Posts by Katharine Rudnyk

The bench in front of the Engelmann Oak at the Los Angeles Arboretum. All photos by Kathy Rudnyk.

Just as my family tree in the San Gabriel Valley has changed over the generations, the various native plant communities within the same area have also been compromised. None more apparent than Southern Oak Woodland.  This community includes principal trees such as the Engelmann Oak (Quercus engelmannii), Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia), Black Walnut (Juglans californica).  Of those three, the Engelmann Oak has suffered the greatest impact, but it has the treasured opportunity to be recognized for its beauty and unique distinction to San Gabriel Valley.

Once found throughout the San Gabriel Valley, the Engelmann Oak has most recently suffered greatly from insect and fungal pathogen damage, followed by poor cultural practices like overwatering. Urbanization and stress caused by drought and fires have also posed a greater threat to these legacy trees. The population has also been afflicted by a lack of availability in the trade until now. I was so inspired by seeing beautiful Engelmann Oaks at The Huntington Botanical Garden, Los Angeles County Arboretum, and this year’s Theodore Payne Annual Native Plant Tour, that I wanted to learn even more about its roots within the Southern Oak Woodland native plant community.

On the right: A young Engelmann Oak at the Huntington Library Botanical Garden.

For some unknown reason, my family and I have always enjoyed learning about our ancestors. Maybe it’s because we are all scientifically and oddly inquisitive – a family of nerds right at home in the land of JPL, CalTech and SpaceX. And we are all also surprisingly of sturdy stock like an oak tree.

My late grandfather respected the oak so much that he asked that the California Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) be etched onto his tombstone. He also planted a White Oak (Quercus robur) close to his home. Exploring the genealogy of the Genus – Quercus and its relationships has helped me learn more about my own roots within Southern California.

Sadly, you can’t just go to Ancestors.com for answers about the roots of an actual tree. You need to go to a library of natural history. So off I went on a Saturday to the Los Angeles Arboretum. I culled the stacks and found a manuscript written by Bruce M. Pavlik titled, A Natural History of Southern California Oaks, with Emphasis on Those Occurring within the District.  After reading it, I hiked around the park for further inspiration about the Southern Oak Woodland native plant community.

Published in 1976, Pavlik’s manuscript shared many of the same concerns about the California native oaks within the Los Angeles district that are threatened today. Most significantly, he called for the protection of Engelmannn Oaks in response to the rapid urbanization of the San Gabriel Valley in the 1970s.  Prior to development, Engelmann Oaks were only threatened by horse and cattle grazing, which destroyed any opportunity for seedlings to flourish into trees around the valley floor. The young trees survived only along the ridge lines, because it was too dangerous for cattle and horses to graze upon their foliage.

Within its family tree/taxonomy, the Genus amongst California native oaks resides in the order of Fagales, consisting of the families Betulaceae and Fagaceae.  Birch (Betula), Alders (Alnus), and Hazelnut (Corylus) reside in the family of Betulaceae, and they are the closest of relatives of California native oaks.  Within the family Fagaceae are the Genus of oaks and their relatives, such as Chrysolepis, Quercus, and Lithocarpus.

The mid-sized, evergreen Engelmann Oak has the distinct characteristics of a California Live Oak, yet, instead of green leaves that are slightly serrated, it has vibrant blue-grayish-green leaves that are rather long in length and relatively unserrated edges.  The tree’s acorns have a slightly hairy underside on the cap. The acorns of this particular tree were harvested last by the native peoples for food, as acorns from other species like the Valley Oak (Quercus lobata) and Coastal Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) tasted better or offered more nutrients.  Unfortunately for the Engelmann Oak, it was most preferred by the locals as firewood, as its wood seemed to burn the longest of all local hardwood trees.

An Engelmann Oak finds a few admirers during the 2017 Theodore Payne Native Plant Tour.

