• Trees and Shrubs

    At first, I wasn’t really sure that I liked the scrubby oaks with the sharp pointy leaves, but now I admire their strength and craggy bark in mottled grays and browns. I love the Ponderosa pines, though, and their dark green against the blue of the sky.  I’ve learned about the habits and blooms of the  shrubs, finding new ones now and then to my delight.

    Here is the rest of the bunch, the native trees and shrubs on our property next to the Sierra National Forest on the east side of Malum Ridge, 3000 feet in Zone 7.


    The Interior Live Oak, Quercus wislizeni is one of the red oaks, living mostly in the lower elevations of the Sierra Nevada. The leaves are oval and toothed and the flowers are catkins that hang down from the branch tips. The evergreen leaves last a long time on the ground and locals say they never break down, so don’t walk barefoot under them!  Don’t plant or irrigate within ten feet of them to prevent death from over watering. They are often shrubby and when cut down, will regrow thickly from the base. Trim all branches ten foot up for fire safety. In April the catkins drop powdery yellow dust over all things near it and can cause allergies.  Also in April the oak worms spin webs all through the branches, reflecting the sun.

    California Buckeye, Aesculus californica
    Buckeyes are the first to leaf out in early spring and the first to turn brown in summer and that alone makes them easy to identify. Just when most plants are in full bloom, the Buckeye fades. A small deciduous tree, growing to 15 feet, it has 6 inch long, candle shaped blooms. In fall you may find piles of bulb-like seeds under their branches or on the road where they grow on a bank above. They easily sprout when planted and you neighbors may also have buckets of them to share.

    California Black Oak (Quercus kelloggii), is also in the red oak family and has leaves that are deeply lobed, pointed and sometimes as large as your hand. Taller in size and more upright than the Interior oak, the Black Oak is 30-70 ft in height and deciduous, making it very desirable in the garden because it turns bright gold, orange and red in the fall.

    Oracle oak, Quercus morehus, only occurs in areas where there are lots of one of the parent species and not many of the other parent and between Oak ‘sub-tribes’ that are related to each other. The leaf looks like a cross between the big lobed Black Oak leaf and the small, sometimes serrated Live Oak leaf. It is an interesting occurrence and they are beautiful trees. They are deciduous and turn a mellow gold in Fall.

    Ponderosa Pine, Pinus ponderosa, deep green, has a single trunk and long needles.  The bark is a bit orange with black inside the splits. Its cones are small, the size of oranges and it grows all along the on foothills and mid-height peaks of the Sierra Nevada. They look beautiful against a blue sky.

    Gray Pine, Pinus sabineana, is easy to identify, having a forked trunk and a grey green color. The cones are large and heavy and look like they could pop a tire.  You know you’re between 2000 and 4000 feet in the foothills if you see this pine, also known as Bull Pine, Ghost Pine or Foothill Pine.


    Buckbrush, Ceanothus cuneatus, or Wedgeleaf Ceanothus is an upright fountain shaped shrub, in the wild lilac family, with small, oval gray-green leaves. It has whitish stems and branches and blooms with tiny white or yellowish, rounded flowers in spring. Deer do nibble at this attractive evergreen, but better that than other of your favorite plants. Shape it every other year or so, as an informal natural looking hedge or accent.  It can take a bit of irrigation, but needs no additional water. Flowers are nondescript here on our place, but I’ve seen them bloom in other areas.

    , Ceanothus integerrimus, is very similar to Buckbrush, but grows wider than tall, often 5 feet high and 6 feet wide. It blooms profusely in the spring with small white puffs of flowers like any lilac, turning wedding white as the weeks go by.  It’s very desirable in the wild garden.

    Flannel Bush, Fremontodendron californicum, named in honor of Captain John C. Frémont, is an evergreen growing from 10 to 20 feet high or taller on the dry slopes of the foothills. Large, bright buttercup yellow flowers cover the branches to make these glowing shrubs easy to spot in the Spring. They have dusty grey-green foliage that’s sticky and raspy to the touch. In the garden they can be tamed a bit by careful pruning. 

