December got us thinking about conifers as many folks bring them into their home during the holidays. In case you’ve forgotten, conifers are evergreen trees with needle-like leaves, such as pines and firs. This month’s featured nature appreciation focuses on a spectacular tree species that is part of crucial habitat the Mendocino Land Trust has worked to preserve.
In 2013, the MLT acquired the stunning 73-acre Pelican Bluffs property near Point Arena. This preserve not only provides public access to coastal bluffs but also is home to a forest of bishop pines. Known to scientists as Pinus muricata, this conifer has a very limited range that is severely fragmented.
While these trees can grow as tall as 50 feet, they are also gorgeous when they grow stunted and twisted on windswept bluffs like some at Pelican Bluffs. The seeds of these plants are borne in 1- to 3- inch cones, growing close to large branches. The cones are adorned with stiff scales tipped with spines, earning it the nickname “prickle cone” pine. The spines deter squirrels from getting to the seeds and also minimize fire damage. In fact, the cones generally do not open until fire passes through and causes them to open and release seeds.
Oddly, the bishop pine takes two forms which refuse to hybridize. In Mendocino County and areas north of here, bishop pines have dark blue-green needles, but if you go five miles south of the county line into Sonoma County, the bishop pines south of that point have bright green needles.
Thanks to the work of organizations like the Mendocino Land Trust, this species persists. It is still considered vulnerable by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). We hope you will find time to take a walk in the bishop pine forest at Pelican Bluffs in the coming year!