Ancient Oaks and Lace Lichen–step back in time

When we returned from our recent trip to Morro Bay I shared some photos from the Los Osos Oaks State Natural Reserve. Midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco this 85-acre woodland is home to centuries-old coast live oak trees.

Trail Marker

The oaks were once a part of a Mexican land grant eventually subdivided into farms and ranches. With steady demand for rich agricultural production it is quite remarkable these ancient trees have survived the encroachment of steady population growth.

But long before the Mexican era, the Chumash Indians lived along the coast and camped in this very spot. Remnants of a Chumash midden (trash mound), along with shell fragments and bits of charcoal provide evidence of Chumash life.


These oaks have been standing guard for 600 to 800  years. The young and old twist and turn into complex embraces, their thick canopies providing a natural sound barrier to the bustle of daily life taking place just beyond the forest’s edge, with the quiet only occasionally punctuated by the sound of birds and small animals.

Oak Branches

The most interesting feature of the trees was the heavy draping of Lace Lichen, or Ramalina menziesiia combination of fungus and algae covering the canopy of the trees. In the semidarkness of the overhead brush, the effect is eerily beautiful.

Lace Lichen

Historians have stated Chumash mothers used the lichen as wraps for their infants and wound dressing.

Close-up of Lace Lichen

Lace Lichen is extremely absorptive and serves to capture the summer fog, with the moisture falling to the roots,  preserving these fabulous trees through centuries of long rain-free seasons in California’s Mediterranean climate.

I’m quite certain there were many different species of lichen in the Park, but the Lace Lichen was the most recognizable.

Oak Trees

The reserve has been left to fend for itself. Downed trees remain on the forest floor, with new off-shoots growing in peculiar puzzles, searching for light.

There are no apparent signs of human interference with the exception of a few small trails maintained to help visitors avoid poison oak.

These are the Los Oso Oaks, and Los Osos, bears, in Spanish, refers to the Grizzlies that once populated the Central Coast. Diaries from Gaspar de Portola’s 1769 expedition tell the tale of hunting parties slaughtering grizzlies to send the meat back up the coast to the Monterey mission, rescuing the mission populace from starvation.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I know more now than when I walked through these woods a month ago. When I return I might be even more in tune with the sense of time captured in these trees. I’m certain they hold memory.

Grizzlies are extinct in California, but the state got this one right. These amazing trees have been protected and preserved so we can caretake them for the future. What a privilege!

59 thoughts on “Ancient Oaks and Lace Lichen–step back in time

  1. Wow what magnificent trees.. and the lichen is like wisps of silk hung out to dry… magnificent photos and great that the state is protecting such history… magnificent… Wow I would love to walk through there, the eeriness must be breath taking, picturing the times gone by .. thought provoking….

    1. I’m so glad you also enjoyed the oaks, Rob. I think I may often overuse the word “special,” but this reserve really is unique. I would love to return and next time spend more time on the trail. Our time was limited and so we didn’t explore nearly as much as we could. I will be back, I’m sure! 🙂

    1. I must admit that the photographs were almost despite the photographer this time. The trees were so thick I couldn’t move about freely with the camera. So I just started shooting from whatever vantage point I could find, and I was very fortunate that some of them turned out to be very beautiful. Of course, it was the trees! They were just incredible. I hope sometime you’ll have the opportunity to see them. They’re only about 3 1/2 hours from Pasadena. 🙂

    1. California has some incredibly ancient redwood forests, but I didn’t know about these oaks until very recently, Charlie. I was so intrigued by the story that they had once been so important in the lives of the indigenous people who lived along the coast. We don’t have that many places left untouched in which we can let our imaginations roam. I enjoyed the surprise! 🙂

  2. It is not always easy to take pictures of trees. I have posted a few photos of my tree collection with a haiku to go with so I’m aware one has to find the right angle but you have done an amazing job of it, those photos are stunning!
    I don’t know why but I love trees under any shape, color or variety… you have appeased my hunger 🙂

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the photos of the oaks. I must admit that the trees were so abundant I just started shooting. In some places I couldn’t even step back to get the perspective I had hoped for, but I think they were so unique the photograph was effective perhaps despite the photographer! 🙂 Thank you for referencing your love of trees. I must make a little trip to your site to see the trees with the haiku. I know I would enjoy that. I’m so glad you stopped by to share!

