Trees of Lake Tahoe – The Deciduous Trees

Alder, Maple, and Nuttall’s Flowering Dogwood make beautiful bowers over swift, cool streams at an elevation of from 3000 to 5000 feet, mixed more or less with willows and cottonwood; and above these in lake basins the aspen forms fine ornamental groves, and lets its light shine gloriously in the autumn months.–John Muir, The Mountains of California (1894).


This is the third installment of a “Trees of Lake Tahoe” series summarizing the trees of Tahoe Basin. The basin forests are, of course, dominated by a diverse assemblage of conifers – eleven species in all.  These were covered in parts 1 (Trees of Lake Tahoe – The Pines) and 2 (Trees of Lake Tahoe – The “Other” Conifers ) of this series.  Yet, despite this coniferous domination, the 14 species of deciduous trees¹ that occur in the Tahoe Basin is three more than the number of coniferous tree species.  These deciduous tree species will be covered in this third and final part, including the nine species I was able to locate on my recent visit to the area back in mid-March.  Because of the timing of that trip, the trees will be discussed from a decidedly wintertime perspective that makes species identifications a little more challenging compared to the coniferous species.

¹ Admittedly, I use the term “tree” in the broadest sense, since many of these species might better be described as “tree-like shrubs” or “shrubby trees,” often representing only the largest examples of genera whose members include a number of true shrubs.  Only a handful of these species routinely form large, unmistakably tree-like forms, the largest of which still pale in comparison to the coniferous giants that dominate the basin.


This family of dioecious plants (male and female flowers on separate plants) is represented in the Tahoe Basin by two genera.  Two species of Populus occur here, and both decidedly trees in form.  Most of the nine species of Salix that grow in the basin grow only as shrubs, while two of them sometimes form distinct trees.

Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides)

…in winter, after every leaf has fallen, the white bark of the boles and branches seen in mass seems like a cloud of mist that has settled close down on the mountain, conforming to all its hollows and ridges like a mantle, yet roughened on the surface with innumerable ascending spires.–John Muir, Steep Trails (1918).


Quaking aspen is one of the most unmistakable trees of the Tahoe Basin – regardless of the season.  Famous for its shimmering foliage during summer and blazing fall colors, it is equally distinctive during winter when its smooth, creamy, greenish-white trunks stand in stark, leafless contrast to the dark green coniferous foliage that cloaks the landscape.  Thick stands of this species are common in moist meadows and stream margins, with stands typically representing clonal colonies of genetically identical trees sprouting from a common root mat.  Although another species of Populus does occur in the basin (black cottonwood – see below), that species is not nearly as abundant as quaking aspen and lacks its distinctive smooth bark.

The second photo above shows some of the few, still-clinging leaves that I found, unremarkable in senescence but showing the flattened petioles that cause to summertime leaves to flutter and quiver incessantly with the summer breezes, alternately flashing their bright green upper surface and silvery underside.

Black cottonwood (Populus balsamifera ssp. trichocarpa)


Black cottonwood is the largest American Populus and the tallest non-conifer in western North America.  Growing throughout the cool, moist Pacific Northwest, it is at its elevational limit in the Sierra Nevada along moist streams and lakeside habitats in the lower Tahoe Basin. The wonderfully knowledgeable Forest Service worker, who helped me greatly in my quest to locate all of the basin’s conifers, was skeptical about my chances of finding this species; however, while hiking the Rubicon Trail at Emerald Bay State Park I spotted the unmistakable, deeply furrowed, gray bark of this close relative of our own eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides).  Examining the twigs revealed the large, pointed buds, sticky with resin, and a few clinging leaves whose wide, ovate shape confirmed the species’ identity.  It was the only black cottonwood I saw in the basin, although surely others exist throughout the basin at lakeside elevations.

Willows (Salix spp.)


As a group, willows are easily distinguished from the other deciduous trees and shrubs that occur in the Tahoe Basin.  However, discriminating among the several species can be quite difficult, even for trained botanists.  Winter is not the best time to try to identify willows, as many species are distinguished by characters of the foliage and flowers.  In some cases, examination of both male and female flowers is required – frustrating since they are borne on separate plants!  Wintertime characters normally useful for other plants such as bark and twig color are rarely informative for different species of willow, and even growth habit as trees or shrubs can vary greatly within species depending on elevation and available moisture.  All of this is a long-winded way of saying I don’t know which or how many species of willow I observed in the Tahoe Basin.

p1020705_2p1020707_2According to Graf (1999), there are nine species of willow in the Tahoe Basin; however, only two of them are trees – the abundant shining willow (S. lucida spp. lasiandra), and the more drought-tolerant Scouler’s willow (S. scouleriana).  The remaining seven species are shrubs that rarely exceed 10-12 feet in height.  Indeed, one of them – arctic willow (Salix arctica) – grows no more than 4 inches tall, occurring in seepy slopes and along lake and stream margins in the subalpine zone at Carson Pass.  Most of the willows I observed were at lower elevation along the shore of Emerald Bay and in the wet meadows around South Lake Tahoe and Spooner Lake and were growing as large shrubs or small trees and exhibited either bright yellow or red bark on the year-old branches, turning to smooth gray on older branches.  I don’t know whether these represent one or more species, or if they even represent one of the two arborescent species, but I suspect the yellow-twigged species may represent Lemmon’s willow (S. lemmonii), one of the shub species and Tahoe’s most common willow.  Perhaps a stretch goal for next year’s trip could be to find and distinguish all nine Tahoe Basin willow species, but realistically I would settle for knowing for sure what species the plants in these photographs represent (although I definitely would like to find the diminutive arctic willow).


Like the Salicaceae, plants in this family have male and female flowers on separate structures called catkins, but the plants themselves are monoecious (both sexes on the same plant).  Two genera – Alnus and Betula – occur in the basin, each represented by one species.

Mountain alder (Alnus incana ssp. tenuifolia)


Like the willows, mountain alder is another deciduous plant that straddles the line between tree and shrub, and as is typical of most species in these two plant families (Salicaceae and Betulaceae) the species shows a high affinity for moist sites along stream and lake margins and on seepy north- and east-facing slopes.  The largest specimens I saw, as pictured above left, were found growing on the granite sand beaches along the Rubicon Trail on the western shore of Emerald Bay in Emerald Bay State Park.  Like alders anywhere, this species is immediately recognizeable in winter due to the persistent woody cones that represent the previous year’s female catkins.  Another larger species of alder, white alder (A. rhombifolia), occurs in the Sierra Nevada, but it is not clear to me whether this species actually occurs in the Tahoe Basin proper.  Graf (1999) does not include it in his rather comprehensive treatment of Tahoe Basin plants, but Peterson & Peterson (1975) and Quinn (2006) both list it from the basin (although rare). 

Water birch (Betula occidentalis)

I did not observe this species, which Graf (1999) records from Carson Pass.  The only birch occurring in the Sierra Nevada, it is more common outside the basin proper on the eastern slopes above the burning sagebrush plains.  Like alder, separate male and female catkins are borne on the same tree; however, the female catkins of birch are solitary rather than clustered and disintegrate when ripe rather than persisting as woody cones.


