There are five main species of tree oaks found in the Tehachapi Mountains: Valley, Blue, Black, Canyon and Interior Live Oaks. All of them have their own distinctive characteristics and charm, but Canyon Oaks are the most variable and unusual in many respects.
The Canyon Oak (Quercus chrysolepsis) is the most widely distributed of California's more than 20 species of tree oaks and is found in almost every major mountain range in the state. It is similarly found scattered all throughout the Tehachapi area, with Canyon Oak populations in Sand Canyon, Old West Ranch, Alpine Forest Park, Water Canyon, Stallion Springs, Bear Valley Springs and more.
If you have driven much in the outlying areas of Tehachapi, you have certainly passed right next to Canyon Oaks. They are less recognized than some of their relatives, but they are thoroughly among us.
The Canyon Oak belongs in the "live oak" category, meaning it is an evergreen. Live oaks keep a canopy of leaves year-round, replacing them throughout the year instead of dropping them all in the winter like Tehachapi's deciduous oaks: Valleys, Blues and Blacks.
Maintaining leaves year-round has both advantages and disadvantages for the Canyon Oak. On the plus side, the tree can photosynthesize throughout the year, whenever temperatures are warm enough, creating food for itself whenever the sun shines. Live oak leaves are also better at storing nutrients and moisture than deciduous leaves.
On the other hand, having leaves in the middle of winter can prove a liability when we have wet, heavy snows that can break the limbs of foliated trees. Repeated hard freezes can also rupture leaf cell walls and damage them. Like most strategies, there are both strengths and weaknesses in the evergreen approach of Canyon Oaks.
The wide distribution of Canyon Oaks can be attributed largely to their adaptability: they may grow into towering single-trunk trees, a spreading octopus of multiple smaller trunks, or even a small shrubby shape under 15 feet tall if conditions are adverse.
Some of the biggest Quercus chrysolepsis specimens are found at the mouth of canyons or in wider, more level areas where there is better sunlight but still adequate moisture available.
Sycamore Canyon in Bear Valley Springs is home to some of these majestic Canyon Oaks, and other large specimens grow in Tehachapi and Caliente Canyons down towards Bakersfield.
In the steeper, darker canyons may be found the multi-trunked versions of Canyon Oak, whose bending curving Medusa trunks grow up from a central location and spread out in search of light, creating strange tangles of shadowed canopy.
This is the most common form of Canyon Oak in our area (and the state) and examples of these clustered oaks may be found in practically any shaded canyon locally.
Under extreme conditions, such as on rocky talus slopes, boulder crevices or windswept summits, Canyon Oaks keep a shrubby compact form, and a 200-year-old tree may be only 10 to 15 feet tall.
Regardless of their shape, Canyon Oaks all have distinctive leaves that are one of the best means of identification. These tough leathery leaves have a shiny deep green upper surface and a pale bluish or grayish underside. The contrast is often striking, with the top side looking freshly varnished and the underside completely flat and dull.
The leaves themselves have a wide variety of sizes and shapes, with most being elliptical while others are more rounded, some smooth and others toothed along the margins, but they all have the pronounced difference between the upper and lower surfaces.
In the fall, the acorns are another source of identification: Canyon Oaks produce large rounded acorns with very thick heavy cups — generations of children have played with these miniature "bowls" after the acorns had dropped out.
When still developing, these acorn cups have a fine golden felt or fuzz that can also be found on the leaves. This is the source of the tree's scientific name chrysolepsis, which means "gold scale."
The slow growing Canyon Oak develops very hard, dense wood, which was once prized by settlers for use as wedges, maul heads, wagon components and other uses, which gave rise to the old Canyon Oak nicknames "maul oak" and "iron oak."
The local Nuwä (Kawaiisu or Paiute) Indian people harvested Canyon Oak acorns in the fall, and there are bedrock mortar grinding holes in a Canyon Oak grove that surrounds Sunset Rocks in Tehachapi Mountain Park.
Canyon Oaks are interesting, extremely hardy trees that shroud our canyons in shade, and provide habitat for a variety of wildlife.
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.