Nature must love mysteries. Why else would it have so many? Some of them are huge, like how the earth evolved. Some are small, like how individual species adapt to a changing environment. Nature in Anderson Valley has contracted in recent centuries due to fire, logging, agriculture and mankind’s other activities, but still holds mysteries waiting to be found. One recent discovery for me has been a native tree, once lost and now found.
I’ve walked my family’s corner of Anderson Valley near Philo for six decades now; on roads, on trails, along various watercourses, and cross country. Sometimes I’ve been surprised by the size of a particular tree or the color of a mushroom, but rarely have I found something entirely new.
In the early 2000s, I explored an old, eroding skid road on a steep slope in the woods west of Philo. Within a minute, I encountered two trees of a sort I’d never seen before. Perhaps four feet tall, these little conifers vaguely resembled a coast redwood, but with needles that were longer, stiffer, shinier and sharply pointed at the tips. The bark was different as well; gray and fine rather than red and coarse.
Though surprised to find a new variety of tree after years of tramping through local forest, I didn’t bother to research what variety of tree I’d found. For no particular reason (it bore no resemblance to the real thing), I called it a Chinquapin. Perhaps two years later, I went back to the old skid road to look for the trees. I was sure I was in the right spot, but they were nowhere to be found. It was as if they were never there.
My Anderson Valley wilderness walks continued – even increased – over the next 12 years, but the odd tree with the sharp needles remained a ghost and a mystery. Then, early this year, walking cross country in a location approximately a quarter-mile from the original discovery, I found a lone example. Then another. Then, perhaps 100 feet downslope, two more. All were small – from three to six feet tall – but they were definitely the tree I had seen nearly 15 years ago.
I took a small section of branch home and dug out my old (copyright 1966) copy of Trees & Tree-Like Shrubs of the Mendocino Coast by Jacques Helfer, published in Ukiah by Panpipes Press. There it was on page 9: my mystery tree was a California nutmeg, Torreya californica.
With the identity in hand, I searched the internet for more information. First, California nutmeg is not a true nutmeg, but is related to the yew. Second, this is a very old tree genus, one that has lived on the planet for more than 150 million years. Third, it was used by Native Americans in various ways: the roots for basket weaving, the wood for bows, the seeds (roasted) as food and the needles for tattooing (having punctured myself with one a few days later, I can attest to this potential use).
The biggest surprise was discovering the California nutmeg is a legitimately rare tree. It is native only to the California Coast Range and the Sierra Foothills, and grows only in small, scattered locations. Logging has eliminated many of the larger examples and deforestation has reduced the tree population.
The tree is so rare, there is a website detailing its distribution. In Mendocino County, it is found mostly on the western slopes of Cow Mountain and in the hills east of Albion, Mendocino and Fort Bragg. In Anderson Valley, examples were found at Cold Springs Lookout on Signal Mountain in 1981, along Mountain View Road in 1963 and south of Fish Rock Road in 1977.
And now west of Philo in 2018. However, a mystery remains. All the California nutmeg trees I saw were young. Where are the adult trees whose seeds produced these youngsters? California nutmeg seeds are large (about the size of a big olive, according to the internet) and heavy. The parent tree(s) must have been nearby, but I didn’t see one. I hope to find an adult California nutmeg someday. I just hope it doesn’t take another 14 years!