The Mighty Oaks of California: A Keystone of the Golden State’s Ecosystem

Oak trees hold a profound presence in the landscape of California, constituting a living link between the state’s rich biodiversity and cultural history. Approximately 20 species of oak trees have been recorded in California, each filling a unique ecological niche and rendering the tree species an integral part of the state’s fabric.

Among the most significant species are the Coast Live Oak, the Valley Oak, the Blue Oak, and the California Black Oak. The Coast Live Oak, resilient against the salty sea breeze, thrives along California’s coastal regions. The Valley Oak, a symbol of endurance, dominates the fertile inner valleys, while the Blue Oak’s blue-green foliage characterizes the hot, dry foothills of the Sierra Nevada and Coast Ranges. Meanwhile, the California Black Oak, found primarily in mountain regions, is appreciated for its vibrant autumnal foliage and acorns, an essential food source for various wildlife.

Oaks in California boast a rich history that dates back millions of years, with fossil records suggesting their presence since the Miocene epoch. This rich lineage is intertwined with the tree’s biological traits, with each species evolving to inhabit specific ecosystems. As a result, oak trees have managed to extend their reach across the state’s diverse terrain, from the sun-bathed coasts to the crisp mountain ranges. Whether deciduous or evergreen – with most species in California being the latter – oaks have a remarkable ability to withstand the dry summer months. This resilience can be attributed to their deep root systems and hardy leaves, allowing them to survive and thrive in the region’s unique climate.

California oaks are not just a testament to natural resilience; they are an ecosystem unto themselves. They are the cornerstone of a vibrant biodiversity that encompasses hundreds of animal species. The trees provide shelter and serve as breeding habitats for various animals, from squirrels and deer to a myriad of bird species. The acorns, in particular, play a vital role as a food source. Insects, too, have carved out an existence around the oaks, with some species laying their eggs within the tree’s bark.

This intrinsic connection between the oaks and the animal kingdom extends to humans as well. Historical records show that indigenous tribes in the region used acorns as a staple food. In modern times, the strength and durability of oak wood have made it a preferred choice for construction and furniture-making. Oak is also used in the production of high-quality wine barrels, lending its unique character to the Californian wine industry. The top fifty most expensive wines in the world are oak-aged in some way.

The oak trees of California are renowned for their impressive size and longevity. The Valley Oak, the largest of California’s native oaks, can reach over 100 feet in height and live for several centuries. These grand trees also contribute significantly to carbon sequestration. A mature oak has the capacity to absorb up to 50 pounds of CO2 annually, thus helping mitigate climate change while improving air quality. A mature oak forest can store up to 50% more carbon than an equally-sized forest of other trees.

Despite their remarkable resilience, oaks in California face a myriad of challenges. Threats stem from habitat loss, climate change, and diseases such as Sudden Oak Death. Urban development often comes at the expense of oak woodlands, while shifts in climate patterns pose potential risks to the growth and distribution of oaks.

Coast Live Oak

Nonetheless, the oaks of California stand as ecological pillars. They are significant carbon sinks, wildlife supporters, and enduring symbols of the natural resilience ingrained in the state’s identity. Their significance extends beyond their physical presence, weaving into the cultural, historical, and environmental narrative of California, the Golden State.

Conservation efforts to protect California’s majestic oaks have become increasingly critical in recent years, shaped by a heightened understanding of the tree’s ecological significance and the mounting threats they face. Various local, state, and federal entities, as well as numerous non-profit organizations, have joined forces in these endeavors, harnessing a broad array of strategies to ensure the survival and thriving of California’s oaks.

One of the primary conservation strategies involves the protection of oak habitats, specifically oak woodlands. These regions are often hotspots of biodiversity, and their preservation is crucial for the health of many interconnected species, including oaks themselves. The Oak Woodlands Conservation Act, enacted by the state of California, provides funding to acquire oak woodland habitats for conservation purposes, ensuring these areas remain untouched by urban development or agriculture.

Leaves of California Black Oak

In addition to the legal protection of existing oak habitats, restoration projects are an important aspect of conservation efforts. These projects involve the replanting of oaks in areas where they have been lost due to disease, development, or other causes. Organizations such as the California Oak Foundation run regular planting programs, involving local communities in the process to raise awareness about the importance of oaks and fostering a sense of responsibility for their protection.

Research also plays a vital role in oak conservation. Scientists are continually studying the threats faced by oaks, including diseases like Sudden Oak Death, and developing ways to mitigate them. They are also exploring the potential impacts of climate change on California’s oaks, seeking strategies to bolster their resilience against rising temperatures and shifting weather patterns. This research informs management strategies and policy-making, ensuring conservation efforts are based on the best available science.

Community education and engagement is another key facet of conservation efforts. Many organizations offer resources for landowners on how to care for the oaks on their property, and there are numerous programs aimed at educating the public about the importance of oak conservation. By fostering a deeper connection between the people of California and their native oaks, these initiatives cultivate a broader culture of conservation that can help ensure the survival of these majestic trees for generations to come. The collective aim of these diverse conservation strategies is not merely the survival, but the flourishing of California’s oaks, securing their rightful place in the state’s rich and dynamic ecosystems.

The Ancient Cycads: A Living Fossil Collection at Descanso Gardens

Cycad plant

In 2014, La Canada Flintridge residents Katia and Frederick Elsea called the city’s Descanso Gardens with an odd proposal: would the famous horticultural center take their collection of over 180 rare cycads, a fern-like plant from the days of the dinosaurs?

The garden said yes, and now those plants are part of Descanso Gardens’ Ancient Forest, an effort to recreate a prehistoric landscape. Sixty-six species were transplanted from the Elsea collection to the garden’s fertile grounds.

When you think of ancient plants, what comes to mind? Perhaps towering redwoods or moss-covered ferns. But have you heard of cycads? These prehistoric plants have been around for over 300 million years, predating even the dinosaurs. And you can see a stunning collection of them at Descanso Gardens in Los Angeles County.

Cycads are a type of gymnosperm, meaning their seeds are not enclosed in a fruit. They have a unique structure, with a large crown of stiff, fern-like leaves arising from a stout trunk. They may look like palms or ferns, but they are actually their own distinct group of plants, with over 300 species in the world.

