Three Ways of Seeing ... Monterey Pines

When is a book like a seed? - When it has to stratify for many years before it is ready to germinate in the mind. I first picked up "In Full View: Three ways of looking at California Plants several years ago, when my interest in native plants was nascent. After a superficial perusal, I put it on a bookshelf and forgot about it.

It is a pretty book, a small coffee-table book really, with black-and-white illustrations by artist Ann P. Lewis, and essays by Glenn Keator, well-known Bay Area botanist, and Linda Yamane, author and historian of the Ohlone people, of whom she is one. The Ohlone tribes lived in this area before the Europeans - - - arrived.

I picked up the book again because I noticed Glenn Keator's name on the spine - I hadn't heard of him back when I purchased it - and this time, I couldn't put it down.

Each section focuses on a different California plant or plant family - willows, horsetail, berries, coyote bush, and so on - even seaweeds and algae, with fascinating in-depth essays by Keator and Yamane, and some arty collage type pictures by Lewis. Those have yet to speak to me very loudly, but they aerate the book nicely.

For two reasons the most fascinating essay to me right now is Keator's "Monterey Cypress and Monterey Pine."

The first reason is that we recently visited Point Lobos, one of the few remaining places these trees occur natively. I didn't get any good pictures of the Monterey pines, partly because the light was dim when we were in their area, and partly because they're kind of boring (to me). Especially when compared with the dramatic cypresses, which I'll show in another post. Here's one picture I got along Lace Lichen Trail. I think there are Monterey pines beneath the shroud.

The lichens are Ramalina menziesii and you can click here for interesting info about them and about the Monterey pine and cypresses growing at Point Lobos.

Keator points out that Point Lobos is one of only two places where Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa) remains - the other being the famous 17 Mile Drive joining Monterey with Carmel. Monterey pine (Pinus radiata) occurs a bit more widely - along a strip of the Central California coast from southern San Mateo county down to Cambria. They both grow on windy, rocky bluffs and grow in "shallow rocky or sandy soils close to the coast" (all quotes in this post from Keator's essay).

Keator notes that though their native range has shrunk, Monterey pine and Monterey cypress have "become the most widely planted timber trees in New Zealand and many parts of Australia: sort of a cultural exchange for the Australian blue gum." And that they have both been widely used in the Bay Area and elsewhere in landscaping and for wind breaks. In fact Golden Gate Park in San Francisco was just windswept sand dunes, until they established stands of these trees to create enough shelter for other plants to take hold.

The second reason this essay interests me is because we have so many Monterey pines along our road.

I learned only recently from a neighbor that they are not native to our area, and that the reason they are here is that a neighbor got hundreds of young Monterey pine plants from the forestry service for next to nothing about 40 years ago, maybe more. He generously gave them out to all the folk living along the road, who planted them profusely, because they grew so fast and gave shade quickly. Now everybody is dealing with the downside of these trees.

Here is the how Keator explains the downside of Monterey pine. I will intersperse this quotation with pictures I took earlier today on our road. I would just add to his comments that Monterey pines are also highly flammable - their worst characteristic for our fire-prone area.

"Fast as these trees grow, they are destined to short lives (as measured by other trees, that is); life expectancies seldom exceed 100 years.

(Above is the nicest example in my picture set.)

"Even before reaching this age, these trees begin to show unpleasant symptoms of senility.

(This one is close to our land. Thank goodness the former owners of our house didn't plant any on our property!)

"In particular the larger limbs grow brittle and are prone to breaking off violently during winter storms or especially strong winds.

(This is one of a cluster at the cul-de-sac end of our road that are fallen or falling.)

"People are now learning that neither Monterey pine nor cypress is appropriate around houses, close to heavily occupied garden spaces, or even as a permanent wind break. One of the hardest problems with which San Francisco's Recreation and Park Department is grappling is the replanting of wind break throughout Golden Gate Park. Many trees there are overdue to die."

So now I've looked at Monterey pines three ways: in an informative essay, in its native habitat, and on our road. I feel my post grinding towards its moral conclusion, though I think it is obvious enough: when planting something that has wonderful short term benefits - be sure you are taking the longer view into account!


Christine said…
Tree drama! Love it. I wonder if the New Zealanders are finding our trees to be as invasive as their (and/or Australia's) trees are here... An interesting exchange.
wiseacre said…
So glad I live in an area where I have to worry about keeping the home fire burning in winter for heat instead of having a burning home.

I was never a fan of pines. Not when there are so many other choices available to me.
Anonymous said…
They were planted down here in So CAL like crazy for years. Now with the extended drought & maybe the fact that they are not in their native territory, they have become the food for bark beetles & are dying all over town. Hopefully they get replaced with our native Oaks.
Country Mouse said…
So interesting that the issue along our small street is playing out in SoCal on a larger scale. I wonder if ours are prone to bark beetles - I don't know what to look for. Be interesting to look into it.

Wiseacre - I'm with you, except that it's so goshdarn lovely here and the climate (so far) is great. Yet I live with an undercurrent of fear of fires and earthquakes!
Anonymous said…
That sounds like a great book! The cover alone would make me want to buy it.
ryan said…
One of my least favorite plants in the world. I found it really demoralizing how much of New Zealand was covered by monterey pines and how many clear cuts there were. The seedlings were everywhere on a few properties I stayed at. I find them a huge pain to garden under, and just about every house seems to have a big old dying one. It's good to be reminded that they're really cool in their native habitat.
Wild Flora said…
A very interesting post. It's very helpful to get concrete examples of "good plants gone wrong" as a reminder of the need to think ahead when choosing plants. FYI, according to what I've read in general evergreens tend to be more fire prone than deciduous trees. Fortunately most people prefer to plant deciduous trees close to their houses so that they can get winter sun.
Country Mouse said…
Thanks for the interesting comments all - I live and learn that's for sure. Ryan, interesting to hear your experiences of New Zealand - that indeed they are invasive there. Too bad indeed. That's a place I'd like to visit one day! Wild Flora - thanks for that point, a good reminder. I hate the fire department's idea of good firescaping - no trees around the houses at all - looks so barren, really. We are lucky indeed to have redwoods close by!
Rebecca Sweet said…
Wow - I've learned so much about our Monterey Pines! I love your term 'showing their senility' true! They can look so beautiful, or so crummy. Thanks for the funny, yet informative, post!
I like what you said about a book sometimes requiring a proper period for a reader to appreciate it. But books are such patient things. They'll wait until you're ready.

I think that Monterey pines were used down here for a while as living Christmas trees. Many people can't toss a living plant--generally a good thing--but the landscape was filled with these fast growing pines that aren't well adapted. Now so many of them are in serious decline.