak woodland and savanna communities are my personal California landscapes. This is my California. To plant an oak is to believe in the future. To protect an oak is to claim our past.”

Although it may be difficult to visualize today, valley oaks and sycamores once dominated the Central Valley. The rich oak woodlands provided a primary food source for most of the state´s indigenous people. Acorn harvesting, storing and cooking methods varied, but nearly every tribe in California collected acorns each fall and held harvest ceremonies. Communities and territories were probably based upon the location of oak groves.

Environmentalists frequently turn to the tribes to help build coalitions for the preservation of open space where oaks may spread their branches. One important connection that the tribes emphasize is that protecting oaks means protecting sacred areas. These areas might include village sites, grinding rocks and burial places. Respecting Native peoples and respecting oaks go hand in hand.

About 200 years ago those vast oak woodlands were converted to agricultural use. Today we may at least enjoy remnants of the great oak savannas along meandering streams as we travel north and south through the Central Valley. The California Oak Foundation* tells us “that more than a third of all oak woodlands have been lost since the settlement of California by Europeans; of an estimated 10-12 million acres, only some seven million remain. Of the remaining oak woodlands, most have been modified or degraded, and only about four percent are formally protected. Most of the loss of oak woodlands has been due to the ever increasing urban and suburban growth of California.”

According to my research there are twenty species of oak in California. Botanically, oaks are divided into three broad groups, apparently distinguished by bark coloring, but in fact distinguished by acorn production. There are white, black and intermediate oaks. White oaks produce an acorn crop in one year while black oaks take two years. Black oak acorns have the highest fat content and are the favored species when it comes to harvesting acorns for food.

Oaks have cycles of productivity. Some years are better for acorns than others, which you will have observed if you live near a mighty oak or two. Thus the diversity of oak species in a landscape is very important.

The large amount of protein and fat in acorns is more than enough to nourish a wide variety of animals. Deer browse extensively on acorns as well as on oak leaves and twigs. Large mammals such as mountain lions, black bears and even grizzlies, in their day, also dine on acorns. (Joaquin Miller described young grizzlies dining delicately in oak branches and adults pounding their weight against trees to get the fatty seeds to fall.)

I am pleased to see that there is more and more concern for our declining oak populations. Urbanization is probably the biggest contributor to this decline. Haven´t we all seen bulldozers pushing down or ripping out magnificent oaks to make room for development?

I hope that you will share my interest in conserving California Native Oaks. For more information, contact the Tuolumne County Hardwood Advisory Committee through the UCCE Farm Advisor´s office at 533-5695. Also, the University of California Cooperative Extension Integrated Hardwood Range Management Program offers information on their website at If you would like a list of native plants that grow well with oaks, contact the Master Gardener office at 533-5696.

See you in the garden.

*California Oak Foundation, founded in 1988, is a non-profit educational organization committed to preserving the state´s oak forest ecosystem and its rural landscapes. To learn more contact:

California Oak Foundation

1212 Broadway, Suite 842

Oakland, CA 93612


Nina Bynum, a native Californian, moved to Tuolumne County 12 years ago and became a Master Gardener in 1996.