The cycads at Descanso Gardens come from all over the globe, including Africa, Australia, and the Americas. They are part of the International Palm Society’s Cycad Collection, one of the largest and most diverse collections of cycads in the world. The collection at Descanso Gardens features over 200 cycad specimens, including rare and endangered species.

One particularly impressive specimen is the Encephalartos woodii, commonly known as the Wood’s cycad. This species is believed to be extinct in the wild, with only male specimens remaining in cultivation. The cycad collection at Descanso Gardens is home to one of the largest male Wood’s cycads in the world.

Cycad at Descanso Gardens

Cycads are fascinating not just for their ancient history, but also for their unique biology. Unlike most plants, which have a single apical meristem (a region of cell division at the growing tip), cycads have multiple meristems, which allows them to produce new leaves even if the growing tip is damaged. They also have a symbiotic relationship with cyanobacteria, which live in their roots and fix nitrogen from the air, allowing the plant to grow in nutrient-poor soils.

Despite their ancient origins, cycads are facing modern-day threats. Many species are endangered due to habitat loss and over-collection for the horticultural trade. The cycad collection at Descanso Gardens is not just a beautiful display, but also an important conservation effort to preserve these ancient plants for future generations.

Cycads are so ancient, in fact, they appear in fossils over 280 million years old. That makes them far older than flowers. (Flowering plants first appeared in the Jurassic period about 175 million years ago.) In the Ancient Forest, there are also redwoods, tree ferns and ginkgoes, all “living fossils” from a long-gone era.

The cycads have been planted according to the geographic region where they originate: Africa, Asia, Madagascar, Australia and Mexico. Some of the plants no longer exist in the wild.

“For a really long time, this was plant life on Earth,” the former director, David R. Brown told the Los Angeles Times. “This helps remind me that, for as self-absorbed as we are often, we’re but a part of a story that has been going on for a very, very long time.”

If you’d like to learn more about Descanso Gardens, it’s collections and how it came into being check out this episode of Lost LA. And if you’re interested in seeing the cycad collection at Descanso Gardens for yourself, be sure to visit during their regular hours. And take a moment to appreciate these living fossils, a reminder of the incredible diversity and resilience of life on Earth.

Why are California’s redwoods and sequoias so big and tall?

Photo by Spencer Backman on Unsplash

Part 2 of an ongoing series about California’s unique and remarkable trees.

California is a state of superlatives. The oldest living thing lives here. The largest animal in the history of the world swims off our shores. The hottest temperature ever recorded baked visitors at Death Valley’s Furnace Creek back in 1913. California boasts the highest point in the contiguous United States and arguably the tallest waterfall in the country.

We also have the world’s tallest and biggest trees.

California’s giant sequoias and redwoods are nature’s skyscrapers. Redwoods exist in a few narrow pockets in Northern and Central California and into Southern Oregon. Sequoias live exclusively in small groves in central and Northern California with the largest grouping of them found in Sequoia National Park. These two tree species are wonders of the biological world. They are also some of the most magnificent things to behold on the planet.

I have personally climbed the Stagg tree (see photo below), the fifth-largest sequoia in the world, and I will forever remember the experience.

Erik Olsen climbs the Stagg tree, a giant sequoia.
The author climbs the Stagg tree, the fifth-largest tree in the world. (Erik Olsen)

We are lucky to still have our big trees, what’s left of them, anyway. Just a century and a half ago, old-growth redwoods and sequoias were relatively plentiful. People marveled at them, with some early settlers in California spinning unbelievable yarns of trees that rise from the earth “like a great tower“. They also saw them as a bounteous resource, ripe for plunder.

By 1900, nearly all of California’s tall trees had been purchased by private landowners who saw in the trees not beauty, but dollar signs. By 1950, nearly all of the old-growth redwoods and sequoias had been cut down for timber and other purposes. Today, only 5 percent of the old-growth coast redwood forest remains. The largest surviving stands of ancient coast redwoods are found in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, Redwood National and State Parks and Big Basin Redwoods State Park. It’s a wonder and a blessing that there are some left. And even then, they face an uncertain future thanks to climate change.

Professional tree climber Rip Thompkins at the top of the Stagg tree, a giant sequoia.

Sequoias and redwoods are closely related. The primary difference between sequoias and redwoods is their habitat. Redwoods live near the coast, while sequoias live in subalpine regions of California. Redwoods are the tallest trees in the world. Sequoias are the biggest, if measured by circumference and volume. Redwoods can grow over 350 feet (107 m). The tallest tree in the world that we know of is called the Hyperion, and it tickles the sky at 379.7 feet (115.7 m). But it is quite possible another tree out there is taller than Hyperion. Redwoods are growing taller all the time, and many of the tallest trees we know of are in hard to reach areas in Northern California. Hyperion was only discovered about a decade ago, on August 25, 2006, by naturalists Chris Atkins and Michael Taylor. The exact location of Hyperion is a secret to protect the tree from damage.

The giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) is Earth’s most massive living organism. While they do not grow as tall as redwoods – the average size of old-growth sequoias is from 125-275 feet – they can be much larger, with diameters of 20–26 feet. Applying some basic Euclidean geometry (remember C = πd?), that means that the average giant sequoia has a circumference of over 85 feet.

Many of the remaining sequoias exist on private land, and in fact, one of the largest remaining stands of Sequoias in the world – the Alder Creek Grove of giant sequoias – was just bought by the Save the Redwoods League conservation group for nearly $16 million

Sequoias grow naturally along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountain range at an altitude of between 5,000 and 7,000 feet. They tend to grow further inland where the dry mountain air and elevation provide a comfortable environment for their cones to open and release seeds. They consume vast amounts of runoff from Sierra Nevada snowpack, which provides groves with thousands of gallons of water every day. But some say the majestic trees face an uncertain future. Many scientists are deeply concerned about how climate change might affect the grand trees, as drought conditions potentially deprive them of water to survive.

General Sherman tree
The General Sherman tree in Sequoia National Park. Wikimedia.

