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Return of the kings: times are tough for the Santa Cruz cypress, a tree with limited range and, for 20 years, no champion.

With a single glance I can see about 3,000 Santa Cruz cypress trees. That red-shouldered hawk soaring high above me can see as many as 5,200, but no more. No matter where that hawk flies, when it comes to counting Cupressus abramsiana, the sky is not the limit. 5,200 is. I know this because that's all the wild Santa Cruz cypress there are in the whole world, and every one of them grows within 14 miles of where I sit.

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My vantage point is a lofty sandstone outcrop in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, overlooking a potpourri forest of ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, manzanita, knobcone pine, live oak, madrone, redwood, and Santa Cruz cypress. I watch patches of coastal fog tear away from the solid blanket lower down and drift up-slope to battle the sun for the mood of the land. Bright sunlight inspires a carefree optimism, a sense that all is right with the world and a desire that it will always be so. But the misty fog, with its cool bluish light, is a gentle reminder that Mother Nature makes no promises, grants no wishes, and never pities the loser. Until recently the Santa Cruz cypress had been dealt a fair, if rather poor, hand in the game of survival. But lately, humans have been stacking the deck.

I came here to the Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve because I thought that of all the trees on the National Register of Big Trees' list of species with vacant thrones, the endangered Santa Cruz cypress was most in need of a king. AMERICAN FORESTS' Big Tree program began back in 1940 as a way to sound the alarm over the loss of our large trees by recognizing the biggest individual of each species. But that warning signal takes on a doomsday urgency when the black hole of extinction threatens the loss of every individual of a species.

I hike over to the west side of the reserve where I encounter my first Santa Cruz cypress up close. I find a healthy specimen with typical bright green, overlapping, scale-like leaves; silvery gray, furrowed bark; and female cones that hug the branches in clusters akin to bunches of grapes. The nearly spherical cones have eight to 10 scales, each looking like a shield with a central projection (called an umbo, if you want to impress your botanist or Scrabble-playing friends). The cones' large size--an inch or more in diameter--help distinguish the tree from the Gowen cypress.

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Before botanist Carl Wolf first labeled Santa Cruz cypress as separate species (Cupressus abramsiana) in 1948, it was included in Gowen cypress (Cupressus goveniana) or Sargent cypress (Cupressus sargentii). It has gone full circle from Cupressus abramsiana (full species) to Cupressus goveniana var. abramsiana (a variety of Gowen cypress), to Cupressus x goveniana (hybrid of Gowen and Sargent cypress) and back to Cupressus abramsiana. But Santa Cruz cypress by any Latin name is a tree uncomfortably close to oblivion.

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Any time you can count every individual of a species there is a danger to its survival. Rarity is the prelude to extinction. Tree populations fluctuate over time. Most species can handle this, even if a few small populations are eliminated by fire, disease, or competition. But what if all you have are a few small populations?

Santa Cruz cypress was probably more abundant and widespread during the past glacial period, but today only five populations are known. Other than the 3,000 or so trees at Bonny Doon, there are 700 at Eagle Rock, 200 at Bracken Brae, 1,000 near Majors Creek, and 200 on Butano Ridge. Put all four together and they barely cover half a square mile. Even so, I lacked the time to cover all this ground in my search for a new king, because the groves are spread out over a 14-mile stretch of the Santa Cruz Mountains. So I did what any big tree hunter would do. I sought reinforcements.

Kathy Lyons, now a plant ecologist with Biotic Resources Group in Santa Cruz, conducted her master's research on the population structure of Santa Cruz cypress and later helped develop a Draft Recovery Plan for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. She told me the biggest specimens were in the Bonny Doon population behind the Bonny Doon fire station and even showed me the most likely contenders. But before I measured them I wanted to eyeball a few more in the reserve.

