It’s Oaktober! And yes, Seedtember just finished – we’re very fond of calendar puns here at Theodore Payne Foundation. For me, of all the CA native plants out there, oaks are probably most deserving of their own pun of the month. They are the workhorses of Southern California landscapes, providing an abundance of food to local wildlife while shading and cooling the region. All of this happens with much less water than a typical ornamental landscape tree would need.
I was recently at a friend’s house in the Valley, and we were talking about the rows of Zelkova trees along their street. A local resident had organized to have them planted in the median strips sometime in the 1950s. Their canopies had knitted together, and the neighborhood, in contrast to many others in Van Nuys was shady, leafy and green. It reminded me of my old neighborhood in Pasadena, where a canopy of mature Camphor trees kept the yards and homes under a shade-dappled green throughout the summer. In comparison to many LA neighborhoods, where the full sun beats down on heavily watered front lawns, both streets could be considered an improvement, but there’s a much better option than either Zelkova or Camphor trees. Imagine if native oaks were planted back then. The streets would have that same pleasant, shady, cool atmosphere, but instead of ending there, the benefits would go much further, saving water, and supporting the biodiversity of our region.
There are plenty of examples of streets like that (I’m thinking of neighborhoods in Pasadena and Los Feliz among others) where mature Coast live oaks stretch their massive limbs over residential streets. Somebody had that vision many decades ago, and the results are wonderful. I hope it becomes the norm, so that in 100 years, LA’s neighborhoods are defined by leafy, shaded groves of native oaks, where woodpeckers cache acorns in the fall, butterflies have abundant food sources, and other ecological interactions of the pre-development oak savannahs can flourish. If we planted the understory with the many shade tolerant plants that accompany oaks in the wild, plants like Hummingbird sage, Coffeeberry, Currants and Toyon, we’d really be living in harmony with the unique ecology of our city.
My favorite aspect of this vision is that it’s so attainable. It’s not a moonshot technology, it doesn’t require billions of dollars or a profound shift in the way we live. Just a tweak to the plant selections, and adding environmental stewardship to the equation when making these decisions. There’s something comforting in that simplicity, to be able to create the future with something so tangible as planting a tree.
My recent blog posts have focused on the incredibly abundant rains we’ve had in 2023, and how they created such an abundance of flowers, fruits and seeds. A few weeks ago, I joined TPF staffers Ella Anderson and Diego Blanco on a seed collecting outing at Griffith Park. We had a wonderful day, and brought back a cornucopia of local seeds to grow for our Local Source Initiative. Interestingly, though plants like Laurel sumac, California buckwheat, Coffeeberry, and Black sage were overloaded with seed, the oaks were pretty lean. A few trees had a smattering of acorns, but by and large, they were sparse or had no acorns at all. On the grounds at TPF it’s the same story. I’ve asked a few colleagues about this and they’ve noticed the same thing in other areas.
There is a simple albeit mysterious explanation for this: Oaks are a masting species, which means that every so often (usually every 2-5 years) they will produce a massive amount of acorns, while on the years in between far fewer acorns will grow. The mystery comes from the unpredictable nature of masting. This year, with it’s exceptionally high rainfall doesn’t appear to be a mast year (at least in the local areas that I’ve visited, but please let me know in the comments if you’re seeing lots of acorns and where) but I’m sure all of this rain will impact future years in some mysterious way. Perhaps 2025 will be a mast year.
As we head into the official planting season (we’re just a few weeks out from our Fall Plant Sale!) many decisions lie ahead for native plant gardeners. Planting a tree is one that always seems like such a big one, because it literally is! If you’re thinking about trees, the nursery has a nice selection of oaks right now, including Coast live oak, Blue oak, Engelmann oak, and a beautiful crop of 15 gallon Canyon live oak. Maybe this is the year to plant that oak tree. Better yet, get your neighbors in on it, and plant the whole street. Many decades from now, someone will thank you for it.