I was ignorant – I called them Cypress trees. Actually, I knew they didn’t quite look like Cypress – but their wind-blown shaping was akin to what I’ve seen in Cypress and I didn’t know what else they might be. Surely not Redwoods, those magnificently tall trees we here on the Central Coast know so well – these trees were only 15-20 ft high.
But they are Redwoods. Clued in by Leor Pantilat, my next time out there I took a closer look at their branches and got confirmation. Elfin, or pygmy, or dwarf forests are rare ecosystems of miniature trees. Usually located at high elevations, they can also occur at lower elevations having poor soil. Wikipedia gives multiple examples but only one for redwoods, in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Googling finds that dwarf redwoods can also be found in Quail Hollow Ranch in Santa Cruz and Van Damme State Park in Mendocino County.
Yet Monterey County has its own specimens in Andrew Molera State Park, accessible via the Panorama Trail with a usetrail leading beneath its canopy. Have you just passed it by without looking closely, as I did? If so, next time explore and enjoy a rare example of a dwarf redwood forest. Note how their color and trunk differ from those of the larger, more separated redwoods we are familiar with.
Dwarf redwoods have not been extensively studied so are a bit of a mystery. In particular for these redwoods, their age is unknown. Are they very old with their growth capped (as has been found elsewhere)? Or relatively young and simply very slow growing due to crowding and adverse environmental conditions? Adverse environmental conditions for these redwoods include strong winds and salt-spray damage of the growing leaf tips. One source I found says the latter is the main reason for such near-ocean dwarf redwoods, not poor soil, and that the spray does indeed cap their height.
Postscript – March 2018
Since the above posting I’ve found another area of stunted redwoods, just before the Vista Point at the end of the Sunset Trail in Quail Hollow Ranch County Park, north of Santa Cruz. These trees differ significantly from those in Molera SP, being generally taller, larger in diameter, and having thicker, rougher bark – in short, they seem less stunted. Also notable was the variation between different trees, appearing to be simply individual miniature redwoods in different stages of growth, and the amount on sunlight on the ground. The Quail Hollow trees are nine miles from the ocean so salt spray is not a factor here.
In contrast, the Molera SP trees form a “forest” of closely spaced trees all rather alike, narrow with thin bark, having few lower branches. Foliage appears only at their tops, blending together to form a canopy greatly shading the ground below.