The first step in any search for a new champion tree is to become familiar with the species and its best growing sites. Evolution has undoubtedly produced genetically superior individuals, but these differences are normally minor compared to the local growing environment. Big trees are made, not born. We may speak of royal sap in the phloem of champions, but the real world of trees is relatively egalitarian until chance chooses where a seed will land. For a seedling, it's not who you are, it's where you are.

This fact was soon evident as I walked through the Bonny Doon grove. I found large trees--to 50 feet or more--in the deeper sandy soils shared by ponderosa pine. Where chaparral was more evident the cypresses were smaller and scragglier. On sandstone outcrops the cypress trees growing in the cracks were fully mature, with dozens of cones, but they barely reached my waist. This, I thought, is one tough tree. So, why is this species so endangered?

The ecological answer is that while Santa Cruz cypress does well where most trees can't, they can't get established where most trees can. By adapting to impoverished sites, it has reduced its ability to compete on more forgiving soil.

That leaves the tough little cypress in a narrowly restricted habitat, and that's always a liability in the face of unchecked human "progress." Other than as firewood, Santa Cruz cypress has practically no consumptive commercial value. A logging operation on Butano Ridge in the 1980s left the trees unharmed. But when progress seems to wage war against Mother Earth, the collateral damage extends far. The Santa Cruz cypress may never have been a target, but it is has gotten in the way.

The pygmy cypress before me strikes a defiant pose: I have adapted and will survive, it seems to say. But looming above, on top the same sandstone outcrop, a house symbolizes the progress that threatens the trees. In 1975 the construction of a 40-home development destroyed nearly 100 cypress trees in the Bracken Brae population, almost 2 percent of the entire species. Oil and gas drilling was initiated on Butano Ridge, a logging road was planned to cut through the remainder of the Bracken Brae grove, and Bonny Doon was to become a vineyard. The threat of these operations led to the 1987 listing of Santa Cruz cypress as a federally endangered species.

Since then, such direct threats have been thwarted by action and a bit of luck. The oil and gas drilling was unsuccessful, logging permits were revoked, and housing construction has stopped. The Eagle Rock area was purchased by the Sempervirens Fund, a local land conservancy, and sold to the state for inclusion in Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Bonny Doon produces fine cypress, rather than fine wine, because The Nature Conservancy bought the property in 1989 and deeded it to the state as an ecological reserve.

This is all good news, but the remaining threats are much more insidious. Housing developments, which often feature non-native landscape plantings, can bring pests such as the sawfly that infested the Bracken Brae population in 1992. Or diseases like cypress canker, to which Santa Cruz cypress is known to be susceptible. Or pollen from ornamental cypresses. If any of this pollen lands on Santa Cruz cypress cones, fertile hybrids could cause genetic introgression--the swapping of genes--which would swamp the characteristics and adaptations that make Cupressus abramsiana what it is. With development has come exotic French broom and pampas grass that may compete with cypress seedlings.

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Wandering around Bonny Doon I "met" a significant portion of the world's Santa Cruz cypress trees. Each was unique, but none bigger than the ones near the fire station. On the way back I found a recently fallen cypress branch laden with cones. Cypress cones take two years to mature and can remain stubbornly closed for decades, even though seed viability declines with age. Some cones will open in hot weather or if a branch is broken and germination is possible where the substrate has been disturbed. But most cones wait patiently for a fire before they open, drop their seeds, and rise like a phoenix from the ashes.

The degree to which Santa Cruz cypress depends on natural fire cycles for regeneration is unknown, but more than 80 percent grow on or near private property. That proximity could impede future generations because we discourage fire near houses.

Back among the big cypress trees, I measured four that had the potential to be national champs. None could match the 270-point score of the previous king, but that tree's circumference was measured (incorrectly by today's rules) at the 2-foot level, presumably because of a low fork.

Now, after a 20-year vacancy, the throne is crowded with three kings whose point totals fall within 5 points of one another. They range from 56 to 68 feet tall, 31 to 36 inches in diameter, and 40 to 45 feet in crown spread, averaging 177 points. The king is long since dead! Long live the kings!

