Yosemite > Library > Yosemite Trails > 8. The Forests of The Yosemite Region >
Next: Great Sequoias • Contents • Previous: Yosemite Falls to Big Oak Flat Road
The coniferous forests of the Yosemite Park, and of the Sierra in general, surpass all others of their kind in America, or indeed in the world, not only in the size and beauty of the trees, but in the number of species assembled together, and the grandeur of the mountains they are growing on.” So says Mr. Muir; and among those who have travelled through the sublime woodlands of which he speaks there will be no dissenting voice from that high praise.
In the valley itself the timber, fine as it is, is an incidental adornment, a feature subordinate to cliffs and waterfalls. When one is sight-seeing the mind naturally focuses upon the principal objects, and takes no account of accessories, beyond observing, perhaps, that they obstruct the view. But a forest is not a sight, and the forest frame of mind is not a wide-eyed-wondering frame of mind, but is made up of innumerable small and quiet sensations, incidents, and reminiscences. Its glades and Blooms, its trees and flowers, its stealing airs and rivulets, even its sounds, are the ingredients of a calm and peaceful mood; and whenever I find myself leaving the great valley, with its varied wonders and beauties, and entering the unmixed forest, I experience a feeling of comforting ease, and relax like a man returning home at evening to walk in his garden. I know all these things and like them; and I feel that they know and like me too.
I suppose this sensation, which no doubt many people experience, might be traced to a scientific psychological source. Unless I am mistaken, learned men tell us that the branch of our race which peopled Northern Europe migrated thither from Central Asia, consuming in their interrupted journeys a long period of time. I imagine the region through which they moved like a slowly spreading wave to have been at that time a region, generally speaking, of forests; and it seems reasonable to think that in the course of their long wanderings the wildeslust as well as the wanderlust would enter deeply into the spirits of our sires, to break out in us in what we call spring fever, and treat blindly with sarsaparilla or more wisely with camping-trips. Be that as it may, every good man loves the woodland, and even if our concerns keep us all our lives out of our heritage, we hope to lie down at last under the quiet benediction of slow-moving branches.
The stately beauty and perfection of the trees that compose this forest are very impressive to the traveller; and when one sees from every summit and opening its illimitable rise and fall, mountain beyond mountain, range beyond range, fading into the wistful blue distance, then one recognizes the literal truth of Mr. Muir’s statement quoted at the beginning of this chapter.
The regularity with which the various species of conifer appear at certain altitudes is a matter of unfailing interest to the tree-lover. Species succeeds species in orderly procession, each of them marked by special beauties, and all merging harmoniously like the colors of the spectrum. At the lower limit of the pine-belt comes the Digger pine (Pinus sabiniana), also called bull-pine and piņon- or nut-pine. (The usual mild anarchy that exists among the popular names of natural objects has full play in the case of the conifer, and in common speech the names “bull,” “pitch,” “silver,” “red,” “yellow,” and so forth, are generally applied in an indiscriminate and misleading manner.)
This outpost of the pines begins to occur, in the Yosemite latitude, at about six hundred feet of elevation, and is noticed by travellers on the railway to El Portal almost as soon as the foothills are reached after leaving the San Joaquin Valley at Merced. It is always to me a somewhat uncomfortable and unpine-like tree, more suggestive of the arid Australian flora than of our lusty occidental types. In shape it is loose and spindling, and the foliage, though long and well-tempered, is so sparse as to give the tree almost a (lying appearance. The straggling branches have a thin-blooded look, and cast a grey, anemic shade t hat scarcely mitigates the stroke of the California sun. In comparison with the sturdy vigor of the family it is just what one might expect to find on the torrid foothill slopes which it mainly inhabits, where vitality is drained away by a sun of semi-desert power, and the rainfall is barely sufficient to support tree-life.
Yet it has a pallid grace of its own, and the languid, transparent shapes impart an individual character to the landscape, somewhat akin to that which the yucca palm gives to the Mojave region. The handsome oval cones are only exceeded in size by those of Pinus coulteri and Pinus lambertiana, and contain edible nuts that provide the Indians of the locality with a relief from the overworked acorn. In the aggressive tusks which guard them we seem to see the beginning of the quarrelsome traits that mark the purely desert growths.
