Frances Ryan has planted 1,000 Engelmann oak trees in North San Diego County.

The oak lady

Ryan's oak tree, Quella. “It was fully grown when my father first came here in 1887, so it’s well over one hundred years old.”
  • Ryan's oak tree, Quella. “It was fully grown when my father first came here in 1887, so it’s well over one hundred years old.”
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

When Frances Ryan decided to nominate her favorite oak tree for membership in the Live Oak Society, she had no way of knowing if the nomination would be accepted. She was, however, pretty sure the tree had all the right qualifications. For one thing, it is an oak, and the Live Oak Society — as its name implies — accepts only oak trees as members. For another, her oak is more than one hundred years old and has a circumference of nineteen feet, four inches at a point four feet above the ground. As far as the society is concerned, only oak trees that are at least one hundred years old and have a circumference of seventeen feet can even be considered for membership.

Frances Ryan enjoyed a kind of childhood that will never again be known in Southern California: gathering wild buckwheat for fresh pancakes; picking elderberries that grew near the house; riding a horse three miles to town.

Frances Ryan enjoyed a kind of childhood that will never again be known in Southern California: gathering wild buckwheat for fresh pancakes; picking elderberries that grew near the house; riding a horse three miles to town.

Last November Ryan pecked out the nominating letter on an old typewriter that is set up on a table in her study, next to the wood-burning stove. The letter ran to two pages and extensively documented such crucial information as her tree’s age, size, and the Spanish-Indian origin of the name she had selected for it — Quella. Ryan mailed the nomination to the headquarters of the Live Oak Society in Metairie, Louisiana, and a few months later she received a certificate stating that Quella was now a society member in good standing, joining about 1200 other members around the nation. Ryan’s oak is the only tree in San Diego County to belong.

La Huerta was a gathering place for local Indians, who came to the vast grove each summer to collect sweet acorns by the thousands. “Every Indian who lived in the area had the right to collect them. It was like their food-stamp program."

La Huerta was a gathering place for local Indians, who came to the vast grove each summer to collect sweet acorns by the thousands. “Every Indian who lived in the area had the right to collect them. It was like their food-stamp program."

Quella stands only a few feet from her back door. Its three trunks — which sprout from the same root system — arch gracefully upward to create a huge, spreading canopy about forty feet high and more than seventy feet across. It is an Engelmann oak, a species that grows virtually nowhere outside of Southern California and is found primarily in the inland valleys of San Diego County. There are stands of the oaks in Riverside County and a few in Los Angeles, but none exist farther north than that; only a small number grow south of the Mexican border. Ryan was born in Escondido, and ever since childhood it has pained her to see the area’s native trees gradually disappearing under a stupefying tide of housing projects and citrus and avocado groves. Fourteen years ago she learned that Engelmann oaks not only have a limited range but are actually becoming uncommon. To Ryan, it was time to act. She became the Oak Lady.

Engelmann oak is a species that grows virtually nowhere outside of Southern California and is found primarily in the inland valleys of San Diego County.

Engelmann oak is a species that grows virtually nowhere outside of Southern California and is found primarily in the inland valleys of San Diego County.

Since then she has planted some 1000 Engelmann oak trees in the North County and has talked to countless people about the need to preserve them. She has raised seedlings and collected acorns and passed them out to anyone expressing an interest. In 1972 her determined efforts to see that her property and the oak trees on it would be safe from future development led to a bitter three-year legal battle with her own brothers and sisters.

Elementary school bell. "When the armistice was signed [to end World War I], we rang it for twenty-four hours without stopping."

Elementary school bell. "When the armistice was signed [to end World War I], we rang it for twenty-four hours without stopping."

But Ryan eventually won that battle, and in 1975 she donated her property — fifteen acres a few miles north of Escondido — to the University of California for the preservation and study of Engelmann oak trees. It is now known as the Ryan Oak Glen Reserve, and Boy Scout troops and botanical groups occasionally stop by to study the trees and see what the North County used to look like. Once in a while Ryan receives mail addressed only to “The Oak Lady, Escondido, California” — fitting confirmation of her status as a defender and propagator of Engelmann oaks. In her refrigerator she even keeps a jar full of ground Engelmann oak acorns that she uses to make weewish, a gruel that once sustained the local Indians. “You can also make a drink out of the larger ground pieces,” she said. “You boil up a few of them in water and add honey. It’s pretty good. It’s nutritious.”

