Month: June 2015

The Pygmy Forest

Posted on

Pygmy Forest

This image of the pygmy forest includes people at scale.

Not only do we have the tallest trees in the world, but believe it or not, we also have a forest of the shortest trees in the world. The pygmy forest where mature, cone-bearing cypress and pine trees stand 6 inches to 8 feet tall. A pygmy foest is a forest which, for pedological and egeological reasons, contains only miniature trees. Pygmy forests are usually associated with the coastal terraces and inner coastal mountains of Northern California.

In Little River, at Van Damme State Park you would take the Fern Canyon trail which divides in 2 1/2 miles; take the old logging road trail a mile to the pygmy forest trail. The contrast from the lush redwood forest to the stunted cypress and Bolander pine is almost alarming.

The Pygmy Forest in Van Damme State Park, for example, is an oligotrophic community caused by podzolized (nutrient-poor, highly acidic) soils. Underlying this relatively inhospitable soil is a clay hardpan. A combination of uplift and changes in ocean level formed a system of terraces, resulting in an “ecological staircase,” with each terrace approximately 100,000 years older than the one below it and supporting a distinct association of soils, microbes, plants, and animals. The pygmy forest in this case formed on the oldest stable surface where soils are approximately 500,000 years old. Each terrace is relatively level, which prevents draining and allows rainwater to leach many of the nutrients away. Over time, this results in extremely high acidity. Analyses of pygmy forest soils show low levels of macro and micro nutrients, and high levels of exchangeable aluminum, which limits the ability of plants to grow. Low pH conditions support formation of an iron hardpan, preventing the trees from setting deep roots and preventing internal drainage of soil water. As a result, the pine trees in the area are rarely more than three or four feet high, in a sort of natural bonsai effect. Many of the tree trunks, though only an inch thick, contain 80 or more growth rings. Only yards away, but with younger soils, the same species of tree grows many dozens of feet high.