These impressive trees are rarely found north of Pasadena, and only along the northern side of a foothill, generally in thick stands within shallow soil supporting aromatic plants White Sage (Salvia apiana), California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum), and California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica).  Along the valley floors and around mesas, Engelmann Oaks were surrounded by California Poppies (Eschscholzia californica) and Purple Needle Grass (Stipa pulchra) growing around the base of these majestic trees. I bet this was a very beautiful sight my ancestors enjoyed living in San Marino, Sierra Madre, and Monrovia prior to the mid-1850s. Engelmann Oaks were once spotted along a 50 mile wide beltway from Pasadena, all the way to Mexico, always at least 15 to 20 feet from the nearest coastline.

The Engelmann Oak shares the growth rate of the Coastal Live Oak, growing about 8’ in 5 years.  Of all the oaks, the Valley Oak grows the fastest at 15’ in 5 years. Lucky for us, the Engelmann Oak is now available to purchase from a local tree nursery, and it can still be found around growing within neighborhoods of Duarte, Pasadena, Azusa, and Glendora. The Los Angeles Arboretum and the Huntington Botanical Garden have a few that you can see, touch, study, and enjoy.  I really found walking through the tree’s dense pillow of foliage debris lining the way toward a bench underneath the massive tree at the LA Arboretum unlike anything I have ever done in Los Angeles.

Two Engelmann Oaks discovered in Pasadena using Google Earth.

I went onto Google Earth to continue searching for more EEngelmann Oaks within the area, looking out for a particular hue that helps identify the trees from others.  The Engelmann Oaks are fairly easy to spot based upon their color of foliage depicted on Google Earth.  It was like finding members of your family tree that you did not know existed. The activity made me want to look for even more Engelmann Oaks and determine how to enable further protection of them or build more colonies of these special trees unique to San Gabriel Valley.

Engelmann Oaks can help make the San Gabriel Valley a better and more beautiful community, while strengthening the native plant community of the Southern Oak Woodland. So hopefully everything I’ve shared above will compel others to appreciate and plant some of these wondrous native oaks.

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Driving along the 134 to the 210 Freeway, then south on the 57 through the flurry of cities situated across the foothills of the San Gabriel Valley, you cannot miss the oversized mountain monograms neatly resting across the foothills. Each letter represents the name of a city or place nearby (like a university, such as Cal Poly Pomona).

When flying over the foothills from LAX, heading toward Midwestern cities like Minneapolis, Chicago or Detroit, one can spy the very tall profiles of Canary Island Pines (Pinus canariensis) from above.  Traveling so high and fast, even the tall pine trees blend together into green blobs, intersected by spider web patterns of concrete, and dotted with tiny gray and brown rooftops with the occasional flash of sparkling blue swimming pools.  The one thing that clearly stands out while comfortably seated in a plane is the letter on the hillside!  Once I spot the letter “A”, I know where to geolocate my home.

These oversized hillside letters are a type of geoglyph – large, land designs made with stones, trees and shrubs, earth or other elements. Some geoglyphs have been traced back to 2,000 years ago, with various meanings and purposes associated to them: way-finding markers for earthlings, spiritual symbols, or perhaps – if you are into theories a bit more otherworldly – something related to the extraterrestrial.

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Australian Andrew Rogers designs and installs geoglyphs all over the world. Built in 2008, it was his first installation in America. Whether they’re  still maintained in Yucca Valley, CA isn’t unknown.

Last week, my husband Adrian and I got our hair cut at the Covina salon where my stylist and friend Liz works. I saw on the Azusa City News Facebook page that her husband Patrick and friends recently volunteered to repair the “A” in Azusa on the steep, rattlesnake infested foothills.  I really appreciate that he and others like him are trying to keep our communities looking good and giving back through the “Big ‘A’ Project”!

Volunteers replace the tarp that keep the “A” in Azusa looking good. Photos via the Azusa City News Facebook page.

Recently, they went up the ridge and entered with permission onto private property so they could access the “A” that lies on hillside property managed by Joint Powers Authority, on behalf of the City of Azusa.  I always wondered what the “A” was made of.

“Tarps,” was the simple and short reply.

They are currently raising money through YouCaring to redesign the temporary “A” design into a more permanent one, as well as collect funds for regular maintenance around the site. In hearing about their plans, it was impossible for me not to think about which materials could create a more permanent design, especially when factoring in the limitations of a site where material could not be delivered via truck or crane. Plants would be cool. I could think of a few wonderful options, but there would be regular maintenance needed to keep the “A” looking neat and tidy, and it is not an easy location to reach, unfortunately.

