Imagine Cambria without her signature Monterey pines. With this unprecedented drought that has contributed to so many of the pines dying, the town may be facing a future without the beloved trees that have given Cambria much of its ambiance.
Cambrians who rarely or never venture into the Santa Lucia Mountains in its backcountry where we live may not be aware of the Pinus coulteri, commonly known as the Coulter pine. It is a native of the coastal mountains from the San Francisco Bay Area to northern Baja California. Like the Monterey pines, the Coulter pines are in serious trouble.
Until recently, the Coulter pines in our mountains have been very healthy and have not shown the stress we’ve seen with our local Monterey pines. However, lately, we’ve noticed groupings of dead trees on the hill behind our house. Although the Coulter pines have deep root systems, some of the trees growing in poor soil near the ridge top cannot find enough water, making them ripe for attack by the bark beetle. We realize that if this drought continues, we may lose many or most of our Coulter pines.
Coulter pines are found between about 2,000 and 4,000 feet in elevation. With their ramrod-straight trunks, they can grow up to 80 feet tall.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of these pines is that their pine cones can reach 16 inches tall and weigh as much as 10 pounds, making them the largest cones of any pine tree.
The Coulter pine cones are so distinctive that visitors to our ranch always want to take a few home with them. Because the cones fall periodically and litter the ground in some places, that’s an easy request to grant.
We always warn people not to stand under the pine cones that are still high in the trees. They are so heavy that one could literally knock you silly if it bopped you on your noggin. Handling them is very tricky, because the edges are very sharp and full of extremely sticky pine pitch. They aren’t souvenirs you can just tuck into your suitcase to take home.
There have always been changing weather patterns, but the drought that is blanketing the West Coast has the potential to be devastating to our ecology. The death of our pine trees affects the habitat of animals, insects and other plants that rely on the trees.
For example, our Coulter pine cones are a food source for our local gray squirrels. Although our mountains have a large variety of trees, including bay, madrone, oak, alder, sycamore and maple, the loss of our pine forest would be a tragedy.
There may not be much we can do to save our pine trees, except hope for a change in the weather patterns that are exacerbating their demise. I hope the trees that are still healthy can hold out until this drought is over.