Next in order appears the pine which preponderates on the floor of the Yosemite Valley, the yellow pine, or pitch pine (Pinus ponderosa). It begins to mingle with the sabiniana at about two thousand feet of elevation, and continues in its common form up to about five thousand feet. This type exhibits the pine characteristics of symmetry and shapeliness at their best. No other tree is so perfect in its slender tapering form, and it keeps this perfection remarkably even in old age. The bark, of a dull huffy color, is arranged in large irregular plates like alligator skin; the foliage is long and of a brilliant dark green, growing in fine star-like bursts that well indicate the vigor of the species. In the midst of these tassels of foliage the bright brown staminate blossoms make a lively contrast in early summer, and later the cones are set, usually in twos, but sometimes as many as six in a generous cluster. The lower main branches of old trees are particularly picturesque, reaching outward and downward in lines that are at once graceful and elastic, and full of fine Japanese drawing.
In the sheltered valley this tree grows in perfection, and succeeds in fulfilling Ruskin’s somewhat arbitrary statement regarding the pine in general, — “Thrust a rod from its last shoot down the stem— it shall point to the centre of the earth as long as the tree lives.” The largest specimen I have found is growing about the middle of the valley, close to the Ford road, and measures twenty-three and a half feet in circumference at five feet above the ground. The industrious Yosemite woodpeckers find the thick plates of bark well adapted to their housekeeping methods, and the grey squirrels levy ample toll upon the plentiful cones. The ground under the trees is littered with the cores in amazing numbers, and one would think that every grove must support a tenement-house population of invisible squirrels.
Overlapping the common yellow pine in some places but not everywhere, comes what may be called a mountain type of the same species, known as the Jeffrey variety. It is usually of less height but greater spread of limbs, with redder and more broken bark and much larger cones. This versatile and adventurous pine inhabits a wide range of altitude, and has a way of turning up in all manner of unlikely places. Wherever conditions of life are hardest, there it sees its opportunity, and like Mark Tapley “comes out strong” under discouragement. On wind-swept granite pavements, which the trees proper to the altitude decline with thanks, there the Jeffrey appears, takes a wrestler’s grip, and holds on like a bull-dog. One of these trees has rooted itself on the topmost round of the Sentinel Dome, and there romps joyously about in the terrific wind that rushes continually over that exposed spot, its branches and foliage streaming out horizontally like a stormy oriflamme of war. Whenever I see it I think of
“Einar Tamberskelver, bareand a magnificent Saga of the Pine it is that he sings.
To the winds his golden hair,”—
On the long promontories that stretch out into the Mono plains on the eastern side of the Sierra, this brave pine marches out green and sturdy among the bleached and wizened desert growths. Wherever you find it, it is always heartening and cheerful in bearing, an entire contrast to the misanthropical juniper that often grows with it. The one chooses the starkest places because they suit its own dour temper; the other out of pure joie de vivre and love of fighting.
The Douglas spruce (Pseudotsuga taxifolia) is the most limited in vertical range of all the Sierra conifers. It dislikes extremes of heat and cold, and shows everywhere the preference for shade and moisture which makes it the preëminent tree of the Oregon and Washington forests. It begins to appear at about thirty-five hundred feet, growing freely on the talus-piles of the southern side of the valley under the shadow of the wall. Its upper limit of growth in this latitude is about fifty-five hundred feet, and the handsomest specimens are usually found at the higher elevations. In youth it is a poetic tree, child-like and dainty, and in full growth I find it peculiarly attractive by the contrast of the dark, rugged stem with the flowing grace of the sprays of foliage that play in sunny zephyrs or droop in the surging mists of waterfalls. When the young leaves first open they are of a vivid yellow-green that gives the tree a particularly lively look, like a Christmas tree dressed with lighted candles. The cones are small but numerous, growing often in clusters that are as graceful and fragrant as hops.
