Monday, September 30, 2013

Oaks: Biology and Significance of Our Majestic Giants

By Steve Barnhart, Academic Director

Oak trees and shrubs are found in many different environments and climatic zones around the world.  Some 500 species exist, primarily in temperate, subtropical and tropical regions of North America, South America (Columbia), Europe, North Africa, the near east and Asia, dropping below the equator into Indonesia. Many local populations of oak species exhibit unique characteristics, yet as a group they are able to adapt to a wide range of environmental conditions.

All oaks are members of the genus Quercus, in the plant family Fagaceae, which includes beeches, chestnuts, chinquapins and tanbark oak. Tanbark oak is not a true oak (Quercus) due to a number of significant biological differences, including flower structure and pollination. Other species which bear the term “oak” in their common names are not related at all, e.g. poison oak. Oak trees and shrubs can be deciduous, losing all their leaves seasonally, or evergreen (live oaks for example). Oaks are mainly identified by their bark, foliage and fruit (acorns).

Approximately 80 native oak species are found in the USA, with 21 of these present in California. These species are classified in 3 evolutionary lineages or sections: white oaks, red oaks and intermediate oaks. In Sonoma County, we are graced with 5 white oak, 4 red oak and 1 intermediate oak species.

Hybridization, or crossing between species, occurs within evolutionary lineages or sections.  These oak hybrids are usually fertile and thus can reproduce with other hybrids or their parental species. A common example at Pepperwood are the hybrids between blue oak and Oregon oak, which exhibit a full range of characters between the two parent species.

Oaks have been a very important resource for humans over thousands of years. Acorns have been a dietary staple for millennia - in most recent history for the acorn-gathering and oak-cultivating Native Americans of California. Oaks have also been important for cultural and religious reasons. 

Oaks perform a very important ecological role in many landscapes. Because of the food resource (acorns) and shelter (nesting places) they provide, oak-dominated plant communities have the highest diversity of wildlife species of any California landscape. Here, oaks play a central role in the community food webs, thus filling the niche of an important “keystone” species. Oaks also provide important amenities with regard to watershed integrity, local carbon balance and natural fire fuel breaks.

Unfortunately, the loss of oaks and oak habitat in Sonoma County and throughout California is occurring at an alarming rate. This loss is primarily due to urbanization and the agricultural conversion of wild land habitat. In the growing exurban areas, the ecological integrity of oak woodlands is being severely compromised because of the impact of patchy development upon wildlife species. Added to these factors are the direct impacts of construction and landscaping upon individual specimen trees as well as the increased spread of pathogens and disease. The pathogen that causes Sudden Oak Death is having a pronounced impact upon coast live oak and tanbark oak in our local wild lands, including Pepperwood.

Native oaks are a natural legacy that we all should desire to preserve. Their beauty and landscape utility are obvious, but their evolutionary and ecological significance is even more important to the long term integrity of our natural landscapes.

Join Steve Barnhart and arborist Bruce Hagan for a class on caring for oak trees on Saturday, October 19th, 2013 from 9am to 3pm at Pepperwood. Whether your yard is home to one oak or one hundred, this class will provide a comprehensive overview of proper oak tree care and management. This class costs $30 and includes a hike to visit some of Pepperwood's many oaks! Please click here to register.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Planting a Sense of Wonder

By Sandi Funke, Education Director

I love hearing about people’s vacations. Trips to the Africa to go on safari, hiking the rainforest, kayaking the open ocean, don’t these all sound amazing? But, does one need to buy a plane ticket to ignite a sense of wonder in our natural world? Can we find inspiration in our own backyard? How about even in the small garden of a mobile home park?

John Griffith grew up in Fairfield, California. A graduate of Chico State he has spent the last 15 years restoring native habitats in northern California as a crew supervisor with the California Conservation Corps (CCC). But he did not find his motivation in grand outdoor expeditions. 