Back in 1928, during high school, my late grandfather Martin set the rocks that make up the “M” in Monrovia .  The “M” was constructed with lots of rocks, each painted white, but likely reset years later. Whenever Monrovia High School wins a football game, the “M” is magically transformed by lights into a “V” for “Victory.” It made me think of all the materials that make up other letters on the hillsides of California, how it all started, and whether there is a future for these letters and hillside designs.

There are at least 80 hillside monograms set into the hillsides of California.  The oldest known letter is the “C” in UC Berkeley. The collegiate geoglyph rests neatly between a clearing of trees and turf.  A number of other mountain monograms reside right here in Los Angeles County:

 Monogram    City
 A  Agoura Hills, CA
 A  Azusa, CA
 B  Burbank, CA
 CLU  Thousand Oaks, CA (California Lutheran University)
 CPP  Pomona, CA (Cal Poly Pomona)
 D  Duarte, CA
 H  Glendale, CA (Hoover High School)
 LA  Hacienda Heights, CA (Los Altos High School)
 LMU  Los Angeles, CA (Loyola Marymount University)
 M  Monrovia, CA
 W  Whittier, CA

The 2009 Toyota Prius Harmony Floralscapes. Photo: Toyota

My favorite modern geoglyph was created in 2009 using what looked like an arrangement of 20,000 4” Petunias within a 30’ x 60’ display by the now defunct marketing firm Greenroad Media with advertising firm, M&C Saatchi Los Angeles. One of the seven floral displays was created along the 110 Freeway in promotion of the Toyota Prius brand. Unable to safely pull over to investigate, I drove in circles to just see how it was set up on the side of the freeway (Note: it isn’t uncommon while traveling with a horticulturalist that they may insist driving back in circles to investigate a particular plant or tree over and over again until their curiosity is satiated).  The floral installation appeared overnight, like a Banksy mural – a colorful, rising sun with what looked like a car around it, but it really had no connection to the Prius.

Photo: Toyota

After its installation, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa remarked, “The commute for Angelenos will now be brightened by floral murals that embody the city’s progressive approach to solving environmental issues by merging beautification, sustainable design and reducing our carbon footprint.” Early into the region’s serious drought, the planting design with annuals may not have been as sustainable as the mayor proclaimed. It was a great start to something bigger, an interest in horticulture around the freeways – a living, beautiful branding opportunity paid for by a private venture. Nothing has happened since then on the slopes of the freeway, but it does not mean that something beautiful cannot bloom to feed hungry pollinators on the side of our motorways in the near future. There remains opportunities to further explore sustainable design in similar fashion.

As more people use Google Maps to virtually fly over hillsides and rooftops to way-find or seek out interesting points of interest, I can’t help believe we’ll see new geoglyphs come to life. Colorful, living, and sustainable designs may arise in relation to maximizing property use for commercial purposes. For example, the increasing use of drones could create a demand for marketing messages designed to be seen high above from a property. Just as cities brand their identity on a hillside, so will private property owners using their rooftops. Finding those arid-loving plants capable of tolerating reclaimed water and a small amount of substrate or soil on the rooftop will make the project even more complex. I am definitely interested in offering plants as a solution to the urban heat island in tight spaces or along steep slopes, as well as providing an opportunity to share a relevant message or colors through amazing sustainable planting design.

Photo: Brian Garrett/Creative Commons License

Shadowy blurs fly overhead, looping in acrobatic treble clefs across the dusk sky. Occasionally an audible sound is heard coming from these winged hunters as they gobble up thousands of insects during this aerial evening feast. That’s the dinner show I get to witness during the summer months from my Glendora backyard when the local bats return to our local skies.

But it’s not summer yet and the bats are already here!