When one looks down upon a Douglas spruce from some cliff under which it is growing, the distinctiveness of its structure is beautifully displayed. The foliage flows down in hair-like tresses from the branchlets, which stand out in fine lines as clearly as if drawn on a plan. I have often found it a fascinating sight to watch from above the play of branch and leaf-spray in a gentle wind, when the whip-like branches shine like veins of silver on the ground-work of waving, weaving foliage.
The unquestioned king of the pines, as apart from the firs and spruces, is the sugar pine (Pinus lamberliana). There are very few trees of this species in the Yosemite Valley, where it is at its lowest limit, about four thousand feet. From this altitude it continues upwards to almost seven thousand feet, royally conspicuous even among the splendid forest of yellow pine, Douglas spruce, silver fir and cedar which mixes with it. The shaft is a fine example of tree architecture, round, true, and taper, and over two hundred feet in height when full grown. The color under oblique or level sunlight is a true imperial purple, the finely netted bark reflecting the light with a dull, healthy polish like buck-horn. At midday it has become a shaded spire of smoke-tones, and I have seen it by red sunset light kindle into an intensity of color that was glorious almost to the point of solemnity.
The foliage of the sugar pine gives a particular impression of grace and lightness. It is short, arranged five leaves in a fascicle, and clothes the tree with starry sprays which form a lovely foil to the vigorous stem and the lean, far-reaching branches. As for the cones, they are amazing revelations of Nature’s opulence, and of her love for her favorite tree-family. Generally about sixteen inches in length, sometimes as much as twenty or even more, they express a royal generosity, whether pendent like ornaments from the tips of the branches or tossed in careless profusion on the forest floor. As they hang ripening in the brilliant sunshine of midsummer they drip with crystal gum and glance with prismatic colors.
When I have found one of these green cones fallen prematurely through some mischance from its high place, I have been thankful that the Sierra squirrels do not “take after” those questionable monkeys whose alleged practice of pelting explorers with cocoanuts made a deep impression on my young imagination. The pleasure of camping and travelling in these forests would be seriously disturbed if one needed to be on the watch for aerial torpedoes of three or four pounds’ weight which might be quietly launched from a height of one or two hundred feet.
When one lies awake at early dawn beneath these trees, while the lithe arms are traced in sooty blackness against the brightening sky, they seem to express a wonderful power and nobility. The mast-like stem shoots up with magnificent stateliness; and often some tall and aged tree, barren almost to its top, will there produce a crown of branches that stream out with every gesture of freedom, compliance, hopefulness, or severity; and I will confess that I have even found my breath quicken as I drank in the vigor and beauty of their lines.
Scattered throughout the belt which contains the sugar pine, yellow pine, and Douglas spruce is the cedar (Libocedrus decurrens), commonly called the incense cedar. In color and foliage it is a noble tree. The bark is a warm, lustrous brown of fine texture, which one may strip off in silky ribbons It detaches easily from the tree in plank-like shards, and furnished the Indians of the region with the material for the picturesque huts (o'chums) which they used to inhabit before a too generous civilization enriched them with its packing-cases and coal-oil cans. The foliage is particularly handsome, richly carved and fronded, and of a deep glossy olive color.
In perfection of symmetry the young cedar is remarkable even among so shapely a race as the conifer. It forms a pure geometrical cone with a height of about twice its base-diameter, and is so thickly clad with foliage as to appear almost solid. As it approaches full development, it opens robustly to the sun and shows the marked feature of the species, the larger limbs growing squarely out and then straight up in vigorous attitudes, like the bent arms of an athlete. In late summer the tree is thickly powdered over with the small vase-like seed-vessels, which as they ripen add an autumn tinge to the ferny olive of the foliage, and enable the trees to lighten the sombre forest with tones of cheerful color.