The world’s largest sequoia, thus the world’s largest tree, is General Sherman, in Sequoia National Park. General Sherman is 274.9 feet high and has a diameter at its base of 36 feet, giving it a circumference of 113 feet. Scientists estimate that General Sherman weighs some 642 tons, about as much as 107 elephants. The tree is thought to be 2,300 to 2,700 years old, making it one of the oldest living things on the planet. (To learn more about the oldest thing in the world, also in California, see our recent feature on Bristlecone pines.) Interesting fact: in 1978, a branch broke off General Sherman that was 150 feet long and nearly seven feet thick. Alone it would have been one of the tallest trees east of the Mississippi.

Many sequoias exist on private land. Just last month, one of the largest remaining private stands of Sequoias in the world – the Alder Creek Grove of giant sequoias – was bought by the Save the Redwoods League conservation group for nearly $16 million. The money came from 8,500 contributions from individual donors around the world. The property includes both the Stagg Tree mentioned above and the Waterfall Tree, another gargantuan specimen. The grove is considered “the Crown Jewel” of remaining giant Sequoia forests.

Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), also known as coast redwoods, generally live about 500 to 700 years, although some have been documented at more than 2,000 years old. While wood from sequoias was found to be too brittle for most kinds of construction, the redwoods were a godsend for settlers and developers who desperately needed raw material to build homes and city buildings, to lay railroads, and erect bridge trestles. The timber companies who profited from redwoods only began to cut them down in earnest a bit over a century ago. But cut them down they did, with vigor and little regard for the preservation of such an amazing organism. After World War II, California experienced an unprecedented building boom, and the demand for redwood (and Douglas fir) soared. Coastal sawmills more than tripled between 1945 and 1948. By the end of the 1950s, only about 10 percent of the original two-million-acre redwood range remained untouched.

So how did these trees get so big and tall? We don’t know for sure, but some scientists believe it has to do with the climate in which they grow. Sequoias benefit from Californa’s often prodigious snowpack, which seeps into the ground, constantly providing water to the roots of the trees. Redwoods get much of their water from the air, when dense fog rolls in from the coast and is held firm by the redwoods themselves and the steep terrain. The trees’ leaves actually consume water in fog, particularly in their uppermost shoots. According to scientists who study the trees using elaborate climbing mechanisms to reach the treetops, in summer, coast redwoods can get more than half of their moisture from fog. (In fact, fog plays a central role in sustaining several of California’s coastal ecosystems.) The reason is that fog is surprisingly dense with water. One study from scientists Daniel Fernandez of California State University, Monterey Bay, showed that a one-square-meter fog collector could harvest some 39 liters, or nearly 10 gallons, of water from fog in a single day.

Another answer to the redwood’s size may lie in the tree’s unusual, enormous genome. The ongoing Redwood Genome Project has revealed that the tree’s genome is ten times the size of the human genome (27 base pairs compared to three billion in humans), with six copies of its chromosomes (both humans and giant sequoias only have two copies) existing in a cell. It’s possible that by better understanding the redwood genome, we may uncover the precise genetic mechanism that explains how these trees have gotten so big and tall.

Yet another factor may be the trees remarkable longevity. They are survivors. The Sierra Nevadas have long experienced dramatic swings in climate, and this may be yet another of those swings that the trees will simply endure. Or maybe not. For most of the time that redwoods and sequoias have existed, they have done a remarkable job fighting off fires, swings in climate, as well as disease and bug infestations. Because their bark and heartwood are rich in compounds called polyphenols, bugs and decay-causing fungi don’t like them.

Giant sequoias in California. Erik Olsen

The thirst for fog and proximity to water sources could be the trees undoing, however. Although they have managed to survive for hundreds if not thousands of years, climate change could well be the one new variable that changes everything for the trees.

As the air heats up due to global warming, there is a rising threat to the trees’ survival. Warm air pulls moisture from leaves, and the trees often close their pores, or stomata, to maintain their water supply. When the pores close, that prevents carbon dioxide from nourishing the tree, halting photosynthesis. The climate in areas where the trees grow hasn’t yet experienced the kind of temperatures that might kill them, but we are really just at the beginning of this current era of global warming, and some scientists warn hotter temperatures could doom many trees.

That said, other studies that show the increased carbon that causes warming could actually be good for the trees. According to an ongoing study from Redwoods Climate Change Initiative, California’s coast redwood trees are now growing faster than ever. As most people know, trees consume carbon dioxide from the air, so, the scientists argue, more carbon means more growth.

We will see. The good news is that to date, no drought-induced mortality has been observed in mature coastal redwoods or giant sequoias. 

It all comes down to some kind of balance. Trees may benefit from more carbon, but if it gets too hot, trees could start to perish. That’s a bit of a conundrum, to say the least.

Photo by Nikolay Maslov on Unsplash

The prospect of losing these magnificent trees to climate change is a double whammy. Not only would a mass die-off of trees be terrible for tourism and those who simply love and study them, but trees are some of the best bulwarks we have on the planet to fight climate change. Redwoods are among the fastest-growing trees on earth; they can grow three to ten feet per year. In fact, a redwood achieves most of its vertical growth within the first 100 years of its life. Among trees that do the best job taking carbon out of the atmosphere, you could hardly do better than redwoods and sequoias.

Numerous groups are actively trying to plant more redwoods around the world in the hope that they might become a sink for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Indeed, there is some evidence that planting vast tracks of trees globally could have a major impact on climate change.

The Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, an organization out of Copemish, Michigan, has been “cloning” California’s big trees for nearly a decade. They take snippets of the trees from the top canopy and replant them, essentially creating genetically identical copies of the original tree. It’s more like propagating than cloning, but that’s what they call it. The group’s founder, David Milarch, believes fervently that planting large trees is our best bet in stopping climate change. This is the video story I produced about Milarch back in 2013. It’s worth a watch. He’s an interesting character with a lot of passion.

Preserving and protecting what’s left of these amazing organisms should be a priority in California. These trees are not only part of the state’s rich natural legacy, but they offer ample opportunities for tourism and strengthening the economies of the regions where they grow. It’s hard to visit Redwood National and State Parks or Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks and to come away with anything but awe at these magnificent organisms. California is special, and we are blessed to have these trees and the places where they grow in our state.

