Mystery Redwoods


Are the trees at the top of Quail Hollow Ranch dwarf redwoods, or are they just stunted?

Story and photos by Allison Titus

Here’s the classic redwood story. A tiny tree takes root in the forest. Over time, the tree grows a little bit each year, developing thick, tannin-rich bark that protects it from both fire and insects. It thrives in the rainfall and foggy conditions along the coast. Soon, it towers over neighboring plants; it becomes a tall, majestic guardian of the forest ecosystem and lives happily ever after.

Here’s a plot twist on the typical redwood story. Throw in the obstacles of poor soil conditions and crowding by other trees, and what you have is a light green, almost yellow-colored redwood that can’t reach the heights of its ancestors, or even come close. It is known as a dwarf redwood.

Yes, you heard that right: a dwarf redwood. It’s not a mystical dwarf of the Snow White variety (although dwarf redwoods are very rare), but a real enigma. Dwarf redwood trees are smaller and lighter in color than your typical redwood, but past that, little is known about them. Researchers struggle to understand what makes them that way—even to identify what, exactly, defines a dwarf redwood.

At Quail Hollow Ranch in central Santa Cruz County, in an offshoot of the San Lorenzo Valley, is found a stand of small, strange redwood trees. The stand clocks in at around 100 small trees, all about 20-25 feet in height and growing very closely together. They are found at the top of a ridge growing in eroded Santa Cruz mudstone clay. These trees have been mystifying scientists, visitors and staff of Quail Hollow for many years.

"The first time I was up there, when I first started working here, I did a double take at these trees,” said Lee Summers, Park Interpreter at Quail Hollow. “I thought, ‘Those are redwoods, but they are the wrong color for redwoods!’"

Santa Cruz is known for its iconic coastal redwoods, but the stand at Quail Hollow looks nothing like the majestic specimens that cover much of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Their trunks are small enough that an adult hand can fit around them, and they are a much lighter green than one would typically associate with a redwood. They certainly make you do a double take.

Dwarfish History

Dwarf redwood trees can be seen in one other place in California: the Van Damme State Park pygmy forest in Mendocino County. There are a few dwarf redwoods scattered in a forest of mostly Bishop pine, Bolander pine and Monterey cypress. The pygmy forest in Mendocino was deemed truly “dwarf” when soil scientist Dr. Hans Jenny measured the age of the trees in the 1970s by taking core samples and counting tree rings on the cores. He discovered that some of the trees were actually 300 years old, despite only being about 6 feet tall.

Not very much is known about what exactly causes this stunted growth in plants. As with the stand in Quail Hollow, the redwoods found there are smaller than normal (though far smaller than the Quail Hollow trees), discolored and growing in very poor soil conditions.

Kate Cary, a second-year PhD student at UCSC, is doing her research on the pygmy forest in Mendocino. She's trying to pinpoint the exact mechanism that is causing the stunted growth in the trees.

“The pygmy forest plants [and probably the redwoods at Quail Hollow] are stunted because of environmental conditions, not genetics. If you dug them up and planted them elsewhere, they would grow to full height,” she says. “I am trying to discover the mechanism that is stunting their growth. We know that the pygmy forest occurs on areas of extremely poor soil, but I want to connect the dots between the soil and the end result, the stunted growth.”

Cary cites the two most common causes of environmentally-caused dwarfism as poor soil (i.e., soil that is too shallow or very low in nutrients) and wind damage. It could be that these factors are also acting on the Quail Hollow redwoods—but whether they are “dwarf” or not remains to be determined.

Age plays a crucial role in determining dwarfism. The key indicator of the “dwarf” status of the pygmy forest was the comparison between the trees’ old age and tiny stature. Therein lies the mystery of the Quail Hollow redwoods.

“Old maps dating back to 1973 don't show much growth up there—and in aerial photos from the ’70s, you don’t see the small redwoods,” says Lee Summers.

Do the math, and that means the trees in Quail Hollow are 40 years old at most. This suggests that maybe these trees are simply young, crowded and growing in poor environmental conditions limiting their growth.

However, under normal circumstances, healthy redwoods are about 100-150 feet tall at 50 years of age—making the Quail Hollow redwoods, even at a youthful 40, unnaturally small.

So, What’s Going On at Quail Hollow Ranch?

For Kate Cary, it’s simple. “If you came across a stand of small trees and wanted to know whether they were mature dwarf trees or simply young and crowded, you could measure their ages by taking core samples, as Dr. Hans Jenny did with the pygmy forest,” Cary says.

The Quail Hollow stand of redwoods has not been researched to the extent that the pygmy forest has. In fact, there is a gaping lack of information on these strange redwoods.

“It could just be that these are young and crowded trees,” said Summers. “The jury is out on whether it is actually a true dwarf redwood stand.”

Janet McCrary Webb, registered forester and president of Big Creek Lumber Co., concurs.

“How big redwoods get and how quickly they grow is very dependent on their conditions,” she says. “They grow anywhere from along river systems like San Lorenzo River to up on high chalk/chaparral ridges where you normally see knobcones. They exploit whatever resources they have available.”

Dwarf, Not Dwarf—Just Go Visit

So, are these redwoods truly dwarves, or just struggling to grow in poor environmental conditions? Although an official answer may remain a mystery, you can make a call yourself.

To check out these puzzling trees at Quail Hollow Ranch, go up the Italian Trail to the Sunset Trail ">Sunset Trail—a moderate, 2.7-mile roundtrip hike with several hundred feet of elevation gain. Continue along the top of the ridge for a little while (you’ll pass a couple of vista points with benches) until about 600 feet before the Sunset Trail End (and another bench). This is where you’ll encounter the redwood stand on the right-hand side of the trail. Pay attention and you'll notice the sandy soil at the beginning, but as you go up the hill the sand gives way to clay-like, slippery soil.

This is a topic just begging a curious graduate student to take it and run with it. What causes the stunted growth? Why do they grow in such close contact with regular redwood trees? How long do they live? The opportunities for a thesis are many, and Quail Hollow Ranch and its visitors would sure love an answer.

For now, the trees will remain a wonder and mystery to speculate about on your own time.

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Quail Hollow Ranch
800 Quail Hollow Rd, Felton. 831.335.9348. Click here for map.
From Felton: From Graham Hill Road, follow East Zayante Road north for 2.5 miles. Turn left on Quail Hollow Road. The park is about a half mile up on your right.