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Native Trees of California

Many of the trees commonly seen in California cities are immigrants, brought by people who desired California weather but not California flora. As a result, areas of high population look very little like they did before European settlement. In Southern California, this is particularly noticeable. While ginko and other ornamental trees grow well here, they are not original residents. What plants are native to the state?

For starters, most of the palm species one sees in Los Angeles are decidedly not native. They were imported, first by the Franciscan friars and then by gardening enthusiasts at the beginning of the twentieth century. There is actually only one native palm tree, the California Fan Palm. Perhaps the best place to see these unusually shaped trees is on the Cahuilla Native American reservation in the Palm Springs area. From the parking lot, one can see the upper canopy of these trees; following a fairly easy trail takes one into the oasis area, which is shady and cool from the great fronds of the trees. From here, there is a network of trails that crisscross through the oasis area and into the surrounding hills. It’s a great way to see ‘prehistoric’ California desert flora.

The iconic desert tree is the Joshua tree. Named by religious pioneers who compared the branches to the story of Joshua and the battle of Jericho, the Joshua tree is the only member of the yucca family to reach tree size. These striking plants can be found throughout the desert regions of Southern California, but most noticeably in the aptly named Joshua Tree National Park.
The rolling hills by the coast were once home to great oak woodlands, and large stands of these trees still dot the valleys and slopes of the Transverse Ranges, so-called because they run west to east across the area from Point Concepcion to San Diego. Coast Live Oaks, Engelmann Oaks, and Channel Island Scrub Oak are just some of the great evergreen trees that are found here; the California Black Oak is a deciduous species. In addition to the oaks, the area is home to madrone trees and Toyon, also known as the California Christmas Berry.

An unusual and endangered species, the Torrey Pine is only found in the wild in San Diego County and on Santa Rosa Island off the coast of Ventura. This is one of only two pine species with five needles per bundle. The easiest place to see these is at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve in La Jolla, which also preserves some of the state’s last salt marshes. More common pine species such as the Ponderosa and Jeffrey Pine are found in mountain ranges all over Southern California.

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