Thirty years living in the same Glendora house and I’ve never seen so many bats this early in the year. Was this early arrival attributable to the glowing effects of a very wet winter? Or perhaps I’m just noticing a specific bat species most active during the spring within the San Gabriel Valley. Lots of questions to ponder while watching the evolving night sky. Nevertheless, I’m pleased with the idea that their early arrival may coincide with a decline in mosquito and beetle populations. Maybe…just maybe… I won’t stress as much about getting West Nile Virus. According to Bat Rescue, a single bat can consume up to 1,000 mosquitoes an hour, so imagine the damage 20 bats flying around like I saw last night could do!

Currently, seven species of bats have been identified in Glendora alone. Biologist Lauren Dorough determined in the greater range of Orange County that there are 16 species of bats from amongst the 25 species currently found in California.  A few species have adapted to the urban environment by roosting under bridges and inside abandoned buildings, environments very different from the natural environments that their bat-cestors once enjoyed. What a new, rich habitat for bats!

Even with such adaptations, it’s important to note the population of bats as a whole has been impacted significantly by disease. Bat Rescue notes 40% of American bat species are in serious decline or listed as endangered or threatened. Bat Conservation International reports in North America alone, 5.7 million bats have died from White-nose Syndrome, a disease that strikes bats while they’re hibernating. Sourced back to a New York cave, the deadly disease has caused 100% mortality rates throughout the U.S.

Besides diseases, bats have been impacted by wind turbines. The winged mammals have a propensity to collide into the fast moving blades while migrating to hunt or return to their nests. My family and I once toyed with the idea of producing electric energy and installing wind turbines within our Texas property, but we only considered its impact on birds, ignorant then of the hazard it presents to bats. I would hope others interested in wind turbines will consider bat populations nearby.

Besides controlling mosquito populations, bats also produce beneficial bat guano. Guano is the waste product produced by bats and is gathered from their caves to embellish fertilizer, create antibiotics, and detoxify wastes. Like many natural resource, bat guano has been overharvested, harming precious ecosystems that revolve around its existence. Guano itself can also contain serious diseases easily transmitted to humans. Thus, extracting bat guano without the care of trained professionals is not recommended. Bats within the San Gabriel Valley have been found with the rabies virus within the past 10 years. If you do find a bat in or around your home or property where it is unwanted, it’s highly recommended to contact a bat specialist or your local vector control for safe removal.

A lesser long-nosed bat pollinates a cross section of a saguaro cactus flower. Creative Commons photo by Merlin D. Tuttle, Bat Conservation International.

Guano may be dangerous, but bats themselves are highly beneficial. They are an important crop pollinator, spreading the pollen of peaches, almonds, dates, mangoes, and figs.  They also are exceptional at dispersing seeds that may attach to their fur or carried within their tiny mouths. Unlike bees that are daytime pollinators, bats are nighttime pollinators, and enjoy agave flowers and other twilight blooming funnel/tube-shaped flowers like Lonicera, Yucca, Nicotiana, or Datura. You may even see a bat pollinating your backyard peach tree or the native Erigeron!

Those with a concern and affinity for these important nocturnal animals can help populations by buying bat boxes and posting them high up to create a colony of bats. Planting an evening blooming garden for night time pollination can be enjoyed with the aid of a webcam equipped with night vision.

There are so many amazing things that bats do humans. Did you know that vampire bat saliva is used to produces an anticoagulant that aids stroke victims and heart patients?  Next time you’re hanging out in your backyard or a ¼ of a mile near the closest water source, pull up a chair and look into the night sky like I did. Who knows, maybe a bat will fly by, and you will know it is hard at work.

Feel free to share your bat stories…I am all ears! All joking aside, bats really do have amazing hearing. Their echolocation abilities are so sensitive they can detect targets nearly a yardstick away within a 6/1,000th of a second, so perhaps they heard and appreciated my joke. I look forward to going batty for bats right along with you.

Resources:
Field Guide to Bats in the San Gabriel Mountains
Mapping the Bat Population in Southern California
Here’s to the Bats of California!
Bats In The Desert And The Southwest

“Garcia Trail, overlooking Azusa, Glendora, and beyond” – Photo by Jon Coyne / Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When I moved to California from Louisiana over 25 years ago, I found solace hiking the Garcia Trail – a trail that leisurely swirls along the foothills behind my house and connects the City of Azusa to the San Gabriel National Monument. Over the years, I discovered that the architect who designed our dining room intentionally placed a row of long, narrow windows sky high so inhabitants could quickly spot a bright white cross at the top of the foothill and also watch hikers as they traveled through a narrow and dense chaparral passage.