This family contains the über diverse genus Quercus – represented in California by 20 species.  However, of the five arborescent oaks that occur in the Sierra Nevada, only one has successfully penetrated the high elevations of the Tahoe Basin. A second species of Quercus also inhabits this montane region but grows exclusively as a low shrub, and another shrub in the related genus Chrysolepis also grows here – these two latter species will be treated more fully in a future post.

Canyon live oak (Quercus chrysolepis)

The trunk was all knots and buttresses, gray like granite, and about as angular and irregular as the boulders on which it was growing—a type of steadfast, unwedgeable strength.–John Muir, The Mountains of California (1894).


This is one of North America’s most variable oaks, exhibiting extreme variability in leaves and fruit and developing as either a tree or a shrub, depending upon the site where it grows. Slow growing and solid, it does best in sheltered locations, where it can develop an impressive, spreading crown and live a hundred years or more. On exposed slopes, it takes on a shorter, shrubbier aspect (above left) or forms dense thickets (above right).  I saw most of this species at lower elevations within the basin – along the Vikingsholm Trail in Emerald Bay State park leading down to the west shore of Emerald Bay.


The leaves of this evergreen species are bluish green with numerous golden glandular hairs when young and becoming dull gray and smooth with age. Although there are no other arborescent oaks at this elevation with which it can be confused, I did find growing alongside it the strictly montane and shrubby huckleberry oak (Q. vaccinifolia).  The somewhat smaller, mostly entire leaves were the only indication it was not merely a shrub form of canyon live oak, and further study revealed that the two species can be distinguished by the presence of multiradiate glandular hairs on both leaf surfaces of canyon live oak.  These two species are closely related (both are in the Protobalanus – or “golden oak” – section of the genus), and widespread hybridization has apparently been documented in this part of the Sierra Nevada where the two species’ distributions overlap (Nixon 2002).


This large family of dioecious plants with usually pentamerous radial flowers is represented in the Tahoe Basin by nearly three dozen mostly perennial shrubs.  Six of these species, representing the genera Amelanchier, Cercocarpus, Prunus and Sorbus, sometimes develop a tree form.

Cherry (Prunus sp.)


Two species of Prunus – bitter cherry (P. emarginata) and western chokecherry (P. virginiana var. demissa) – occur in the Tahoe Basin, both growing as either shrubs or small trees.  I cannot say for sure which species is represented in these photographs (taken on the slopes above Emerald Bay at Emerald Bay State Park), as the two species are best distinguished by subtle differences in their flowers and foliage.  Bitter cherry is apparently common in the Tahoe Basin and has bark that is smooth and dark brown, while chokecherry is more of a foothill species that is uncommon on the western shore (where these photos were taken) and has more grayish brown and somewhat scaly bark.  I can go either way with bark color based on these photos, so I’ll forgo an ID for the time being and seek to follow up during my next visit.  A third species of Prunus, the strictly shrubby desert peach (P. andersonii), formerly occurred at low elevations around the south shore, but it is now considered to be extirpated from the basin.

Mountain ash (Sorbus californica)

While hiking the Rubicon Trail in Emerald Bay State Park, I spotted a single, small tree with distinctive, large winter buds that reminded me immediately of the ornamental species mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia) from my former days as a nursery inspector.  This thought seemed to be confirmed when I found a senesced but still attached leaf, pinnately compound with nine ovate, toothed leaflets.  However, my pocket copy of Native Trees of the Sierra Nevada (Peterson & Peterson 1975) included no species of Sorbus, and I concluded it must be something else.  This lone tree was located in deep shade within the white fir forest near the western shore of Emerald Bay, so I opted to find another tree in better lit conditions for taking photos – unfortunately, no other trees of this species were found.  Once I got back home, I was happy to find Sorbus californica listed in my just purchased copy of Graf (1999).  This species has attractive white flowers in small panicles during the summer that give rise to bright red berries during fall and is apparently common in mid- to higher-elevation riparian communities around the lake.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.)
Curl-leaf mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius)

I did not locate either of the two species of serviceberry that occur in the Tahoe Basin, the common serviceberry (Amelanchier utahensis) and the more localized glabrous serviceberry (A. alnifolia var. pumila).  Being highly familiar with our eastern species, A. arborea (just recently finished flowering), I suspect either of these species would be readily recognized, even in winter, by their smooth, silvery-gray bark and shrubby, small-tree form.  I also did not see curl-leaf mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius), another species that barely qualifies as a small tree.  It is apparently more at home on the dry eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada but can be found within the basin proper sporadically in the southwest and along the southeastern lake shore and more commonly on dry slopes in the far north and south of the basin.  I have collected a number of woodboring beetles from mountain mahogany across the southwestern U.S. from the mountains of southern California to the Chisos Mountains of Texas.


The single North American genus, Acer, is represented in California by four species, three of which occur in the Sierra Nevada but only one occurring in the Tahoe Basin.  Plants in this family are closely related to the Hippocastanaceae, represented in the Sierra Nevada foothills by California buckeye (Aesculus californica).

Mountain maple (Acer glabrum var. torreyi)

As with mountain ash, I found a single small tree representing this species near the west shore of Emerald Bay while hiking the Rubicon Trail.  Despite lacking foliage, I recognized it immediately as a maple by its opposite, scaly buds.  Also like mountain ash, I assumed I would see more after finding the first one and thus didn’t photograph this particular tree growing in deep shade.  That’ll teach me.  This species sometimes grows as a multi-stemmed shrub in moist situations, and even when assuming tree form, as did the one I saw, it is at best a small tree with a maximum height of only around 15′.  With fall foliage in varying shades of pink to red, it must rather nicely compliment the blazing yellow cloak of the quaking aspen during September and October.  Tahoe Basin individuals are placed in var. torreyi due to their bright reddish twigs, while those on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada exhibit gray twigs and are placed in var. diffusum.

This concludes my “Trees of Lake Tahoe” series – at least until next year when I hope to locate some of the remaining species I did not find during this year’s visit.  However, I do have one more “flora of Lake Tahoe” post in preparation covering some of the many woody shrubs that occur within the basin.


Arno, S. F. 1973. Discovering Sierra Trees. Yosemite Association, Yosemite National Park, California, 89 pp.

Graf, M. 1999. Plants of the Tahoe Basin. Flowering Plants, Trees, and Ferns. A Photographic Guide. California Native Plant Society Press, Berkeley, 308 pp.

Muir, J. 1894. The Mountains of California. The Century Co., New York, xiii+381 pp.

Muir, J.  1918. Steep Trails. Houghton, Mifflin, Boston, ix+390 pp.

Nixon, K. C. 2002. The oak (Quercus) biodiversity of California and adjacent regions. USDA Forest Service General Technical Report PSW-GTR-184, 20 pp.

Peterson, P. V., and P. V. Peterson, Jr. 1975. Native Trees of the Sierra Nevada. University of California Press, Berkeley, 147 pp.

Quinn, C.  2006.  A Nature Guide to the Southwest Tahoe Basin: Including Desolation Wilderness and Fallen Leaf Lake: Trees, Shrubs, Ferns, Flowers, Birds, Amphibians, Reptiles, Mammals, and Fishes Inhabiting the Sierra Nevada Watershed Southwest of Lake Tahoe, California.  CraneDance Publications, Eugene, Oregon, 232 pp. 

