Valley Oak

This photo is of a single limb on a big valley oak. Valley oaks get real big. I think they’re North America’s biggest oak. I took this photo at the foot of the hills on the east side of the range. We don’t see valley oaks on the west side of the Santa Cruz Mountains so they’re one of the tree species I look forward to seeing on my commute into Silicon Valley (during non-pandemic times.)

valley oak branch against a blue sky


Next up in my series of posts covering the flora and fauna of the coast redwood understory is a mollusk! You heard that right, a mollusk. It’s the famed banana slug, in our case, the California banana slug or Ariolimax californicus.

The California banana slug, native to the redwood forests of the San Francisco Peninsula, is one of eight or nine species of banana slug that have a range from southern California up to northern British Colombia.

These colorful decomposers are a critical player in their ecosystem, breaking down leaves, other dead plant material, mushrooms, moss, animal droppings and more into rich soil humus.

Banana slugs can grow up to 10 inches long, making them the second largest slug in the world. They have two sets of tentacles, the ones up top for seeing and two down below for feeling and smelling. They have a big hole on their right side called a pneumostome that moves air in and out of their one lung.

They can live up to 3 years (not the 7 years claimed in various places on the internet.) One of the most fascinating aspects of these creatures is that they’re simultaneously hermaphroditic. They can impregnate themselves! or, more commonly, any other banana slug.

They’re all around outside, and even occasionally inside, during the wetter months but move underground and near streams during the dry summers. They can burrow up to 9 feet down into the ground where they estivate, which is kind of like hibernating.

The Calfornia banana slug is an imperiled organism (at high risk of extinction or collapse due to restricted range, few populations or occurrences, steep declines, severe threats, or other factors) and only survives in parts of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. The slender banana slug, found in the Santa Cruz area is also imperiled.

[Photo credits: Paweł Pieluszyński (via iNaturalist) and me]

close up on a banana slug

close up on bright yellow banana slug

two bright yellow banana slugs crawling on rocks

Views From the Mountain

I live on the west side of the Santa Cruz Mountains and work on the east side of the Santa Cruz Mountains. (The range forms a ridge, with an elevation around 2300 feet, that runs down the middle of the San Francisco Peninsula.)

In times before the pandemic, I commuted to work several days a week up and over the mountain to Silicon Valley. Often I would time my return trip so that as I crested the ridge and came down the coast side I could watch the sun setting on the Pacific Ocean. There’s a small gravel pull-out a couple of miles down the western slope where I could pull over to enjoy the the view and take pictures.

One of those pictures is my current cover photo. I’m sharing a few more pictures taken from that same spot at different times of day and different times of the year.

On the right side of these photos is Mindego Hill. Mindego is a map maker’s corruption of “Mendicoa”. An immigrant from the Basque region named Juan Mendicoa owned that hill in the late 19th century. The hill’s peak is about 2100 feet in elevation.

Beyond that hill is the town of La Honda. La Honda is a small town (village?) of about 500 homes that was settled in the 1860s. It’s also home to our post office and volunteer fire department.

On the left side of the photos, behind the Douglas firs that stick up above everything else (and that Doug fir snag) is Butano Ridge. The ridge rises up about 2000 feet.

Past Butano Rige, that farthest and lowest piece of land visible in the photos, is the town of Pescadero, down on the flats near the coast. Pescadero is a small farming town, about half the size of La Honda, but unlike La Honda, it’s got a gas station :-)

Our home sits about half way between the photos’ vantage point and Butano’s ridge line on the left edge of the photos. We’re situated down quite low (under 500 feet elevation) on Peters Creek, which feeds into Pescadero Creek that wraps around the end of Butano Ridge and empties into the Pacific just past the town of Pescadero.

I really enjoy this view and hope you do too.

Photo of the western side of the Santa Cruz Mountains down to the Pacific Ocean.

Photo of the western side of the Santa Cruz Mountains down to the Pacific Ocean.

Photo of the western side of the Santa Cruz Mountains down to the Pacific Ocean.

Photo of the western side of the Santa Cruz Mountains down to the Pacific Ocean.

Photo of the western side of the Santa Cruz Mountains down to the Pacific Ocean.

Dwarf Rose

And here’s yet another post on the flora of the coast redwood understory (our yard.) This time we look at the dwarf rose, or wood rose, or baldhip rose — botanical name Rosa gymnocarpa.

This low deciduous native shrub grows all over the Pacific Coast Ranges from California up to B.C and to the east in Montana and Idaho. They grow 2 to 6 feet tall and have slender reddish stems covered in small bristly spines. Their leaves are ovular and toothed and their flowers, which show up in May and June, have 5 pink to lavender petals.

We have a couple of these plants, on opposite sides of our driveway. One is about 3 to 4 feet tall with several stems. The other is much smaller with a single stem.