Before leaving Bonny Doon, I took one last stroll and happened to pass that fallen branch again. Looking closer, I saw that some seeds had spilled out of the opening cones. As I held some in my hand, I noticed that the branch was too far from a tree to have fallen there by accident.

Maybe someone else realized what I did: The soil was sandy, thin, poorly developed, and probably very low in nutrients and water-holding capacity. In other words, perfect for a Santa Cruz cypress. I put the seeds back where they had fallen and left Bonny Doon filled with hope. Someday, perhaps, the limit for Santa Cruz cypress counters will not be 5,200 but something a little bit closer to the sky.

RELATED ARTICLE: SPECIES IN SEARCH OF A CHAMP

Grab your tree ID book and this list and start hunting. You could add your name and one of these trees to the 2006 Register.

Parentheses indicate states in which species can be found.

[DELTA] Indicates naturalized species

ALDER

Red, Alnus rubra (Wash., Ore.)

APRICOT

Desert, Prunus fremontii (Calif.)

ARAUCARIA

Cunningham, Araucaria cunninghamii (Hawaii)

BAYBERRY

Evergreen, Myrica heterophylla (N.J., Pa., Del.)

BITTERBUSH

Picramnia pentandra (Fla.)

BLACK-CALABASH

Amphitecna latifolia (Fla.)

BUCKTHORN

Birchleaf, Rhamnus betulifolia (Texas, N.M., Ariz.)

BURNINGBUSH

Western, Euonymus occidentalis (Wash., Ore.)

CAPER

Limber, Capparis flexuosa (Fla.)

CASTORBEAN

Ricinus communis (Fla.)

CEANOTHUS

Feltleaf, Ceanothus arboreus (Calif.)

Greenbark, Ceanothus spinosus (Calif.)

CHINKAPIN

Allegheny, Castanea pumila (N.J., Pa.)

Florida, Castanea alnifolia (Fla.)

COCOPLUM

Chrysobalanus icaco (Fla.)

COLUBRINA

Coffee, Colubrina arborescens (Fla.)

Cuba, Colubrina cubensis (Fla.)

CROSSOPETALUM

Florida, Crossopetalum rhacoma (Fla.)

CYRILLA

Littleleaf, cyrilla racemiflora var. parvifolia (Ga., Fla.)

DOWNY-MYRTLE

Rhodomyrtus tomentosa [DELTA] (Fla.)

ELDER

Mexican, Sambucus mexicana (Ariz., N.M.)

Velvet, Sambucus velutina (Calif., Nev., Ariz.)

FIDDLEWOOD

Berlandier, Citharexylum berlandieri (Texas)

FIR

Bristlecone, Abies bracteata (Colo., Idaho, Ore., Calif.)

FORESTIERA

Texas, Forestiera angustifolia (Texas)

FREMONTIA

Mexican, Fremontodendron mexicanum (Calif.)

GRAYTWIG

Schoepfia chrysophylloides (Fla.)

GUAVA

Psidium guajava [DELTA] (Fla., Calif.)

HAWTHORN

Barberry, Crataegus berberifolia (Ill., Kan., Tx, Miss., Ky., Mo., La., Ark.)

Brainerd, Crataegus brainerdii (Mich., Ohio, Pa.)

Broadleaf, Crataegus dilatata (N.Y., Vt., N.H.)

Gregg, Crataegus greggiana (Texas)

Harbison, Crataegus harbisonii (Tenn., Ala., Miss.)

Pensicola, Crataegus lacrimata (Fla.)

Reverchon, Crataegus reverchonii (Mo., Kan.)

Threeflower, Crataegus triflora (Ga., Ala., Miss.)

Willow, Crataegus saligna (Colo.)

HOLLY

Dune, Ilex opaca var. arenicola (Fla.)

Georgia, Ilex longpipes (S.C., Ga., La.)

Sarvis, Ilex amelanchier (N.C., S.C., Ga., Fla., La.)