At about the altitude of the Yosemite Valley the white silver fir (Abies concolor) appears, and soon after, the red silver fir (Abies magnifica). A few of the former may be found in the valley, growing along the southern side; but the true fir-zone lies at from six thousand to nine thousand feet, and it is only there that the most splendid features of the two great firs are revealed. There they form often an unbroken belt, expressing the very noblest of tree beauty, and not inferior, in my estimation, even to the Sequoias. In fact, if I were called upon to choose the one among the conifers that I would live and die by, I should choose the red silver fir, with no fear of ever wearying of its sublime companionship.
Both trees are perfect parables of order. In youth, especially, they surpass every other tree in charm and regularity of construction, both as regards their outline and the marvellous perfection of branch and foliage. The fine smooth arms, set in regular formation, divide and re-divide again and again, ad infinitum, weaving at last into a maze of exquisitely symmetrical twigs and branchlets. To look up at the young tree from any point of the circumference is to behold a bewildering succession of these intricate and delicate branchings, dwindling away less and less, and shimmering with finely broken sunlight until the tree seems to perform that feat which Hamlet vainly desired to achieve, and literally to “melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew.”
Both the firs attain a majestic growth, and often reach a height of over two hundred feet with a girth of from twenty to twenty-five or even thirty feet. The bark of the mature white fir is a dark ashy grey, 1111(1 of the red, a dusky purple; both alike rugged and deeply furrowed. The two species, though hardly distinguishable from each other in general appearance, are easily known by their foliage, that of the white being set in flat, lateral rows, while the shorter and thicker leaves of the red stand up on end like fur, or a magnificent sort of plush. A branch of red fir is truly a superb object both in color and line. It sweeps out with a joyful vigor that carries one’s very heart with it; the branchlets spread and sub-divide with intricate precision, fanning out at the extremity of the branch into a rounded curve that is like the spreading of a wave on a gentle beach. The foliage, darkly, healthily green, stands up in the manner of grass, tray above tray, and every fan is edged with a silvery froth or effervescence by the fresh young growth. One branch of it would furnish a room with beauty.
The cone of the red fir is worthy of such a tree, — a generous cylinder with a color and surface of peachy richness, distilling rare balsam and exhaling an almost spirituous fragrance. It is from six to eight inches high and half as wide, built up of a large number of flaky scales that are stained at their bases with crimson and purple. The white fir cone is exactly similar, but about one half the dimensions of the other.
I shall not easily forget one summer afternoon in the Wawona forest when I sat down to rest by a little spring, hidden among flowery brush and musky-smelling fern. Alders and white-flowered dogwood grew along the gully which the spring supplied with a little thread of water that crept quietly away through thickets of ceanothus and azalea. Spiring a hundred feet above the lesser trees there rose close beside me a young silver fir. It might have been fifty or sixty years old, and was at the very crisis of its youthful beauty. It seemed as if it could not yesterday have been so transcendent, nor could such perfection last until to-morrow, but that I had chanced upon it at the culminating moment of its life, as at the blossoming of some glorious orchid. Like a young goddess at her bridal, it stood divinely beautiful, shimmering in a mist of transparent silver just tinged with ethereal green. I watched it with delight; and as the sun declined, his serene rays enveloped the tree in a baptism of light, revealing new mazes and mysteries of loveliness. I felt almost as though I had violated a sanctuary, and fancied that the Angel of the Trees was incorporated and made manifest for the moment in a revelation of immortal glory.
The delightful essayist, Mr. A. C. Benson, refers somewhere to the feeling we are apt to experience in entering suddenly a place of trees or flowers, of some silent action having been in progress which we have interrupted, and which is suspended while we remain. I felt it that day. Once before, years ago, in a high and lonely spot near the southern end of the Sierra, I came upon a great company of white, gleaming lilies. There were hundreds, perhaps thou thousands of them, and every one of the shining host, as it seemed, was endowed with the same unearthly perfectness as my silver fir. I remember that I stopped and half drew back, with the same abashed feeling of having unwittingly strayed into a place where some heavenly work or play had been performing but had ceased at my entrance. There was not a movement, nor a sound; it seemed as if the pure creatures waited for my withdrawal. Even the sunshine seemed to pause on the multitude of white flower-faces that were turned towards me. When I think of it now I can feel again the listening silence and the trance-like stillness of the scene.