    1. The Chumash were affected by the European diseases that came with the Spanish and the mission movement. From what I have attempted to learn, it seems that some of the survivors eventually united with other tribes. I have at least two good books on the history of the Chumash, but I haven’t yet read them! I really must!

  3. What beautiful photos! Such an interesting post too. I’m so happy to hear that this area remains untouched – that’s not something humans seem to be too good at! If trees could talk, imagine the history we’d learn. 🙂

    1. I am so glad you enjoyed the photos of the oaks, and yes, I’m very surprised they have remained so untouched by human interference. It was truly wild! And I see so little of that in my routine experiences! I do hope to have another opportunity to walk more of the trail in these woods. The weather had changed very abruptly and we opted to stay dry! Next time, I will just bring some boots! 🙂

  4. Beautiful photos — Haunting and magical all at once. I love twisted branches on the trees. It’s interesting to see the differences in oaks across the country and the role that weather played in their growth.

    1. I must admit that until very recently I took oaks a bit for granted, Kevin. Several species are very common and plentiful in Southern California and I don’t know why, but I just didn’t pay particular attention. These ancient oaks have really awakened my appreciation and I certainly don’t consider them common! 🙂 I’m so glad you enjoyed the photos!

  5. ” . . . The young and old twist and turn into complex embraces, their thick canopies providing a natural sound barrier to the bustle of daily life taking place just beyond the forest’s edge, with the quiet only occasionally punctuated by the sound of birds and small animals. ” How wonderfully secure, this is, Debra, evoking an ancient time and place and serenity. I would love to be here; am, through your words and photos. I always feel that live oaks are living lessons to be told. Thank you for this.

    1. Thank you so much, Penny. You definitely picked up on how moved I was by the experience of being in the oak reserve. It was such a surprise to discover it. And the lace lichen was a whole new experience, too. It reminded me of Spanish Moss in the south and I truly didn’t think we had any counterpart this far south in California. I do know you would have found it very peaceful and almost “otherworldly.”

      I thought of you today…hope your garden event was a smashing success!

  6. Big trees are my favorite.
    600 to 800 years, its hard to imagine how would it be like.
    good thing california its not mexico anymore, those trees among many other things would be gone.

    1. I was glad to see the oak trees have survived civilization’s growth, for sure. I think it’s probably true that every country can look back and say there was great ignorance in not being good caretakers of the natural world. We still make very poor choices sometimes, but I always celebrate when I see evidence of careful planning to protect our beautiful state! 🙂

    1. I didn’t previously know about the oak reserves either, Inger, and we drove through that part of the coast every year at least once, if not more, for years! There is usually just more to see than we have time to discover, but we do try, don’t we? Maybe some other time you can check this out. Los Osos is a very interesting little town.

  7. It amazes me how parts of CA resemble the Lowcountry of SC. This place could be right outside my window, Debra. I must get there the next time I am anywhere in the vicinity.

    1. I am very surprised at your response that parts of CA resemble the Lowcountry of South Carolina, Andra. I’m sure these trees, though, must remind you of Spanish Moss and maybe that’s the particular connection. I honestly can’t say enough about the Central Coast. There are more little hidden gems that I can’t believe I’m only now discovering. I’ve never even heard of these oaks before very recently, and here they’ve been for 600 to 800 years! Makes me wonder what else I’ve been missing. 🙂

  8. Wonderful trees! I was aware of this reserve but never visited it. Thanks as always for taking us “off the beaten track” and showing us how much beauty is out there if we just stop and look.

    1. Thanks, Lori! I hadn’t even heard of the reserve until a couple of months ago when I was researching places we might visit while in Morro Bay. I am quite sure thousands of people drive right past this spot daily and don’t know what’s “over there” just beyond a small parking lot! I hope there might be a time you’d be able to walk through the trees. I know you’d find it very special. 🙂

    1. I really fell in love with these ancient oaks, Stacey. They were quite a surprise to me, and the lace lichen was something I’d never before encountered. Isn’t it amazing that the lichen serves such a purpose in keeping the oaks well watered? I loved learning that and realizing that nature provides just what the trees need! 🙂

  9. There are so many tales of where extinct or vanishing species. California certainly isn’t alone in that regard. It makes seeing a “survivor” that much more enjoyable, if not poignant. I cannot help but marvel at that forest’s beauty but yet wonder what could have been …
    Thanks, Debra, for showing me another bit of California that I probably never would have seen.

