Thursday, December 30, 2010

Almost there - just 4 more to go!
The oak tree planting pledge drive over at our friends Mast Tree Network is in its final 2 days, and just needs 4 more people to commit to planting an oak to get it over the top... so stop by and commit!

I believe (although I'm not positive) you can commit now and plant later, like, say, when the permafrost has melted.

Let's see if we can't get to the goal... OK?

Oak Gall Envy

I'm fascinated by oak leaf galls, and have put several photos of various types on this blog.

I came across this page with an incredible assortment of oak leaf galls found in Monterey County California.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

So How Many Species of Oak Are There?


200 (a figure less than others apply to Mexico alone).


Nearly 400.


The higher the number, the greater the disparity and the more debate there is among taxonomists, the more I'm convinced my estimate for the number of oak species is correct:  1.  With 200 to 600 varieties.

I have a good friend who know a lot more about oaks than I do who claims my number is ludicrously low.  He puts the figure at 4.

Do read the links.  Harness the power of the internet to learn all about oaks - this slow growing genus that does not do well in the cold!  Grrrrrrr.

Texas - where oak ranges are small (and Muller was busy)

We just looked at Georgia and South Carolina's Oglethorpe oak, a dubious "species" with all the earmarks of a hybrid and a range you can throw a rock across.

Well for tiny ranges and dubious oak taxonomy, there's no place the the Big Bend region of Texas.  And there's no taxonomist like C. H. Muller.  About whom I know nothing and whom I am about to disparage for no good reason other than my own amusement... well that and to make, for the jillionth time, a point about the ridiculousness of our understanding and classification of oak "species."

Coahuila scrub oak (Q. intricata Trel.) - range consists of 2 tiny dots, one in Big Bend and one to the NW of that.

Mexican dwarf oak (Q. depressipes Trel.) - range is one tiny dot half way between the two dots of Q. intricata.  The description says "half evergreen."  That's a bit like half pregnant - either than or a line from the Yogi Berra of oak taxonomists: "Ninety percent of these trees are half evergreen."

Who was Trel. and why didn't he/she get his/her full name associated with these species?  By contrast, let's see how a master does it:

Hinckley oak (Q. hinckleyi C. H. Muller) - range is a tiny dot to the north of Big Bend.

Vasey oak (Q. pungens var. vaseyana  (Buckl.) C. H. Muller) - another "half evergreen" with a larger range than actually spans county lines

Chisos oak (Q. graciliformis C. H. Muller) - starting to spot a trend here?  Mr. Muller was namer.  This one is not a half evergreen.  Nosiree.  This one is "partly evergreen."  Which is, of course, completely different than half evergreen.  Just don't ask me how (although in the comments you're more than welcome to tell me how!).  Its range consists of two tiny pin pricks, one in Big Bend and one just across the Rio Grande in Mexico.  Hybrids?  There's one.  I'll give you one guess as to who identified it.  Right you are!  Quercus x tharpii C. H. Muller (Q. graciliformis x emoryi).

Lateleaf oak (Q. tardifolia - Ta Da! - C. H. Muller) - range: two clumps in the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend.  Two clumps?  I'm guessing two trees.

All of which makes me very happy I studied forestry here in Minnesota where we have six (seven if you count that one chinkapin oak down in Houston County) oaks, thus limiting the number of possible hybrids to about 4 dozen.

Oglethorpe Oak

Chances are you haven't heard of Oglethorpe oak (Quercus oglethorpensis Duncan).  And I'd bet big money you've never seen one.  Neither have I.

The entire range of Oglethorpe oak appears to be some dude's back yard in NE Georgia, with a single tree growing across the border in South Carolina.

According to Oaks of North America, "When without leaves, it could be mistaken for white oak (ed: the leaves are not lobed).  It has the usual attraction for wildlife, but is a very low producer of acorns and is susceptible to fire damage.  The total population of Oglethorpe is low.  Due to very poor acorn production, seedlings are rare... There are no recognized hybrids of the Oglethorpe oak, but several observations point to a possible cross with white oak."

Let's rewind some of that, shall we?

Wildlife love it, except it doesn't produce many acorns.  Got it.

The total population is low.  Yes, because it has a native range the size of a football field.

Acorn production is low... seedlings are rare... no known hybrids... but observations point to a possible cross with white oak.  Isn't it just possible that Ogelthorpe oak is, itself, a hybrid of white oak and something else - and a not especially successful one at that (or perhaps one better adapted to a different climatic era in which the cross took place)?