This shade tolerant rose is the smallest rose in North America, hence the common name dwarf rose. It’s also known as the the baldhip rose because the leaf- like sepals that are usually attached to rose hips fall off the plant (July-ish) leaving a naked, pear shaped, fruit.

[Photo credits: me, Kevin Martin via iNaturalist, and Deanna L. Pierce]

close up of a dwarf rose flower with spiny stem in backgroun

dwarf rose bud just beginning to open up

dwarf rose with an insect on its petal

dwarf rose hip, a pear shaped fruit among rose leaves

Santa Cruz Mountains

This is a view from part way down the west side of the mountain. It’s facing south-southeast.

Far off in the distance, where the mountain ridges coming in from opposite sides of the photo appear to meet (just left of center) is the city of Santa Cruz (and just beyond that I think you can just barely see the hills above Monterrey.)

We live behind the closer small ridgeline on the right side of the photo.

Photograph showing a valley through the Santa Cruz Mountains

Douglas Iris

Continuing my series on the plants of the coast redwood understory, here we have some Pacific coast irises growing near our smaller stream. There are almost a dozen species of Pacific coast irises (and they can hybridize) so I’m not positive on my identification but I’m pretty sure these are Douglas irises, or proper name Iris douglasiana.

The native evergreen Douglas iris grows along the coast from central California up to southern Oregon. It’s got long sword shaped leaves and the flowers sit atop a stalk that’s anywhere from 1 to 2 feet tall. The flowers, which show up in late spring, range in color from blue/purple through yellow and even white.

This common iris was first described by David Douglas who also gave his name to the Douglas fir tree.

[Photo credit: me and Deanna L. Pierce]

Douglas Iris covered in dew or rain drops

Purple Douglas iris

Off-white Douglas iris

Pale purple Douglas iris


I’ve just started reading a new book called What Can A Body Do, How We Meet the Built World, written by Sarah Hendren, who teaches design for disability at Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts.

One of the interesting points she makes early in the book is that there was a time before we quantified humans, their development, and abilities. For most of modern human history, there wasn’t really an idea of “normal”.

Starting in the early nineteenth century, social scientists began the practice of collecting and studying information about populations, driven by speculation about how these measurements could be useful, especially in medicine. Where could statistics give doctors insight and understanding about people and their reported maladies, especially as mapped on a ‘bell curve’ that helped researchers identify traits that were common—and thereby ‘normal’—or, conversely, uncommon, possessed by people we might now call outliers?

Before the 19th century and modern statistics, we were all flawed beings.

In the absence of a norm, any human body was just a shadow of the admirable perfection of superhuman bodies—the ones gods and goddesses or other hero figures possessed. The emergence of modern statistics shifted the point of comparison from a lofty abstraction that no one was expected to achieve to a side-by-side analysis, assessing ‘normal’ by observing people relative to one another.

I find this thought fascinating. While there’s clearly a huge upside to measuring people and populations, one of the big downsides may be that it helped to create an us and them world. You are either developmentally on-track or not. You are either abled or disabled. You’re either normal, or you’re not.

The book explores the relationship between bodies and the built world and, at least in the early parts I’ve already read, makes the argument that bodies should not be judged outside of the context of how they relate to the world we’ve constructed for them.

This supports something I’ve been thinking a lot about for the last couple of years: humans aren’t disabled by their bodies, they are disabled by their environment, by the barriers to participation we’ve built into everyday life that exclude those who don’t fit our all too often narrow definition of “normal.”

I can’t wait to read more.

Red Clintonia

The redwoods around us are magnificent but so is the understory. Over the next few days I’m going to be posting some about the flowers and ferns and mushrooms and other amazing organisms of the redwood forest floor.

Today I’m starting with a pink/red flowering perennial herb that pops up in half a dozen places in our yard every spring. It’s proper name is Clintonia andrewsiana but also goes by red clintonia, Andrews clintonia, and bluebead lily.

The uncommon lily grows and spreads from rhizomes, has great big oval-shaped leaves that are about 8-10 inches, and sprouts a tall stalk, as high two feet for its cluster of bell-shaped flowers. The flowers are pink to red (hence the name red clintonia) and eventually become steely blue berries (and that’s where it gets the bluebead lily moniker from.)

Its range is coastal, from about Monterey up to southern Oregon, and it prefers to grow in the moist shady coast redwood forests.

[Photo credits: me, Zoya Akulova (via calflora) and Deanna L. Pierce]

close-up of flower cluster on a red clintonia

close-up of blue berries on a red clintonia

red clintonia in rain

close-up of red clintonia flower cluster


The coast redwoods around our home are all or mostly second growth. The original forest in our area was clear cut between about 1870 and 1920. That means that our redwoods are 100 to 150 years old.

That’s equivalent to about age 4 to 6 in human terms. A 200 foot tall coast redwood can be a preschooler 🙂