From our dining room I’d witness morning hikers in joyful exuberance as they reached the top, their ebullient echoes cascaded down the hill – so loud they could be heard even under the bright lights of our chandelier!

Back at the trailhead, a small handmade wooden camp sign with “Garcia Trail” and an arrow can be found. It’s hidden behind a thick planting of Thuja plicata (Western Cedar), Cedrus deodara (Deodar Cedar), Pinus canariensis (Canary Island Pine), Lantana sellowiana (Creeping Lantana) and thorny Bougainvillea ‘Monka’ (Oo-La-La™ Bougainvillea) – a line-up following the slopes along the first switchback.


Photo by Brian Altmeyer / Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Further along hikers are met by thick brush of fragrant native plants like, Heteromeles arbutifolia (Toyon), assorted Ceanothus (California Lilac) and Rhus ovata (Coffeeberry).  These bushy plants offer the only shady refuge along the southern side of the sunny and hot foothill.  Continuing up the trail, the fire road shrinks into a slippery and steep gravel-laden single lane. The trail becomes regularly worn from all of the constant foot traffic and water flow during the year.

Yet, the white cross at the trail top – perhaps with visions of God beckoning from the distance – seems to help motivate plenty of hikers ever upward. Regarding more earthly concerns: firemen can be seen regularly using the trail for endurance training, so I like to believe there are always earthly angels nearby.

This past Friday, I found myself pondering whether the Garcia Trail is used by the same mountain lion that was spotted in a tree across the street from the local park close by. Occasionally hunters can also be found on the trail; I’ve wondered after crossing paths if they thought we were dinner or just in the way.  Into late summer bears, snakes, tarantulas, bobcats, skunks, raccoons, or even coyotes spook/thrill hikers along the trail.

During these instances where a hiker confronts wildlife, who goes first, you or the coyote? I imagine freezing up and whispering to my hiking companion, “What should we do next?”  Probably the best advice is to take a deep breath, pause for a moment…then just walk/run down the hillside.

Photos by Suzan Beall Weathermon

I will never forget when a prospective wealthy neighbor purchased a property with an easement of the Garcia Trail dividing it. He wanted to build his family home against the hillside and spared no expense in attempting to realize his dreams. Urban legend has it that he was afraid animals would invade their homestead. In response the homeowner built the “Great Wall of Glendora” out of concrete blocks and rebar along the steep grade with the help of laborers. Note: large animals can still jump this barrier with ease.

It’s been 10 years since city officials signed off on this project, so it wasn’t like it was done generations ago without any thought of how it could impact the surrounding environment.  Ironically, the homeowner was unable to build to his home to desired specifications due to a hillside ordinance, so he moved elsewhere, leaving behind his unintended monument.

Something magical happened in 2007 as the recession began to sink deep into the Valley: locals decided to forgo renewing expensive gym memberships and rediscovered the calling of nature in its place. Or so it seemed from the sights through my dining room windows, where I would regularly watch an ant line of exercisers marching up Garcia Trail.

The Garcia Trail became a singles mecca and a regular activity destination for the Korean Hiking Club, a group that would arrive to the trailhead inside a 55 passenger tour bus. And then there were the cars…rows and rows of cars that eventually wrapped around the streets of Azusa and Glendora. Thieves randomly broke into hikers’ cars while they were busy ascending ever upward. Social media and local hiking professionals alike would tout the trail’s beauty, relishing in the trails demanding level of difficulty. Impressive photographs shared online even generated even more visitors seeking similar experiences. Azusa Pacific University’s annual volunteer trail maintenance team could not keep up with the increase of foot traffic or trash left behind.

The bright lights and loudspeakers of the Glendora sheriff and and Azusa police helicopters took over the surrounding landscape at all hours of the day and night. People were asked to leave. Rescues were a regular occurrence. Hiking around that big “A”, clearly visible from the 210, exuded an excitement not unlike clubbing in Hollywood (except outdoors).

