Those Useless Trees — The Valley Oak

Those Useless Trees

A couple of days ago my friend Mike and I decided to go for a hike in Malibu Creek State Park. Having celebrated a friend’s birthday the previous night into the following morning, a good moderately strenuous ramble seemed like just the thing. We were both awed by the park’s stunning vistas as well as its many magnificent valley oak trees, the largest oak species in North America and a species found only in California.

Dramatic rocks
Inside the Malibu Creek State Park

The 3,324-hectare park, although opened to the public in 1976, of course, has a much older history. The first humans to arrive in the area where likely the Chumash, who established the village of Talepop (or Ta’lopop) within what’s now the park. About 3,500 years ago — thousands of years after the Chumash settled the area — the Tongva arrived from the east and the Malibu Creekwhich drains the Santa Monica Mountains, became a sort of border between the two nations. Downstream the river flows into the Pacific Ocean at an estuary the Chumash referred to as “U-mali-wu,” meaning “it makes a loud noise there.” The Spanish, who arrived in the 16th century, recorded the name as Malibu.


Although neither Mike nor I had ever been to the park before, we’d both seen it in many films and television series. The striking Goat Buttes, in particular, have served as a popular setting in Hollywood fictions. Before reading a sign informing us that the outcroppings were in the series, M*A*S*H, I was reminded by the chaparral-covered prominences of a childhood summer spent in Languedoc. After learning that the semi-arid oak landscape had been used to evoke green, temperate Korea for eleven seasons of the long-running Korean War comedy, I was struck by how unlike the scenery reminded me of any I’d seen in Korea, which I visited last summer. Of course, come to think of it, the cast of that show’s hairstyles seemed suspiciously ’70s for a war which took place from 1950-1953.

Coast Live OAk
Coast live oaks on a hill

The valley in which we stood was carpeted with brittle, yellow grasses and scruffy oak trees. Most of the oaks in the oak savanna were coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), also known as California live oak, those familiar oaks which during the rainy season fleetingly give the landscape of rolling hills on which they often grow the appearance of the Shire. Elsewhere in the park, there are stately sycamores and the southernmost grove of redwoods (although reader Matthew Miles points out that this is well outside their natural range and that they’re ill-suited to conditions in Southern California). There are, naturally, many varieties of native fungi and fauna as well, and during our visit, we observed a small herd of mule deer, various lizards, a covey of quail, a couple of rabbits, a California tarantula, a gracefully gliding heron, a red-tailed hawk, a flock of pigeons, and several other birds which I didn’t recognize.

Oaks on a hill

Some of the oaks obviously unlike the others. They were taller, their silhouettes patchier, their branches droopier than the dome-like coast live oaks, the canopies of which spread out like gauzy green umbrellas over the gently rolling hills. As a child growing up in Missouri’s Little Dixie, I roamed the forests and knew my red cedars from my red maples, my black walnuts from my bladdernuts, my corkwoods from my dogwoods, my pawpaws from my possumhaws. I don’t remember learning most of their names and characteristics, though, and because of that, I hoped — however unrealistically — that I’d over time somehow simply absorb a similar knowledge Southern California’s trees. Having now lived in Southern California longer than anywhere else, I have unfortunately found that I have to make an effort to learn them.

I observed the oaks that were not coast live oaks. Whereas the leaves of the coast live oak are small, shiny, prickly, and look a bit like those of a holly shrub, the leaves of these oaks were lobed and looked almost leathery, faintly fuzzy. The leaves were clustered rather than spread across the branches’ tips. The bark was sort of silvery brown and almost uniformly wrinkled whereas the trunks and branches of the coast live oaks appear contorted and gnarled. It was clear that these were not coast live oaks — but I was no closer to identifying them than I had been when Mike had asked me what they were and so I turned to PlantSnap, an app which has, since downloading, successfully identified about 30% of the plants I’ve used it to recognize. It also identifies fungi — but with a track record like that, I wouldn’t use it for foraging unless I was completely OK with a painful death. This time the app proved successful, however, notifying me that the tree was most likely a Quercus agrifolia, or valley oak (it was) or, perhaps, a staghorn fern or loquat (it was obviously not). Valley oaks are also known as robles, as in Paso Robles.


