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.

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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!