An unknown natural treasure that is quietly disappearing due to increased fire frequencies, misunderstandings, and a lack of awareness.
A Wonderland of Biodiversity
Once home to the now extinct California grizzly bear, old-growth chaparral is known for beautiful manzanitas with waist-sized trunks, colorful lichens, and an elfin understory carpeted with a soft layer of fallen leaves and twigs. Fifty-years-old or more, old-growth chaparral provides habitat for a wild array of life forms. Increasing fire frequencies are threatening the last remaining stands in California.
Pete Veilleux, one of California's most remarkable horticulturists, stands next to a beautiful manzanita in the coastal mountains south of San Jose, California.
Photo: Paul Furman.
The peeling bark of an ancient manzanita on Santa Cruz Island, California. Every year in the summer, usually June-July, the outer layer of red bark peels off as the growing green layer underneath swells. When branches die due to shading, age, or some other issue, the living tissue that supported those branches dies as well, leaving behind ribbons of dead wood along the trunk. This makes for a unique pattern of reddish living tissue surrounding dead, gray wood. The dead wood provides surfaces for lichens to thrive.
Photo: David Hogan.
A legacy Arctostaphylos manzanita near Chico, California. This magnificant manzanita is approximately 30 feet tall.
Photo provided by Jim Brobeck.
A legacy mission manzanita (Xylococcus bicolor) in the Santa Ana Mountains, California.
Old-growth chaparral is the natural condition and once characterized much of California as shown in this 1936 photo looking south at the Sant Lucia Range, San Luis Obispo County. Taken as part of the Wieslander Vegetation Type Mapping survey.
Old-growth manzanita chaparral in 1933 on Sugar Pine Mountain (Sacramento topographical quadrant). Photo taken during the Wieslander Vegetation Type Mapping survey.
Inexplicably, there are folks who appear to have difficulty enjoying the beauty and dynamic nature of old-growth chaparral.
They frequently use derogatory descriptions of old-growth chaparral in newspaper editorials, casual conversations and during professional wildfire conferences. Managed forests appear to be their favored environments and they see chaparral as a threat. They refer to old-growth chaparral as senescent, decadent, or emphasized with a deep, guttural sound from the bowels of Mordor, "brush!" - all of which is in need of immediate elimination.
Rather than recognizing old-growth chaparral as a viable ecosystem, they think of it as invading forests or grasslands. Some have vested interests in grazing livestock or sending forth chipping machines to grind up large tracts of backcountry wilderness to provide fuel for power generators (i.e. biomass).
Whatever the cause, brushphobia influences public policy leading to the destruction of some of the most biodiverse habitats in the West.
Suggested treatment: Leave the office, take a walk into a stand of old-growth chaparral with a few children. Kids have the uncanny knack for helping adults rediscover their natural appreciation for Nature. And we invite you to join our Chaparral Naturalist course to learn about Nature in ways that will inspire you in unexpected ways.
Below we offer a few photos here of some of our favorite examples of old-growth chaparral. Please send us photos of your own special example.
For additional photographs of one of old-growth chaparral's most characteristic species, manzanita, please visit Pete Veilleux's album.
An old-growth red shanks being occupied by a chaparral elf. Red shanks (Adenostoma sparsifolium) is a in the same genus as the chaparral's most common, and the ecosystem's most definitive indicator species, chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum).
Lace Lichen on Manzanita
Lace lichen (Ramalina menziesii) is often found dangling off branches of manzanita and scrub oak in old-growth chaparral. Not surprisingly, lace lichen is California's Official State Lichen.
Once, tunnels like this one through a mature Ceanothus stand were common in old-growth chaparral. Often created and maintained by the California grizzly bear, the actual path would be a series of shallow indentations where bears, generation after generation, would place their large paws.
This beautiful, dense carpet of old-growth chaparral on the slopes of Santa Rosa Mountain in the San Bernardino National Chaparral (Forest) Preserve was scheduled for clearance and burning by the US Forest Service. We stopped them.
For more details, please read our comment letter on the destructive project.
The deep, rich layer of oak leaves and small twigs carpet the understory of this old-growth scrub oak chaparral stand in San Diego County.
Note the lichens on the twisted branches.
A legacy madrone (Arbutus menziesii) found in an old-growth chaparral community, north of Placerville, California.