Monday, December 27, 2010


Maggie Lee is a local institution here in Northfield, MN.  She has been writing for the local newspaper for something like sixty years.  (However, rumors that Maggie provided eye witness coverage of the Jesse James bank raid are bald-faced lies.  She was just a little girl at the time.)

Every Wednesday Maggie's column looks back at what was going on in Northfield 100, 75, 50, 25 and 10 years ago that week.  These columns are often recitations of people elected to hold offices in any of the dozens of social and benevolent (or perhaps even malevolent) organizations active in town at that time.  I am always struck by the sheer number of organizations discussed, especially in a town that must have had a population of a few thousand souls at most in those days.  I am also fascinated by the titles that people held - and am even more amazed that apparently they were able to speak them with a straight face.  In one recent column a women's organization had recently held elections to fill the posts of Oracle, Vice Oracle, Outer Sentinel and Inner Sentinel. 

I have never been a joiner of groups or organizations.  My membership in the Society of American Foresters lapsed years ago.  I was once elected in absentia to a leadership post in the University of Minnesota Forestry Club, until someone figured out I had never joined (I just volunteered at the Forestry Club Christmas Tree Lot for the free schnapps). 

But now I think it is time to join.  When I think of how we spent most of winter huddled in our homes, isolated from our neighbors, I think how wise those previous Northfielders were holding elections on cold winter nights in the company and camaraderie of friends & neighbors. 

I have attended meetings of organizations like the Northern Nut Growers Association - once a vibrant organization boasting geniuses like J. Russell Smith as members and supporters - and still a vibrant organization with geniuses like Sandra Anagnostakis as members - but without question an aging organization,  and if I had to guess a shrinking organization.  One problem is modesty.  The first line of NNGA's home page is: The Northern Nut Growers Association, Inc. (NNGA) brings together people interested in growing nut trees.

How about: NNGA can save the world with the power of woody perennial-based agriculture.  More of a grabber, and equally true.

The accumulated knowledge of an organization like NNGA must never be lost.  I know an Oak Watch reader who is working to tabulate much NNGA's old information.  I need to help. We all need to help.

The International Oak Society is another organization whose efforts need to be multiplied. 

And of course the American Chestnut Foundation, founded in Minnesota (to which the American chestnut is not even native) by geniuses like Phil Rutter, Charles Burnham, David French and Donald Willeke, needs every last member it can get.  No, it's not an oak-oriented group, but chestnut is in the same Fagaceae family.

Let's do more joining this year.  Tell you what: I'll vote for you for Oracle if you vote for me for Inner Sentinal.  I've always wanted to be an Inner Sentinel. 

I've always wanted to be Inner Sentinal.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

We're #5?

Well this list of the fastest growing trees puts Nuttall oak at number 5, behind:
1. Paulonia
2. Hybrid willow
3. Lombardy poplar
4. Hybrid poplar

Considering the above trees have a combined life span of about a decade, number 5 for a long-lived oak is pretty dang good.

Paulonia produces very valuable wood, and the willows/poplars have important uses as well in windbreaks, stream bank stablization, and pulpwood production.  But Nuttall oak produces high value timber while feeding legions of wildlife - and us if we let it.

This site uses the same dubious math:  7 to 8 feet per year in growth = 25 to 30 feet in three years. 
I must have skipped that day of Forest Inventory (highly likely, since I skipped most days of Forest Inventory) when this type of growth modeling was discussed!

We're #3

Found a list of fastest growing trees.  Not the sort of list on which most people would expect to find oaks... but we Quercophiles know better!

#1 is paulonia... OK we'll give you that.

#2 is hybrid poplar (and yes the have the nomenclature issues common to articles on trees; the Latin binomial is given as "populus deltoides," Eastern cottonwood, when it should be Populus deltoides x nigra or some other actual hybrid).  Gives growth at 8 to 10 feet per year.  I took data one summer on hybrid poplars planted by two big paper companies in Oregon and they grew more than 12 feet starting from sticks that were jabbed into the ground and rooted.

#3?  It's listed as Nuttall oak (Quercus nuttallii).  This site lists growth at 7-8ft per year, with a height of 25 to 30ft in three years (don't run the math on that, you'll get a headache).  The point is, it grows rippin' fast.

