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Creek Running North

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July 03, 2003

Pronounced "tool ease"

I bought a gallon can of Scirpus californicus from Berkeley Horticultural Nursery the other day, and planted it in a pot in our backyard with some horsetail and a bit of Vietnamese coriander. The pot has no hole in the bottom. Water saturates the soil quite nicely, which marsh plants appreciate.

S. californicus, also known as tule, is one of those plants — like the Chilean copihue and Vermont sugar maple — that define a certain place pretty much all on their own. Tules grow in freshwater marshes throughout California. They were to Native Californians as clear heart redwood was to Victorian Californians: a reliable and seemingly inexhaustible source of structural fiber for houses and boats and such.

Californians weren't the only people who found the tule useful. The plant grows in fresh water pretty much from here to Tierra Del Fuego. The famous floating islands of Titicaca are constructed of a local subspecies of tule, there called totora.

In California, once they got done murdering and enslaving the indigenes and washing hillsides into the Bay in search of gold, white folks set themselves to destroying the marshes. When the freshwater marshes went, so went the tules. They're hardly an endangered species — "out in the tules" is still Central Valleyspeak for "the back of beyond" — but the broad river of tules that once stretched from Red Bluff to the Grapevine is no more. Tulare Lake, named for the plant and a hundred years ago the broadest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi, is now a dotted line on the Triple-A map, recurring only in the wettest winters, and only as the geometric grid of highways and levees allows. Most times, the lake bed is a dusty, toxic cotton field.

I haven't seen any tules growing in Pinole Creek, but the local watershed group is in negotiations with the Army Corps of Engineers to realign the arrow-straight lower reaches of the creek, to add a meander or three along its course. There will be slow water moving in unanticipated directions: freshwater marshes will be reborn along the lower creek. There will be room to reintroduce some old natives.

My tules had nearly grown out of the gallon can by the time I bought them, with a few strong stems coming out the drainage holes at the bottom of the pot. I had to slip my pruning shears down the side, cutting the thick black plastic away, to loose the plants from their former home. They are four feet tall and wobbly, and tapped the top of my head as I eased their thick roots into the potting soil of the marsh pot. Tules put out a lot of fertile seed each year. I'll be saving mine until someone needs them.

Posted by Chris Clarke at July 3, 2003 03:27 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs


Are you going to get a herd of elk to go with your new purchase?

Posted by: Joel at July 4, 2003 01:32 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

I have to get the pronghorn acclimated first.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at July 8, 2003 12:06 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

I can never get those to stick around.

Posted by: Joel at July 8, 2003 09:44 PM
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