Ryan's sign for Quella. Ryan chose the name because, she says, it is a Spanish and Indian word for acorn.

Ryan's sign for Quella. Ryan chose the name because, she says, it is a Spanish and Indian word for acorn.

Frances Beven Ryan is eighty-four years old. The house she lives in is nearly sixty-eight and was built by her parents — “kind of an heirloom,” she noted as she welcomed me into her living room one gray, windy January afternoon not long ago. She is a tiny woman, with eyes as brown as acorns. Her long hair is braided and coiled neatly on top of her head, and though it is mostly gray it still shows streaks of bright, rusty red. One wall of her living room is nearly covered with paintings of trees, and here and there are albums full of clippings and certificates that commemorate her work with oaks.

Ryan immediately sat me down for a fifteen-minute slide show (complete with a taped narration) on Engelmann oaks. Her dogged devotion to oak trees struck me as both sensible and logical; oaks have captured the human imagination for centuries. Anyone who has seen Monet’s painting The Bodmer Oak knows the feelings of strength and age these trees can project, and there is a crucial scene in Tolstoy’s War and Peace in which Prince Andrew Bolkonski is able to transcend feelings of depression and gloom after seeing a gnarled old oak in full spring bloom. But Ryan told me that to her, oaks represent “what they did to the Indians — the staff of life. We can’t live without trees. They’re absolutely necessary for human beings to live. Trees add oxygen to the air and give us shade .... They’re absolutely essential for the ecosystem. And besides that,” she added with a little laugh, “they’re beautiful.”

For Ryan, Engelmann oaks also have a special, historic meaning. She is descended from one of the oldest families in San Diego County, and oaks trees are intertwined with the history of her family like reeds in a basket. Promoting the conservation of the trees is only one facet of her efforts to bring the history of the Escondido area to public attention. For years she wrote a weekly column on local history for the Escondido Times-Advocate, and nearly every organization in the city, from the Kiwanis Club to the women’s club to the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, has invited her to speak on topics of historical interest. “I like to think I can contribute to keeping some of these historical things alive,” she declared.

Ryan’s great-uncle, Richard Thomas, first visited the Escondido valley in 1882. He had come from Kansas and was looking to buy land, but grape growers owned most of the property in the valley then and weren’t interested in selling to newcomers. Thomas settled in San Diego, but when flooding in 1884 induced the grape growers to sell, he and eleven other investors, including three of his brothers, formed the Escondido Land and Town Company and bought 12,653.77 acres in the Escondido valley for about $105,000. The company then proceeded to lay out the town of Escondido, sell lots, and plant citrus trees. In 1887 Albert Beven, Thomas’s nephew, arrived and worked as manager of his uncle’s burgeoning orange and lemon groves.

At that time the Escondido valley also held an exceptional natural resource: a grove of some 400 ancient oak trees, located several miles to the north of present-day downtown Escondido. According to Ryan, the Spanish first stumbled across the grove in the 1770s and named it La Huerta — the orchard. It was a vital gathering place for local Indians, who came to the vast grove each summer to collect sweet acorns by the thousands. “Every Indian who lived in the area had the right to collect them,” Ryan said.

“It was like their food-stamp program.” In the 1840s a German doctor named George Engelmann became the first person to recognize that the trees were different from other oaks growing in the area, and years later, when botanists formally described the species, they named it after him.

By 1889 La Huerta was owned by a man named Charlie Powers, who, like most of his fellow landowners in Escondido, believed his future lay in growing citrus, not oaks. “He hired my father, Albert Beven, to cut down the 400 La Huerta oaks and plant citrus trees,” said Ryan. “My father always said that every time one of those big oaks fell, it hurt him inside. It hurt. But it was a job.”

Beven received twenty acres of land as payment for his work, and he was able to add to that acreage over the years. Eventually he pooled his land with four other farmers to form the 500-acre Eureka Ranch (located just north of the site where La Huerta formerly stood). Beven and his wife raised two sons and three daughters; Frances, their youngest daughter, was born May 30, 1901.