Other resources:

Save the Redwoods League has got a lot of interesting information about California’s redwoods, including some great YouTube videos.

Redwood National and State Parks

A lovely short film part of Nat Geo’s Short Film Showcase on redwoods.

Video by California Through My Lens: 36 Hours in Redwood National Park

The Majesty and Mystery of California’s Bristlecone Pines

Bristlecone Pine

Lying east of the Owens Valley and the jagged crags of the Sierra Nevadas, the White Mountains rise high above the valley floor, reaching over 14,000 feet, nearly as high as their far better-known relatives, the Sierra Nevadas. Highway 168 runs perpendicular to highway 395 out of Big Pine and leads up into the mountains to perhaps the most sacred place in California.

Far above sea level, where the air is thin, live some of the most amazing organisms on the planet: the ancient bristlecone pines. To the untrained eye, the bristlecone seems hardly noteworthy. Gnarled and oftentimes squat, especially when compared to the majestic coastal redwoods and giant sequoias living near the coast further west, they hardly seem like mythical beings. But to scientists, they are a trove of information, offering clues to near immortality and to the many ways that the earth’s climate has changed over the last 5,000 years. 

In the January 20 edition of the New Yorker, music writer Alex Ross writes about the trees and the scientists who are trying to unlock the secrets of the bristlecone’s unfathomable endurance. The trees, he writes, “seem sentinel-like”.

Bristlecones are the longest living organism on earth. The tree’s Latin name is Pinus longaeva, and it grows exclusively in subalpine regions of the vast area known to geologists as the Great Basin, which stretches from the eastern Sierra Nevadas to the Wasatch Range, in Utah. Bristlecones grow between 9,800 and 11,000 feet above sea level, where some people get dizzy and there are few other plants or animals that thrive. The greatest abundance of bristlecones can be found just east of the town of Bishop, California in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. There, a short walk from where you park your car, you can stroll among these antediluvian beings as they imperceptibly twist, gnarl and reach towards the heavens. 

Video of ancient bristlecone pine that I shot and put together.

While most of the bristlecones in the national Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest are mere hundreds of years old, there are many that are far older. Almost ridiculously so. Methuselah, a Great Basin bristlecone, is 4,851 years old, as measured by its rings, taken by scientists decades ago using a drilled core. Consider that for a moment: this tree, a living organism, planted its tentacle-like roots into the soil some 2000 years before the birth of Christ, around the time that the Great Pyramids of Egypt were built. By contrast, the oldest human being we know of lived just 122 years. That’s 242 human generations passing in the lifetime of a single bristlecone that still stands along a well-trodden trail in the high Sierras. 

Bristlecone and starry sky: National Park Service
National Park Service

That said, if you were to try and see Methuselah for yourself, you are out of luck. The Forest Service is so protective of its ancient celebrity that it will not even share its picture. What’s more, it’s probably the case that there are bristlecones that are even older than Methuselah. Scientists think there could be trees in the forest that are over 5,000 years old. 

How the bristlecone has managed this incredible feat of endurance is a mystery to researchers. Many other tree species are prone to insect infestations, wildfires, climate change. In fact, over the last two decades, the vast lodgepole pine forests of the Western United States and British Columbia have been ravaged by the pine beetle. Millions of acres of trees have been lost, including more than 16 million of the 55 million acres of forest in British Columbia.  

But insects don’t seem to be a problem for bristlecones. Bristlecone wood is so dense that mountain-pine beetles and other pests can rarely burrow their way into it. Further, the region where the bristlecones live tends to be sparse with vegetation, and thus far less prone to wildfire. 

Jeff Sullivan
Jeff Sullivan

So how do the trees manage to live so long? 

A recent study by scientists at the University of North Texas looked at the amazing longevity of the ginkgo tree, examining individuals in China and the US that have lived for hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand years. One thing they found is that the trees’ immune systems remain largely intact, even youthful, throughout their lives. It turns out the genes in the cambium, or the cylinder of tissue beneath the bark, contain no “program” for senescence, or death, but continue making defenses even after hundreds of years. Researchers think the same thing might be happening in the bristlecone. This is not the case in most organisms and certainly not humans. Like replicants in the movie Blade Runner, we seem to have a built-in clock in our cells that only allows us to live for so long. (I want more life, f$@$@!

Scientists at the University of Arizona’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research (LTRR) have built up the world’s largest collection of bristlecone cross-sections, which they carefully examine under the microscope, looking for clues about how the trees have managed to survive so long, and how they can inform us of the many ways the earth’s climate has changed over the millennia.

The LTRR houses the nation’s only dendrochronology lab (the term for the study of tree rings), and the researchers there have made several discoveries using tree cores that have changed or confirmed climate models. For example, in 1998, the climatologist Michael E. Mann published the “hockey stick graph,” that revealed a steep rise in global mean temperature from about 1850 onward (i.e. the start of the industrial revolution). There was intense debate about this graph, with many scientists and climate change skeptics saying that Mann’s projections were too extreme. But numerous subsequent studies, some using the trees’ rings new models, confirmed the hockey-stick model. 

The bristlecones will continue to help us understand the way the earth is changing and to see into the deep human past in a way few other living organisms can do. They also improve our understanding of possible future environmental scenarios and the serious consequences of allowing carbon levels in the atmosphere to continue to grow. 

In this sense, they truly are sentinels.

But setting aside the science for a moment, it should be said that the trees themselves, in their gnarled, frozen posture, are truly are beautiful. They should be protected and preserved, admired and adulated. Indeed, Federal law prohibits any attempt to damage the trees, including taking a mere splinter from the forest floor. The trees have also become an obsession for photographers, particularly those who favor astrophotography. A quick search on Instagram reveals a stunning collection of images showing the majesty and haunting beauty of these ancient trees. 

So, if you are ever headed up highway 395 into the Sierras, it is well worth the effort to make the right-hand turn out of Big Pine to visit the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. The air is thin, but the views are spectacular. And where else can you walk among the oldest living things on the planet?

Note: there is a wonderful video produced by Patagonia on the bristlecones and some of the scientists who study them. It’s well worth watching. 

Ancient Bristlecone Pines by Drone


Last week we had the opportunity to head up Highway 395 into Big Pine where we made a left up to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. Because of the coronavirus, the place was empty. Not a soul to be seen anywhere.

