The Trees of the Valley
The most influential of the Valley trees is the yellow pine (Pinus
ponderosa). It attains its noblest dimensions on beds of water-washed,
coarsely-stratified moraine material, between the talus slopes and
meadows, dry on the surface, well-watered below and where not too
closely assembled in groves the branches reach nearly to the ground,
forming grand spires 200 to 220 feet in height. The largest that I have
measured is standing alone almost opposite the Sentinel Rock, or a
little to the westward of it. It is a little over eight feet in diameter
and about 220 feet high. Climbing these grand trees, especially when
they are waving and singing in worship in wind-storms, is a glorious
experience. Ascending from the lowest branch to the topmost is like
stepping up stairs through a blaze of white light, every needle
thrilling and shining as if with religious ecstasy.
Unfortunately there are but few sugar pines in the Valley, though in
the King's yosemite they are in glorious abundance. The incense cedar
(Libocedrus decurrens) with cinnamon-colored bark and yellow-green
foliage is one of the most interesting of the Yosemite trees. Some of
them are 150 feet high, from six to ten feet in diameter, and they are
never out of sight as you saunter among the yellow pines. Their bright
brown shafts and towers of flat, frondlike branches make a striking
feature of the landscapes throughout all the seasons. In midwinter, when
most of the other trees are asleep, this cedar puts forth its flowers
in millions,--the pistillate pale green and inconspicuous, but the
staminate bright yellow, tingeing all the branches and making the trees
as they stand in the snow look like gigantic goldenrods. The branches,
outspread in flat plumes and, beautifully fronded, sweep gracefully
downward and outward, except those near the top, which aspire; the
lowest, especially in youth and middle age, droop to the ground,
overlapping one another, shedding off rain and snow like shingles, and
making fine tents for birds and campers. This tree frequently lives more
than a thousand years and is well worthy its place beside the great
pines and the Douglas spruce.
The two largest specimens I know of the Douglas spruce, about eight feet
in diameter, are growing at the foot of the Liberty Cap near the Nevada
Fall, and on the terminal moraine of the small residual glacier that
lingered in the shady Illilouette Cañon.
After the conifers, the most important of the Yosemite trees are the
oaks, two species; the California live-oak (Quercus agrifolia), with
black trunks, reaching a thickness of from four to nearly seven feet,
wide spreading branches and bright deeply-scalloped leaves. It occupies
the greater part of the broad sandy flats of the upper end of the
Valley, and is the species that yields the acorns so highly prized by
the Indians and woodpeckers.
The other species is the mountain live-oak, or goldcup oak (Quercus
chrysolepis), a sturdy mountaineer of a tree, growing mostly on the
earthquake taluses and benches of the sunny north wall of the Valley.
In tough, unwedgeable, knotty strength, it is the oak of oaks, a
The largest and most picturesque specimen in the Valley is near the foot
of the Tenaya Fall, a romantic spot seldom seen on account of the rough
trouble of getting to it. It is planted on three huge boulders and yet
manages to draw sufficient moisture and food from this craggy soil to
maintain itself in good health. It is twenty feet in circumference,
measured above a large branch between three and four feet in diameter
that has been broken off. The main knotty trunk seems to be made up of
craggy granite boulders like those on which it stands, being about the
same color as the mossy, lichened boulders and about as rough. Two
moss-lined caves near the ground open back into the trunk, one on the
north side, the other on the west, forming picturesque, romantic seats.
The largest of the main branches is eighteen feet and nine inches in
circumference, and some of the long pendulous branchlets droop over the
stream at the foot of the fall where it is gray with spray. The leaves
are glossy yellow-green, ever in motion from the wind from the fall. It
is a fine place to dream in, with falls, cascades, cool rocks lined with
hypnum three inches thick; shaded with maple, dogwood, alder, willow;
grand clumps of lady-ferns where no hand may touch them; light filtering
through translucent leaves; oaks fifty feet high; lilies eight feet high
in a filled lake basin near by, and the finest libocedrus groves and
tallest ferns and goldenrods.
In the main river cañon below the Vernal Fall and on the shady south
side of the Valley there are a few groves of the silver fir (Abies
concolor), and superb forests of the magnificent species round the rim
of the Valley.
On the tops of the domes is found the sturdy, storm-enduring red cedar
(Juniperus occidentalis). It never makes anything like a forest here,
but stands out separate and independent in the wind, clinging by slight
joints to the rock, with scarce a handful of soil in sight of it,
seeming to depend chiefly on snow and air for nourishment, and yet it
has maintained tough health on this diet for two thousand years or more.
The largest hereabouts are from five to six feet in diameter and fifty
feet in height.
The principal river-side trees are poplar, alder, willow, broad-leaved
maple, and Nuttall's flowering dogwood. The poplar (Populus
trichocarpa), often called balm-of-Gilead from the gum on its buds, is
a tall tree, towering above its companions and gracefully embowering
the banks of the river. Its abundant foliage turns bright yellow in the
fall, and the Indian-summer sunshine sifts through it in delightful
tones over the slow-gliding waters when they are at their lowest ebb.
Some of the involucres of the flowering dogwood measure six to eight
inches in diameter, and the whole tree when in flower looks as if
covered with snow. In the spring when the streams are in flood it is the
whitest of trees. In Indian summer the leaves become bright crimson,
making a still grander show than the flowers.
The broad-leaved maple and mountain maple are found mostly in the cool
cañons at the head of the Valley, spreading their branches in beautiful
arches over the foaming streams.
Scattered here and there are a few other trees, mostly small--the
mountain mahogany, cherry, chestnut-oak, and laurel. The California
nutmeg (Torreya californica), a handsome evergreen belonging to the
yew family, forms small groves near the cascades a mile or two below
the foot of the Valley.
Writings of John Muir
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