She enjoyed a kind of childhood that will never again be known in Southern California: gathering wild buckwheat for fresh pancakes; picking elderberries that grew near the house; riding a horse three miles to town. But by far the most influential event in her young life was the coming of Halley’s comet in 1910. For months before the comet arrived, people were predicting it would bring about the end of the earth, and in her eight-year-old girl’s mind Ryan found the predictions entirely plausible. The night the comet finally came was unforgettable: She tossed and turned in her bed, waiting for the moon to turn blood red and Satan to begin pounding on his loathesome anvil, as the seers had promised. In the middle of the night her father woke her and led her and the other children downstairs and out onto the back porch. With a feeling of overwhelming relief, Ryan discovered that the infamous death star was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. “It lit up the entire eastern part of the sky, from Devil’s Anvil to Bottle Peak, and you could see stars shining through it... It was a sight Ryan has never forgotten and one that taught her forever the stunning beauty of the natural world.

One day when she and her father were sitting on a granite boulder beneath the spreading branches of an oak, she asked about the history of the valley. “From that point on he kept telling me about the history of this area,’’ Ryan recalled. “I guess I had a nose for it, too. I quizzed him no end. We were very close. Anyway, that's how I first heard of La Huerta. When I was seventeen, the four owners of the Eureka Ranch divided up the property among themselves, and the house we were living in at the time became part of one of the other shares. So my parents built this house, and we moved into it, and I’ve lived in it ever since.”

Ryan led the way outside, where pale sunlight was beginning to show through the clouds. Her house stands a quarter mile from county road S6, the main route to Valley Center, three miles or so north of downtown Escondido. Behind it rises a steep, rocky ridge, and at the foot of the ridge grow nearly forty large Engelmann oaks. “They might well be descended from the La Huerta oaks, spread to this site naturally by birds and animals,” Ryan pointed out.

We looked around in the chill air. Engelmann oaks drop some of their leaves every winter, and orange oak leaves lay scattered everywhere in Ryan’s driveway. Unseen birds trilled in the bushes, and a cottontail burst into view and just as quickly disappeared back into the brush. “Most people think it’s kind of pretty and quiet here, but it’s not like it used to be. Look at all these houses around,” Ryan fumed, gesturing at a couple of modern homes with Spanish-tile roofs less than a hundred yards away. “This area used to be called Oak Glen, and then they changed it to Orange Glen. I guess it’ll be House Glen next.”

We got into my station wagon and drove down the long, narrow dirt driveway to S6. After waiting a few moments for the traffic to let up, we swung south on S6 and headed toward Orange Glen Elementary School, where the oaks of La Huerta stood nearly a century ago. On the way, Ryan told me that she worked as a home economics teacher at Escondido High School from 1927 to 1959. She also traveled by freighter to South America in 1927 and again in 1929 and in 1935 temporarily quit her teaching job and traveled around the world alone. “I was always kind of an independent cuss. They didn't pay us [teachers] much, but I was good at pinching pennies. I just wanted to see God’s handiwork, that’s why I went. Oh, I looked at the government buildings and things — you can't miss ’em. But waterfalls, lakes, trees, caves — those are the things that have always been my guiding light. Anything that's natural.”

In 1951, one month shy of her fiftieth birthday, she married Lewis Ryan, an artist. It was the first marriage for either of them, and together they traveled by freighter to places such as Indonesia, Portugal, and Africa. In between trips they lived in the house her parents built in 1918. The 125 acres of Beven land had been divided among Frances and her four brothers and sisters; but by the early 1970s, encroaching development on all sides had convinced Ryan that the only way her parcel would survive in its natural state would be to turn it into a park or preserve under the ownership of some conservation-minded organization. Her brothers and sisters argued that the land should remain in the family, but Ryan felt that above all things it should be preserved. Eventually she offered her property to the University of California as an educational reserve.

The university accepted her offer, and Ryan’s relatives promptly sued to prevent the transaction from taking place. “I thought I had the best family in the world until my husband and I returned from a freighter trip one day and had the sheriff come up to our house and serve us with a notice to appear in court,” Ryan told me as we neared Orange Glen Elementary. The ensuing court battle “was three years of hell. My relatives kept saying the property should stay in the family, but [they or their descendants] would have rented it or sold it. Three or four generations from now, no one will care about the land or what their grandparents did .... And then developers would come in and build houses all over the place.”