Tawnyberry, Ilex krugiana (Fla.)

LICARIA

Florida, Licaria triandra (Fla.)

LOCUST

Kelsey, Robinia kelseyi (N.C., Tenn., Ky.)

MAIDENBUSH

Savia bahamensis (Fla.)

Marlberry, Ardisia escallonioides (Fla.)

NECTANDRA

Florida, Nectandra coriacea (Fla.)

OAK

McDonald, Quercus macdonaldii (Calif.)

Myrtle, Quercus myrtifolia (S.C., Fla., Miss.)

Northern pin, Quercus ellipsoidalis (Mich., Wis., Minn.)

Scarlet, Quercus coccinea (N.Y., Ohio, Mich., Ind.)

PAWPAW

Bigflower, Asimina obovata (N.C., S.C., Ga., Fla.)

PINE

Fallax pinyon, pinus edulis var. fallax (Colo., Utah)

Jeffrey, Pinus jeffreyi (Ore., Calif.)

Virginia, Pinus virginiana (N.J., Pa., Ohio, Ky., Tenn., Va., Ga.)

PLUM

Hortulan, prunus hortulana (Ohio, Ill., Iowa, Mo., Okla.)

PRICKLY-ASH

Biscayne, Zanthoxylum coriaceum (Fla.)

PRICKLYPEAR

Brazil, Opuntia brasiliensis [DELTA] (Fla.)

SEVEN-YEAR-APPLE

Genipa clusiifolia (Fla.)

SNOWBELL

American, Styrax americanus (Va., N.C., S.C., Ga.)

Bigleaf, Styrax grandifolius (Va., Fla., Texas, Ky.)

Sycamore-leaf, Styrax platanifolius (Texas)

STOPPER

Long-stalk, Psidium longipes (Fla.)

Twinberry, Myrcianthes fragrans var. fragrans (Fla.)

SUGAR-APPLE

Annona squamosa [DELTA] (Fla.)

SUGARBERRY

Celtis laevigata (Fla., Texas, Va., Kan.)

SUMAC

Kearney, Rhus kearneyi (Calif.)

Laurel, Rhus laurina (Calif.)

Lemonade, Rhus integrifolia (Calif.)

Littleleaf, Rhus microphylla (Texas, Okla., N.M., Ariz.)

TAMARISK

French, Tamarix gallica (Texas, La.)

TETRAZYGIA

Florida, Tetrazygia bicolor (Fla.)

TORCHWOOD

Balsam, Amyris balsamifera (Fla.)

TREMA

West Indies, Trema lamarckiana (Fla.)

VAUQUELINIA

Fewflower, Vauquelinia pauciflora (Ariz.)

WHITE-MANGROVE

Laguncularia racemosa (Fla.)

WILLOW

Balsam, Salix pyrifolia (Minn., Wis., Mich., N.Y., Maine)

Basket, Salix viminalis (Mass., Maine, Conn., R.I., Vt.)

Dusky, Salix melanopsis (Wash., Ore., Utah, Calif., Wyo.)

Geyer, Salix geyerana (Mont., Ariz., Colo., Wyo.)

Littletree, Salix arbxsusculoides (Alaska)

Northwest, Salix sessilifolia (Wash., Ore.)

River, Salix fluviatilis (Maine, Minn., S.D., Kan., Va.)

Satiny, Salix pellita (Minn. Wis., Mich., N.Y., Maine, Vt., N.H.)

WINTERBERRY

Smooth, Ilex laevigata (N.Y., Maine, S.C.)

YUCCA

Schott, Yucca schottii (N.M., Ariz.)

STORY AND PHOTOS BY WHIT BRONAUGH

Whit Bronaugh nominated four of the champions in the current National Register of Big Trees.
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Author:Bronaugh, Whit
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2004
Words:2312
Previous Article:The national Register of big trees 2004-2005.
Next Article:Stature beyond size: don't let its small size fool you; Maryland is the nation's matriarch of monumental trees.
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