Trees of Our Valley

There is unrest in the forest,  there is trouble with the trees, for the maples want more sunlight and the oaks ignore their pleas

Well this might be the case in temperate Canada where these boys are from, but here in Southern California they simply don’t occupy the same floristic province.  I’ve spent many a paragraph talking about our native shrubs and wildflowers, yet the big boys have gotten short shrift.  We don’t have that many local native trees so it won’t take long for everyone to become arboreal aces.

Let’s meet the trees.  There are a number of large shrubs like toyon, laurel sumac, elderberry and holly-leaf cherry which can in certain situations grow to be trees.  But generally they are multi-trunked shrubs and thus not going to be discussed here.

Also no discussion of the ole Quercus agrifolia, everyone knows what an oak looks like. (On a side note, they are getting scarily brown and dead looking down on the VRP, c’mon fall rains we need help)

I will start with two borderline trees.  They can be somewhat shrubby but I’m saying they are trees, wanna fight about it?

Fraxinus dipatela is one of my favorite scientific names.


The western ash isn’t very common around here, you’d find it clinging to steep canyons up Murietta, behind Thacher, and scattered throughout the valley.



A small deciduous tree which tops out at 20 feet, leaves pinnately compound, somewhat ovate.  Amazing panicle of flowers in the spring turning into a samara in the summer.

Southern California Black Walnut is also a borderline tree/shrub.


It is deciduous with pinnately compound leaves, more lanceolate than the ash.  Not as drought tolerant as the oak, walnut needs some partial shade or access to water for some of the year.   Their heavy walnuts start green and disappear quickly as they go brown.

Sycamore is the final native tree that can survive outside of a riparian ecosystem on a consistent basis.


‘Aliso’ in Spanish, the tell-tale jigsaw puzzle peeling bark is a good indicator that you have a sycamore.  They can grow over 50 feet and lose their leaves in winter. The leaves are palmate with 3 or 5 lobes, can be over 18 inches wide and are described as “velveteen tomentose”, which means really fuzzy. The seeds are those walnut-sized gnarly spiky balls which I may or may not have used as a projectile while growing up.


Take a hike up Sisar Canyon and see if you can identify our last 4 trees.

Black Cottonwood is in the willow family and can grow over 60 feet tall, usually very close to year round water.


Leaves are noticeably shiny on top,  helically alternate and heart/spade shaped, depending on which way you hold it.  Pendulous catkins turn to fluff in early spring, filling the air with the closest thing we’re gonna get to snow.


White Alder is often found in the same area as the cottonwood, growing to a similar height and is the sole local member of the Birch family.  Also with catkins I usually identify this by the deep pinnately arranged veins, sunken on the top surface and raised on the bottom.


This is one of the first trees to flower in the winter, often while freezing temperatures linger in the canyons.

Somewhat rare but with small populations througout our moist canyons is the big-leafed maple.

maple leaf

These can be confused with the sycamores if you don’t have the winged samaras present to tell the difference.  Maple leaves are far more lobed, the sinuses often 1/2 to 2/3 the length of the leaf.

Finally my favorite, the California Bay.


The only tree (besides live oak) that does not drop its leaves in winter. Lanceolate leaves are shiny and smell oh so good when rubbed or dropped into a dutch oven of slow-cookin’ short ribs.

If anyone has an idea of why bay is the only tree (besides coast live oak) that can keep its leaves all year round let’s hear it.

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