I was struck by the appearance of the valley oaks acorns, which were considerably longer than those I was accustomed to. They provide food for, among other animals, acorn woodpeckers, California ground squirrels, California scrub jays, and yellow-billed magpies. Historically, they were also an important food source for the Chumash, who never developed agriculture as they were able to live comfortably off of what they foraged and hunted.

Eating leaves
Mule deer eating valley oak leaves

The woody parts of the valley oak support California gall wasp, red cone gall wasp, and Chionodes petalumensis. As we approached a beckoning oak woodland, we stopped to watch a large family of mule deer, one of whose members spent a great deal of time standing on his hind legs and helping himself to the leaves of a large tree.

The roots of the valley oak have intimate symbiotic associations with many of the region’s mycorrhizal fungi which are essential to their survival — and one of the main reasons Southern California should favor the planting of native trees over imports like the pepper trees, goldenrains, jacarandas, bottle brushes, &c which, although drought tolerant, are simply incapable of slotting into an ecosystem which evolved over millions of years without them.

The valley oak is endemic to California, where its range stretches along the valleys and foothills of San Diego County in the south to Sikiyou County in the north. They live to be up to 600 years, which means that the oldest trees were alive during the fall of Constantinople, the invention of the printing press, the domination of Central Asia by Tamerlane’s Timurid Empire, and closer to home, the rise of the Inca and Aztec empires.

Until it fell on 1 May 1977, the tallest valley oak was the so-called “Hooker Oak,” which stood until then in Chico. Because its trunk had a massive diameter of 8.8 meters, its age was at the time estimated to be over 1,000 years old. However, once dead it was determined that the tree owed its girth to the fact that it was in fact two specimens, both of roughly 325 years of age, which had long ago grown together into one. It appeared in many films where it proved a natural in its many roles as a tree.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), co-starring the Hooker Oak

The current tallest valley oak is the so-called “Henley Oak,” a specimen which towers 47 meters above the floor of the Round Valley in Covelo. It is named after Thomas J. Henley, a one-time Superintendent of Indian Affairs notable for opening the region to European-American settlers in defiance of a federal order which had promised the land to Native Americans, resulting in a great deal of regrettable bloodshed between indigenous Californians and immigrants. The tree is believed to be more than 500 years old, meaning it sprouted from an acorn and was possibly producing its own well before the first Spanish galleon, San Salvador, sailed along the coast.

Henley Oak
The Henley Oak (source unknown)

Mike and I turned back after reaching Rock Pool, and again we crossed the valley featured in M*A*S*H. This time, surprisingly, I did find myself somewhat reminded of Korea — or at least of Korean (and Chinese) landscape painting. By this time, the sun had set and the gold hour was transitioning to blue. The oak woodland seemed to be climbing up the base of the improbably steep sandstone hillsides. Tipping the scales of perception, perhaps, was the presence of a Korean family attempting to take photos of a toddler with the scenery as a backdrop. 

Korean Landscape
Korean landscape painting? Oak woodland at the base of low mountains

I sometimes have a physical sensation of being pulled into the woods and the longer I looked at the trees, the stronger the pull seemed to grow. I had to fight the urge to enter the forest because the park had officially closed the moment the sun sank behind the horizon and currently, there is no overnight camping because in June, 35-year-old Tristan Beaudette was shot to death in the tent he was sharing with his two young daughters. Since then, rumors and other reports of gunfire in the park have emerged both following the murder and stretching back to 2016 and there’s an ongoing investigation. (UPDATE: A survivalist named Anthony Rauda has since been arrested and faces one count of murder, ten counts of attempted murder, and five counts of burglary).

Vacant campsite under a canopy of oak trees)

Hopefully, the murderous gunman will be caught and peace and campers will again return to the park. It looks like a really wonderful place to pitch a tent for a weekend, perhaps do a bit of forest bathing, or even just contemplate the scenery. As we continued toward the exit, the crescent moon (which had hung in the sky throughout our day) was now shining brightly and bats were flitting about in search of a meal. We hurried our pace and left the park without incident.

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of Brightwell’s maps are available from 1650 GalleryHe is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiTwitter, and Weibo.
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