6 Taxa to Identify in a Redwood Forest

What better way to learn botany than by getting your hands dirty in a redwood forest?

A redwood forest is a place with ancient trees and colorful life. At first blush a term like “cathedral grove” – the name for a circle of redwood trees that have sprouted from the same roots of a long-fallen parent – might seem a little excessive, but find yourself in one and you just might be drawn into a sense of worship.


How do you impress a botanist? Refrain from calling every cone you find as a “pinecone.” All conifers produce cones – pinecones are just the cones made by pine trees. There are also fir cones, spruce cones, redwood cones, and juniper cones. It’s a pet peeve of many botanically-minded scientists and enthusiasts.

That said, you are likely to find various true pines in a redwood forest. Jeffrey Pines and Ponderosa Pines are tall with long, dark green thistles. Jeffrey pinecones’ prickles turn inward, and Ponderosa’s turn outward, making one much friendlier towards being handled than the other. Bishop Pines are also common in coastal environments, with shorter bristles, though they may be found adjacent to the redwood forests rather than living among them.


The garden-variety rose we have today has been bred for its flashy colors and superfluity of petals. The (left) wild rose? It’s a much more modest creature of five delicate petals, closely resembling apple blossoms or blackberry flowers (which, not surprisingly, are also in the rose family). Toyon is a common shrub in Californian forests, with the familiar pink flowers, and bright red berries ripening over the winter (hence their nickname, Christmas berry).

Like blackberry (right), salal and salmonberry are produce edible fruit. Salmonberry plants are a delightful find in redwood forests, very closely resembling blackberries but producing a salmon-colored, mild-tasting berry. Both the bell-shaped flowers and resulting berries of salal are sweet and edible. Although here I must add – please do not sample in forests without expert guidance.


This is an order, not family, of Class Aves. Several of these songbirds can be found in a Redwood forest. I most easily identify the pompous little Stellar’s Jay, always trying to steal from camp and picnic sites. Tiny little Hutton’s Vireo are very common. Wilson’s Warbler is a beautiful yellowish creature with a charming call, and Chestnut-Backed Chickadees are colored with that familiar chickadee cap. There are plenty more of these small songbirds to spot and listen for; never forget a moment of silence to simply listen.


Some sun dappled tannoak.

Tannoak is a shrub whose abundance is rivalled only by toyon in the understory of the forest. The slight fuzziness to its ridged leaves evoke a mild allergic reaction in some – but not all – individuals. And yes, it is accompanied by Oak Trees as family members, of the genus Quercus. What the oaks lack in the redwood’s height, they make up for in sprawling, twisting arms and a charming diversity in acorns (fuzzy caps make the most adorable little hats). Oaks exist in California’s redwood forests, but also in its more arid chaparral regions.


Red-barked manzanita (a juvenile manzanita is right) are common to more arid regions of California, but red-barked, broad-leafed Madrone trees live comfortably in dry chaparral as well as moist Redwood forest regions. Rhododendrons (left), providing bursts of white and pink floral clusters in the understory of the forest, also belong to this family of colorful shrubs and trees.


The taxon to showcase is, of course, Cupressaceae – the redwood family. Sequoia sempervirens means “forever alive” and is a grand descriptor for a grand tree that is the Coast Redwood. This magnificent old tree can grow for hundreds of years, and to hundreds of feet tall, but is graced by very small cones. The leaves in the upper branches are visibly different than lower leaves, as higher ones adapt to greater light exposure, and lower ones to life in the shade. They prefer moist regions, so are only found within 50 miles of the California coastline, from central up through northern California (and beyond the state as well). It is within this radius that fog comes up from the ocean each night, chilling and moistening the air, just to the tree’s preference.


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