    Western Redbud Cercis occidentalis
    In late May, the hills along the Auberry Road are covered in Redbud, with their magenta or dark pink, branches covered with the vivid blossoms. Redbuds are relatively small fountain shaped deciduous trees growing 15 feet tall and having round leaves. These leaves are an easy way to tell Western from Eastern, as Eastern have heart shaped leaves, with pointy ends. Eastern redbuds are much less adaptive to our area, so read labels when choosing one. Redbuds turn bright red-orange in fall and in winter have long reddish brown pods that hang down.  Redbud flowers are edible and used as an attractive garnish on salads. When green and tender, redbud pods can be cooked, buttered like green beans!

    Sticky Whiteleaf Manzanita Arctostaphylos viscida
    Manzanita is the most stylized structural tree in the foothills. Identifiable by most anyone, it has distinctive red bark and sage green leaves. Whiteleaf manzanita has pink flowers. Growing 15-20 feet tall, they grow in groves, covering large areas of the hillsides. They are also well known for their twisted branches, used as perches in large bird cages, and by interior decorators in large vases! Manzanita are alleopathic, meaning they have a toxin, coumarin, which acts as a natural weed killer preventing plant competition. Not much can grow under them, so once you remove any weeds and leaf litter around them, they become sculptural accents in the garden. You’ll see an example in the slideshow below.

    Poison oak, Toxicodendron diversilobum, is a shrub
    that is native to California and other places in the West. The shiny green, beautiful oak-like leaves grow from underground roots under oak trees and can also become a vine climbing high into the tree, searching for the sun.
    Jokingly called our California Fall color, it turns a lovely red or red-orange in thick patches or colonies along the roadsides. When coming in contact with poison oak, an oil called urushiol, locks into your skin and in three days you find out whether you are sensitive to it. Wearing lotion out to an infested area, with the usual cover-ups such as gloves and long sleeves can protect you if you have to work around it in the garden.

    Mountain Mahogany Cercocarpus betuloides
    California Mountain Mahogany is an evergreen vase shaped tree, growing to only 8-10 feet. The whole plant appears silver in the late summer due to the feathery pods. The oval leaves are fine textured, very small and fan shaped, making this an ideal tree to feature in the garden by grooming it a bit.

    Goldenfleece, Ericameria arborescens, is a fast growing shrub to 10 feet, often a fire follower that blooms just at the time in the September when most plants are fading. It has fuzzy bright yellow flowers and needle thin leaves. The three 10 foot tall plants found here finally split and collapsed, ten years after we came, but gave way to about 15-20 others a bit lower down the slope which all bloomed brightly the next Fall.

    Yerba Santa, Eriodictyon crassifolium
    A neighbor and former Park Service employee identified the Yerba Santa, meaning “sacred herb” in Spanish and grows everywhere on the property.  Eriodictyon crassifolium, or thick-leaved Yerba Santa is native to California, where it grows freely in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.  Growing three to six feet tall, the shiny, wavy edged leaves are 4 or 5 inches long, gray-green and toothed along the edges, with clusters of bell-shaped lavender flowers in June. In the garden, it looks its best when trimmed to the ground sometime after blooming.

    Hollyleaf Redberry, Rhamnus crocea ilicifolia
    This small slender evergreen shrub, new to me, was discovered in the native area, an island between the old and new driveways, under the oaks. I spotted the shiny red berries in early September, five years after moving in here. The plant resembles an oak, in branch and leaf and it said to be slow growing. Nondescript, I’d say, with the berries being the main attraction.

    Perennials and Grasses

    Ephemerals and wildflowers

    Existing weeds and non-natives

    Wildlife in the Sierra Foothill Garden

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    3 Responses to Trees and Shrubs

    1. MJH
      April 18, 2011 at 8:43 pm

      I thought you would like to know that California Buckeye is poisonous to bees. Of course, given a choice, they will visit other plants. But when none can be found, they will go to the Buckeye even thought it is devastating to the hive.

    2. April 18, 2011 at 9:01 pm

      Hi MJH, you are right!

      Although I don’t have California Buckeye on my property, they grow wild all through the foothills around Oakhurst and Yosemite. I did a post on them here, and consulted with an expert on bees. He had some interesting things to say.

    3. manza
      August 27, 2014 at 10:45 am

      Your description of Sticky Whiteleaf Manzanita on this page says we can see them in your slideshow below, but I don’t see a slideshow on this page. Did you move it?

      I would love to see these manzanitas since I have never heard of this particular one. I have 7 species so far and know of others, but this is new to me.

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