We did a feature on bristlecones a few months ago in which we marveled at the majesty and seeming immortality of these incredible organisms, probably the longest living things on the planet. We brought along a drone to get some shots of these trees, whose gnarled, swirling branches are like something out of a fantasy novel. Take a minute (literally a minute) to enjoy.

The genius of Luther Burbank, father of the most famous potato in the world

luther burbank - Library of Congress

Luther Burbank created some of the world’s most commercially successful fruits and vegetables, all from his Santa Rosa, California farm.

The Los Angeles Times recently ran a review of fast-food french fries that caused a stir because the writer placed fries made at California’s beloved In-N-Out burger somewhere near the bottom. This infuriated the state’s rabid fan base for what is arguably one of the best burger joints in America. But one fact that was lost in the whole debate is this: if it were not for the work of one Californian farmer, we would likely not have french fries at all, or at least not as we know them today. 

Russet Burbank potato. Credit Wikipedia
Russet Burbank potato. Credit Wikipedia

That is because most french fries today are made with a particular strain of potato –  the Russet Burbank – that exists largely because of one man: Luther Burbank. Burbank is a little-known Californian (part of an ongoing series) whose contributions to science, in particular botany, have had an outsized impact on much of the fresh produce we consume today. 

Burbank is a towering figure in horticulture, credited with creating the science of modern plant breeding. For decades in the late 19th, early 20th centuries, his experimental farm in Santa Rosa, California, was famous throughout the world for the stunning variety of new fruit and vegetable varieties that emerged from the farm’s fertile soil. 

Luther Burbank - Library of Congress
Luther Burbank. Credit: Library of Congress

Born in 1849 in Lancaster, Massachusetts, Burbank came to California in 1875, buying a four-acre plot of land to start a nursery and garden in order to breed edible crops. While not a trained scientist, Burbank had a preternatural knack for identifying desirable characteristics in plants, which he selected for through an arduous, time-consuming, and oftentimes brilliantly intuitive series of techniques that led to the creation of some of our most cherished strains of fruits and vegetables. 

Over the course of his 55-year career, Burbank developed more than 800 new strains and varieties of plants, including flowers, grains, grasses, vegetables, cacti, and fruits. These include 113 varieties of plums, 20 of which remain commercially valuable, especially in California and South Africa. He also developed 10 commercial varieties of berries (including the oxymoronically-named white blackberry) as well as more than 50 varieties of lilies

Amazingly, Burbank was able to achieve all this without direct knowledge of plant genetics, pioneered by the Augustinian friar Gregor Mendel in what is now the Czech Republic in the mid-1800s (and whose papers were brought to light in 1901, long after his death in 1884). Burbank’s lack of precise record-keeping and somewhat unorthodox — some would say sloppy — record-keeping, has led some modern scientists to criticize his credentials. Purdue University professor Jules Janick, wrote that “Burbank cannot be considered a scientist in the academic sense.” 

Luther Burbank with spineless cactus that he developed.
Luther Burbank with spineless cactus that he developed. Credit: Library of Congress

That said, Burbank’s innovations in Santa Rosa were revolutionary and garnered him worldwide attention, as well as financial support from benefactors like Andrew Carnegie, who supported Burbank because he believed the work was of great potential benefit to humanity. 

Burbank perfected techniques in common use today such as grafting, hybridization, and cross-breeding. At the time, his efforts resulted in large yield increases for numerous edible species in the United States in the early 20th century. 

But perhaps Burbank’s most lasting achievement was the Russet Burbank potato, which first came on the scene around 1902. Burbank bred the new stain from an unusual “seedball” he found on his farm, which came from a strain called Early Rose. Burbank planted the seeds, chose the most select fruits and further hybridized those. Soon, he had a wonderfully robust and hearty potato that he could sell.  

This large, brown-skinned, fleshy-white tuber is now the world’s predominant potato in food processing. The Russet Burbank is ideal for baking, mashing, and french fries. It is now grown predominantly in Idaho, the top potato-growing state in the US, where the variety makes up more than 55% of the state’s potato production. 

Burbank came up with the Russet Burbank potato to help with the devastating situation in Ireland following the Irish potato famine. His aim was to help “revive the country’s leading crop” due to the fact that it is “Late blight-resistant”. Late blight disease destroyed potato crops across Europe and led to a devastating famine in Ireland because the country was so dependent on potatoes as a common foodstuff. Unfortunately, Burbank did not patent the Russet Burbank because plant tubers, of which the potato is one, were not granted patents in the United States. 

But the Russet Burbank was such a hearty strain, and so nutritious and flavorful (though some disagree), that it became the potato of choice for many grocery stores and restaurants. This did not happen automatically, but took about two decades to catch on. In fact, in 1930, the Russet Burbank accounted for just 4% of potatoes in the US. But things would quickly change with the advent of frozen french fries in the 1940s and the subsequent emergence of fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s in the 1950s. The Russet Burbank was perfectly suited for french fries and remains the world’s most popular potato by a long shot.  

Unfortunately, Luther Burbank had a dark side, especially by modern mores. He believed in eugenics, the idea that human beings should be selectively bred like produce. He was a member of a national eugenicist group, which promoted anti-miscegenation laws, segregation, involuntary sterilization, and other discrimination by race.

Luther Burbank home in Santa Rosa, California. Credit: Library of Congress

Luther Burbank died after a heart attack and gastrointestinal illness in 1926. His name is known in certain regions of California, in and around Santa Rosa, although if you asked the average person who he was, few would be able to say. The Luther Burbank Home and Gardens, in downtown Santa Rosa, are designated as a National Historic Landmark.

— by Erik Olsen

This article is part of a series about little-known, but highly-influential California scientists. See other articles here.

Lithium in Death Valley, Frogs making comeback, JPL’s Climate Elvis, Science of traffic jams, Mono Lake’s gulls, Amazing scallop eyes, Cow burps, Bee thieves

Sign up for the California Science Weekly newsletter. Fresh California science every Friday!

Week of May 10, 2019

Editor’s note: We’re heading to Indonesia next week on an assignment, so we’ll miss an issue of California Science Weekly. But keep an eye on our Twitter feed for posts.

