Biological Sciences, Santa Barbara City College

Biology 100: Concepts of Biology

Cercocarpus spp   Mountain Mahogany

The Cercocarpus species found in our local chaparral is birch leaf mountain mahogany or Cercocarpus montanus Raf. var. glaber which is also known as Cercocarpus betuloides.  It is variable in form and can be either a small tree to 20’ or a spreading or erect shrub between 5 – 8 feet.  Look for Mountain Mahogany on the dry slopes, flats and ridges of the foothills and mountains in elevations between 250 – 5,000 feet where you find it mixed in with other species of chaparral plants.

Birch leaf Cercocarpus has smooth gray bark, reddish wood, dark green birch-like leaves and clusters of inconspicuous flowers.  Leaves are simple, alternate and with obvious straight veins.  Leaves are roundish in shape with toothed serrations on the leaf edge from the middle of the leaf to the tip.  Leaves are dark green and hair-free above.  The lower surface is paler or whitish with fine, short hairs.

Each 1 – 2 mm fruit contains a single seed with a 3 – 10 cm twisted or spiraled style or tail that is feather-like or plume-like. Seeds are wind dispersed.  There are perpendicular 1 -2 mm hairs on the style or tail that further aid in wind dispersal. 

Cercocarpus ssp in low light The only time this plant is distinctive and easy to see is in the fall when in low sunlight, these feathery tails stick out above the foliage and turn the plant look silver.   It is this distinctive achene that gives Cercocarpus its genus name.  From the Greek kerkos meaning tail and karpos meaning fruit

The wood is reddish in color (hence the common name of Mountain Mahogany) and is extremely hard.  Native Americans used the wood for arrows, spears for fishing and for digging.

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