Conifer Country

I grew up among ponderosa pines (Pinus ponderosa). Not strapping cathedralesque yellow-bellied pines quite the way you find in Northern California, but old gnarled monk-like sculptures of trees formed by drought and wind and weather. As a girl (and to this day), I believed that true peace – God even – rested on the fragrant bed of needles blanketing the feet of an old ponderosa pine, the wind shhhhhing sometimes softly, sometimes powerfully, overhead. Photo: More than 200-year old Ponderosa pine on a windswept ridge of northern Colorado.

My reverence for the ancient strength and beauty of a ponderosa has nothing on Michael Kauffmann’s. Kauffmann is a husband to environmental educator, Allison; new father to mere-weeks-old-son Sylas; long-time teacher himself of environmental education, math and science; naturalist and self-described “freedom-loving environmentalist who enjoys unconfined primeval recreation.” Kauffmann, a resident of Humboldt County, published “Conifer Country: A natural history and hiking guide to 35 conifers of the Klamath Mountain region,” in early 2012. (Both softcover and digital versions are available at or a local independent bookstore near you.) Produced after more than 10 years of study, exploration and amazement, “Conifer Country” is “intended to serve as a natural history guide as well as a hiking guide for plant lovers and explorers alike. The main reason I have written this book,” Michael states, “is for me to be able to synthesize all the information I have gathered in my notes over hundreds of trips into the field. I also hope it offers the reader a fresh view of the natural world, as seen through the eyes of plants. I speak for the trees!” Photo: Alaska cedar. Photo courtesy of Michael Kauffmann © 2012

Kauffmann was born and raised in Virginia where he formed his love of the outdoors. As a young adult he moved to the southwest, where his weekends were spent exploring wilderness areas, and his fascination with ancient coniferous species solidified. He explains that “the definitive purpose [of getting out in the wilderness] was to walk, get lost and miserable, go crazy in peace, and live to tell about the amazing experiences. Through these journeys I found joy and also an understanding: learning where I stood and what stood around me. The keen sense of place I began to develop in the course of these adventures deepened my budding interest in natural history and jump-started my career as a naturalist.” Photo: Michael Kauffmann. Photo courtesy of Michael Kauffmann © 2012

Coniferous trees (pine, fir, spruce, redwood, cedar, etc.) are generally characterized as those evergreen woody plants that have scaled “needles” instead of flat leaves and seed-bearing cones. Some conifers are deciduous, but they are the exception. They are intriguing plants for many reasons, not least of which is that scientists generally categorize them as the among the oldest, largest andtallest living woody plants on the planet. Photo: A tiny old ponderosa pine – nature’s bonsai.

Conifers have a remarkable story to tell us about our world, and Northern California’s Klamath Mountain region has an equally compelling story to tell us about conifers, Kauffmann points out. “Across this landscape, a mosaic of habitats mix at a crossroads of five biotic regions—the Cascades, Coast Range, Great Basin, Central Valley, and Sierra Nevada—each helping to define the Klamath Mountains. Within the geologic boundaries…, there are 3,540 taxa (species, subspecies, and varieties) of vascular plants and up to 38 species of conifers, depending on how one delineates the region (Sawyer 2006). In addition to plants, the region holds exceptional diversity in amphibians, mammals, and birds. I think the conifers represent a manageable means to begin to comprehend all biodiversity in the region.” Photo: Whitebark pine, Mt. Eddy. Photo courtesy of Michael Kauffmann © 2012

After moving to the northwestern aspect of Northern California in late 2002, Kauffmann got hooked on the study of the conifers of our area on a back country trip in January of 2003, where he met and became enamored of the Brewer spruce (Picea breweriana), Port-Orford-cedar (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana) and magestic douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). “The Klamath-Siskiyou Ecoregion is world renowned for being a crossroads for biodiversity, representing one of the most species rich temperate coniferous forests on Earth.” Michael writes in his introduction to Conifer Country. “These mountains were different than anything I had experienced in the West and I was ready to understand them. I would begin my lessons by learning regional conifer distributions, searching for documented stands of the rare species, and exploring for populations yet undiscovered.” Photo: Foxtail pine, Trinity Alps. Photo courtesy of Michael Kauffmann © 2012

Conifer Country covers a specific region at the same time that it covers a lot of ground both literally and conceptually. Its personal and passionate introduction leads into detailed discussions on the nature and importance of conifers and of the geology and climate of the Klamath Mountain region. These set the reader up nicely for the 35 distinct conifer profiles, which include information on where each conifer grows, its growth habits, its cones (which are amazingly diverse and lovely themselves) and even the nature of each conifer’s scent where applicable. Photo: Front cover of “Conifer Country”. Photo courtesy of Michael Kauffmann © 2012

Profiles included are: Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), White fir (Abies concolor), Grand fir (Abies grandis), Shasta fir (Abies x shastensis), Noble fir (Abies procera), Subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa), Pacific silver fir (Abies amabilis), Brewer spruce (Picea breweriana), Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii), Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), Mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana), Sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana), Western white pine (Pinus monticola), Foxtail pine (Pinus balfouriana), Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis), Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi), Ghost pine (Pinus sabiniana), Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta var. murrayana), Beach pine (Pinus contorta var. contorta), Knobcone pine (Pinus attenuata), Bishop pine (Pinus muricata), Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), Incense-cedar (Calocedrus decurrens), Port Orford-cedar (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana), Western redcedar (Thuja plicata), Common juniper (Juniperus communis), Western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis), Alaska yellow-cedar (Cupressus nootkatensis), Baker cypress (Cupressus bakeri), Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia). Photo: See-through branches of a ponderosa pine.

The plant profiles are likewise followed-up nicely by 29 descriptions of hikes in the Klamath Region and on which you can see/meet/experience these conifers in their natural territory. The hikes range and are graded on difficulty and accessibility as well as how many and which of the conifers you will see. Photo: Conifers in Northern California winter garb.

A dendrologist studies the life and taxonomy of trees, and in many ways this book is about one man’s journey to become a better dendrologist by focusing his view on one kind of tree in one limited area. But in narrowing his focus, Michael Kauffmann is also challenging himself – and us his readers – to open ourselves up to all there is to learn, appreciate and care for in our world. He challenges us to be bigger people: “While in the field, you, the everenlightened reader, needs to be around to set the example. What might you have to offer? How about proper wilderness ethics, an intrinsic love of nature, a vote for an elected official willing to work for more wilderness preservation, or a voice for the continued conservation of native plants? The reason for a visit, inherently, should not be for us but for them—the other biota—so that we can understand their world.” Photo: Seeing the view through the eyes of a conifer.

Follow a North State Garden on Facebook – Like us today! Photo: A conifer bonsai in a place of honor at a Shambhala Mountain Center.

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Jennifer Jewell
In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.
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4 Responses

  1. Avatar Ginny says:

    Thank you for the column.

    God Bless.

  2. Randall Smith Randall Smith says:

    Appreciate knowing of this text. As a newcomer, the variety and distribution of these wonders has always been a puzzle. Some are known immediately, others still escape a correct name.

    • Jennifer Jewell Jennifer Jewell says:

      I am so with you on this sentiment! And they look so differently in different environments, that even when I think I have it, I might not. Gives a person plenty of room for more learning…:)