Three species of trees occur naturally at Point Lobos, the Monterey Pine, the Coast Live Oak, and the Monterey Cypress.
Pinus radiata, Monterey pine, is perhaps the most widely planted of all pines, both for lumber and for landscaping, but it occurs naturally in only three places: Año Nuevo Point at the border of San Mateo and Monterey counties; Monterey peninsula from Monterey south to Mal Paso Creek (Carmel Highlands); and Cambria near San Simeon. A variant lives on two islands off Baja California, Mexico.
Monterey pine grows to 80-110 feet; it is symmetrical when young, with an irregular rounded crown at maturity (60-80 years). Its shape can also be distorted if it is crowded by other pines. In favorable conditions, i.e. near the coast, it can live to 100 years, but has a much shorter life (less than 50 years) if planted inland. Needles grow in a bundle of three, 3-6 inches long.
Male cones grow in clusters on the tips of branches. Female cones are much larger, unevenly conical with little or no stalk, pointing downward. These cones can persist unopened on the tree for several years, and each year’s growth is marked by a radial cluster of cones around the branch. Monterey pine is a closed-cone pine; cones do not open as soon as the seeds ripen, but open only in response to heat. Unlike Bishop and knobcone pines, Monterey pine cones will open on a hot day as well as in a forest fire, but fire suppression raises questions about the long-term viability of this iconic tree.
To appreciate an old coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia var. a.), one must stand beneath its shady dark hemispheric canopy which is supported by a twisted gray superstructure of gnarled branches. Multiple trunks are common, and the wide-spreading limbs sometimes trail along the ground. Its tough hard leaves are oval and convex, from one to three inches long; the margins are spiny and there are small hairs on the undersides. “Live” in its name means evergreen as opposed to deciduous; though it drops leaves throughout the year, it maintains its dense dark green crown. They commonly live more than 250 years.
Smooth gray bark becomes brownish and furrowed with age. Acorns are conical, ¾ to 1½ inches long, a rich reddish-brown in color. They were a staple food for many Native American tribes, and Spanish settlers associated the tree with fertile lands. While the wood grain was somewhat irregular to be used by pioneers in construction, it made fine charcoal for early industries. Mission builders used it to fire their lime kilns to make adobe mortar, and in fact the locations of the Franciscan missions closely match the coast live oak’s native range, from northern Baja California to Mendocino County.
Coast live oaks thrive on the well-drained soils of coastal plains, though not on the immediate shore. They are the most characteristic tree within a fifty-mile-wide swath from the ocean across the Inner Coast Ranges, where climate is mild and fog is common. Robert Louis Stevenson described the dense coast live oak forests around Monterey as “woods for murderers to crawl among.” Be that as it may, they are as much a part of western California as are its golden hills.
Visitors to Point Lobos are familiar with the Monterey cypress (formerly Hesperocyparis macrocarpa), perhaps the terrestrial symbol of the reserve. We see the cypress all around the Monterey peninsula and forget how unique it is. There are only two native stands: one at Allan Memorial Grove in Point Lobos and the other at Crocker Grove in Pebble Beach. California lists it as a Category 1 rare and endangered species, but since it is widely planted as a landscape tree, it is not on the federal list of endangered species – the federal list does not distinguish between natural populations and planted specimens.
Cypresses in the Allan Memorial Grove at Point Lobos are especially valuable because of their isolation from planted cypresses originating from other areas. As close as Pebble Beach is to Point Lobos, there are genetic differences between the two populations and minor variations in cone structure. Because they are surrounded by a residential area, cypresses in the Del Monte Forest (Pebble Beach) are also more likely to hybridize with cypresses planted as landscape trees. Monterey cypresses typically live 200 or more years; individual trees could possibly live as long as 400 years.