A war is brewing over lithium mining near Death Valley

Lithium. It is one of the world’s most valuable elements, allowing batteries to be more powerful and longer-lasting than ever before. Right now, most lithium is mined in the high deserts of South America, but a new battle is being waged between battery companies and environmentalists over whether to mine lithium in Panamint Valley in California, right on the edge of Death Valley. There are strong arguments to be made that having a large domestic source of lithium is key to a carbon-free future, but some are saying that mining would potentially despoil one of California’s most treasured natural areas.

The LA Times has a story on how Australia-based firm Battery Mineral Resources Ltd. is seeking permission to drill four exploratory wells beneath the valley floor to see if enough lithium is there to make a mine economically viable. 

Environment / Animals

The comeback of Mark Twain’s frogs

Red-Legged Frog Release.

The California red-legged frog is said to be the species featured in Twain’s short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

They began to disappear decades ago due to disease and habitat destruction, but a recent program to reintroduce them back in Yosemite Valley is seeing some progress. The program reintroduced about 4,000 California red-legged frog eggs and tadpoles and 500 adult frogs, into Yosemite and near the Merced River. For the first time, biologists have found eggs from the reintroduced frogs. That’s great news, given the rapidly declining state of frogs around the globe. The recent IPBES UN report says that more than 40 percent of amphibian species around the world are threatened with extinction.


Space / Climate Change

Climate Elvis at JPL

Josh Willis works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, California. He’s a scientist studying the change in ocean temperatures and how they impact Greenland’s melting glaciers. He’s also an Elvis impersonator and a comedian, who hopes to make people aware of the perils we face if we don’t change our behavior towards the changing climate, but getting a laugh along the way. Laughter is, after all, the best medicine. That said, we won’t be laughing much if climate change gets as bad as many scientists say. See the UN report referenced above.  



Science of traffic jams

Credit: Erik Olsen

Traffic jams. They are the bane of California drivers. But what causes them, and is there any way to lessen their severity? Mathematicians have developed all sorts of models to better understand how traffic forms, and some of them has been helpful to improve flow. For example, extra-long freeway entry lanes (take a drive on Highway 110, the old Route 66, which has very short entry lanes, to see what I’m talking about.) An interesting story in Nautilus examines how fluid models are being used to better predict and reduce traffic jams. It’s complicated, but you will learn about the jamiton. And we’re not holding our breath that things will improve in places like LA anytime soon. 



Gulls of Mono Lake

Kristie Nelson studies seagulls at Mono Lake, home to massive colonies of gulls. Her Mono Lake Gull Project examines how gulls serve as an indicator of ecosystem health. The gulls spend most of their time at the coast, but during breeding season they make fly to saline places like Mono Lake where the population can reach up to 65,000 birds. 

A video at Science Friday looks at her work and has some great scenes of the voracious birds going after the lake’s insanely numerous Alkali Flies, moving across the bazillions of them, beaks open, like a lawnmower.

Science Friday

Marine science / Animals

Scallop eyes surprise scientists


Many people know that scallops have eyes, blue ones, in fact. But their eyes function a bit differently than our own. As light enters into the scallop eye, it goes through the pupil and then a lens. Interestingly, the scallop has two retinas, and when the light hits them it strikes a crystal mirror made of guanine at the back of the eye. 

A study in Current Biology looks at two species: the bay scallop Argopecten irradians and the sea scallop Placopecten magellanicus, and reveals that scallops have a novel way of focusing light. They have no irises like ours and so they use their pupils to dilate and contract, and this, along with changes to the curvature of the cornea, improves resolution and forms crisper images. Vision is such an amazingly complex ability, yet it has likely evolved 50 times among animals, a process called convergent evolution. There are several scallop species in California, and the next time you are diving and see one, remember that it probably sees you right back.

Current Biology Smithsonian

Climate Change

Reducing cow burps with seaweed

UC Davis

You’ve seen Harris Ranch on I5? Did you know that California is a major producer of beef and dairy. Cows produce prodigious amounts of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases. In fact, methane is 30 times worse than CO2. Meanwhile, more than half of all methane emissions in California come from the burps, farts, and exhalations of livestock. And belches are the worst, accounting for roughly 95% of the methane released into the environment. Worldwide, livestock accounts for 16% of our greenhouse gas emissions. A fascinating new approach at Scripps Institution of Oceanography proposes using seaweed as cow feed. Scripps notes that “just a small amount of Asparagopsis seaweed to cattle feed can dramatically reduce methane emissions from dairy cows by more than 50 percent”.


Bee thieves in California

National Geographic

It’s no longer cattle rustling and horse stealing. Bee thieves are threatening almond growers in California. A lucrative bee rental industry has surged.


Scientists have identified 67 marine species in California moving north from their commonly known habitat due to severe marine heatwaves from 2014-2016.

The Keeling Curve has been called one of the most important scientific works of the 20th century. Developed by Charles Keeling at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, California, it is a measurement of the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from Hawaii’s Mauna Loa since 1958. Here’s why it’s so important.   

Thanks to the rains the areas where the Woolsey burned outdoor areas, scorched an Old West film set and Jewish summer camps in the Santa Monica Mountains, there is lush green and wildflowers.

Once a Gold Rush boomtown, Bodie, California, is now an isolated ghost town. Meet one of the five people who still live there in the winter.

Lovely pictures of a sunrise. On Mars.

HUGE Basking sharks are swimming around and feeding right off the coast of California.

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Strange new sea life in California, Magnificent murres, Eagle cam at Big Bear, Going to prison for killing a fish, Oral history of the Keck observatory

Sign up for the California Science Weekly newsletter. Fresh California science every Friday!

Week of April 19, 2019

Here at the California Science Weekly, we are working hard to bring you the most interesting, informative and entertaining stories about science in the state of California. Every week, we pore through hundreds of articles and Web sites to find the top stories that we believe are worthy of your time. We hope you’ll stay with us and share our work with others via Twitter and Facebook. If there is anything you’d be interested in learning more about, send us a note, and let us know.


Something’s happening here. Sea life around California is changing.

