Re-Oak California: Seedlings find new home in Sonoma County
By Elizabeth Kubey
Natalie Portis saw a friend’s post about the CNPS Re-Oak California project and thought, “This is exactly what we need to bring our land back to life!” A resident of Sonoma since 1999, Natalie had lost ten acres and dozens of trees to the 2017 wine country fires. With the help of CNPS, she has now planted 21 oak seedlings and is watching her land come back from the fire.
Natalie smiled and said, “Thank you for bringing these trees back home.”
The moment Natalie laid eyes on her Bartholomew Park property almost 20 years ago, she fell in love with the dense forest and beautiful old oaks. Seventy-five-year-old dry farmed organic vines border her land, producing delicious wine to this day. In the 2017 wine country fires, Natalie’s house was one of the last places to burn. The fire was on all three sides of Natalie’s property for a week but kept receding. Then, on the last night of the fire, it came down the hill, through the forest, and burned the house to the ground.
Natalie reached out to CNPS for help re-oaking her property. On a recent sunny Thursday, over a year after the fire, CNPS Re-Oak Coordinator Seth Kauppinen, rare plant botanist Steven Serkanic, and I joined Natalie to plant oak seedlings on her land. Armed with seedlings sprouted from acorns collected from the area a year earlier, we drove down a long road, with the vineyard on our right. We could see and hear the tools of workers re-building her home.
Natalie’s land has been kept wild. As we walked through her backyard, Natalie remarked that it used to be so dense that she could barely squeeze through the trees. Steven, who did his Master’s thesis on Arctostaphylos, was thrilled to see manzanita seedlings poking through the charred topsoil. Manzanitas are fire-adapted, and their seeds germinate more readily upon exposure to heat and smoke. In the soil behind Natalie’s house, seeds that had lain dormant beneath a tangled understory were now reaching for the sun with tender stems — a big withdrawal from the seed bank to finance a new birth of chaparral on this old slope.
We found a lot of native plants thriving on the blackened earth: coyote brush, monkeyflower, toyon, and poison oak among them. The land is responding quickly to the pulse of nutrients and open niches that fire brings, a flush of beauty set against the memory of destruction. With her own loss fresh in mind, Natalie will watch this unfolding drama of regeneration from her kitchen window.
Our tour of the “back forty” complete, we got to work. Re-Oak California takes a conservative approach to conservation: the project respects regional adaptation by planting only locally-sourced oaks, and we allow natural processes to govern regrowth of wildlands. At Natalie’s place, we put oaks in the ground where nature might not: at the wildland-urban interface (WUI) immediately around her new house. We cut chicken wire with borrowed tin-snips to create protection for the seedlings and smoothed the soil over their fragile roots. Looking at these spindly six-inch-tall babies, it’s hard to imagine them as ten-ton mature trees, adorned with Usnea lichen and ringing with the chiding calls of Acorn Woodpeckers. This is how nature works: with enough patience, you’re sure to see a miracle. Natalie smiled and said, “Thank you for bringing these trees back home.”
Do you want oaks planted on your property? Or are you interested in participating in a local planting day? Sign up here: cnps.org/reoak
Elizabeth Kubey is a CNPS Outreach Coordinator