Contrasting clearly with the firs and mingling here and there among them grows the sturdy mountain pine (Pinus monticola). It, too, is a giant, but of a different humor, powerful more than graceful, and expressive of a rugged, mountainous strength. It begins to appear at about eighty-five hundred feet of altitude, and continues up to nearly the limit of tree-growth: a noticeable tree, widely branching for a pine, with bark of a fine rust-red color that seems well suited to its hardy strength. The foliage is airy and sensitive and resembles that of the sugar pine; which is true also of the dainty tapering cone, though it is not one fourth the size of that king of cones. Taken in conjunction with the stalwart appearance of the body of the tree, the foliage and cone of this species exhibit a grace and lightness that are very welcome and beautiful in the high regions which it inhabits, where one expects only stubborn attributes.
There is a fine tract of mountain pine growing almost unmixed with other trees on the southeasterly flank of Clouds’ Rest. Standing as they do there on a wide and even slope, they display their robust character to the best effect. But handsome as the tree is, I have never quite felt for it the love which other pines inspire in me. I seem to feel something of discord and unfriendliness in it. I do not remember, however, that I have ever made camp among them, and I think that when I do I shall come to understand them better.
The fir-belt is also the territory of the tamarack or lodge-pole-pine (Pinus contorta, var. murrayana),1 although the species ranges far below and above it. This is the least distinguished in appearance of all the pine family, and much the most common, forming vast homogeneous tracts of forest on the rugged plateaus of granite that form a great part of the western slope of the Sierra. It is a wiry, grey-coated little pine, quite unimposing, rarely growing to more than seventy-five feet of height and three or four of thickness, but full of friendly virtues and good-comradeship. The foliage is short and stiff, with a tufty, foxtail style of growth, the branchlets all curving upward in a cheerful manner. The cone is small and ordinary, hardly distinguishable while green on the tree; but when it ripens the fertile scales open widely while the base remains closed, giving it the appearance of a brown rosette. In summer the tree is quite showy with the numerous Indian-red blossoms, which burn like points of flame at the heart of every tuft of foliage; and at night, when their color is enhanced by red camp-fire light, the tree makes a strangely brilliant appearance.
1Some botanists distinguish the murrayana variety as a separate species, under the name of Pinus murrayana.
Although the tamarack is not a striking tree in the single specimen, it impresses one strongly in the vast forests where the species multiplies upon itself unbroken, and one sees everywhere the same type reproduced to infinity. The commonplace grey stems rising closely on all sides become as momentous as an army; and standing at some opening surrounded by the illimitable sweep of the forest, one receives a deep impression of the power and conquering majesty of the tree-kingdoms.
Every species has its own well-marked character. For sheer loveliness the hemlock spruce, or mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana), bears away the palm. Appearing on northward-facing slopes at a little above eight thousand feet, it comes to perfection at from one to two thousand feet higher, where it meets the dwarf pine, the dweller on the threshold. The pure grace of the tree would render it remarkable anywhere; in these high and lonely altitudes it is doubly delightful. The young trees are especially beautiful, quite fountain-like in their flow of line, and exquisitely feminine and yielding. The foliage is of a dark, earnest green, redeemed from sombreness by the silver of the young growth. Trailing branches sweep to the ground, and all the outer branchlets, and even the spiry tips of the trees, droop with a fragile grace. The small, dainty cones are borne in great profusion on the downward-hanging sprays, enhancing the richness of the tree with their clusters of dark purple.
As it comes to full growth, which may be over a hundred feet of height and five of diameter, it takes on the ruggedness of bearing that belongs to age and stormy experiences. Under the scouring of a thousand tempests the bark tans to red and the lower limbs disappear, leaving perhaps thirty feet of clean, bright stem bare of branches. In general appearance the tree then much resembles the red fir, but on a near approach the two species are easily distinguishable by the foliage, girlishly graceful in the spruce, firmly masculine in the fir.