    1. Thank you for your very thoughtful considerations regarding the old oaks, John. I felt very sober walking in among the trees. It felt like hallowed ground, and that’s not something I say lightly. I have spoken to more friends about this visit who also never heard of them. I’m not even sure what I read that alerted me to investigate, but it was new to me, too. The weather had turned very cold and damp so we didn’t stay as long as I might have liked, which means we will return. 🙂

  10. Your “lace lichen” is what we call “Spanish Moss.” In many place in Florida, it drapes the trees in just the same way. During a re-creation at De Soto National Memorial, I was surprised to see horses eating it.

    1. In nature nothing really goes to waste, does it? Interesting to picture horses eating the lichen, or moss–apparently it really is multipurpose. I really thought Spanish Moss was only in the south, so to see this lichen in a much drier climate was a nice surprise. I hadn’t realized there was anything quite like it in the west! 🙂

    1. Thank you, my dear CCU. You are so right about the magical quality of the oak forest with the lace lichen! I think it did have such an interesting quality and it’s funny that I didn’t think of fairies! I really should have been looking for them! 🙂

  11. you are right, what a privilege! Lichens fascinate me, as do amazing trees that are so old, and beautiful. The trees in the forest in the alps have an “air lichen” growing on them, apparently it shows how clear the air is as otherwise they wouldn’t grow. I wonder if that is the same for the lace Lichens? totally photogenic too!

    1. So nice to hear from you, Claire. 🙂 I know very little about lichen, but this visit to the old oaks was just so fascinating to me that now I have a keen interest. I found there is a “Lichen Trail” somewhere north of us that I hope to visit. It’s so interesting to hear that the lichen you mention also has a purpose in providing evidence of air quality. Nature is so practical and creative all at once! Thank you so much for sharing…I can feel some googling coming on! 🙂

  12. Love these oaks, which make the park enchanting. Sad to note that it seems to be receiving less maintenance, which causes me to wonder what will happen as time moves on.

    1. I think the lack of maintenance is on purpose, Frank. The reserve is being kept entirely natural, so the trees only go down in a storm or through a natural condition, then new trees sprout from them. I could be wrong about absolutely no human interference, but I think unless something is a danger to the public, the decision is to let the trees do what they’ve done for hundreds of years. It’s fascinating to me, since that is hardly ever the choice!

  13. Nice photos…Hey, I was in your backyard this weekend. Helped my son move from San Francisco to L A. He found an apartment in the Los Feliz area. Brought back a lot of memories with all the classic 1940’s L A Spanish style homes. Real close to the bay Area in feel.

    1. How great, Hansi. He’s a little closer to you now. We love Los Feliz…we were traveling through there yesterday on our way to Dodger Stadium. You may have heard there was a HUGE tanker truck accident shutting down the freeway system close to the stadium and we had to snake our way all over town to get to our destination. So your son has probably already questioned what the heck he’s doing in Los Angeles with our freeways. LOL! Our son lives in Silver Lake, quite close to Los Feliz. He went to school in San Francisco and says some of the same thing about it having a Bay Area feel. I hope your son does well with all the transitions. It’s a big change in climate! 🙂

    1. I learned quite a bit about the natural purpose of the lichen, Kate, and it was all new information to me. Nature does such a good job of providing! The trees are really beautiful and I’m sure to visit them from time to time. I am very curious to see if the lichen is year-round or comes and goes. 🙂

    1. I hope you will have the opportunity to visit those wonderful old oaks, Tom. I know you’d fully appreciate them for their beauty, but also the history that surrounds them. They were a delightful surprise!

    1. My thoughts have gone back to the oaks over and over since we left them a few weeks ago, Barb. They were truly spectacular. I’m so glad you enjoyed them from afar. 🙂 They are part of the Central Coast that I continue to rave about…it is my new favorite destination for getting away from it all!

  14. Oh, fantastic, Debra! The shapes and the eery look of the lichen are remarkable. The image that immediately sprang to mind was the Entwood in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”. I can just imagine those trees waking up and walking. 🙂

I always enjoy hearing from you!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s