A pygmy forest is a forest which is characterized by stunted growth, usually due to prevailing soil conditions, in a sort of natural bonsai. Northern California hosts an extensive swath of pygmy forest, and one of the only forests of this kind in the world. Numerous dwarf versions of plants and trees can be found growing in this forest, along with some unique species which have adapted to the forest habitat. Because the pygmy forest is a unique ecosystem, many biologists would like to see it preserved for future appreciation and study.
The pygmy forest of Northern California is one of the most extensively studied examples of this ecosystem. It was formed over thousands of years, as uplift and changing sea levels created a series of terraces cut into the land. Each terraces is extremely large and flat, and each hosts an entirely different ecosystem, depending on how old it is. Some biologists refer to these terraces as the “ecological staircase,” as hikers and researchers can walk through several totally different environments over the course of several hours.
The soil of this forest is extremely acidic and low in nutrients. In addition, it is very thin, covering an extremely solid layer of rock and soil known as the hardpan. The soil is often high in iron, so it often looks reddish, while in other cases pygmy soil is white and chalky. Plants already struggle to survive in the pygmy forest environment because they cannot seek out adequate nutrition, and the hardpan prevents deep rooting. As a result, trees and plants become stunted, rarely growing taller than a child.
At first glance, this forest may look like scrub, since some of the plants look so gnarled and weedy, but closer examination reveals the fact that many pygmy forest plants and trees are actually hundreds of years old, demonstrating a determination to live, even in adverse conditions. In regions where the soil has more nutritional value, plants may grow larger, in which case the forest is classified as “transitional pygmy,” referring to the fact that it forms a boundary between the pygmy and more conventional forests.
Several rare species of plants, lichens, and mosses can be found in the pygmy forest. Many of these species are very delicate, despite their ability to thrive in the harsh conditions of the pygmy. When the habitat is threatened by high foot traffic, some of these species retreat to deeper areas of the forest, or vanish altogether. In many parks, visitors are encouraged to stay on carefully marked trails so that they do not disturb the pygmy ecosystem, and people should never harvest things from the pygmy forest, as this can disturb the natural balance of this unique place.