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The Cone-bearing Trees of Yosemite (1939) by James E. Cole


Tumion californicum (Torr.) Greene.

California Nutmeg, Tumion californicum
[click to enlarge]
All Yosemite visitors who admire trees will want to know the California Nutmeg. They are rare trees and, like the sequoias, are of ancient lineage, have but few close relatives, and occupy a very restricted range. At the time the ancestors of our present sequoias flourished all over the northern hemisphere near relatives of nutmeg trees grew in what is now the Arctic Zone, and later in Europe. Now there remain just five species in the world: one in California, one in Florida, two in China and one in Japan. Nutmegs are restricted in California to the central mountains of Coast Range and Sierra where they inhabit but a few widely separated areas. In no place are they abundant, and the few trees in each locality are generally well scattered.

In Yosemite between Arch Rock Ranger Station and Cascade Fall, small, handsome trees with branches and leaves forming flat, horizontally spreading sprays with dense, dark green foliage may be seen growing along the highway. These are the California Nutmegs and because of their resemblance to Douglas Firs, they attract but little attention. In the fall, when the conspicuous, green, plum-like fruits hang from the tips of their outer branches, it becomes evident that these trees are not firs. These “plums” are then the best identification feature of this species.

There are several additional localities where California Nutmegs may be looked for in Yosemite. Many shrub-like trees grow along the new road to Crane Flat from the All-Year Highway to the vicinity of Cascade Creek. These trees are well up above the river on a dry sidewall but not so high in altitude as are those at the west portal of the Wawona Tunnel and the ones that grow one-tenth of a mile beyond the 5000-foot elevation sign farther along the Wawona Road. A fairly good and representative stand of California Nutmegs exists north of Hetch Hechy. They have also been reported from the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees.

It may appear inconsistent to call a tree which bears fleshy fruit a conifer that is, literally, a conebearer. The same is true of Western Junipers for they too produce fleshy fruit. The botanists justify the inclusion of these trees in the coniferae by explaining that these fruits are really modified cones. Here cone scales instead of being separate and woody have become berry-like or fleshy. Evidence of what once were scales can be discerned on juniper berries as small projections on the otherwise smooth berries, but such evidence is absent in the fruit of the nutmeg.

The name California Nutmeg arose from the vague resemblance of the seeds to the nutmegs of commerce. Actually there is no comparison except in shape and size; nutmegs are obtained from unrelated, tropical trees. Sometimes these trees are called Stinking Yews due to the pungent odor that emanates from the foliage when it is crushed. The wood also has a spicy odor most noticeable when it is being sawed or sanded. Local Indians used this wood and that of the Incense Cedar for making their bows.

A peculiar characteristic of the species is its habit of trunk-sprouting, a trait it has in common with just two other California cone-bearing trees, the Western Yew and the Coast Redwood. This tendency is so common among the broad-leaf trees that it is the prevalent condition, but so rare in the coniferae as to be worthy of note whenever it occurs. Coast Redwoods sprout freely from the roots, or crown, but less commonly from the trunk or branches. When not too severely damaged by a forest fire, the burned limbs and leaves of California Nutmegs are replaced by new growth that originates beneath the bark of the trunk and main branches. On account of this habit they may be thickly clothed with branches the whole length of the trunk. Ordinarily, they are quite symmetrical trees with wide and open pyramidal crowns, although old nutmegs have rounded, dome-shaped tops.

The dark green, glossy foliage consists of rigid needles, one to two and one-half inches long, that spread to form a two-ranked flat, fan-like spray comparable to the leaf arrangement of the true firs. Like White Firs, the short petioles (leaf stalks) are distinctly twisted, but the leaves are flat, lance-shaped and armed with keen pointed bristles on the ends. The bark on young branches is bright green, but changes to an ashy yellowish color on old branches and trunks. It is then, rather soft and checked into narrow ridges with numerous diagonal connections.

In Yosemite there are a number of California Nutmeg trees fifteen to sixty feet high, however, most of them are small and shrub-like similar to those reported in other localities in the Sierra Nevada. When compared with the forest giants around them they dwindle in importance, nevertheless, their scarcity and unusual fruit will make them. sought for and admired by many visitors to Yosemite.

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