Pygmy Oaks

The first stop of our one-week trip at the end of August was Los Osos*, where we stayed for a couple of nights to explore and photograph the beautiful rugged coastline and the oak forests alike.

In the afternoon of our arrival, we went for a walk at the El Moro Elfin Forest Preserve which, unlike the areas that go by the place name “Elfin Forest” here in San Diego, contains actual pygmy or dwarf oaks. These are Coast Live Oaks (Quercus agrifolia) and the largest ones are estimated to be 200-400 years old — but they only grow 4-20 feet high here, instead of the usual 30-80 feet.

The reason for this stunted growth are soils poor in nutrients and the harsh immediate coastal environment, with salty breezes and cold wind. The trees have all the features of old Coast Live Oaks, albeit at a much smaller scale. It’s an astonishing and beautiful sight.

The El Moro Elfin Forest Preserve is on a marine terrace from an ancient coastline, when the sea level was much higher. At the surface, the soil looks a lot like sand, actually. To call it a “forest” is perhaps a bit of a stretch: the stands of pygmy oaks are like little islands in the maritime chaparral and coastal dune scrub, their canopies looking like deep green mounds protruding from the lower growing shrubs.

A boardwalk loops through the 90 acres of the preseve — making it both more accessible, and also preventing damage from people wandering off-trail. The boardwalk leads to a couple of vista points, as well as into this stand of pygmy oaks, one of the largest in the preserve. It’s cozy in there:

For more information, there’s a Wikipedia article on dwarf forests which is really very interesting.

Tech Notes

I photographed this scene in a rather casual way, hand-held at ISO 800 and 1/15 second. This preserved most of the highlights and gave me enough shadow definition to recover, but the detail quality is not optimal.

To eliminate the noise that resulted from messing with the shadows of an ISO 800 image, I’d rather use ISO 100 of course… which would mean using a tripod, since the exposure time is then 1/2 second… but then the breeze that constantly moved the twigs and leaves would have introduced too much motion blur!

Sometimes, a compromise yields the best image because it’s the only one that’s possible.

This photo is also a good example for the back and forth that I described in my August 2021 End Notes — clearly, I am fascinated by the subject, care about it, and like this photo, but if I had to decide whether this was really in my core photographic focus or interest, my feeling would tell me “no”.

It’s not a portfolio quality image, but on the other hand, I actually spent quite a good amount of time on getting the details and look as good as possible! :P So while I’m not sure what else it might be, it is hopefully a good illustration to go along with this a bit more natural history centered article. :)

*) the historic name of the area is Cañada de Los Osos, meaning Valley Of The Bears, or Bear Glen.

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8 thoughts on “Pygmy Oaks”

  1. Well, it’s certainly an intriguing and appealing photo to me. What a splendid grove! Context matters, of course, but overall I’m finding myself less and less concerned about whether images (my own and others) are Portfolio Quality, and more focused on whether they capture a instant worth recalling and have that little ineffable spark of personality. Often I just want a charming bagatelle or lied, not an epic symphony.

    • Thanks, Jackson. I’m not concerned whether an image is portfolio quality either — if it works in the context of a blog post, that’s all that I need. But with such photos, I always wonder whether I should also give it a more permanent place in my archives, or just leave it in the “blog post image dump”… ;)

  2. This is wonderful – you were so lucky to have sunlight! The Elfin Forest is such an amazing place but so difficult to capture in a way that makes sense. At least for me.

    • Thanks, Terry! This was in fact pretty much the only day during our travels with sunlight. The rest of the time we had more or less constant coastal fog and marine layer every day… which we enjoyed a lot, actually. :)


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