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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Winter botany quiz #5

This may be the last winter botany quiz for awhile, but I did come across this interesting little plant on my recent visit to Lake Tahoe that doesn’t fit neatly into any other category upon which I have (or will be) posting about. I was excited to see this plant, and I’ll be interested in seeing what others think about it. Hints: photograph taken on 03/17/2009 at Emerald Bay State Park, along Rubicon Trail, elev. 6,250′.  The host is ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa).


The usual rules – I’ll leave the photo up for a couple days to give people time to research their answer, with comment moderation turned on during that time. Whoever gets it right (or is closest in case nobody gets it right) wins, and being first is always good in case of a tie-breaker!

EDIT 04/20/2009 – Wow, congratulations to, well… almost everyone, for getting this one right. I guess it was not as hard as I thought it would be, since I’d never heard of dwarf mistletoe until I ran into this plant.

To be exact (something I’m fond of being), this is western dwarf mistletoe (Arceuthobium campylopodum, arse-youth-OH-bee-um cam-pie-low-POE-dum). The term dwarf mistletoe refers to the genus as a whole, while ponderosa pine dwarf mistletoe generally refers to what is now called southwestern dwarf mistletoe (A. vaginatum) from AZ and NM. Accordingly, Kirk deserves special mention for being the first to get both the common name (spelled correctly with lower case) and the scientific name, while Doug was the first to properly italicize the scientific name. I know, I’m being really picky – it’s my nature. Also, Adrian added a nice tidbit of information regarding the impact these plants can have on their hosts.

I can be fairly certain about the ID, but not 100%. According to Hawksworth & Wiens (1998), four species of dwarf mistletoe occur within the Tahoe Basin. Of these, only western dwarf mistletoe utilizes ponderosa pine as a principal host.  There is a small chance it could be lodgepole pine dwarf mistletoe (A. americanum), which occasionally utlizes ponderosa pine but is most often (as the common names suggests) associated with lodgepole pine. The two remaining species, fir dwarf mistletoe (A. abietinum) and hemlock dwarf mistletoe (A. tsugense), are restricted in the Tahoe Basin to white/red fir and mountain hemlock, respectively.


Hawksworth, F. G., and D. Wiens. 1998. Dwarf Mistletoes: Biology, Pathology, and Systematics. Diane Publishing Company, Darby, Pennsylvania, 410 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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Myths about why Lake Tahoe does not freeze

p1020598_2In my recent post, Born of glaciers, I touched on the formation of Lake Tahoe and discussed the glacial origins of Emerald Bay and nearby Fallen Leaf and Donner Lakes.  At the end of that post, I listed some interesting facts about Lake Tahoe, including the fact that Lake Tahoe does not freeze over.  That last fact was linked to one of the many internet sources explaining that Lake Tahoe’s massive size and the fact that its waters are always in motion prevent it from freezing. Sounded good to me.

Fortunately, my post drew the attention of David C. Antonucci, an environmental and civil engineer and author of the website David pointed out that this widely circulated explanation for why Lake Tahoe doesn’t freeze (repeated even by the U.S.D.A. Forest Service, Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit FAQ website) is, in fact, wrong. David is currently updating his website to include a more detailed explanation about this, but he sent me a draft of his update and has graciously given me permission to quote from it in order to help clear up some of the confusion.

As David points out, size is not the reason – Lake Baikal has more than three times the depth of Lake Tahoe and 160 times the volume, yet is freezes over to a thickness sufficient to support a railway. Nor is it the motion of the water – the Bering Sea is rocked all winter long by violent storms but still forms thick ice cover. The real reason results from a combination of three basic scientific principles:

  1. Freshwater has the unique property of reaching its maximum density at about 39°F – that is, water is densest at a temperature 7°F above the temperature at which it freezes.    For any lake to freeze, its surface waters must cool to 39°F, at which time they become denser than the underlying waters and sink beneath them.  This process continues until the water at all depths is a uniform 39°F, after which the surface waters can continue cooling down to 32°F and begin freezing.
  2. Freshwater bodies gain heat during summer when air temperatures exceed the temperature of the water at the surface and lose it during winter when air temperatures are below the water surface temperature.  The rate at which stored heat is lost during winter depends upon the surface area/volume ratio – lakes with a higher ratio (i.e., they have a large surface area compared to their volume) lose heat quickly, while those with a smaller ratio (small surface area compared to their volume) lose it more slowly.
  3. The rate at which heat is lost is also affected by climate.  Freshwater bodies in colder climates will lose heat more quickly than those with the same surface area and volume in a milder climate.

These three principles combine to explain why Lake Tahoe does not freeze over.  Lake Tahoe has a very small surface area/volume ratio due to its great depth but relatively small circumference.  This limits the rate at which stored heat is lost from the lake during the colder winter months.  The relatively mild climate that occurs in the Tahoe Basin, due to its proximity to the warm Pacific Ocean, further limits the rate at which stored heat is transferred to the air above it.  The result of all this is that the surface temperature of Lake Tahoe never reaches 39°F.  The lake is coldest in late March with a temperature of 41°F at the surface and gradually decreasing to 39°F at a depth of 500-600 ft and below.  Before the surface of the lake has a chance to cool further, increasing sunlight and air temperatures start raising the temperature at the surface.  By early May, surface temperatures reach 50°F, and they peak at 65°F to a depth of 15 ft by mid-August.  However, the summer warming penetrates only to a depth of about 375 ft – where the temperature has remained at 41°F.  Since the upper layers of water never cool below this temperature, they never sink below this depth and allow further cooling to take place.  It is, ironically, a lack of movement that prevents Lake Tahoe from freezing. In order for Lake Tahoe to freeze over, climatic conditions would have to become much colder, or the lake would have to fill in and decrease its depth enough to achieve a sufficiently high surface area/volume ratio.

David also points out that Emerald Bay has formed complete ice cover at least three times during the 20th Century and partial cover in more years. The reason for this is that Emerald Bay lacks the same depth of the main lake – its surface area/volume ratio is high enough to lose its accumulated heat and reach the required 39°F top to bottom during particularly cold winters.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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Trees of Lake Tahoe – The “Other” Conifers

The inviting openness of the Sierra woods is one of their most distinguishing characteristics. The trees of all the species stand more or less apart in groves, or in small, irregular groups, enabling one to find a way nearly everywhere, along sunny colonnades and through openings that have a smooth, parklike surface.–John Muir, The Mountains of California (1894)


In a previous post (Trees of Lake Tahoe – The Pines), I discussed the six species of pine that can be found within the Tahoe Basin. These include Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi) – dominant around the lake at lower elevations, lodgepole pine (P. contorta ssp. murrayana) – common in meadows at lower elevations and replacing Jeffrey pine at higher elevations, ponderosa pine (P. ponderosa) – uncommon in the basin due to its preference for lower elevations, sugar pine (P. lambertiana) – the magnificent giant of high quality mesic sites along the western shore, western white pine (P. monticola) – co-occurring with lodgepole pine at higher elevations, and whitebark pine (P. albicaulis) – covering the highest peaks with its gnarled and twisted form.  In this post, I will cover the five “other” coniferous trees that can be found growing in the Tahoe Basin.  These other conifers belong to several different genera in two gymnospermous families – the Pinaceae and the Cuppressaceae.  Together with the pines, these trees comprise what John Muir described as one of the most diverse and appealing coniferous forests in the world. I am most inclined to agree with him.  The diversity of conifers found in the Tahoe Basin is reflective of the wide range of conditions occurring there as a result of differences in elevation (from 6,200 ft to more than 10,000 ft), exposure, and moisture.

