A stream tumbled through Oakland’s Joaquin Miller Park, a sign that El Niño had brought some relief from California’s ongoing drought. A group of hikers got ready to negotiate the rain drenched rocks and slippery mud while CCNH naturalists Lo Scheiner and Angela Pai gave a brief overview of the plant communities in Joaquin Miller Park.
“We’ll start in a redwood forest, and then hike through a bay/oak forest and a chaparral ecosystem,” Lo said. “You’ll notice how the exposure to the sun affects the plants and animals that live in each place.”
“Where we live in California is one of the few places on earth where coast redwoods grow,” Lo said. These trees thrive between Big Sur and Oregon, in a thin band of land a few miles inland from the coast. They do well in foggy places where they can find shelter from the wind.
Redwoods’ fire resistant bark contains tannin, a chemical that protects them from insects and fungi that infect other trees. Young trees sprout from the old roots that surround a logged tree’s stump, forming a circle called a fairy ring around the spot. “That’s because fairies come out at midnight and dance there!” a hiker laughed.
The group found a wide range of plants that grow in redwoods’ deep shade, including leathery sword ferns, three leafed redwood sorrel, and huckleberry. Large redwood rooters, mushrooms with cone shaped yellow caps grew among them.
The hikers now found themselves in an oak/ bay ecosystem, which was sunnier than a redwood forest, but home to some of the same plants. Lo and Angela mentioned that some species grow in more than one plant community, and that the communities frequently overlap. Multi-trunked bay laurels grow in spots where redwoods are thin, allowing sunlight to break through the shade.
Bay laurel has tough, leathery leaves that produce a strong scent. Coast live oaks do not shed their oval, spiky leaves in fall as deciduous oaks do. Many birds and mammals thrive on their acorns, which have also been a staple for the Ohlone people.
Chaparral communities are the sunniest and driest of the three ecosystems. Coyote bushes keep their small oval leaves year long, and provide shade to wildlife in summertime. Spindly California sagebrush produces a strong scent; its thin, tough stems help it survive droughts.Wild cucumber vines produce tendrils that wrap around any supportive plant they find, and grow big, maple like leaves- Lo and Angela mentioned that their round, spiky fruits taste bitter, and are not sweet like cucumbers. California hazels produce soft fuzzy leaves. “If you’re stuck in the woods and need toilet paper, I would use hazelnut leaves,” Angela laughed.
The hike ended at the parking lot where it began, completing a loop that visited three ecosystems. Oakland’s hills are still a patchwork of plant communities in spite of our drought. Long may they thrive!