Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
from the September 4, 2005 Newsletter issued from the Sierra Nevada foothills
somewhat east of Placerville, California, USA
The most surprising discovery of my latest backpacking trip was what looked like a knee-high tangle of shrubs bearing clusters of fruits looking just like 1.5-inch wide, yellow-green, sublimely spiny sea urchins. They were obviously chestnuts but the bush's leaves weren't like chestnut leaves at all, more like smallish, unlobed, evergreen Live Oak leaves. This was the Bush Chinquapin, CHRYSOLEPIS SEMPERVIRENS, which you can see above.
The "Sierra Nevada Natural History" field guide says that Bush Chinquapins reach eight feet high and are found mainly above 6000 feet. I suspect that my knee- high plants were stunted because they grew on the fringe of their habitat, only at 4500 feet, and had to settle for a roadcut instead of their preferred rocky ridge. The book says the spiny bur encloses one to three bitter-tasting nuts. There's a tree-size member of this same genus, the Golden Chinquapin, along the coast from Washington State through central California, and its nuts are described as edible.
In this year's June 19th Newsletter I described our Tanoaks, which struck me as being "missing links" between oaks and chestnuts. Tanoak leaves are more like chestnut than oak leaves, but the trees bear fruits that are very definitely acorns, though the scales on the acorns' cups are so long-pointed that the cups are spiny, like chestnut husks.
Well, these Bush Chinquapins seemed to me to be another "missing link" between oaks and chestnuts. This time the fruits look completely like chestnut fruits, while the vegetative parts look like nothing but oak.
Tanoaks, chinquapins, chestnuts, oaks and beech are all members of the same family, the FAGACEAE, but they are different genera -- LITHOCARPUS, CHRYSOLEPIS, CASTANEA, QUERCUS and FAGUS, respectively. Now that I'm familiar with all of them, it's very satisfying to visualize the genera arising from their common ancestor, each retaining its particular assemblage of ancestral features, abandoning others, and acquiring some evolutionary innovations of their own. I am struck by how elegant and perfect all the parts fit together.
What a world it is that can have tanoaks and chinquapins, as well as great masses of humanity who believe they'll go right to Hell if they recognize the majestic evolutionary process that has wrought us all!