Family-level identification of Tahoe Basin conifers is relatively straightforward – those with needle-shaped leaves belong to the Pinaceae (the pine family), while those with scale-like leaves belong to the Cuppressaceae (the cypress family).  There are other characters that distinguish members of these two families, but leaf shape is the most useful for purposes of field identification.  Nine of the eleven species of conifers found in the Tahoe Basin belong to the Pinaceae, while only two are members of the Cuppressaceae.  Within the families, the genera can be distinguished most readily by the following characters:


  • Pines (Pinus) – needles linear, arranged in bundles or clusters of up to 5 needles held together at the base by sheath of papery bark (discussed in Trees of Lake Tahoe – The Pines).
  • Firs (Abies) – needles more or less flattened, growing directly and singly from the branch and with a plump base that leaves a round depression on the branch.  Cones upright, on upper branches.
  • Hemlocks (Tsuga) – needles more or less flattened and growing directly and singly from the branch like firs, but narrowly stalk-like at the base where they are joined to tiny wooden pegs.  Cones pendant, on outer branches.


  • Incense-cedars (Calocedrus) – scale-like leaves 4-ranked, twigs branching in one plane to form flat sprays, cones > ½” in length, consisting of two large scales separated from a closed center.
  • Junipers (Juniperus) – scale-like leaves arranged in circles of 3, twigs not forming flat sprays, cones < ½” in length, berrylike.

There are three additional coniferous genera in the Sierra Nevada – each represented by a single species and found along the western slope – that do not occur in the Tahoe Basin.  These include: Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) – widespread at elevations from 2,500 ft to 6,000 ft (higher at the southern end of its range); giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) – primarily in Giant Sequoia National Monument, and California nutmeg (Torreya californica) – of scattered occurrence.

White fir (Abies concolor)

As old age creeps on, the bark becomes rougher and grayer, the branches lose their exact regularity, many are snow-bent or broken off,…but throughout all the vicissitudes of its life on the mountains, come what may, the noble grandeur of the species is patent to every eye.


White fir is second only to Jeffrey pine as the dominant conifer at the lower elevations within the Tahoe Basin¹.  It is immediately recognizable as the only non-pine member of the Pinaceae to occur at these elevations – red fir and mountain hemlock are found only at higher elevations in the basin.  Young trees have a nearly perfect pyramidal shape, with silvery gray bark that is thin, smooth, and p1020588_2covered with resin-filled blisters that can be “popped” to shoot out the resin. Older trees develop a more cylindrical and slightly irregular crown, and the bark becomes thick and roughly furrowed, changing to a dark gray or brown color. The foliage has a gray frosted appearance from below, and crushing the needles releases a delightful citrus smell that I found myself partaking in repeatedly. In the narrow elevational zone where white fir and red fir co-exist, white fir may be recognized by its more flattened needles (cannot be “rolled” in the fingers) which are distinctly twisted near the base, causing them to appear 2-ranked. White fir was seen throughout the Tahoe Basin at elevations below around 7,500 ft, and especially along the western shore and southern shores where the greater moisture and protection of north and east facing slopes are to this species liking.

¹ This post by Watching The World Wake Up provides an excellent introduction to the characteristics and distribution of white fir and its relatives. It also contains what must be the best tangent to ever appear in a botanical blog – the connection made between white fir and the alluring Salma Hayek (annoyingly mispelled “Selma” Hayek), softly singing Siente Mi Amor, is pure brilliance!

Despite its “noble grandeur,” white fir may be regarded as somewhat of a pest species. The suppression of fires that have been the hallmark of 20th century forest management have encouraged the replacement of pines throughout the Sierra Nevada by this species. White fir does not tolerate fire as well as the pines with which it occurs, but unlike those species it does well in shadier conditions. The suppression of fires has resulted in dense stands of white firs growing up in the spaces between the pines. Since it tends to retain its lower branches as it grows, when fires do occur the white firs can act as “fire ladders” that allow the fires to reach the upper canopies of the pines. Pines are not as shade tolerant as firs and are thus unlikely to become established beneath the dense canopy of firs. The result of these fire suppression policies are mixed-conifer forests that are denser and contain a much higher proportion of white fir than in the past, making the forests more vulnerable to stand-replacing fires as well as stress-induced insect and disease outbreaks. These counterproductive management policies are beginning to change – and I saw two controlled burns taking place during the week while I was in Lake Tahoe – but there is still much progress yet to be done if we are to once again see large expanses of the “inviting openness” that so captivated John Muir.

Red fir (Abies magnifica)

This is the most charmingly symmetrical of all the giants of the Sierra woods, far surpassing its companion species [white fir] in this respect… Happy the man with the freedom and the love to climb one of these superb trees in full flower and fruit.

p1020785_2I suspected I had seen this magnificent relative of the white fir in the higher elevations at Heavenly Ski Resort on my first trip back to the area last year, but lacking any real knowledge or field guides at the time it remained only a suspicion. When I returned to Heavenly this year, I was ready for it, and I recognized it instantly when I reached elevations around 8,000 ft. The massive trees with deeply reddish bark were unmistakable, and my only disappointment in seeing this species was that I was unable to approach them closely enough to allow a more thorough examination of their needles and bark. Like the white firs I saw at lower elevations, these massive trees had developed a bit of irregularity in their long, cylindrical crowns.

Younger trees can appear more similar to white fir because of their thin, smooth gray bark with elliptical resin blisters. However, in trees both young and old, the foliage is a more boldly colored blue-green than the paler foliage of white fir. p1020784_2Both species develop thick, deeply furrowed bark as they age, but the bark of red fir is distinctly reddish-brown or reddish purple, compared to the dark gray or brown bark of white fir – almost ashen in appearance. In the hand, the needles are not so flattened as white fir – almost quadrangular in cross-section and able to be rolled in the fingers – nor are they distinctly twisted near the base. The photo at right shows a stately red fir on the left next to a Jeffrey pine on the right at Lakeview Lodge on the California side of Heavenly (elevation 8,250 ft – the highest at which I saw the latter species).  I found this species growing in the company of western white pine (Pinus monticola), lodgepole pine (P. contorta ssp. murrayana), and mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana), as well as in groves of its own kind (unfortunately, seen only from my perch upon a ski lift).

Mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana)

The Hemlock Spruce is the most singularly beautiful of all the California coniferæ. So slender is its axis at the top, that it bends over and droops like the stalk of a nodding lily. The branches droop also, and divide into innumerable slender, waving sprays, which are arranged in a varied, eloquent harmony that is wholly indescribable.

p1020804_2I hadn’t a clue whether I would succeed in finding mountain hemlock – I knew it was a denizon of the snowy high mountains, though less common than some of the other high country conifers, and I didn’t recall noticing anything that might be this species during last year’s visit to the slopes of Heavenly. Of course, being a long-time resident of the Midwest I have little experience with hemlocks in general – eastern hemlock (T. canadensis) is on occasion planted in urban landscapes here, but mountain hemlock is markedly different from that species, as well as its Pacific counterpart western hemlock (T. heterophylla), due to its needles growing out of the twigs in all directions rather than in two flat planar sprays. Additionally, the needles are square in cross-section like spruce (Picea), a genus that does not now occur in the Sierra Nevada. These features caused 19th century botanists to suspect that mountain hemlock might have originated from an intergeneric hybridization event, as evidence by John Muir’s reference to it as “Hemlock Spruce.” However, no crosses between genera in the Pinaceae have ever been substantiated, and no compelling evidence of the presumed crossing events proposed for mountain hemlock has been brought forth (Lanner 1999).

p1020803_2Perhaps being primed by the readings I had done beforehand, I knew instantly I had found this species while riding a ski lift and seeing what looked at first like small junipers, but with a Tolkienesque appearance due to the gracefully nodding leader and drooping branch tips.  My hurried attempts to snap photographs of the trees from the moving ski lift produced nothing but skewed views marred by lift cables and passing cars, but once at the summit I was able to ski down to a little grove next to the ski run for closer inspection.  I immediately noticed the many cones clustered at the branch tips and was struck by their pine cone-like appearance. They were quite large – nearly 2” long (massive by hemlock standards).  Sadly, the only examples I would see of this species would be these small trees that only hinted at the charms of the massive specimens with trunks up to six feet in diameter that so enamoured John Muir.  Like the rare Washoe pine (Pinus washoensis) that occurs just outside Tahoe Basin on the eastern slopes of Mt. Rose, attempts to find some of these graceful 100-footers will have to await my next year’s visit.

Incense-cedar (Calocedrus decurrens)

Casting your eye over the general forest from some ridge-top, the color alone of its spiry summits is sufficient to identify it in any company.


The incense-cedar is my favorite of all the Tahoe Basin conifers. The bright, cinnamon-red bark of mature trees, deeply-furrowed, fibrous and peeling, is reminiscent of California’s two most iconic conifers – redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) and giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), respectively the world’s tallest and most massive trees. Incense-cedar is neither as tall as redwood nor as massive as giant sequoia – p1020590_2indeed, it is not even very closely related (redwood and giant sequoia belong to yet another coniferous family, the Taxodiaceae, containing also the graceful but much smaller resident of southeastern U.S. swamps, baldcypress – Taxodium distichum). Nevertheless, old trees – veterans of centuries of fires and storm damage – are stunning specimens to behold, their massive, buttressed trunks often draped in yellow-green mosses and bearing deep basal fire scars, their spired crowns often broken and forked.  Their flattened sprays of foliage give the tree a delicate, lacy appearance in beautiful contrast to its grizzled, gnarled bark. Indeed, even in death these trees stand out for their stark beauty.

Incense-cedar is common at lower elevations in the Tahoe Basin, especially down close to the lake and in the communities ringing the shore. It rarely forms “stands” like white fir and the pines, p1020670_2but rather most often occurs singly – as if to emphasize their distinctiveness. I found it most common along the western shore, where it grows scattered amongst white fir and Jeffrey, sugar, and ponderosa pines. Some of the most massive incense-cedars I have ever seen were found down near the lakeshore along the Rubicon Trail in Emerald Bay State Park. Common on these trees were what I take to be incense-cedar mistletoe (Phoradendron libocedri) (family Santalaceae), which is apparently rare in the Tahoe Basin but known to occur in the mesic forests of the west shore.

Incense-cedar is another of the so-called “wrongly named” conifers – it is not a true cedar (thus, the hyphen in the name), a group of conifers belonging to the genus Cedrus in the family Pinaceae that is found across Eurasia². While somewhat resembling the true cedars, incense-cedar’s closest relatives are restricted to China and Taiwan. p1020640_2Early botanist-explorers, when they first encountered this tree, named it for what it most resembled to them – the old world cedars. This distinctiveness makes older trees the easiest Tahoe Basin conifer to identify. Even it’s cones that litter the ground under mature trees are unique – slender, spindle-shaped, and about an inch long, with the two longest scales bending back at maturity in a manner resembling a wide-open duck’s bill with the tongue sticking out. Young trees resemble Sierra juniper by their scale-like leaves and peeling bark, but the flattened, yellow-green sprays of incense-cedar and shiny reddish coloration of the bark of twigs and younger branches are immediately distinctive.

² There are actually numerous examples of such wrongly named conifers – Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) is not a true fir; eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana), western redcedar (Thuja plicata) and Alaska-cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis) are not true cedars; and baldcypress (Taxodium distichum) is not a true cypress. Long live scientific names!

Like white fir, the Sierra Nevada has seen a bit of a population explosion of incense-cedar due to the fire-suppressive forest management practices of the past century. Despite the thick, fire-resistant bark of older trees, the thin-barked seedlings and saplings are intolerant of fire and grow more slowly than the fire-adapted pines. As a result, the frequent low-intensity fires of the past kept seedling establishment to a minimum, resulting in spot occurrences of mature, fire-resistant specimens. The suppression of these fires, combined with the ability of incense-cedar to germinate in shade and thick layers of duff, have allowed this species to increase in incidence throughout the Sierra Nevada. Along with white fir, it is gradually replacing the pines. This may seem like a good thing from the perspective of foresters and loggers, who value the wood of incense-cedar for its use in making pencils and cedar chests, but from an ecological perspective this has the same negative consequences discussed above for white fir.

Sierra juniper (Juniperus occidentalis ssp. australis)

Its fine color and odd picturesqueness always catch an artist’s eye, but to me the Juniper seems a singularly dull and taciturn tree, never speaking to one’s heart.


This was another conifer that I didn’t recall seeing on my previous visits, but from what I had read I really hoped I did. Gnarly and burly, mature specimens have a weather-beaten, picturesque quality that is unmatched by any other Tahoe Basin conifer save whitebark pine (P. albicaulis). While I did not find this tree to be common in the Tahoe Basin, I did find it in the most surprising of places – Emerald Bay overlook, where I had gazed in admiration at Lake Tahoe on so many previous occassions. This enduring dweller of exposed granite crags grows where no other trees can, anchored to crevices with only the tracest amounts of soil, p1020613_2seemingly thriving on nothing more than rock, snow, and sunshine. Old trees, with their massively short trunks supporting wind-pruned crowns, cannot be mistaken for any other Tahoe Basin conifer. The wood, it seems, is almost as hard as the granite upon which the trees grow, accounting for John Muir’s impression of this tree as without expression – not even the strongest Sierra winds evoke the slightest of shudders or the quietest of whispers in its unyielding bows.