The juniper (juniperus occidentalis) is a kind of churlish relative of the conifers, entirely unlike them and opposed in every line and instinct to their aspiring characteristics. For purposes of contrast, nothing could be better than this squat, Japanese-wrestler looking tree, which one encounters growing in the most difficult and uncomfortable places at all elevations from six thousand to ten thousand feet. Wherever storms career most wildly, and on glacial pavements and ledges of the most uncompromising granite where nothing else beside lichens and mosses cares to grow, there this embittered tree exists,—it cannot he said to flourish,—and hugs itself into a morose longevity, like a miser living to a hundred on crusts. High up on wind-swept angles of mountain you may see them peering and leering down at you, their stumpy trunks twisted into alarming contortions.
The bark of the juniper is of a cinnamon-red color, similar to that of the cedar, and frays out, like it, into silky, fibrous ribbons. The stem has often the appearance of being formed of three or four thick coils that have become welded together, and sometimes a grey knee or elbow, in appearance like disintegrating bone, pushes through the red skin in a grisly, skeleton-like manner.
Even the foliage is of a sour, sage-green hue, with a harsh look and an acrimonious odor; and the fruit, a grey misanthropical berry of violent flavor, is just what one would expect, and seems well suited to be the food of the Clarke crow, whose imprecations most often resound from this inhospitable tree. Still, one must respect the juniper for its hardiness and self-reliance. And there is even humor in the tree, of an ugly, surreptitious kind: as there is, too, in the Clarke crow, who is himself a sort of Mephistopheles. The element of humor is otherwise not much in evidence in this high region, where Nature still has rough work to do, and handles her severest tools.
Junipers may often be found whose trunks are no higher than their circumference at base; and this is not always, though it is sometimes, due to the tree having been broken off, or having died, at the top. The trunks of perfectly grown trees sometimes taper so rapidly that the height may not be more than three times the diameter. This is due to the unusual size of the branches, the lowest of which are often one fourth the thickness of the stem, and push out only two or three feet above the ground; so that the shape of the tree, so far as any shape can be assigned to a growth so unconventional and irregular, is that of a heavy, flattened bush, much wider than it is high.
Last of all and least of all, yet in a way finest of all the Sierra tree-clans, comes the dwarf pine (Pinus albicaulis). It begins to mix among the hemlocks, mountain pines, and tamaracks at about ten thousand feet, and, leaving them all behind, struggles on alone up to the limit of tree-life, which in this latitude is about twelve thousand feet. This is never a handsome tree, but grows always in a straggling, shapeless fashion, branching out in poles that lean at all angles, more like a brush growth than a tree. The branchlets are usually thick and not dividing, curving up in somewhat unpleasing lines, clothed with tufty foliage. The leaves are of an attractive, clean, light green, and in late summer provide a strong contrast of color for the almost black cones which protrude from the tasselled ends of the twigs. With its pale grey bark this tree is particularly suggestive of the hard white sunlight and the shrouding snow between which its life is about equally divided.
On the high plateaus about timber-line this pine, never much over twenty feet in height, suffers dwarfing to a remarkable degree. In exposed places such as the Tuolumne Pass, I have found it spreading horizontally only a foot or two above the ground, crushed flat by the weight of the snow that lies on it through fully half the year. The foliage becomes felted into a springy mattress on which I have lain in the greatest luxury of ease that is possible to conceive. Sometimes these shrubby masses are found as smooth as a table, the surface being kept planed down by the bitter winds that sweep continually over them. In places where they are less constantly exposed to wind, they struggle hard to assert something of the tree shape to which they are entitled. but they achieve at best a doubtful compromise. I have a weird little tree of this species, not quite seven inches high, which has all the airs of a veteran of centuries. The trunk is four inches high and half an inch through, thickening at the head into a ganglion of knotty branches, all gnarls, scars, and elbows, on which grows a towzled thatch of foliage. It was in Cathedral Pass that I came upon this fierce little kobold, and I liked the mettlesome look of him so much that I pulled him up, root and all, and brought him away in my pocket.
