Blue Oak Woodlands

These blue oak woodlands near Finley Lake in Tehama County look pristine at first glance.  Gnarled oak trunks, a broad and leafy canopy, and verdant understory beckon, “Picnic here!  Put up your feet!”  But these blue oak woodlands have borne the impacts of several key landscape-scale transformations over the past few centuries.  Fire suppression, livestock grazing, and the introduction of non-native Eurasian grasses mean that this landscape, though beautiful, is not as it was a few hundred years ago.  To be sure, native vernal forbs are still spectacular as they make a run for it in May. Primed by spring rains, they bolt, flower, and set seed before summer’s heat sets in.  Goldfields (Lasthenia californica), sky lupine (Lupinus nanus), popcorn flowers (Plagiobothrys species), shooting stars (Dodecatheon hendersonii) and violets (Viola douglasii) and valley tassels (Castilleja attenuata) abounded on my visit last week.  But they are joined by several species of filaree (Erodium species), a host of exotic grasses, and a carpet of young yellow starthistle and medusahead that will dominate later in the season.  And scarcely an oak sapling in sight.  This time of year, it is easy to ignore just how degraded these blue oak woodlands have become, but as the vernal annuals fade from the landscape, this altered state will become hard to ignore.

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