I did not find this species commonly in the areas of the Tahoe Basin that I visited (which were mostly lower elevation sites below 7,000 ft). In addition to the specimens seen at Emerald Bay State Park, I also found this species near Upper Truckee River before the climb to Echo Summit, and I found a number of fine mature specimens outside of the basin proper at Pyramid Creek Geological Area.  Where I did find it, Jeffrey pine was the most common associate, but in most cases the trees stood alone in their own starkness.  Among the Tahoe Basin conifers, the small scale-like leaves are recognizable to almost any easterner as those of juniper, immediately placing it in the family Cuppressaceae alongside incense-cedar.  Even the young trees can be distinguished from that species by their non-glossy foliage borne on twigs that radiate out from the branches in all directions.  p1020602_21The bark of young trees is shreddy and peeling like that of incense-cedar, but it is dull brown to reddish-brown rather than the shiny purple-red color of incense-cedars.

Sierra Nevada populations of Juniperus occidentalis are considered a separate subspecies due to differences in reproduction and elevational preference.  Trees in nominotypical populations, found in northeastern California and up through eastern Oregon and Washington, are found at somewhat lower elevations (4,000 ft to 5,000 ft) and have cones of both sexes on the same tree; while those of subspecies australis, limited to higher elevations (usually from 6,500 ft to over 10,000 ft) in the Sierra Nevada, have either all male cones or all female cones.


Arno, S. F. 1973. Discovering Sierra Trees. Yosemite Association, Yosemite National Park, California, 89 pp.

Graf, M. 1999. Plants of the Tahoe Basin. Flowering Plants, Trees, and Ferns. A Photographic Guide. California Native Plant Society Press, Berkeley, 308 pp.

Muir, J. 1894. The Mountains of California. The Century Co., New York, xiii+381 pp.

Lanner, R. M. 1999. Conifers of California. Cachuma Press, Los Olivos, California, 274 pp.

Peterson, P. V., and P. V. Peterson, Jr. 1975. Native Trees of the Sierra Nevada. University of California Press, Berkeley, 147 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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Winter botany quiz #4

Back to botany mode¹, and in that vein there are a couple of botanically-oriented carnivals with new issues just out.  The first is Berry Go Round #15 at Mary Farmer’s A Neotropical Savanna. An expert botanist herself, Mary presents a nice selection of March blog posts with themes ranging from spring (or not), tropics and the Southern Hemisphere, evolution and extinction, research, and food. The second is Festival of the Trees #34 at Seabrooke Leckie’s the Marvelous in Nature. A naturalist of many talents, Seabrooke has collected posts on trees from around the world and introduces them with her usual sagacity.  I have contributions in both of these carnivals, but of course, you’ve already read them!

¹ One caveat – it occurs to me that I needn’t be apologetic every time I switch to botany mode – the name of my blog is, after all, Beetles In The Bush 🙂

On to business – it’s quiz time again, and while much of the country moves into spring mode, winter hasn’t yet lost its snowy grip completely.  These pictures were taken in the waning days of winter, and I have my suspicions that somebody out there is going to ace this test considering the abundance of clues that have been dropped over the past week or so. In addition to the plant identities, bonus points to anyone who can identify a key commonality among them. As usual, comment moderation has been turned on for the next couple of days or so to give all an equal shot.






Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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Trees of Lake Tahoe – The Pines

The coniferous forest of the Sierra are the grandest and most beautiful in the world, and grow in a delightful climate on the most interesting and accessible of mountain-ranges…–John Muir, The Mountains of California (1894)

During the early 1990’s while I lived in Sacramento, I spent a lot of time exploring the nearby Sierra Nevada – my first true mountain experience after cutting my entomological teeth in my beloved Ozark Highlands.  The beauty of the Sierra is overwhelming (this should be obvious after my last several posts), and it didn’t take long for the deep, clear, blue waters of Lake Tahoe to capture my heart.  One year ago, I returned to Lake Tahoe for the first time since moving back to St. Louis in 1995.  That visit was much too short – only 3 days, but that was more than enough time to rekindle my love affair with Lake Tahoe.  My wife shared those feelings, and together we made a commitment to return to Lake Tahoe every year from then on.

And return we did.  Our primary goals last week were skiing (to invigorate the body) and relaxation (to rejuvenate the mind) – typical goals for working professionals who spend much of the year consumed by the demands of job and family.  In addition, I had another goal of my own – to learn as many of the trees and shrubs that occur in the Tahoe Basin as possible.  I hadn’t done a very good job of this during the time that I lived in California – in those earlier days of insect collecting, I was content to call a pine a pine and a fir a fir and leave it at that.  Over the years, however, I’ve become more and more interested in understanding host plant associations for the woodboring beetles that I study, and to do that I need to become a better botanist.  With a whole week to explore the Tahoe Basin during this year’s trip, I figured I should be able to gain a solid understanding of most of the trees and a good portion of the shrubs that occur in the area.  Maybe, if I was really lucky, I could actually succeed in finding and recognizing every species of conifer known from the Basin.

To make a long story short – yes, I did succeed in building a solid understanding of most of the trees that occur in Tahoe Basin, including all 11 coniferous tree species.  At this point, I have to acknowledge once again the considerable help given by a particularly knowledgeable associate at the U.S.D.A. Forest Service headquarters in South Lake Tahoe.  Without her focused insight on distinguishing characters and locations, I may not have enjoyed the same level of success.  From my discussions with her and what I had gleaned from my readings up to that point, I knew I would have to explore a range of habitats and elevations to find everything I was looking for, always with field guides and camera in pocket.  This post represents the first of a two-part treatment of the coniferous trees that occur naturally in the Tahoe Basin and covers the six species of pine¹ (family Pinaceae, genus Pinus). The second part in this series will cover the remaining conifers in other genera.

¹ Two additional species of pine – Washoe pine (Pinus washoensis) and single-leaf pinyon pine (P. monophylla) – are often treated as occurring in the Lake Tahoe area. However, they are of sporadic occurrence on the eastern slopes of Mount Rose, and thus do not occur within the Tahoe Basin proper.

In the treatments that follow, click on any of the photos to see enlarged versions for a better view of the characters discussed.

Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi)

p1020604_2p1020665_2p1020576_3This is the dominant conifer and pine species in the Tahoe Basin. It is very closely related to ponderosa pine – so much so that some authors have treated it as a variety or synonym of the latter. Here, I follow the opinion of Conifers of California by Ronald M. Lanner (1999), who notes important differences in the chemical composition of its oleoresin (containing an explosive hydrocarbon p1020586_2called normal heptane) in addition to the subtle phenotypic characteristics. At a distance, the species can be recognized by its tall, straight massive trunk and relatively long, symmetrical crown. The bark is generally reddish brown with narrow plates between deep fissures. Like other species in the hard pine subgenus, old trees cease adding height after their crown flattens out (as seen in the photo above, which at first caused me to think it might be sugar pine). This species and ponderosa pine are the only Tahoe Basin pines that bear needles in bundles of three, and their length (up to 10″) and blue-green color also help to distinguish at a distance these two species from the other Tahoe Basin pines. p1020784_2I found the beehive shaped cones of Jeffrey pine to be the most reliable character for distinguishing this species from ponderosa pine – they are more robust, more tightly constructed, and easy to handle because the prickles of open cones curve inward.

This species was the dominant pine at lake level around the entire perimeter of the lake.  It also dominated the forests I saw at Spooner Lake (elevation 7,200′), and I saw a few specimens as high as about 8,000′ elevation at Heavenly Ski Resort.  The photo at right shows this species (right) standing next to red fir, Abies magnifica (left) on the California side of Heavenly. I also found it outside Tahoe Basin on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada down to Pyramid Creek Geological Area at an elevation of about 6,200′.  At that point, ponderosa pine began to take over and dominated at lower elevations.

Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa)

p1020690_2p1020643_2p1020644_2Despite the widespread occurrence of this species across the mountainous west, I knew this species was not common in the Tahoe Basin as it prefers somewhat lower elevations than Jeffrey pine. The U.S.D.A. Forest Service representative told me that I should be able to find this species in Emerald Bay State Park, and that proved to be the case. This species is so similar to Jeffrey pine that it is more useful to discuss the differences only. The photograph in Winter botany quiz #3 shows the more yellow, larger plates of the bark on mature trees that is usually cited as a distinguishing character, but I found this to be unreliable in deciding whether a large tree represented this species or Jeffrey pine.  On several occasions I made a judgment based on the bark and then had to change my mind after looking at the fallen cones underneath.  Furthermore, this character was useless for younger trees that have not yet developed the distinctive plating. Another character often cited is the shape of the crown, which in ponderosa pine is generally shorter and less symmetrical than that of Jeffrey pine and results in the branches starting higher up the trunk in mature trees. I didn’t develop any confidence in this character either. It was not until I started focusing on the fallen cones beneath each tree that I developed a consistent sense of which species was which. In contrast to the robust cones of Jeffrey pine, those of ponderosa pine were almost always slightly smaller, with a more open structure and – most obvious – were very prickly to hold due to the prickles of open cones curving outwards.  p1020663_2The photo at right shows the distinctly outward pointing prickles and more open structure of a ponderosa pine cone (left) versus the distinctly inward pointing prickles of a Jeffrey pine cone (right).

Within Tahoe Basin proper, I didn’t see any trees that I thought represented this species outside of Emerald Bay State Park, where it occurred together with Jeffrey pine in mixed stands.  At higher elevations, Jeffrey pine took over exclusively, while at lower elevations (outside Tahoe Basin, on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada), ponderosa pine eventually took over.  I saw both species in the area of Pyramid Creek Geological Area (about 6,200′ elevation – the same as lake surface within Tahoe Basin).

Sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana)

p1020715_2p1020647_2p1020632_2If there was any pine that I most looked forward to finding on this trip, it was this one². In contrast to the straight, narrow-crowned Jeffrey pines that dominate the Tahoe Basin, mature sugar pines have a ragged quality to them that makes each one unique.  Or at least that was the feeling that I got from my readings. p1020719_2I had seen the giant cones of this tree before up around Tahoe City, but I had never before made the effort to find and recognized the tree itself – to say unequivocally “Wow, that’s a sugar pine!” The wonderfully knowledgeable U.S.D.A. Forest Service associate had told me I might be able to find it along the Vikingsholm and Rubicon Trails at Emerald Bay State Park, but better stands could be found further north along the west shore at D. L. Bliss and Sugar Pine Point (of course) State Parks.

In addition to its distinct crown – tapering, frond-like branches that arch upwards in the upper crown and droop gracefully at the tips, while spreading horizontally below – sugar pine is immediately recognizable from a distance by the long, pendulous cones (usually a foot or more in length) hanging from the branch tips. It wasn’t long into my hike on the Vikingsholm Trail before I spotted the distinctive cones on a tree down by Vikingsholm Castle. Up close, the bark of mature trees is dark reddish and narrowly fissured, similar to Jeffrey pine but not so distinctly “plated.” p1020581_2Younger trees not yet bearing cones lack such distinctive characters, but they can still be recognized by their needles in bundles of five (about 4″ in length, much shorter than Jeffrey and ponderosa pine) – which places them in the soft pine subgenus – and smooth, gray bark. There are three soft pine species in the Tahoe Basin, but the other two – western white pine and whitebark pine – are found at higher altitudes than lake level. After hiking at Emerald Bay State Park, I drove up to D. L. Bliss State Park, and even from the road the towering asymmetrical crowns were immediately recognizable.  Rising like giant monuments, these largest of pines were full of character and stood in defiant contrast to the uniformly symmetrical crowns of the Jeffrey pines and white firs (Abies concolor) that surrounded them.  I would see this species along the entire western shore – just uncommonly enough to make each new sighting a delight.  This species appears to favor the greater moisture of the western shore, as I only saw a single tree of this species while driving the eastern shore in Nevada.

² I equally looked forward to seeing whitebark pine, but I knew I would find good stands of this hauntingly beautiful species on the high peaks at Heavenly Ski Resort, where I had seen and recognized it for what it was during last year’s trip.

Western white pine (Pinus monticola)

p1020797_2p1020796_2p1020787_2I wasn’t sure I would find this species at first – my readings suggested, and the U.S.D.A. Forest Service associate confirmed, that I would need to visit higher altitudes than around the lake to find this species. I held out hope that I might see it on my final day during the trip, when we went skiing at Heavenly Ski Resort. This species is another member of the soft pine subgenus, with its needles in bundles of five and looking very similar to those of the closely related sugar pine. I learned, were I to find it, that its crown of horizontal branches would appear more tightly and neatly layered, and that the upward arching branches of the upper crown would not droop at their tips. I also learned that the cones, smaller than those of sugar pine, would cluster erectly at the tips of the branches rather than hanging pendulously. My skepticism at being able to find and recognize this tree would prove to be unfounded. As soon as I reached the upper elevations of the ski resort, the robust, mature trees of this species were immediately recognizable – the crown shape and shape of the hanging cones were unmistakable. The foliage and young bark resembles that of sugar pine, but older trees quickly develop a thick, deeply-fissured, dark, purplish-brown bark that has a checkered appearance. They’re not as tall as sugar pine, but stouter and more robust. The trunks of some of the trees I saw were as massive as the largest ponderosa pines I had seen down near Vikingsholm Castle. I saw this species at elevations above about 8,000′ on both the California and the Nevada sides of Heavenly Ski Resort.

Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta ssp. murrayana)

p1020733_2p1020582_21p1020635_2In the Jeffrey pine dominated zone around the Tahoe Basin, lodgepole pine is the second most common pine species. It is also one of the most easily recognized species due to its thin, flaky bark – light, brownish-gray in color and almost appearing orange from a distance, brown and gray mottled up close. I recognized this as something different right away when I started noticing nearly uniform stands in the wet meadow areas around the southern lake shore. It’s not as big as the Jeffrey and other pines I’ve discussed, and although the trunk is straight as in the others, the crown tends to be narrower. It has the shortest needles of any of the Tahoe Basin pines – only about 2″ – and is also the only pine in the area with its needles in bundles of two – all other Tahoe Basin pine species have needles in bundles of three (Jeffrey and ponderosa) or five (sugar, western white, and whitebark).  p1020731_2This gives the foliage a finer, more delicate appearance, as seen in the photo at right with lodgepole pine on the right and Jeffrey pine on the left.  Lodgepole pine cones are quite small, only about 2″ in length, with an open structure and distinctive dark tips that contrast strongly with the brown scale bases.

