The Elusive Cuyamaca Cypress (Cupressus Stephensonni)

When you are only going to be in an area for a short time, and you start weeks before trying to contact park rangers on the forms on their websites but get no reply, you have to hope that when you get there you will have better luck. My process involves finding out which trees are  endangered in a state and geographical region, then trying to narrow it down to where I might be able to find those trees. There are several sites that mention the Cuyamaca Cypress, including the Calscape site which let me know there were only 30-40 mature trees after the 2003 Cedar Fire, but a lot of the sightings of this tree were 80 to 90 years ago. One of the sites that I found actually had GPS coordinates for a single tree, ( but I was hoping to find stands of them in order to select the most photogenic for my painting and Ghost Forest.

The interesting thing about searching for these endangered trees is that you are extremely lucky if you find a ranger or knowledgeable person in an area that has any idea about the endangered trees in the area they live in or protect.

If it weren’t for this site,, I may not have been able to locate even a single tree. We visited a ranger station near where there had been sightings of the trees eleven years previously. He didn’t know about the trees, but he did let us know that most of the areas we were hoping to explore were either tribal lands or privately owned. The day before we had gone to the Cleveland National Forest Ranch Cuyamaca State park, and visited the ranger station in the park, only to find it closed in the middle of the day. I can only surmise that they don’t have the funds to keep it staffed. Without guidance I could wander for many miles without success. While this could be a pleasant activity, I am usually on a tight schedule.

“You can find it at the King Creek Research Natural Area in Cleveland National Forest, but it’s a long walk to a gloomy site where almost all trees are just charred snags. You can also occasionally see this species growing as an ornamental in the mountains of San Diego County.

One good location is on the grounds of the California Department of Forestry fire station in Ramona (33.0085°N, 116.96143°W), and in the canyon just uphill of the location, on the slopes of Mt. Woodson.

These trees probably represent a naturalized population from an ornamental seed source.”

After failing to locate the stands of trees I was hoping to find, I dragged my family to the Ramona fire station specified on the site My husband knocked on the door but no one replied, so we set out around the back of it and up the road to the side of the coordinates. Unfortunately, after walking uphill for a good ways, we realized that the tree was down hill to the right with no discernable path leading to it from where we were, and we were just getting farther away. The day was bright and hot and there were a few complaints from the crew.

We retraced our steps and went around the back of the fire station, hoping to find a small trail. After a few wrong turns we did locate a “path”, and with a little bit of exploration involving forging through lots of prickly plants, we found the tree! The light was golden with a slight haze as evening set in. As I photographed the tree with limited success (light was obscured by surrounding foliage), my family explored the area. Just a short way  above the tree, my husband found a gorgeous little glade with California live oaks.

The Cuyamaca Cypress is a likely host to 9 butterflies and moths, including the Olive Hairstreak and Orange Tortrix Moth.

“Although cypress trees have thin bark and typically do not survive fire, the seeds released by fire ensure the continuation of the stand.”

“Human-induced changes to the natural fire regime have led to the disappearance of many cypress stands. If the interval between fires is too short, trees are unable to reach reproductive age before the next fire, often causing cypress to be replaced by adjacent vegetation types. Unfortunately, climate change is expected to increase extreme fire weather as temperatures increase and droughts become more common.”

CNPS Vegetation Science team (

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