There are over 20 different trails within Glendora and Azusa that offer a similar stellar valley view. But for some reason, the Garcia Trail 2.7 mile distance became the “it” trail.  In the end the Garcia Trail was unable to safely handle the influx of traffic, trash, and erosion across its length – a victim of its own popularity.

In 2013 the City of Glendora approved and installed “No Parking” signs along the city streets leading up to the trail. Even afterward, people walked their dogs and even small children in the middle of the road as if Sierra Madre Blvd. was an extension of the trail.

Then on January 16, 2014, the Colby Fire erupted, destroying the Garcia Trail in its scorched path. The multi-year drought turned the area’s naturally dry foliage into an even more potentially dangerous fuel source for raging forest fires. A reckless campfire set by a group of cold homeless men ignited the brush aflame. The surrounding chaparral was so thick and dense with highly flammable growth – the last fire having occurred way back in 1968 – the Colby Fire eventually ended up burning for 10 straight days.

The fire began over a mile and half away, but ended up burning within 300 feet from my home. Powerful canyon winds and the fast moving fire compelled my husband and I to gather our belongings and cat to evacuate in just fifteen minutes. According to hiking enthusiast Dan Simpson’s website, “officials issued an indefinite closure based on an assessment/report of the Garcia Trail condition by the collaborative efforts of the Burn Area Emergency Response (BAER) Team (U.S. Forest Service, L.A. County Fire Department’s Forestry Division, and USGS).”

A photo of the trail taken by the Azusa Police Department.

Online, heated debates whether the trail should, could, or will be rebuilt rages on. As urban development continues into the surrounding foothills, hiking trails have suffered similar challenges. The South Hills in Glendora rides along the edges of the 57 and 210 freeways, with a network of trails once surrounded by a couple of nurseries growing container plants within its boundaries. The Monrovia Nursery Company and Colorama Nursery leased properties from the City of Glendora; both both nurseries have moved their production of container plants elsewhere, leaving 20 acres for development or some other creative option.

April marks the observance of World Landscape Architecture Month,  as well as National Gardening Month. Now seems an appropriate time and opportunity to recommend government officials to hire a landscape architect to ensure safe passage through urban and/or historic nature trails. Landscape architects are professionals capable of providing site analysis, review grading, and conduct research. Landscape architects also partner with other related professionals, like grant writers, horticulturalists, ecologists, geologists, architects, engineers, or planners, to ensure an effective and enjoyable trail design for all.

Today, I still enjoy the sounds of happy hikers on the Garcia Trail – even though we rarely use the dining room anymore. But it will take more than a squad of volunteers to repair the trail. The trail will require a professional inventory consisting of site analysis, action, and funding plans to create a safe passage with an exceptionally written maintenance plan that can stand the test of time. If the trailhead is moved, we can only accept that it was done to ensure health, safety and welfare for all hikers, as well as approach the burden of liability and maintenance on the trails.

Those with a deeper interest in the Garcia Trail are invited to express their opinion during next week’s Azusa City Council Meeting on April 17th at 7:30 pm.

After living in the San Gabriel Valley for nearly 30 years, I thought I had seen and done everything nearby until I started researching about the forests of California. Partially due to proximity and also thanks to television news covering various fires over the years, nearby forests like Angeles National Forest, Cleveland National Forest, and San Bernardino National Forest are well known.  But the San Dimas Experimental Forest (SDEF) right in my backyard? Until recently I did not even know it existed.

Photo by Kathy Rudnyk

According to the US Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station, the San Dimas Experimental Forest is the only experimental forest in Southern California. This forest is used to gather data for multiple organizations, such as US Forest Service, USDA, National Atmospheric Deposition Program/National Trends Network, and UNESCO. Established in 1933, it was designed to study hydrology and ecology, but then it grew into many more research opportunities.

Listed as a Biosphere Reserve through UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB).  This organization gathers and studies scientific data to investigate just how people relate to their natural environment – a “landscapes for learning”, “experimental ecological reserve” or a “laboratory regions of sustainable development”.  According to the MAB, there are 669 biosphere reserves located in 120 countries all over the world. Of that total number, America hosts 47 biosphere reserves. (more…)