CHAPTER XXXI. THE CHAPARRAL OF THE TAHOE REGION
The word chaparral is a Spanish word, transferred bodily into our language, without, however, retaining its strict and original significance. In Spanish it means a plantation of evergreen oaks, or, thick bramble-bushes entangled with thorny shrubs in clumps. Hence, in the west, it has come to mean any low or scrub brush that thickly covers a hill or mountain-side. As there is a varied chaparral in the Tahoe region, it is well for the visitor to know of what it is mainly composed.
Experience has demonstrated that where the larger lumber is cut off close on the Sierran slopes of the Tahoe region the low bushy chaparral at once takes full possession. It seems to prevent the tree seeds from growing and thus is an effectual preventive to reforestation. This, however, is generally not so apparent east of the main range as it is on the western slopes. One of its chief elements is the manzanita (Arctostaphylos patula) easily distinguishable by the red wood of its stem and larger branches, glossy leaves, waxen blossoms (when in flower) and green or red berries in the early autumn.
The snow-bush abounds. It is a low sage-green bush, very thorny, hence is locally called "bide-a-wee" from the name given by the English soldiers to a very thorny bush they had to encounter during the Boer War. In the late days of spring and even as late as July it is covered with a white blossom that makes it glorious and attractive.
Then there is the thimble-berry with its big, light yellow, sprawling leaves, and its attractively red, thimble-shaped, but rather tasteless berries. The Indians, however, are very fond of them, and so are some of the birds and animals, likewise of the service berries, which look much like the blueberry, though their flavor is not so choice.
Here and there patches of the wild gooseberry add to the tangle of the chaparral. The gooseberries when ripe are very red, as are the currants, but they are armored with a tough skin completely covered with sharp, hairy thorns. In Southern California all the fruit of the wild ribes have the thorns, but they do not compare in penetrating power and strength with those of the Tahoe gooseberries.
One of the most charming features of the chaparral is the mountain ash, especially when the berries are ripe and red. The Scotch name rowan seems peculiarly appropriate. Even while the berries are yellow they are attractive to the eye, and alluring to the birds, but when they become red they give a splendid dash of rich color that sets off the whole mountain side.
The mountain mahogany is not uncommon (Cereocarpus parvifolius, Nutt.) and though its green flowers are inconspicuous, its long, solitary plumes at fruiting time attract the eye.
While the California laurel (Umbellularia Californica, Nutt.) often grows to great height, it is found in chaparral clumps on the mountain sides. It is commonly known as the bay tree, on account of the bay-like shape and odor of its leaves when crushed. It gives a spicy fragrance to the air and is always welcome to those who know it.
In many places throughout the mountains of the Tahoe region there are clumps or groves of wild cherry (Prunus Demissa, Walpers), the cherries generally ripening in September. But if one expects the ripe red wild cherries to have any of the delicious richness and sweetness of the ripe Queen Anne or other good variety he is doomed to sad disappointment. For they are sour and bitter - bitter as quinine, - and that is perhaps the reason their juice has been extracted and made into medicine supposed to have extraordinary tonic and healing virtue.
The elder is often found (Sambucus Glauca, Nutt.), sometimes quite tall and at other times broken down by the snow, but bravely covering its bent and gnarled trunks and branches with dense foliage and cream-white blossom-clusters. The berries are always attractive to the eye in their purple tint, with the creamy blush on them, and happy is that traveler who has an expert make for him an elderberry pie, or distill the rich cordial the berries make.
Another feature of the chaparral often occupies the field entirely to itself, viz., the chamisal or greasewood (Adenostoma fasciculatum, Hook, and Arn.). Its small clustered and needle-like leaves, richly covered with large, feathery panicles of tiny blossoms, give it an appearance not unlike Scotch heather, and make a mountainside dainty and beautiful.
The California buckeye (Aesculus Californica, Nutt.) is also found, especially upon stream banks or on the moist slopes of the canyons. Its light gray limbs, broad leaves, and long, white flower-spikes make it an attractive shrub or tree (for it often reaches forty feet in height), and when the leaves drop, as they do early, the skeleton presents a beautiful and delicate network against the deep azure of the sky.
Another feature of the chaparral is the scrub oak. In 1913 the bushes were almost free from acorns. They generally appear only every other year, and when they do bear the crop is a wonderfully numerous one.
A vast amount of wild lilac (Ceanothus Velutinus) is found on all the slopes. It generally blooms in June and then the hillsides are one fragrant and glowing mass of vivid white tinged with the creamy hue that adds so much charm to the flowers.