California's oak trees are not known for producing the autumn colors that hardwood forests in other parts of the country typically display, but we do have one species that is lighting up landscapes in the Tehachapi Mountains right now: Black Oak (Quercus kelloggii).
These beautiful oak trees tend to be inconspicuous during the growing season, blending in with surrounding trees like Canyon Oaks, Valley Oaks, and even riparian trees like Fremont Cottonwoods and Arroyo Willow, as well as assorted conifers like Jeffrey Pines, Ponderosa Pines and White Fir.
When our cold nights arrive in late summer and early autumn, however, the chlorophyll begins to drain out of the Black Oaks leaves, resulting in bright gold, yellow and even red hues that reveal the presence of these handsome trees. My friend Al Crisalli appreciated the colors of these leaves so much that on his mountain dulcimer case, he had artist Patricia Seamount paint a series of them in their different color stages.
Black Oaks were given their common name due to their dark bark, which is both smoother and darker than that of the iconic Valley Oaks (Quercus lobata), whose more deeply furrowed bark is paler, leading to the old name White Oak for these spreading valley giants. The dark bark of Black Oaks makes an attractive contrast to their leaves, both the golden leaves of fall and the shiny verdant green of spring leaves.
Black Oaks tend to grow at higher elevations than other oaks, from 2,000 to 6,000 feet, but sometimes even higher. In the Tehachapi Mountains, they are found in Bear Valley Springs, Stallion Springs and Cummings Mountains, Alpine Forest Park and similar locations. In the shaded canyons and north-facing wooded slopes where Black Oaks are often found, sunlight is a treasured resource and there is a subtle but perpetual struggle for sun exposure. Many Black Oaks have limbs stretching out in convoluted routes as they reach for the light.
Black Oaks acorns have traditionally been among the most prized of those gathered by Native Californians, including the Nüwa (Kawaiisu or Paiute) of the Tehachapi area. Black Oak acorns are considered preferable because they tend to store well, and the acorn mush made from them congeals readily and makes a thicker, tapioca-like pudding.
Black Oak acorns take two years to reach maturity, unlike those of Valley or Blue Oaks, which are formed and ripen in a single season. Black Oak acorns are easy to identify because their cupules, commonly called acorn caps, are thin with overlapping scales like shingles on the roof of a house. There is a Miwok Indian legend that Black Oak acorns were maidens that had been transformed, as evidenced by the acorn caps, which resemble the round basket hats worn by Indian women. Most of our other oaks, like Valley, Blue and Canyon, have thicker, knobby caps. Black Oak acorns themselves are also more rounded and blunt at the end, differing from the pointier acorns produced Valley and Blue Oaks.
Acorns were a staple food source for Native Californians, and were eaten even by tribes who lived outside prime oak regions — acorns are said to be second only to salt as the food item most commonly traded and bartered for among California tribes. For example, the Miwok gathered Black Oak acorns on the west side of the Sierra Nevada and carried them all the way across the mountains to trade them to Mono Indians in exchange for delicious Pinyon Pine nuts.
Now is the time that Black Oaks are at their most colorful, bringing lovely autumn color to our hillsides, while providing a bounty of acorns to deer, squirrels, birds, bears and other creatures. The most beautiful oak in our mountains is aglow.
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to email@example.com.