I found this species sporadically throughout the forests along the Vikingsholm and Rubicon Trails when I hiked Emerald State Park; however, the best stands were seen in the meadows along the Upper Truckee River near the city of South Lake Tahoe and while cross-country skiing around Spooner Meadow near Spooner Lake in Nevada (elevation about 7,000′). This species likes moisture and is the dominant pine in the many wet meadow areas that are found in the Tahoe Basin. The photo below was taken at Spooner Meadow and shows the stands of lodgepole pine in the meadow, with Jeffrey pine taking over on the elevated hillsides. p1020738_2I also saw this species commonly at much higher elevations (about 8,000-9,000′) at Heavenly Ski Resort, where it took on a more stunted, windswept growth form that at first made me think I was seeing whitebark pine.

The Sierra Nevada-Cascade populations of this species are assigned to subspecies murrayana, while populations in the Coastal Range and Rocky Mountains are assigned to the nominate subspecies and subspecies latifolia, respectively. The three populations lost contact with each other when their ranges shrank during the Pleistocene glaciations, resulting in subspecific divergence before expanding their ranges northward again as the ice sheets retreated. A fourth subspecies in Mendocino, bolanderi, is believed to have evolved from a soil race or ecotype of coastal lodgepole.

Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis)

p1020794_2Whitebark pine is without question the most grotesquely beautiful of the Tahoe Basin pines. Growing only at the highest elevations, it develops a spectacular windswept form through endless pounding by fierce alpine winds and heavy snowpacks. Nearly pure stands of this tree were seen near the summits at 9,000-10,000′ elevation on both the California and the Nevada sides of Heavenly Ski Resort. It is usually encountered as a multistemmed plant with upswept branches and twisted, crooked trunks, a result of its unique association with Clark’s nutcrackers, who live almost exclusively on a diet of pine nuts. These birds harvest the seeds, which do not exit the cone as in most other pines, and cache them in groups of usually 3-4, relying on their memory to find their caches at a later date. p1020793_2Lanner (1999) refers to a 1990 study at Tioga Pass in the Sierra Nevada, in which it was estimated that each adult nutcracker cached an average 89,000 seeds and each juvenile about 34,000 seeds. In years when abundant seed crops are produced, the nutcrackers cache many more seeds than they or their offspring can utilize. It is these unrecovered caches that allow regeneration of whitebark pine, and the majority of trees that grow from them are members of stem clumps. Whitebark pine has no other mechanism for dispersing its seeds and is thus completely dependent upon Clark’s nutcracker for its regeneration.

p1020792_2Up close, whitebark pine needles are relatively short (usually about 2″ in length) and stout, and their bundles of five immediately distinguish this species from lodgepole pines which may grow with them and mimic their windswept form. The yellow-green needles lack the bluish cast of western white pine needles. The bark on the branches is smooth like the other soft pines but had a slightly reddish cast rather than the silvery gray color of sugar and western white pine or the flaky, orange-gray appearance of lodgepole pine.

In part two of this series, I’ll treat the remaining conifers of the Tahoe Basin, which include Abies and Tsuga in the Pinaceae and Calocedrus and Juniperus in the Cupressaceae.


Arno, S. F. 1973. Discovering Sierra Trees. Yosemite Association, Yosemite National Park, California, 89 pp. (at only $5, this is an excellent, informative book with beautiful ink drawings).

Graf, M.  1999. Plants of the Tahoe Basin.  Flowering Plants, Trees, and Ferns.  A Photographic Guide. California Native Plant Society Press, Berkeley, 308 pp.  (another excellent resource for plants specific to the Tahoe Basin).

Lanner, R. M.  1999. Conifers of California.  Cachuma Press, Los Olivos, California, 274 pp. (the ultimate resource for conifers in California).

Peterson, P. V., and P. V. Peterson, Jr.  1975. Native Trees of the Sierra Nevada.  University of California Press, Berkeley, 147 pp. (this compact field guide was in my pocket at all times).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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Winter botany quiz #3

I won’t be coy about the location of these trees, all of which were photographed within the Lake Tahoe Basin during my recent trip. A further clue: I have already alluded to these species in a previous post. Once again, comment moderation has been turned on to give everyone a fair shot, and I’ll let the quiz go for a couple days or so. I think this quiz will be easier for my North American readers than Winter botany quiz #2, but maybe still harder than Winter botany quiz #1. Anyone who can correctly identify all six species wins my undying admiration 😉

EDIT: Pedant that I am, attention to nomenclature will serve as a tie-breaker if needed.



HINT: Needles in bundles of 3 and about 10" long.



HINT: Needles in bundles of 3 and about 10" long.



Cones for #1 (left) and #2 (right).



HINT: Needles in bundles of 2 and about 2" long.



HINT: Needles in bundles of 5 and about 4" long.



HINT: Needles in bundles of 5 and about 4" long.



HINT: Needles in bundles of 5 and about 3" long.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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Sand Harbor Overlook, Nevada

Lake Tahoe is fabulously beautiful from almost any perspective. There are certain places around the lake, however, whose beauty is so striking, so stunning, that one begins to believe they must have been copied from a starving artist’s painting or some inspirational poster. I have already highlighted one of these places – Emerald Bay, sitting at the lake’s southeastern corner on the California side. Emerald Bay is, in fact, the most dramatic example of the beauty that characterizes Lake Tahoe’s entire western shore – a boulder-strewn landscape sprouting rich forests of white fir, pine, and incense-cedar, massively trunked and often draped with lime-green mosses and lichens.


Nevada’s eastern shore, in contrast, has a different feel – its forests more open and dominated by Jeffrey pine due to the relatively lower amounts of rain and snow that reach the eastern shore. I do not mean to imply, however, that the eastern shore is any less beautiful than the western shore – far from it, and after a day of cross-country skiing at Spooner Lake (just below Spooner Summit, elevation 7,200′), my family and I discovered an eastern shore jewel with as much raw, overwhelming beauty as any of Lake Tahoe’s other premier scenic vantage points – Sand Harbor Overlook.


While the views from Sand Harbor Overlook may not match the grandeur of Emerald Bay, they certainly equal (and perhaps surpass) its more famous landmark in their intimacy and varied perspectives. Whether viewed from high atop the granite point that jutts out into shallow, sandy-bottomed bay, or from lake level atop one of the half-submerged granite boulders, no other vista around the lake shows off Lake Tahoe’s famously clear waters better than Sand Harbor Overlook. Moreover, unlike most of scenic points around the lake, views of the vantage point itself are as dramatic as the views from it.


I suspect that during the summer months, Sand Harbor Overlook is trampled daily by an unending stream of sightseers, many of whom quickly jump out of their cars and briskly search for a spot or two from which they can take photographs before jumping back into their cars and rushing off to the next scenic spot. Such “power” sightseers rarely experience the full beauty offered by Sand Harbor Overlook – their photographs cluttered by strangers in bright clothes, and their memories of what they saw limited to an instant in time. Similar to our experience at Pyramid Creek Geological Area, we had the good fortune to experience the beauty of Sand Harbor Overlook in complete solitude – able to slowly imbibe the subtlties of scale and nuances of each vantage as we explored the area with leisure and reverence. Unmolested by strangers, our contemplations were free to meander slowly, unintruded by persistent background chatter and adolescent shouting. While I came to Lake Tahoe this winter to enjoy the skiing, I walk away with renewed awe at its extraordinary, unending beauty.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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