A brief guide to appreciating Lake Tahoe’s abundant trees
Special to the Tribune
Editor’s note: This story first appeared in 2015-16 winter edition of Tahoe Magazine, a product of the Sierra Sun, North Lake Tahoe Bonanza, Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe Action. The magazine is available now on newsstands throughout the greater Reno-Truckee-Tahoe region.
Trees are beneficial to life on Earth in many ways. In fact, it’s not too crazy to think that life as we know it on Earth would not be if not for trees.
Here are just a few benefits our tall and leafy neighbors provide us humans.
• Clean the air by removing carbon dioxide and other particulates
• Produce oxygen: One mature tree can produce enough oxygen to sustain two people for one year
• Absorb dangerous chemicals, through a process called phytoremediation, that have entered the soil by storing harmful pollutants or changing them into less harmful forms, filtering sewage and farm chemicals, reducing the effects of animal waste and helping to filter runoff before it enters bodies of water
• Muffle urban noise, provide shade, act as windbreaks and fight erosion
The planet is home to more than 3 trillion trees, according to an immense study undertaken over a period of two years and recently completed by dozens of scientists. This study also discovered that humans have reduced the number of trees on the planet by nearly half since the beginning of civilization.
If you find it difficult to wrap your brain around these figures, you are not alone — even scientists who compiled this data were astonished.
The U.S. is fourth in the world for number of trees (228 billion) behind Russia, Canada and Brazil. That is a comforting amount of carbon-absorbing, oxygen-producing power.
Getting back to numbers that make sense, there are between three- and four-dozen species of trees here the Sierra Nevada. Let’s take a look at five of the biggest stars that call Lake Tahoe-Truckee home:
The Jeffrey pine is dominant around Tahoe at lake level. These trees can live 400 to 500 years and grow from 80 to 160 feet tall, with trunk diameters reaching 4 to 6 feet.
Its needles are 5 to 10 inches long and bundled in groups of three. The cones of the Jeffrey are large and woody and 5 to 12 inches long, with diameters up to 6 inches. They open in the fall to release the seeds, which are often eaten by chipmunks and squirrels.
Steller’s jays and Clark’s nutcrackers will compete with rodents for prized Jeffrey pine nuts. These animals aid in the distribution of the seeds because they will often cache them in the ground, then fail to retrieve them.
When the temperatures are warm, the Jeffrey smells like butterscotch — so don’t be afraid to hug a tree and breathe in its fresh scent.
The lodgepole pine; Latin name Pinus contorta for its tendency to grow in interesting, twisted shapes; grows up to 100 feet, with a trunk diameter reaching perhaps 3 feet. Its bark is thin, light brownish gray and flaky.
Its cones are small, up to 2 inches long and egg-shaped. The cones can remain on the tree for years, unlike other pines that shed their cones yearly. The cones of most of the subspecies require high temperatures, such as from a forest fire, to release their seeds — with the exception of the subspecies murrayana, the species of the Sierra, which open as soon as they are mature.
Besides its unique appearance, the lodgepole is the only pine with needles that appear in groups of two. The needles are short, dark, pointed, resinous and from 1 to 3 inches long.
Probably the darling of the Sierra is the sugar pine, in part because of its dramatic cones. It is also the tallest and most massive pine tree, reaching heights of 250 feet and trunk diameters of 8 feet. The cones can reach lengths of 24 inches, but usually range from 10 to 20 inches long.
The sugar pine grows only in the West, mainly in California and Oregon but also in areas of Nevada and Baja Mexico.
It has become less abundant due to excessive logging, but has also fallen prey to white pine blister rust, a fungus that was accidentally introduced from Europe in the early 1900s.
The sugar pine’s bark is furrowed and reddish-brown. Its branches are long and horizontal, dipping down at the edges due to the weight of the cones. Its needles grow in groups of five.
Find the sugar pine around the lake, but in abundance on the West Shore. It’s worth a trip to Sugar Pine Point State Park, a 2,000-acre park that borders Lake Tahoe for two miles and offers beaches, hiking trails and winter camping, as well as numerous specimens of its namesake tree.
The incense cedar is in the family of cypress trees and is native to North America, appearing in northern Washington, down to Baja Mexico and spilling over into Nevada and New Mexico, growing from 1,000 to 7,500 feet in elevation.
The leaves are scaled, splayed and yellow-green. Its bark is thick, flaky and noticeably red. A large tree, growing from 130 to 200 feet tall, its trunk features a wide base tapering to a thin top. This tree stands erect and appears as an inverted cone.
The wood is light brown and aromatic and is used in making shingles, fencing, chests and pencils.
White fir/red fir
A tree that grows at a variety of elevations, from about 3,000 to 9,000 feet, is the white fir, a non-pine member of the Pinaceae family. Young trees have thin, smooth, silvery-gray bark covered with resin-filled blisters.
Young trees are symmetrically shaped like pyramids. Older trees are more cylindrical and irregular.
Red fir is related to the white fir, the two even appear similar as young trees with white bark that deepens to red in the red fir, developing a rough texture as the tree matures. Red fir occurs at higher elevations. Both trees have cones that grow erect in the uppermost branches.
The white fir has flat needles. The red fir has rounder needles that roll between the fingers, are tightly grouped and are arranged in a spiral along the shoots.
Become a steward of the Lake
Lake Tahoe is a special place, nestled in the diverse mountainous region of the Sierra Nevada. Learning about individual species that grow and thrive here can inspire locals and visitors to appreciate these things in nature, which in turn will inspire a wish to preserve and protect it for future generations.
For those who live here, ponder the possibility of taking on the informal role of stewardship of the lake and all the glorious nature that encompasses it: the water, the air, the wildlife and the plants — including the magnificent forest of trees.
John Muir was a Scottish-American naturalist and early advocate of wilderness preservation in the U.S., founding the Sierra Club in San Francisco in May 1892. The club was one of the first large-scale organizations seeking environmental conservation.
His books, essays and letters have inspired millions for more than a century. Muir recognized the importance of conservation more than 100 years ago, and certainly the importance of our environment is currently at the forefront of just about everyone’s consciousness.
Learning about nature inspires a desire to protect it. Let all of us make it a mission to learn as much as we can about the nature around us and share this knowledge with the area’s visitors to create even more stewards of the land. Preservation, conservation and environmental health will become automatic. Humans can only benefit from the balance of nature.
Perhaps Muir, in his foresighted wisdom of so many years ago, said it best: “Nature in her green, tranquil woods heals and soothes all afflictions.”
Take these wise words from John Muir, uttered decades ago, and wander into the forest to look, touch, smell, learn and appreciate the magnificence of nature.