The new Demonstration Garden at Pepperwood.
John explains, “…I fell in love with nature in a small backyard in an urban mobile home park. It was my grandma's backyard where she had a garden with soul. The soul was the bees and butterflies that went from flower to flower in her tiny garden. Under a small plastic dish that served as a watering hole for butterflies, lived a toad. When my grandma revealed that a toad lived under it, I became hooked on nature. I've been curious about it and its secrets ever since. I was four at the time. I've been a naturalist ever since.”

John knows small outdoor spaces can harbor magic! Because of this, John is big believer in the National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) Wildlife Habitat program. This program certifies gardens that have the necessary components of a wildlife habitat - food, water, and shelter. The program has certified over 150,000 gardens nationwide with over 10,000 certified in California alone! John and his crew have recently certified the outdoor space of their Ukiah campus as a wildlife habitat. Check out this video they made about the certification process!

The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) outlines the main components that are needed to sustain wildlife in a garden. The first component is food. Oregon grapes and various oak species ensure birds and small mammals have forage on the campus. They will also be installing “pollinator pit stops” in the late fall for bees and butterflies. The next component NWF outlines is supplying water which the CCC has done with the addition of a birdbath.  Crew members report that just a short while after installation birds were taking advantage of this resource. Wildlife also require places to hide, be protected from weather, and raise their young. The CCC campus has a number bushes including native black berry serving this function as well as a mix of native trees such as sycamore, oaks, redbuds, and redwoods. Brush piles also serve as shelter. They even have an old silo which is home to bats as well as the occasional owl.
Habitat garden educator
Charlotte Torgovitsky

Besides the NWF website which has loads of information including helpful tip sheets for specific types of wildlife, another fantastic resource for wildlife gardening is Nancy Bauer’s book The California Wildlife Habitat Garden: How to Attract Bees, Butterflies, Birds, and Other Animals. Nancy along with Charlotte Torgovitsky will be teaching a class at Pepperwood Creating a Wildlife Garden utilizing Pepperwood’s new Demonstration Garden on Saturday, September 28th from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm. They will be focusing on specifically which native plants work in our northern California region as well as when to plant.

The chance to see a native animal is always exciting. Knowing that your home garden is providing habitat is very satisfying. So whether you have 50 acres or a window sill you can do something to help our native birds, pollinators, and mammals be more resilient in the face of a changing environment. You will also be planting a sense of wonder to those that get to enjoy the space!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A Teen's Perspective on Pepperwood

By Nurel Arriaran, TeenNat Intern

Nurel (right) and Rebecca
Fernandes in the field at 
Nurel is a student at Rincon Valley Middle School and was one of the 28 interns who participated in the 2013 debut of TeenNat, a program designed to educate teens about the natural world and introduce them to careers in science. From July 9th through August 9th, for 3 days each week, TeenNat interns spent their days exploring Pepperwood, engaging with scientists, photographing plants and animals, uploading their observations to where they can be used by researchers. Their photography was made into a gallery show entitled "Teen Visions of Pepperwood" now on display in the exhibit hall.

Nurel wrote the following article for Pepperwood's blog!

Pepperwood Preserve is a gem embedded between Santa Rosa and Calistoga that all the Bay Area’s residents must know. It is place for constant science research about the magnificent biodiversity from our area where hundreds of plants and animal species native to Sonoma County are kept safe.

For more than 30 years this preserve has been protecting untiringly the flora and fauna of the area. Its importance for Sonoma County is remarkable. Pepperwood participates and collaborates in multiple scientific works such as: Terrestrial Biodiversity Climate Change Collaborative (TBC3), The Landmark International Fog Study, Save the Redwoods League, and the monitoring of the wildlife. It also offers an exclusive rainbow of educational programs. This year Pepperwood Preserve offered the first TeenNat program.

Nurel records an observation.
I am one of the 28 teenagers that participated in this internship, a unique experience where we worked and learned invaluable information from some of the best environmental educators and conservation scientists from our county. This program changed my perspective, the information that I gained lay in fertile ground. Now, I am determined to advocate about the importance of biodiversity and environment.  