Hakai Magazine

This time of year, it is normal to see whales – grays and humpbacks among them – migrating north to cooler climes and nutrient-rich waters in Alaska. But it’s not normal for them to hang around for a long time, nor is it normal to see them frolicking together in San Francisco Bay.

“This was like opening a door temporarily for southern species to move northward,” Eric Sanford, a professor of biological sciences at the University of California at Davis’s Bodega Marine Laboratory told the Washington Post.

Welcome to the new normal. The new hotter normal. As climate change brings floods, higher sea levels, drought and more severe storms, it is also leading to strange behavior in the animal world. Species that once lived much further south around Mexico are now finding their way into California waters, surprising and also concerning scientists who say that these migrations are a sign of bad things to come.

The whales are likely hanging around, say scientists, because they are hungry, meaning that something is happening to their food supplies.

But we’ve also witnessed other species on the coast that are rarely or never before seen. A yellow-bellied sea snake washed up on Newport Beach. A very rare olive Ridley sea turtle was seen near Capistrano Beach. And who can forget the huge hoodwinker sunfish that made headlines last month.

It is likely just the beginning of a massive change in our local ecosystems, and the consequences could be especially severe for the species that already live here, whose habitats are changing. Case in point, the massive die off of starfish caused by an infectious wasting disease that reduces these beautiful creatures to mush. A new report published in the journal Science Advances lays much of the blame on the changing climate. Check out the video by Hakai Magazine.

Science Advances Hakai Magazine

Animals / History of Science

Behold the magnificent murre

Creative Commons: Didier Descouens

During the California gold rush, the rocky volcanic Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco became a kind of war zone, as groups of men battled over a precious resource: birds eggs. In particular, the eggs of the common murre, a sharp-beaked black and white bird whose eggs are curiously conical. Scientists speculate the reason for the rather odd shape is that evolution designed them to roll in circles, instead of tumbling into the sea.

The marine science magazine Hakai has a great piece on the common murre and the work being done to better understand their biology and evolutionary history. One recently discovered fact is that common murre females lay eggs with different colors and reflectance, allowing the parent murres to specifically identify it as their own offspring. Wow! Johnny, that IS you!

But back to the so-called eggs wars of the late 1850s. Smithsonian magazine has a wonderful story by Paige Blankenbuehler about the conflict, which arose because so many people had come to California in search of gold, and of course they had to eat. Food production, in some cases, could not keep up with demand. Certain foods, in particular, chicken eggs, became so scarce that enterprising poachers went to the Farallones to collect the eggs for sale to hungry 49ers. The competition to collect them became so fierce that “brawls broke out constantly between rival gangs, ranging in brutality from threats and shell-throwing to stabbings and shootouts.”

Yikes. All over some colorful, conical eggs.

Smithsonian Magazine Hakai Magazine


Big Bear Lake’s adorable new Eaglets

Eagle cam Friends of Big Bear Valley

Though indigenous to California, bald eagles are not often seen around the state, at least near our big cities. It used to be common to see them, but in the early 1970s, after the bald eagle numbers declined dramatically due to impacts from insecticides, the bird was listed as an endangered species. In fact, in the 80s, there were fewer than 30 nesting pairs in the state. Today, they’ve recovered somewhat and can occasionally be seen at lakes, reservoirs, rivers, and some rangelands and coastal wetlands. 

But now, you can see two baby bald eagles that just hatched at Big Bear Lake. A live cam put up by Friends of Big Bear Valley allows you to ogle them live from the comfort of your computer screen or device.

Eagle Cam


Going to prison for killing a rare fish

Death Valley National Park

In April 2016, three drunk men broke into a fenced-in limestone cavern at Death Valley National Park, home of the endangered Devils Hole pupfish, one of the rarest fish in the world. The fish has evolved in extreme desert conditions and has been isolated for tens of thousands of years, and this is one of the only places they live. Thinking it was a nice night for a swim, one of the men plunged into the warm pool where, it so happened, the pupfish were breeding. One of the fish died.

The men were caught (an excellent tale told by High Country News), and Trenton Sargent, the guy who jumped into the pool, pleaded guilty to violating the Endangered Species Act, destruction of federal property, and possessing a firearm while a felon. He was sentenced to a year in prison.

Folks, leave endangered species alone. And don’t trespass on or destroy federal property.

High Country News

Space / History of Science

An oral history of the Keck Observatory

Credit: California Institute of Technology

One of the amazing lesser-known repositories of the history of science is the vast oral history project at the California Institute of Technology.

Since 1978, the esteemed scientific school has been collecting the stories of some of its most distinguished names, many of them Nobel Prize winners. Others, hardly known at all, have made huge contributions to human health and they deserve greater attention.

A recent oral history from the archive is actually an edited compendium of interviews that tells the story of the Keck Observatory. The Keck Observatory near the summit of Mauna Kea Hawaii consists of two telescopes peering into the heavens from 13,600 ft. above sea level. A major advance of the telescope (and some of the details of how are covered in the oral history) was the ability to operate using 36 hexagonal segments as a single, contiguous mirror. Each telescope weighs 300 tons and operates with nanometer precision. Scientists using the Keck have made major discoveries about exoplanets, star formation, and dark matter.

There’s a ton of great information about the telescope and the discoveries being made at the Keck site.

Cal Tech


Keep Fluffy indoors! Growing urban coyote populations are feasting on pets, especially in LA County.

The Red Hot Chili Pepper’s bassist is a bee keeper. Go, Flea, go!

Sand artist makes amazing art. Then it washes away.

Beautiful posters of the Most Endangered Wildlife in Every US State. California? The Point Arena Mountain Beaver.

The magnificent BLDGBLOG looks at the San Andreas Fault.

More on the Lassen County raptor poacher.

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Design by Luis Ramirez

Mountain lions could disappear by 2050, Hydraulic mining’s destructive power, an ode to Yosemite’s Lyell glacier, Descanso Gardens’ dinosaur era plants, More mosquitos, LAFD drones

Sign up for the California Science Weekly newsletter. Fresh California science every Friday!

