Thursday, July 30, 2009

Balanoculture 2

I just learned that the term balanoculture - acorn eaters - was coined by Dr. David Bainbridge, who is one of the all time cool people in the world. An expert on desert plant restoration I had the privilege of spending a day with David back in the mid 1990's to inspect how some creosote and mesquite plants were doing in some tree tubes my company had designed (answer: very well!).

Now I know I definitely want to become a "balanoculturist" when I grow up!

Interestingly, David concluded that oak uplands in California, whose indiginous balanocultures thrived in great numbers, could support villages of one thousand people. Enough acorns could be harvested in 3 weeks to last 2 or 3 years.

This dovetails with William Bryant Logan's statement that "balanocultures were among the most stable and affluent cultures the human world has ever known." It was only as people moved down into the plains from the oak uplands of Europe, Asia, North Africa and North America and began cultivating grains that we actually had to start working hard for our food!

Plant an oak before you marry

We're only just now beginning to understand how important a food source acorns were through much of human history. From Oak: The Frame of Civilization, by William Bryant Logan:

"In Germany and Switzerland, a law survived into the Middle Ages that required a young man contemplating matrimony to plant two young oak trees prior to the nuptials. By the time the couple's children were ready to marry, there would be two more fruit-bearing trees to help sustain them. But since the time from the planting to an oak's first fruiting is between fifteen and thirty years, the cultivation of oaks as a fruit tree has never been practicable."

What a cool law! It's cool that many of our traditions, like planting a tree to commemorate a marriage or the birth of the child, have their roots in both basic human need (planting trees as a future food source) and ancient law.

Here's where I would take issue with Mr. Logan: I don't believe that you have to wait 15 years to begin producing acorns. If 1/1,000,000,000th of the effort that went into breeding crops like corn and soybeans, or even tree crops like apples and almonds, had been spent on selecting and selectively breeding early and annual producing oak trees I believe we could have oaks that would reliably produce acorns at 5 years of age.

I also believe that with better planting and establishment methods we can dramatically compress the time from planting to the first significant acorn crop.

Friday, July 24, 2009

How To Kill An Oak Tree

So often when I'm driving around I see people trying to kill oak trees (at least I'm assuming they are trying to kill them, since I can't think of any other rational reasons behind what they're doing to them), and not making a good, proper, clean job of it.

So, as a public service to those who are trying to kill oak trees but only doing a half-hearted job of it, here is a list of fool-proof ways to do away with the offending trees:

1. Prune an oak in April, May and June so as to make it susceptible to oak wilt. This isn't guaranteed to kill the tree - in many ways oak wilt is not a very efficient pathogen - but you get bonus points because if the tree does become infected it will likely infect neighboring oaks through interconnecting root systems.

2. Compact the soil in the root zone (which extends out past the longest branches) with heavy equipment (like your car). This reduces water infiltrations and squeezes the air spaces out of the soil, suffocating the roots.

3. Pile additional soil or fill over the root zone. Don't worry, it doesn't take much. In fact, it takes less fill than you think to prevent oak roots from getting the air and water they need.

4. Sever root systems (the closer to the tree - and therefore the higher the % of the root system lost - the better, but remember the root system extends out past the branches so you can trench pretty far from the tree and still do great harm).

And remember, kids: A combo platter of the above is even more effective. But be patient. You might have to wait months or even years to see the results of your handiwork. Oaks are tough old things. Don't worry, sooner or later your efforts will pay off with dead trees.

You're welcome.


I love learning new, obscure words. Here's a cool one:

Balanophages: acorn eaters.

And if you come from European stock, chances are your acenstors were. Balanophages, that is.

From this awesome book by William Bryant Logan (about which much, much more to come...).

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Oak Abuse - Pruning in Oak Wilt Season

I started writing about and giving seminars on Oak Wilt Prevention nearly 20 years ago... and I was late to the party compared to Dr. David French, Don Willeke and so many other dedicated tree advocates. Cardinal Rule: DO NOT WOUND OR PRUNE OAK TREES IN APRIL, MAY OR JUNE. Simple enough, right?

That's why it was so disheartening to return home from work one evening to find that a "professional" tree care company had just pruned my elderly neighbor's gorgeous mature red oak trees... on May 22 (oh yeah, and charged her a king's ransom to do it).

I called the owner of the company and asked if he knew about the risks of oak wilt. He proudly stated he's been pruning oaks during April, May and June for nearly 20 years and "hasn't lost a tree yet." Right. He was completely unapologetic, completely arrogant. Another example of chain saw + pick up truck = tree care company.

With so few oaks being planted, and so many being lost to construction damage & natural/accidental oak wilt, we sure as hell don't need so-called tree care experts doing the fungus' work for it.

Oaks Grow Fast - J. Russell Smith

J. Russell Smith wrote in his 1929 classic Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture:

"The oak tree should sue poets for damages. Poets have used the oak tree as the symbol for slowness - sturdy and strong, yes, but so slow, so slow! The reiterations of poetry may be responsible for the fact that most people think of this tree as impossibly slow when one suggests it as the basis of an agricultural crop. On the contrary the facts about the oak are quite otherwise. I am sure no poet ever grew a grove of the faster growing varieties, for he would have put speed into his oak poetry.

Stereotypes about oaks being slow growing trees have kept people from planting them as often as the should, and nurseries from growing them as much as they should.

It's time to change all that.