An Oak

This is an oak near the top of the mountain that I really like. It’s by no means the largest or the most majestic oak on my drive, but there’s something about its shape and where it sits on the ridge that’s held my attention over the years.

Oak tree against a blue sky


Today’s walk through the coast redwood forest floor brings us to the adorable little sugar-scoop, also called lace foamflowers, botanical name Tiarella trifoliata. (Tiarella means “little tiara”.)

There are several varieties that can be found along the Pacific Coast from Santa Cruz up to Alaska, and inland as far as Alberta and Montana.

Our sugar-scoops are var. unifoliata. Rather than the more common three part leaves found in var. trifoliata, ours have a single-part, lobed, toothed leaf that looks kind of like a small maple leaf.

Sugar-scoops are a perennial herb that like moist shady stream banks and that’s where we find most of ours. They flower along a tall (one foot or so) stalk, primarily in June and July but occasionally starting as early as May and as late as September. The white flowers are bell shaped with five petals.

The name sugar-scoop comes from the shape of their seed pods which resemble tiny sugar scoops.

[Photo credits: me, Deanna L Pierce, Don Loarie via iNaturalist]

flowering sugar-scoop

sugar-scoop flower clusters along its stalk

close up of sugar-scoop flower


In the very early morning of Sunday, August 16th, a dry lightning storm started a bunch of fires all over the western slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Five of those fires would become significant and eventually merge to form the CZU August Lightning Complex.

(There was a sixth nearby fire that you might be able to see as a small dot northeast of the complex perimeter, to the left of the “me” label. That fire was our initial worry because it was less than a mile from our house. However, before we were evacuated we were watching it closely and it didn’t seem to be growing. Turns out it wasn’t.)

From this progression map (in which I highlighted the first three days of fire growth) you can see that the southern-most fire, which was staffed well because of its proximity to residential areas, was completely contained and didn’t grow after that first day. The other southern fire over on the coast did grow some on the second day but it was apparently also well staffed. The three fires up north were woefully understaffed in these early days and burned pretty much unhindered.

On the third day, the fire absolutely exploded in size growing to over 40,000 acres and connecting four of the original fires into a giant “complex”. (We were evacuated late that afternoon.)

The fire would continue to grow over the next 34 days but it’s pretty wild to think that about half of the total burned area happened in the first 3 days of the fire.

(Thank you, Casey Dunn, for the maps.)

Fire progression map for the CZU Lightning Complex


The CZU Lightning Complex fire is now 100% contained at 86,509 acres (~135 square miles.)

Containment doesn’t mean the fire is out or even fully under control. It simply means they’ve established a control line around the entirety of the fire such that it should not spread any further.

At the height of the fight, there were almost 2,500 personnel working the fire. That number is down to 81 today. I think that does say something about the control they have over the fire though and I’m relieved to finally hear containment has hit 100%.

Fire Season

Summer is over, but fire season is not. Historically, according to CAL FIRE, fall is when we see the largest and most destructive wildfires. I’ve got my fingers crossed hoping we’ve seen the worst of it for this year. The rains can’t come soon enough.

Not A Nettle

Continuing our exploration of the coast redwood understory, also known as “our yard”, we have the California hedge-nettle (Stachys bullata).

This fairly common perennial herb is native and endemic to California, growing along the coast from about Mendocino in the north (though it really starts to flourish around the San Francisco area) all the way down through San Diego.

The California hedge-nettle is a member of the mint family and likes to grow in moist, shaded areas at lower elevations. It reaches about 3 feet tall and has large sandpapery leaves in opposite pairs up the stem. The pink flowers cluster up the stem in groups of six, blooming for about half the year from April to September.

It’s said that the leaves have medicinal properties and a poultice made from them speeds wound healing, and a tea can help with upset stomach.

Don’t be fooled by the name. The California hedge-nettle doesn’t grow in hedges and it’s not even a nettle. We do have stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) in the redwood forest, and they do look a bit alike, so be careful what you touch.

[Photo credits: me, joshuadavis5 from iNaturalist, and Deanna L. Pierce]

California hedge nettle stalk and flowers

California hedge-nettle leaves

Close-up of California hedge-nettle flowers

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