J. Russell Smith was right: "The oak tree should sue poets for damages.  Poets have used the oak tree as a symbol for slowness - sturdy and strong, yes, but so slow, so slow! ... I am sure no poet ever grew a grove of the faster growing varieties, for he would have put speed into his oak poetry."

Photo courtesy (in the sense that I took it without asking) of the Native Tree Society.  Which segues nicely into this evening's post... assuming I get around to writing it.  That's one big Nuttall oak!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Emancipation Oak

As I always say, every oak tree has a story to tell.  It's just that in some cases we happen to know the story, and in others we don't.

Building material. Fuel source. Food source.  These are the things we know and expect - and take for granted - from oak trees.

Add another one:  Impromptu class room for the children of former slaves.  And:  "In 1863, the Virginia Peninsula's black community gathered under this tree to hear the first Southern reading of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation."  The Proclamation of course did not have the force of law at that moment, since it only applied to the secessionist states over which Lincoln currently had no authority, but one can image the thrill and sense of hope and longing that prevailed in the shade of this tree on that day.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Hybrid Oaks: Evidence of Climate Change (Just Not The Kind You Think Of)

This is an old article and it covers something we have discussed before, but I think it's cool that the topic reached the "mainstream media," if only for a moment - and even if there are some of the mistatements and errors we expect when reading or hearing a mainstream news report of a natural resource issue.

In 1954 Rudy Drobnick and Dr. Walter P. Cottam discovered some hybrid oaks growing in warmer, wetter pockets of the Wasatch and Oquirrh Mountains.  The question became: Hybrids of what x what?  The two determined that these trees were a naturally occurring cross of shrub live oak (Q. turbinella) - not canyon live oak as the article states - and Gambel oak (Q. gambelii).

<< Broken record time:  I contend that it would be bigger news if they found oaks that aren't hybrids to some degree or another.  >> 

Two things are very cool about this specific discovery:

1) Shrub live oak does not grow in the areas where the hybrids were found.  Shrub live oak is found only in places that are considerably warmer.

Drobnick and Cottam deduced that the climate 5,000 to 7,000 years ago was much warmer than it is today, and that Q. turbinella's  range expanded into this area, where it proceded to do what oaks do:  hybridize with oaks of another "species."

Then, as the climate cooled, shrub live oaks died out in this area, unable to withstand the cold.  However, some of the shrub live x Gambel hybrids clearly had enough of the Gambel oak cold hardiness to remain, grow, and produce offspring.

2) The issue so excited Cottam - who was by no means a young man at that point - to devote much of the rest of his career (and all of his "retirement") to producing and growing hybrid oaks.  Unlike other places where the work of geniuses like Helge Ness and J. Russell Smith were cut down or paved over, the University of Utah has done an admirable job of preserving and continuing Cottam's legacy.

Now, the article states that some of these hybrid oaks are 5,000 to 7,000 years old.  I'm having a wee bit of trouble believing that any individual hybrid oak trees are that old.  I could be wrong, and that would be awesome.  But that would put these oaks into bristlecone pine territory for longevity, and I just don't think that can be true. 

What's much more likely is that these trees are the offspring of hybrids created 5,000 to 7,000 years ago.  From the standpoint of the mainstream media that's not as exciting as 5,000 year old trees, but to me it's infinitely more exciting.

Yes, there's a lesson in here about how the Earth's climate has gone through very large shifts in relatively short periods of time, with no help or input at all from humans.  Lesson received.

But more to the point, at least as far as a "Quercophile" like me is concerned, is that this Utah episode is a window into how oak "species" are formed, how they change over (relatively short periods of) time, and how elastic they are. 

How many thousands of times has this sequence been repeated?  Climate changes. Range of oak "species" A expands.  A hybridizes with B.  Climate changes back again and the "pure" A's die off along with those AxB crosses that mostly have A's characteristics, leaving behind a new population of AxB crosses that have predominantly B's characteristics. 

The AxB hybrids both back cross to B, infusing the population of B with many traits of A and more variation, and self-pollinate to create an entirely new "species."

The really cool thing:  It's happening right now, as we speak.  Well not as I speak, since it's winter and about a jillion degrees below zero.  But you know what I mean.  Oak species are crossing, adapting, and changing continually in their heroic - but increasing quixotic - attempt to sustain us.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Jack London would have loved it

Thank you to reader & commenter Eric the Red for pointing the way to this.

