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GREENING

A California Essential

The oak, long part of the natural landscape, can grow to become a life source when planted in the garden, bringing the state's wild heart to your door.

September 08, 2005|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

EVERY year, as summer shortens into autumn, cricket song swells in a yard up the street. The tree crickets will chorus from nightfall to dawn, every night through October, until they have seduced a female or died trying. No other music manages to be so elegiac and at the same time so hopeful. Or, on my street, so mysterious. The yard where the crickets sing is concealed by an immense house. According to the old timer who lives next door, Wally Matsuura, the song comes from an oak.

The sound is so beautiful that for years now, I have tried to lure the crickets into my garden. Nothing was too good for them. I planted Italian olives, Carolina cherries, French lavender, Japanese box hedges and Spanish citrus. No crickets.

French grapes, Mexican passion vines, China roses.

Still no crickets.

Australian acacia. South African bird of paradise. Canary Island sage.

Nothing.

Not even for Moroccan oleander or Chinese bamboo would they leave their oak.

It turns out that the oleander is deadly to them, and a Southern California tree cricket has as much use for bamboo as a Chinese panda bear has for a Joshua tree. Tree crickets from California need trees from California -- the same roots, trunk, bark, leaves and stem that they evolved with over millenniums. In the case of the crickets, and so much of Californian fauna, the source of life is the state's native oaks.

A fine Cachuma Press book, "Oaks of California," outlines how the trees support a huge swath of our flora and fauna, from lichens and mistletoe to gall wasps, squirrels, boar, deer, hawks, eagles, condors, even, once upon a time, grizzly bears. The California Oak Foundation tops the Cachuma roll call with a list that includes salamanders, toads, lizards, warblers, turtles -- on and on for hundreds of creatures, ending with yellow pine chipmunk and Yuma myotis, whatever that is. According to the book, oaks are such rich "islands of life" that the Spanish missionaries followed the coast live oak ranges north when they first penetrated California.

Not every native oak attracts every critter. Twenty species, 11 shrub oaks and nine vaulting tree forms, each develop distinct ecosystems. I wanted the one that attracted crickets, to be precise snowy tree crickets, or Oecanthus fultoni. The trick was finding out what it was.

We already had a fine coast live oak growing between our houses, Wally and me. It clearly wasn't a cricket oak. According to Wally, it just appeared one day and he never got around to cutting it down. By the time he had to decide its fate, it had already attained a poetic leaning form all too rarely seen outside of wild oaks, because the nurseries selling box oaks for gardens tend to stake them to stand up ramrod straight, then prune them to have perfect bulb-shaped canopies. He says he spared it because someone told him that it increases the value of his house.

I think he fell in love.

An oak can steal your heart. You won't read this in plant books, but oak trees are stealthy. If someone tells you that oaks are slow growing, they are repeating a widely accepted myth and haven't lived with a young oak. Inspired by Wally's oak, I put two coast live oaks, nursery plants from 24-inch boxes, in my front yard. At first they were pitiful, and made small dogs seem big, but only seven years later, they are reaching the second story.

New oaks are even faster from acorns. A 20-year-old-seedling, Wally's coast live oak is easily 40 feet high. Its boughs sweep out after the setting sun like a dancer in some Merce Cunningham interpretive deal, except in a tree it's not pretentious. Squirrels run riot in it. Three sorts of woodpeckers work the bark, drilling for sap and grubbing insects or maybe just sharpening their beaks. The tree also fills up with bushtits each year, funny chattering birds that glean it of wasps and other meaty bugs before descending from its canopy into my garden and systematically stripping all the plants below of pests.

Coast live oaks are evergreen, which doesn't mean that they don't drop leaves, but that they don't do it all at once. In fact, they shed enough to be self-mulching and even allow some to be carried off to improve vegetable beds.

On the tree, these oval leaves are tough and stout, with slightly serrated edges. They come in a dusky shade, a color that seems mixed from silver, blue and a deep coniferous green and is so right for cutting Southern Californian glare.

Unlike many California natives, they do not go completely dormant. During the summer, as the water table lowers in the ground, the leaves furl and tighten, but the acorns still slowly plump out. But still these giants cool all beneath them. The whispering breeze traveling through Wally's oak -- not a droning machine -- air conditions my house.

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