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SCVNews.com | Opinion/Commentary: History In an Old Oak Tree | 07-25-2013
Santa Clarita CA
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Let's Go Outside | Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Jul 25, 2013

evelynevandersande_mugWhen European settlers discovered our valley, they wrote that they found a “green paradise.” I can easily imagine them standing on our mountains after their long journey and viewing what must have looked like a lush, green valley.

That was in the late 1700s. All of this green vegetation was mostly due to the coast live oaks that were so much more plentiful than they are now. Coast live oaks are not deciduous, meaning they stay green the whole year ’round.

If you do not like raking leaves and you think this is the answer to your problem, there is no magic. Coast live oaks lose their leaves a little bit at a time, throughout the year. I know that well, because I have those great-big branches arching over my driveway. At some times of the year, the fallen leaves are more abundant, especially after the long, dry summer, and new green leaves appear during and after the rainy season.

Leaves of the coast live oak are a wonder of adaptation to our dry climate. They are curved, so the sun hits only a small part of the surface. They are waxy, so sun or wind cannot dry them out. They are spiky, so no animals are interested in eating them. The underside is lighter to diffuse heat, and they are protected by a little fuzz.

coastliveoakacornsCoast live oaks are magnificent trees, imposing, large and strong. Even touching the heavy bark of the trunk gives you a sense of power and wonder. They are home to many animals and are recognized as a valuable asset for our valley. They are protected by law, but far too many have been cut to make room for the development of what became Santa Clarita.

Their acorns were the main food staple for the Tataviam Indians, the local tribe that populated our valley. They lived most of the year along the Santa Clara River but came into areas like Placerita Canyon to collect acorns. They were hunters and gatherers and collected the acorns in large baskets. The acorns were ground up and then washed out carefully to get rid of the tannic acid. The mush was cooked into pancakes and was used to thicken up soups or stews. It is a great source of nutrients and was the basic food staple of their diet.

How did they cook acorn mush? They used a tightly woven basket with some water in it, heated some stones in the fire, added the stones and stirred, and then repeated the hot stone process until the mush was thick and creamy.

We ate some acorn pancakes at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center, and I can tell you it is really nutty and tasty. But the ground acorns must be washed many, many times to get rid of the tannic acid, which is toxic – so leave that to the experts.

Acorns are food for many birds and mammals – woodpeckers and squirrels come to mind right away. The coast live oak provides shade, shelter, nest sites, roost, forage, insect food and oxygen for us all. The spreading root system controls erosion, stabilizes the soil for animal burrows and serves as a food source.

Oak of the Golden Dream | Photos: Placerita Canyon Nature Center Associates

Oak of the Golden Dream | Photos: Placerita Canyon Nature Center Associates

There is an area at the Nature Center that is best described as Southern oak woodland: The oaks are numerous and form a canopy of branches above the picnic area. Because we have so many oaks in this area, it forms a special environment where you can observe a concentration of large birds. They use the branches to build nests and feed on the numerous insects. I recommend spending some quiet time there with your binoculars in hand.

At Placerita, we are lucky to have a special oak tree called oak of the Golden Dream. It is a registered historical landmark. I am going to tell you the story that you can find on the flier of the Heritage Trails where the oak of the Golden Dream is situated.

“In March 1842, Placerita emerged from sleepy anonymity and became the focal point of interest in Southern California when three herdsmen, Francisco Lopez, Manuel Cota and Domingo Bermudez, discovered gold in the canyon. Legend states that the discovery occurred after Francisco Lopez awoke from a siesta beneath a large oak tree. While asleep he had dreamed of finding gold and becoming wealthy (or so the legend goes). When he awoke, he shook off his dream of riches and went back to the reality of fixing a meal. He began to pull up wild onions for seasoning, and there, clinging to the roots were small particles …Gold! He went to L.A. and had his discovery registered. By May, over 100 miners were in Placerita Canyon, searching through the stream bed for gold. The local civil government in the Pueblo of Los Angeles gave Antonio Del Valle the power to collect fees from the miners for the wood, grass and water, which they and their animals consumed. By June, Del Valle reported that only 50 miners were left in the area because the stream was drying up, as it does each year.”

By the time the quarry was exhausted in the late 1840s, it had yielded 125 pounds of gold. That Francisco Lopez’s discovery is largely lost in U.S. history is understandable since this part of California was under Mexican rule and Lopez’s discovery was a “Mexican” discovery, not an “American” one as at Sutter’s Mill six years later.

Sharing the story of Francisco Lopez's discovery with school children.

Sharing the story of Francisco Lopez’s discovery with school children.

The Oak of the Golden Dream still stands proudly, and there is a sign close to the entrance of the park, so you cannot miss the trail that leads to it. Was it the tree where the gold was found? Was it really the same tree? It is a probability (it remains difficult to prove), but even if it was not, this specific oak tree was definitely in close proximity. That much is agreed upon, and this is how it can be registered as a historic site.

Walking along the trail, before you reach the oak, you can see a mural depicting the history of Placerita Canyon, including the Tataviam Indians, the settling of the area by Spanish immigrants, and the gold clinging to the roots of the wild onion while Francisco Lopez brandishes his discovery with glee.

How often can see you see a part of history in an oak tree? This tree is old; it won’t be standing there forever. Come and have a look so you can tell your grand children one day that you saw this living piece of history where gold was first found. They will be impressed – and they’ll think you’re ancient.


Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at Placerita Canyon Nature Center for 27 years. She lives in Newhall.

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