Great blog post which answers the question: does coolness translate into gardening ability?
Since I am neither cool nor a good gardener, and my daughter is both cool and a wonderful gardener, I assumed that it did.  I love the conceit of the guy discussed in the post: Since I'm brilliant and I can't grow enough food to feed myself, no one can!

Reading Jack London by the fire as a blizzard rages outside is the perfect way to spend a winter storm - but no matter how cozy you are you still give a sympathetic shiver as you read about the poor dude who couldn't light a fire.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Perfect Storm

Now THAT'S how you do a blizzard!  21 inches of snow here in Northfield, MN in 24 hours.  A forty mile per hour gale roaring down out of Canada, the climatological equivalent of a brass knuckle punch to the temple.  The sadistic snow plow driver who times his trips up the street for the exact moment you finish shoveling the end of the driveway... until eventually the drifts reach an uneasy, gravity-defying equilibrium.

Then... peace.  Silence.  Except for the tinkling sound of the bottom breaking off the thermometer and the mercury dripping out.  But there is nothing like The Day After.  Crystal clear skies. Crisp dry air that virtually crackles as you breath it in (or is that the sound of my lungs freezing?). Bright sun dancing and bouncing of the scalloped dunes of snow.  You ask yourself, "How can the sun be so brilliant, but the air stay so cold?"  Then you consider the corollary: "How cold would it be if it wasn't for this beautiful sun?"  And then, at approximately 4:47 when the sun dips below the oaks on the hill to the west, you know exactly how cold it would be without it.

And you head inside to a crackling oak fire, thankful that even though humans have forgotten that oaks nourished us for millenia, we still haven't forgotten its ability to warm us - body and soul - through another Minnesota blizzard.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Helge Ness revisited

Some time ago I wrote about Helge Ness, a professor at Texas A&M in the early 1900's who was a pioneer (blazing a trail for the 3 or 4 who followed) of hybridizing oaks.

It has been some time since I opened the sacred text (Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture by J. Russell Smith).  My aplogies if I have covered this passage before, and my apologies for my gross violation of fair use by quoting such a long passage.  But I don't think Smith would mind. Nor would Ness (although he would probably object to my previous jokes about his name).

Of Ness's live oak / post oak hybrids Smith writes:

"Professor Ness found that during an unfavorable season these hybrid offspring made an average of three or more feet on every main limb, and nuts were borne in 1917 from an acorn planted in 1913. (emphasis mine)  These are facts for pondering.  Especially so is the fact that, in the second generation of breeding, some seeds planted in 1920 bore acorns in 1923 and bore a very large crop in 1925.  Starting with their present amazing qualities, what may not hybridization produce among fifty American (and some foreign) species of oaks?

"And after all this, the Texas Station has done nothing with oaks except to print a bulletin telling what wonderful shade trees the Ness hybrids have become.  What on earth could wake up the Texas station? It is almost on a par with the Alabama Station that cut down the marvelous honey locusts."

Does anyone know if Texas A&M ever did anything with these hybrids?  Are any Ness hybrids available for planting?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Loss of a Hero

As much as I'm trying to crank out posts this month, this is one I absolutely do not want to write.

It's ironic that just the other day I mentioned the forestry short course at Itasca State Park that was a required part of a forestry degree at the University of Minnesota for generations of budding foresters.

Part of what made that 3 week stint at Itasca one of the truly formative parts of my education was a gentleman - and I mean gentleman in every sense of the word and its component parts - named Harold "Scotty" Scholten.

Scotty taught - an important distinction - botany and plant identification every morning.  Soft spoken and humble but with a wry sense of humor, what I remember most is having to jog to keep up with Scotty as his l-o-n-g legs propelled him with easy grace.  Keep in mind that this was 1987 and Scotty was a WWII vet. 

The other thing I remember is that he outfished all of us.

Scotty was one of several of an "even aged stand" of forestry school professors who were educated under the G.I. Bill after WWII.  What distinguished this group was their complete dedication to TEACHING, which stood in stark contrast to many of the younger professors who would replace them, brilliant & highly talented people whose primary interest was research and for whom classroom teaching seemed an inconvenience.

The woods were Scotty's classroom; after spending one hour in the woods with Scotty you never, ever looked at the forest the same way again, in the same way that learning to read opens up new worlds of literature.