While I was hiking with the biologists and scientist as an intern from Pepperwood, I recognized that the work from earth is so powerful that it blinds our generation from appreciating the value nature. As a curious and science oriented teenager, I interviewed Sandi Funke, Education Director at Pepperwood:

When was Pepperwood formed and why?

Pepperwood is a 3,200 acre nature preserve located in Sonoma County. As one of the largest scientific preserves in Northern California, Pepperwood provides a sanctuary for wildlife and affords a native habitat for its flora and fauna to thrive. Pepperwood Preserve was originally established in 1979 as a gift of the Kenneth Bechtel family to the California Academy of Sciences. Jane and Herb Dwight established the Pepperwood Foundation in 2005 to acquire Pepperwood Preserve and to expand the conservation, research and education programs based at the preserve through the creation of the newly opened Dwight Center for Conservation Science. The mission of Pepperwood is to advance science-based conservation throughout our northern California region and beyond.

How does Pepperwood benefit the community?

Pepperwood is the place where researchers are answering the critical questions about how our northern California wild lands are responding to climate change. This research is critical as our community grapples with how to spend limited funding for parks and open space. Their work is also vitally important for water planners to ensure we have enough water to go around in years to come. Pepperwood’s education program link youth and families with the outdoors, empowering then to get outside, get moving, and discover the amazing world around them.

Nurel took this wonderful photo of a baby western screech owl!
What kinds of animals can you find at Pepperwood?

Pepperwood’s diverse landscape provides incredible habitat for a wide variety of native animals. We have over 130 species of birds including ground birds, songbirds, and raptors such as the Golden Eagle. Our mammals include mountain lion, black bear and even American badger. We host 29 species of amphibians and reptiles with include the Pacific giant salamander, blue tailed skink, and the California King snake.

What programs are there at Pepperwood?

In addition to TeenNat, we run the SCENIQ-Students Conducting Environmental Inquiry program. SCENIQ brings first through sixth graders out to Pepperwood and sends our educators into their classroom. About 900 students from our area participate every year. We also offer over 40 community and adult education classes, workshops, hikes and lectures every year. Our citizen science program links volunteers with real on the ground science studies hosted at Pepperwood. Community members help gather and analyze data focused on wildlife density and occurrence, grasslands, oak woodlands, and more!

What influenced the creation of TeenNat program?

Another great photo by Nurel of a western fence lizard.
Teens in Sonoma County are greatly underserved by environmental education programs. At the same time, many high school students are not meeting academic standards in life science and biology. An overwhelmingly large number of our teens are also suffering from being overweight or obese. In creating TeenNat, we hoped to empower youth such as yourself to be able to get outside and confidently explore the outdoors. We also hoped to give connect teens with new scientific knowledge and skills that will enhance their background in natural science.

Are there any plans for Pepperwood in following ten years? 

2013 TeenNat interns and Pepperwood educators.
Pepperwood has just completed drafting a five-year strategic plan. Included are 5-year action plans designed to guide specific priorities through 2018 in education, research and preserve management, communications fundraising, and administration. In education we hope to continue our TeenNat and SCENIQ programs and better connect with Latino families. In research, we will solidify Pepperwood as a “sentinel site” in which citizen scientists and researchers can “take the pulse” of wild lands’ reaction to climate change. We want to be a regional leader for conservation science and environmental education. Our communication, fundraising, and administrative efforts will be fully developed to support these efforts.

I dare you to learn more about the biodiversity of the Bay Area, check out places where you can find more about environmental education, and visit You will be breath-taken by the species and sights you will find. And take your turn to contribute to protect our valuable resources! Start visiting Pepperwood; the beauty of the place will amaze you. Pepperwood preserve offers hiking programs for the community starting at no cost. Call them at  (707) 591-9310 or visit for more information.

Read the Spanish version of this article published by Avance News HERE!