Week of April 12, 2019

Here at the California Science Weekly, we are working hard to bring you the most interesting, informative and entertaining stories about science in the state of California. Every week, we pore through hundreds of articles and Web sites to find the top stories that we believe are worthy of your time. We hope you’ll stay with us and share our work with others via Twitter and Facebook. If there is anything you’d be interested in learning more about, send us a note, and let us know.


An end to California’s magnificent mountain lions?

Credit: US National Park Service

Two mountain lion populations in Southern California face a real threat of extinction if an effort is not made to protect their environment and create so-called “wildlife corridors” through the city’s developed areas, a new study warns.

Thestudy published in the journal Ecologist Applications that examined DNA from the lion’s blood and tissue samples from the 1990s to 2016, shows that the species could soon experience “inbreeding depression”, a term used to describe when genetic diversity has declined to the point that the species’ future existence is called into question. A similar issue occurred with Florida panthers.

The greatest danger facing the magnificent cats remains being struck by a motor vehicle. Mountain lion advocates are hoping for approval for a $60 million Liberty Canyon Wildlife Crossing over Highway 101 connecting the Santa Monica Mountains to the Sierra Madre Mountain Range. It’s possible construction of the corridor could begin as early as 2022.

Yale Environment 360


Hydraulic mining’s efficient destruction

Credit: Eastman Collection of the University of California, Davis

When most of us think of the California gold rush, we picture gold panners hunched over a stream, or shoveling dirt into long, wooden sluices, all in an effort to reveal so-called color, shiny pieces of malleable yellow metal that brought thousands of people to California. But in the later years of the gold rush, in the 1860s and 70s, hydraulic mining was the dominant method of extracting gold from the hills.

Hydraulic mining used high-pressure jets of water to dislodge rocky material or move sediment. The jets were so powerful that men were killed by the force of the water from 200 feet away. It was extremely efficient, but also incredibly damaging to the environment. By the time hydraulic mining was banned in 1884, according to John McPhee’s Assembling California, hydraulic mining was responsible for removing 13 billion cubic yards of the Sierras.

Climate Change

The disappearance of Yosemite’s Lyell glacier

Credit: USGS

Greg Stock is a geologist at Yosemite National Park where, for the last decade, he has documented the decline of the park’s Lyell glacier. The glacier sits on Mount Lyell, the tallest peak in Yosemite National Park (13,120 feet). An 1883 photograph (above) shows the glacier spread across 13 million square feet. Current photographs reveal mostly bedrock now, a sad tale of global warming and the rapid loss of glacial ice in California.

Daniel Duane of California Sunday Magazine visited the remains of the glacier and followed along with Stock as he continued a 135-year effort to map and understand the glacier’s decline. It’s a wonderfully well-wrought tale, but like so many stories in these warming days, it’s a depressing one.

California Sunday Magazine


Descanso Gardens’ rare collection of dinosaur-era plants

Cycad plant

In 2014, La Canada Flintridge residents Katia and Frederick Elsea called the city’s Descanso Gardens with an odd proposal: would the famous horticultural center take their collection of over 180 cycads rare cycads, a fern-like plant from the days of the dinosaurs?

The garden said yes, and now those plants are part of Descanso Gardens’ Ancient Forest. Cycads are so old, in fact, they appear in fossils from over 280 million years ago. That makes them far older than flowers. (Flowering plants first appeared in the Jurassic period about 175 million years ago.) In the Ancient Forest, there are also redwoods, tree ferns and ginkgoes, all “living fossils” from a long past era.

Descanso is also the location of North America’s largest collection of Camellias, a genus found in eastern and southern Asia, from the Himalayas to Japan and Indonesia.  At the gardens, there are also some of the oldest oak trees in the city, dating back to Spanish colonial times, beneath which you can take a stroll or simply hang out and enjoy the shade.

If you’d like to learn more about the gardens, check out this episode of Lost LA.

Descanso Gardens Lost LA


As the planet warms, get ready for more mosquitos

Global warming promises to bring more than just sea level rise, more severe storms, and destructive wildfires. According to researchers at Stanford University, a change in the earth’s temperatures is also likely to increase the range and numbers of biting insects like mosquitos, that seek out warmer, wetter climes. California itself could be impacted, with the insects pushing north from tropical climes.

Mosquitoes transmit numerous harmful diseases including malaria, dengue fever, chikungunya and West Nile virus. It’s estimated that they kill about 1 million people a year.

Stanford University


Los Angeles Fire Department employs drones

Credit: Erik Olsen

The Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) has begun a program to use drones to find and respond to fires. It’s potentially a very big deal, given that the 2018 wildfire season was the deadliest and most destructive on record in California. Some 8,527 fires burned across 1,893,913 acres last year. That’s larger than the state of Delaware. It was the largest burned area ever recorded in a fire season, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The agency is partnering with Chinese drone-maker DJI, in what is being called one of the first partnerships between a drone company and a major fire agency. The LAFD will use drones equipped with both visual and thermal imaging cameras that will provide real-time video and data transmission to incident commanders.

Drone DJ


Building an ancient sailboat…in Irvine

Credit: The Orthogonal project

UC Irvine professor Simon Penny and his students are building an ancient Micronesian outrigger boat called a proa to get people interested in long lost seafaring traditions and to promote indigenous science. He hopes, too, to support Pacific indigenous groups to reconnect with their historic mastery of the sea and sailing. And he’s also doing it because it’s fun. Instead of balsa, the 30-foot boat called Orthogonal will be made out of wood with a fiberglass skin. Penny told the California Science Weekly in an email that the craft could launch as early as summer 2019.


Catland: Disneyland is home to a large colony of feral cats. An Instagram account tells their story in photos.

California Underground: a fascinating podcast from the magnificent new California Magazine Alta takes you into the world of urban explorers, bold adventurers who venture into abandoned buildings and structures.

Pretty Fishes: If you feel like chilling out and having something mesmerizing to look at, put on the live Reef Lagoon Cam at the California Academy of Sciences.

One small thing: The Superbloom…by drone

Credit: Erik Olsen

Sure, you’ve seen all the lovely pictures, but have you seen the Superbloom by drone? Here at the California Science Weekly we decided to visit the Superbloom near Lancaster, but rather than simply take pictures, we busted out our drone to bring you a few images of the rare California Superbloom. Enjoy!

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