The reserve was formally dedicated on April 26, 1975. Mitch Beauchamp, a local botanist and environmental consultant, told me recently that Ryan's property “is a good area for research on things like pollination techniques, how much water Engelmann oaks need, and how they contribute to the stability of slopes .... [The reserve] is pretty much in its natural condition, and there are some massive Engelmann oaks up there.” The tree’s habitat is being lost all over the county due to increasing development, farming, and even cattle ranching, Beauchamp said, explaining that while ranchers and farmers don’t necessarily destroy mature trees, their activities often make it impossible for seedlings to grow. Ryan’s property “is large enough to sustain [its population of Engelmann oak trees] if it should ever become isolated” from surrounding oak groves, he added.

Ryan and I parked in the elementary school's parking lot and walked to a small, grassy field nearby that was dotted with about twenty young oak trees. Some were reed-thin and only a few feet high; the largest was over ten feet and had sturdy branches jutting out in all directions. “This is where La Huerta was originally located,” Ryan said. “When my father cut the oak trees down, he left two of them standing, right there where the road bends.” She pointed to a curve in county road S6 a few hundred yards away. Fronting the road in that place now is a low brick wall, and behind it stretch rows of nearly identical houses. According to Ryan, developers took out the last two La Huerta oaks when the tract was built several years ago.

“We first planted these trees three years ago,” she continued, gesturing at the young oaks in the schoolyard. “Some of them grow better than others. They’re not the easiest things to grow. The university people say only one out of ten grows to maturity, and if we can get half of the acorns to sprout, we’re doing pretty well. I come down here every two weeks or so to water and look after them. Sometimes I get one of the local kids to dig a trench around the trees, and I fill it with oak leaves. The leaves are high in tannic acid, and the trees really like acid. It will be nice when they’re all grown and the acorns are dropping, won’t it? This is where Escondido began. Right here”

Ryan noted that she has also planted Engelmann oaks at Guajome County Park in Oceanside and at Felicita County Park just west of Escondido, at the Wild Animal Park, the Palomar College arboretum, and at an Escondido city park next to Lake Dixon. “In the future, these trees are going to be water savers,” she said of the drought-tolerant Engelmanns. “But they’re also rare and historic trees. I feel it’s my duty to do all I can to preserve the history of this area. This is my memorial — the work that I’m doing.”

Before we left, Ryan led me over to look at a small bronze bell that hangs from a wooden platform in a comer of the yard. Her father organized a group of local residents who purchased the bell for the school in 1907, and Ryan said she has heard it ring “almost every day of my life since I was in school. We used to set our clocks by the bell when it rang at 8:30 every morning. And when the armistice was signed [to end World War I], we rang it for twenty-four hours without stopping. We stood in line, and when our turn came we rang it as long as we could and then made way for the next person ” In the 1930s Ryan discovered the old bell lying forgotten in a city storage room and had it refurbished and its clapper replaced. A local construction company built the platform to hang it. “They still ring it every Friday morning, and I still listen for it,” she said. “I like to hear it. When I die — well, I don’t believe in funerals. All I want them to do is ring that bell.”

As we drove back to her house, we passed the house in which Ryan was born — it has been expanded and renovated and now stands at the edge of a huge avocado grove — and she pointed to it and to a tall oak tree where her parents exchanged their wedding vows in 1891. “Of course, it was just a tiny little thing back then,” she said of the oak. We drove back up her long driveway, past a granite boulder with a bronze plaque on it that commemorates the Ryan Oak Glen Reserve. Next to it is a display case with samples of dried plants from the surrounding hills; Ryan had the case built in memory of her husband, who died of heart failure in 1982.

After pulling up in front of her house, we got out to admire Quella. Ryan chose the name because, she says, it is a Spanish and Indian word for acorn. “It was fully grown when my father first came here in 1887, so it’s well over one hundred years old,” she noted. Engelmann oaks are also known as blue oaks, and even in the fading afternoon light we could see the blue green tinge of thousands of slender leaves over our heads.

This spring, when Quella is in full flower and humming with bees, Ryan plans to have a few people over for a ceremony to celebrate the tree’s acceptance into the society. She has already made a wooden sign with the name “Quella” spelled out in twigs gathered from the tree, and as part of the ceremony the sign will be fastened to the oak’s trunk. “We’ll also drink a toast of rainwater, because that’s what the tree drinks,” said Ryan.

She paused for a moment and then added, “I don’t know, maybe it’s a silly thing to spend so much time fussing over oak trees. But they mean a lot to me. They have always been in my life.”

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