Western sycamores are found from north of the Bay Area to Baja California, primarily in or near the coast range. It is a tall tree and can extend more than 70-feet high. Its bark is mottled grey, white, and tan and branches extend at erratic angles. It needs more water than other trees, so it is commonly found beside creeks or wetlands. A good place for viewing is Rancho Cañada del Oro Open Space Preserve. In April, its small reddish flowers appear. Interestingly, each tree has both male and female flowers. The female flowers mature into distinctive spiny ball-like fruits.
The California Buckeye is a native tree that grows in canyons, along riverbanks and streams, and on dry slopes. This species is known for its large, orange-brown seeds. Squirrels are the only wildlife that eat buckeye seeds, as they are toxic for every other animal. In the spring, the California Buckeye produces many spikes of frilly white flowers that grow in clusters. Unlike the seeds that are toxic, these flowers attract hummingbirds and butterflies, and its tender, dark green leaves are eaten by some species of wildlife and livestock.
The California bay laurel is an evergreen tree native to the coastal forests of our state, although they can occupy a diverse range of habitats. Its leaves are smooth, long, oblong shapes that give off a peppery smell when crushed. In the late winter and early spring, they produce tiny white or yellow flowers. Deer especially use its leaves and twigs for food, although many other species of mammals and birds use these trees for shelter and nesting. California bay laurels can be found as either small shrubs or tall trees that grow between 20 and 60 feet tall.
This native tree gets its name from its huge, 5-lobed leaves that are 7-14 inches in diameter! Bigleaf Maple leaves are smooth and lush green on the surface with a paler green color underneath. If autumn temperatures get cold enough, the leaves turn a reddish yellow before dropping off for the winter. The trees themselves grow from 25 to 80 feet tall. The tree’s seeds provide food for rodents and birds, while elk and deer eat the leaves, twigs, and saplings. You can most likely find Bigleaf Maples on Open Space Authority preserves near streams and creeks.
Coast live oak is one of several species of native oaks found in the Santa Clara Valley. They can grow more than 40 feet tall with thick horizontal branches. The curled leaves are a dark, waxy green, with small barbs; The flip side has gray or golden fuzz. Their acorns — which are about 2 inches long and smooth — feed a variety of birds such as woodpeckers and scrub jays and mammals including deer and squirrels. Their thick bark provides some protection from fires. Coast live oak trees are found from Mendocino County to Mexico along the coast range, where they receive more precipitation than farther inland. They are found in all Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority preserves.
Coyote brush is a common chaparral or coastal scrub plant, found through parts of California, Oregon, New Mexico and northern Mexico. One plant is rarely found growing alone, as you’ll see if you visit Coyote Valley or Rancho Cañada del Oro open space preserves. It is an evergreen shrub (keeps its leaves all year) that usually grows 3 to 6 feet high. It has small creamy white flowers that blossom between September and November. They attract a variety of insects including wasps, butterflies, and bees. It provides cover for a variety of small mammals such as rabbits and birds. Although coyote brush is resilient, much of its habitat has been affected by agriculture and urban development.
Elderberry is a native shrub that is a key source of food — and vitamin C — for deer, squirrels, the western bluebird, Steller’s jay and a variety of other wildlife. It has bright green, elongated and serrated leaves and cream-colored hand-sized clusters of blossoms, which appear in the spring. Its berries form tight clusters and are only edible when they ripen and turn blue. Native Americans dried ripe elderberries and cooked them into a sauce. The berries were also used as a dye, as medicine and the wood was made into baskets, arrows, and musical instruments. Elderberry is found on sunny sites near waterways throughout the western United States including in Sierra Vista and Rancho Cañada del Oro open space preserves.
“Leaves of three, let it be!” Pacific poison oak is a native shrub or vine that grows in forests, woodlands, and grasslands. It belongs to the same family as poison ivy and poison sumac, which are found in other parts of the United States. You can spot poison oak by its glossy leaflets that grow in threes and may be green or red, depending on the season.
With muted green leaves, sagebrush is a widespread chaparral plant (or shrub plant) in the Santa Clara Valley and is particularly prominent in the Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve. If you think you spy sagebrush but aren’t sure, rub its soft, thread-like leaves gently – it has a distinctive aroma made by a chemical that is thought to keep other plants from sprouting too close. That same chemical also makes it a highly flammable plant. Sagebrush supports many birds and mammals including sparrows and rabbits. It is found from the North Bay to Mexico along the coast range. Its small, pale yellow flowers appear in the late summer or fall. It has thin, shallow roots, which can capture early winter rains to grow quickly.
With its distinctive red berries and dark green serrated leaves, toyon is easiest to identify in the winter, when many other plants have lost their leaves. The berries are favorite foods of birds including the California quail and the band-tailed pigeon. A shrub that is usually more than 4 feet high, toyon is found throughout California’s coast range and Sierra foothills, south to Baja California, and in all of Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority’s preserves. It has an extensive root system, which helps it survive long periods of drought and on unstable slopes. In the late summer, white blossoms appear, which are visited by native bees.
The largest of all North American oaks, the Valley Oak can grow up to 100 feet tall. To survive, these trees need the Mediterranean climate of the Santa Clara Valley, where winters are wet and mild, and summers are hot and dry. A true California native, they are resistant to drought. Valley Oaks are deciduous trees; you will see their leaves turn brownish-yellow in the autumn and then fall off. Valley Oaks are essential to the Santa Clara Valley ecosystem. Their giant branches and trunks house many species of wildlife, such as birds, rodents, and bats. Ground squirrels, black-tailed deer, yellow-billed magpies, and many other animals eat their acorns.