Under one form or other this indomitable pine edges its way up to the uttermost limit that Nature will allow, twisting and dodging about, shielding its devoted head as best it may, only bent upon carrying forward the standard. When I think of the glorious winters they experience, the low, crouching skies, the whirling storms, the deadly frosts, the hurricanes of spring and autumn, and the thrashing rains and tearing lightnings of summer, I love and admire and envy them beyond all the others, fine as they all are. I think that when next I am among them I must make a point of removing one of them carefully to the very top of the mountain that it is so set upon climbing, and planting it there, live or die, as a reward.
On the eastern face of the Sierra, which is much steeper than the western, the species are naturally somewhat more mingled, though they preserve of course the same relative positions. Two other species occur on this side. High up near timber-line comes the limber pine (Pines flexilis). It may easily be mistaken at first sight for the tamarack, with which it is often associated. It is remarkable that this pine has never spread to the western slope, where the conditions of tree-growth are in general more favorable than on the eastern. No doubt some shade of distinction in the quality of climate or soil, that is too fine for us but not for this hardy pine to observe, rules the point.
The level plains and the foothills of the Mono Lake region are the home of the nut-pine or piņon-pine (Pines monophylla). This is a quite different tree from the nut-pine of the western slope, although, like it, it occupies the lowest range of elevation. It is a bushy, uninteresting-looking tree, from fifteen to thirty feet high, and about one foot in average thickness of trunk. The leaves, which are short and spiny, are set singly on the stiff twigs, whereas the foliage of all the other Sierra species is arranged in fascicles of two, three, or five leaves. It is the small, egg-shaped cone of this tree that supplies the piņon-nut, a thing of small importance to most of us, but a true staff of life to the Indians of the region.
The trees which I have briefly described, plus the great Sequoia, spoken of in the succeeding chapter, are all the species of conifer ae that the visitor to the Yosemite region of the Sierra Nevada is likely to encounter, though a few other kinds occur in distant parts of the range, and still others occupy the Coast Range and the seaboard. There is one, the knob-cone pine (Pinus attenuata), which grows at low elevations on the western slope, but does not come under the observation of travellers by any of the ordinary roads into the Yosemite. The nearest point to the valley where I am aware of this species growing is Texas Hill, some twelve miles west of El Portal, on the North Fork of the Merced River. Its foliage is long, and set in loose, airy tassels, and the tree has the peculiarity of keeping its cones unopened year after year, so that the seeds are released only when the tree falls. I have cones of this species that were gathered years ago, and remain to-day as closely sealed, and as solid and heavy, as on the day they were gathered.
There is a small tree which is found growing in a few places in the Yosemite region, particularly on the stage-road from El Portal to the valley, against which the traveller who may be interested in the coniferous trees should be put on his guard. In its general appearance, and particularly in its foliage, it bears a very close resemblance to the coniferae, but it does not belong to the family. It is the California nutmeg-tree (Tumion californica),—a slender, spiry tree with grey bark, and leaves much like those of the white fir, but stronger, and prickly to an offensive degree. It bears a smooth egg-shaped fruit, about an inch and a half long, which contains a nut that is considered edible in Japan, where also the tree is indigenous. Both fruit and foliage are charged with an acrid, astringent juice. The wood is exceedingly tough, and would be useful if the tree were more common.
The Sierra forest of all but the highest altitudes is the home of a goodly array of brush plants. Of them all, none is more charming than the chamcebatia, a shrubby, foot-high plant, with a pretty, ferny leaf and a white flower like that of the strawberry. It grows freely in the Wawona locality, at an elevation of five or six thousand feet, covering the ground with a continuous carpet that is easily mistaken at a distance for grass. The stems, matted and wiry, offer a pleasant resistance to the foot, and often as I brushed through them, I could have fancied myself again among the heather had it not been for the pungent scent, like that of witch-hazel, which the plant exhales profusely. Washing up everywhere around the bases of the great trees it gives an ideal completeness to the forest landscape, and all my recollections of the splendid timber-belt which it inhabits are pervaded with the healthful odor of this friendly mountaineer.
Next: Great Sequoias • Contents • Previous: Yosemite Falls to Big Oak Flat Road