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Fall reading for plant lovers


Kate Marianchild’s “Secrets of the Oak Woodlands” includes a chapter on plants like toyon, right, that are often seen in oak habitats. As toyon berries ripen, they become palatable, encouraging animals to eat the pulp and disperse the indigestible seeds. Tanya Kucak/ Special to the Town Crier

One of the best reasons for growing native plants is to support the community of critters that come to rely on the plants. You may start to notice which plants like to grow together, which pollinators visit particular plants and how birds interact in your garden.

It’s fun to observe closely and discover things in your own garden, but did you also wonder how these interactions play out in the wild?

I don’t know how I missed Kate Marianchild’s “Secrets of the Oak Woodlands: Plants and Animals among California Oaks” (Heydey, 2014) when it was published a few years ago.

“Oaks are key to the character and legacy of California – its visual beauty, the vigor of its rivers and streams, the clarity of its air, the richness of its wildlife,” she writes.

Many of the 22 chapters describe “keystone species” that keep oak ecosystems healthy: California scrub jays, oak mistletoe, coyotes, woodrats, western fence lizards and California ground squirrels. Other chapters cover plants or animals often seen in oak habitats, such as poison oak and toyon, or oak titmouse and acorn woodpecker. Oak galls and mycorrhizae also get their own chapters.

Engagingly written and filled with fascinating information, this is a good book for reading aloud. It will stoke the curiosity and inspire a sense of wonder in young and old. Beautiful watercolor illustrations by Ann Meyer Maglinte grace each chapter.

For instance, here are some things you will learn:

• Although California buckeye flowers are toxic to European honeybees, they feed many native bees and other pollinators.

• Adult California ground squirrels have developed resistance to rattlesnake venom, and they will bite the tails of rattlesnakes attempting to go after their vulnerable pups.

• Manzanita bark peels in the summer, revealing green stems and trunks, to facilitate “stem photosynthesis” as well as to slough off any pests or parasites.

• Woodrats bite the edges of bay leaves and place them in their nests to repel fleas.

• Birds and small mammals can nest in those big clumps of mistletoe high in an oak tree.

Although it sadly does not have an index or extensive footnotes, the book does include a detailed summary of who eats what (or whom) and other facts in an Ecology Reference Guide section at the end of each chapter.

Tree tales

Another fortuitous find this year was the 12th novel by the winner of a National Book Award and a MacArthur Fellowship. After reading Richard Powers’ “The Overstory” (W.W. Norton, 2018), I was stunned that I had not heard of him before now. In 512 pages, he tells the compelling stories of nine characters who are in some way connected with trees.

During a teaching gig at Stanford University, Powers visited redwood groves and reportedly took notice of trees for the first time. He proceeded to learn about trees and spent five years writing the novel, moving to the Great Smoky Mountains in the meantime.

“The Overstory” is still my favorite of the 40 or so novels I’ve read this year, both for its stories and for its attitude toward trees.

Tanya Kucak gardens organically. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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