The Art of Saving Oaks

By: Pria Graves

Pria Graves is a botanical artist who frequently depicts the heirloom fruits and flowers growing in her Palo Alto garden….

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Shreve oak (Quercus parvula var. shrevei). Author’s lllustration

Shreve oak (Quercus parvula var. shrevei). Author’s lllustration

Whenever I tell someone that I am a botanical artist, the typical reaction is, “you’re a what?” To most people, botanical art is a relic of pre-photographic times—an elegant and esoteric hobby. In reality, however, a botanical illustration is still often the best way of communicating information about plants in an aesthetically appealing manner. Its goal is still relevant: to inform and delight!

Several years ago, botanical artist MaryAnn Nardo conceived the idea of using her art to educate the public about sudden oak death, a disease that’s sweeping through the California coastal ranges and decimating populations of oak and tanoak (a close relative of the oaks). She wanted to create a new context for botanical art, using it as a tool to educate the public about a current environmental issue, a use she hopes to see applied to more issues in the future.

As the idea grew, MaryAnn recruited other artists, and members of the scientific community. Carol Haggerty joined her as her co-partner, providing invaluable experience in fundraising, multimedia, and education. With the sponsorship of the California Oak Foundation and funding from Marin Community Foundation and others, The Art of Saving Oaks  was born.

When Europeans first arrived in California, they found a land of amazing richness. Much of the state was covered in oak woodlands, and dense coastal forests of redwood and Douglas-fir mingled with tanoak. Native peoples had relied for centuries on the oaks. The acorns they gathered each fall were an important source of food for them and were stored in good years to cover less-productive years. Wildlife, too, depended on the acorns, leaves, wood, and sap for food and on the oak communities for nesting sites, perches, and travel corridors. With the introduction of European agricultural and grazing practices, however, these woodlands began to diminish. During the Mexican era of the early nineteenth century, a hide and tallow trade flourished that, in turn, encouraged extensive harvesting of both oaks and tanoaks for their tannin-rich bark.

Today, only a fraction of the original oak woodlands remain intact and undisturbed, and new threats continually challenge them. Incompatible landscape practices and urban development are major threats, but the most serious may be a newly identified disease known as sudden oak death. First noted in 1994, it is now killing thousands of oaks in the coastal ranges from Monterey to Oregon. (See Pacific Horticulture, April ’02) Tanoak is particularly susceptible; in some areas, the death toll of this species has approached one hundred percent. The cause of sudden oak death has now been identified as a newly discovered pathogen (Phytophthora ramorum), which lives on a wide range of host plants from redwoods to rhododendrons—and the list continues to grow. It is this disease that became the focus of The Art of Saving Oaks. 

As the originator of The Art of Saving Oaks project, MaryAnn recruited a dozen botanical artists to illustrate many of the plants identified as host species. Their works show viewers the range of plants that are threatened. Other artists, working in a range of media, depicted a more general, evocative interpretation of the oak landscape or portrayed their own personal response to the challenges our oaks are facing. The show came together in the fall of 2002 and was exhibited at the Bay Model in Sausalito, in southern Marin County.

As one of the botanical artists participating in this exhibit, I was concerned that we were only reaching a small portion of the public who needed to be made aware of the problem of our disappearing oaks. As I worked to produce my own art for the show, I began contacting groups on the San Francisco Peninsula to see if there was interest in bringing the exhibit to our area. At Filoli Center in Woodside, I found strong support and a perfect space for the exhibit.

Situated in an area of magnificent oak woodlands, Filoli seemed an ideal location. We took advantage of the setting by adding guided hikes to the project. We wanted the public to be able to view Filoli’s majestic Oaks while learning how to be better stewards of our environment. As a special attraction, we hosted an Oak Stewardship Day, focusing on many aspects of living in harmony with oaks. The day featured guest speakers, including Doug McCreary, an oak restoration specialist, Lucy Tolmach, Filoli’s director of horticulture, and Ellen Zagory of the UC Davis Arboretum. We also invited representatives from many local groups that are working on oak restoration and protection. Since sudden oak death is not yet common in this area of the state, we expanded our scope to include information about other threats to oaks such as oak root fungus (Armillaria); in keeping with this theme, we included sources of plants suitable for planting near oaks. We hoped that this would be the first of many stewardship events at Filoli.

The Art of Saving Oaks may also have a future beyond Filoli. There has been interest in bringing the exhibit to Sonoma County, and we hope that other areas will wish to host it as well. Now that The Art of Saving Oaks has demonstrated the useful role of botanical art as an educational tool, perhaps we will see other special purpose botanical art shows!

Summer Oaks. Pastel by John McCormick

Summer Oaks. Pastel by John McCormick


Sudden Oak Death Host Species

(as of April 2003)

* denotes non-native species

big leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum)

California buckeye (Aesculus californica)

madrone (Arbutus menziesii)

manzanita (Arctostaphylos manzanita)

toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia)

tanoak (Lithocarpus densiflorus)

California honeysuckle (Lonicera hispidula)

Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)

coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia)

canyon live oak (Quercus chrysolepis)

California black oak (Quercus kelloggii)

Shreve oak (Quercus parvula var. shrevei)

California coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica)

rhododendron (Rhododendron spp. and cultivars)*

coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens)

western starflower (Trientalis latifolia)

California bay laurel (Umbellularia californica)

evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum)

arrow wood (Viburnum spp.)*