Oaks are iconic trees in California, the defining feature of savannas and woodlands in many parts of the state. For millennia, these majestic trees have provided the ecological foundation upon which thousands of other organisms depend. Their cultural significance is equally profound: they are of central importance to diverse indigenous groups, and are prized for the many benefits they provide California residents.
Vast expanses of oak savanna historically occupied the rich alluvial soils of Napa and Sonoma valleys. The immense and long-lived valley oak (Quercus lobata) dominated these savannas, accounting for more than 65% of trees (Dawson 2008, Grossinger et al. 2012). Early observers described the valleys as “studded with groups of oaks” (Marryat 1850), and extolled the “magnificent oaks” that were “the glory of the landscape scenery” (Smith and Elliott 1878). Black oak (Q. kelloggii), coast live oak (Q. agrifolia), and other oak species were present in smaller numbers on the valley floors and were more abundant in the hillsides (Dawson 2008, Grossinger et al. 2012).
Over the past two centuries, however, much of this oak savanna has been cleared to make way for orchards, vineyards, and towns. In Napa Valley, the number of mature trees has declined from an estimated 45,000 in the early 1800s to less than 1,000 today (Grossinger et al. 2012). Valley oak habitat has been particularly affected by clearing and fragmentation: in many areas of the state, loss of valley oak woodland exceeds 90% (Kelly et al. 2005, Whipple et al. 2011). Documentation of this loss, and recognition of the value of oaks for both people and nature, has led to a growing desire to restore this unique ecosystem and bring back many of the benefits that oaks provide. Despite the significant changes the North Bay landscape has experienced since European settlement, there are opportunities to restore oaks in settings as diverse as backyards, parks, streets, farms, vineyards, and creeksides.