I know you can see how this story ends.  Scotty Scholten passed away on November 22.  The obituary says:  "Professor Scotty introduced the love of Forestry to his students at the University of Minnesota and Itasca State Park."

That is, without question, the biggest understatement I have ever read... which makes it a fitting tribute to a humble, but truly remarkable man.

Dueling Oaks

So in one post I write that oak trees and history go together like pepperoni and pizza, and then in another I poke fun at a site that favorably compares a giant ancient oak to shrimp and grits.  That's just the kind of rank hypocrisy you can expect here at Oak Watch!

This is really cool.  In Creole days duels over honor were the official sport of New Orleans, and apparently many of those duels took place in City Park under the massive oaks.  From the site:

"The Duelling Oaks in City Park have seen some of the most colorful scenes in New Orleans' history. For years sword clanged against sword and bullets streaked between the ancient trees.

"An article in the Times-Democrat, March 13, 1892, said, 'Blood has been shed under the old cathedral aisles of nature. Between 1834 and 1844 scarcely a day passed without duels being fought at the Oaks. Why, it would not be strange if the very violets blossomed red of this soaked grass! The lover for his mistress, the gentleman for his honor, the courtier for his King; what loyalty has not cried out in pistol shot and scratch of steel! Sometimes two or three hundred people hurried from the city to witness these human baitings. On the occasion of one duel the spectators could stand no more, drew their swords, and there was a general melee.'"

There are some wonderful stories of some of the better known duelists.  Read them all.

I am a big proponent of bringing back dueling (I'm only partly kidding).  And no place better to do it than under some ancient oaks.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Angel Oak

To the surprise of no one who reads this blog, the oldest living thing is the of the Rockies is (drum roll please)... an oak.

And what an oak it is!  Possibly 1500 years old.  Just 65 feet tall, it has a limb that's 3.5 feet in diameter!

But enough from me, let's let the tree's own web site wax elegiac:  "For tourists who haven't visited Angel Oak, you should know that it is this state's most imposing work of nature, more impressive even than a plate of shrimp and grits."  Brings a tear to the eye.

And this:  Acorns from the Angel Oak have grown to produce authentic direct-offspring trees.  Wow!  Because the acorns of so many other oaks grow inauthentic indirect-offspring trees.

Enough sarcasm.  The photo gallery is amazing.  Enjoy.

Acorns at Itasca

My daughter's sixth grade social studies class is spending the year studying Minnesota history.  What they are going to do for the other three quarters of the year, I have no idea.

She was very excited to tell me about a passage in her social studies book describing how indeginous people who lived near Lake Itasca (the headwaters of the Mississippi) used acorns as a large part of their diet.  It was one of those, "Hey, my dad's not a complete crackpot" moments we parents live for.

Speaking of Minnesota history, the University of Minnesota Forestry School used to have a research station in Itasca State Park, and the forestry curriculum required a 3 week field session there prior to your junior year.  This was September, 1987.  Acorns would have been dropping all around us, but back then my diet consisted much more of hops and barley than of acorns & wild rice.

And, of course, my attention was focused on the preeminent event in Minnesota history:  the Twins were on their way to their first World Series victory!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Whole Lotta Hangin' Going On!

Geez, just for fun I searched on Historic Oak Trees and found this site.  One can imagine the confusion: "Hey, Tex, meet me at the Hangin' Oak."  The cost of rope alone must have been staggering (although in one case the unfortunate hangees met their end via horse hair nooses that were braided on the spot - you just don't see that kind of resourcefulness any more).

This, however, is my favorite oak of them all.  I'm not sure if it has enough names.  And, of course, even this tree has a rope danglin' history (and worse):  "The tree has allegedly been a hanging tree, a pirate's rendezvous, and even a ceremonial site for the cannibalistic Karankawa Indians."

In another life I would have been a history major, so of course the combination of oaks and history is as perfect and natural as, well, pepperoni and pizza!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Pledge Drive Getting Closer!

The pledge drive to plant 20 new oak trees by the end of the year over at Mast Tree Network is getting closer!  13 down and just 7 to go.

Unfortunately for those of us up on the frozen tundra, permafrost has set in for the year and any tree planting would require a blow torch and a pickax.  So if the drive is going to meet its goal (and it will meet its goal!) it will have to be by readers in milder climes who get it done.

Although come to think of it if you're in the northland and planted oak seedlings or acorns earlier in the fall and didn't sign the pledge, I'm sure that would work too!

One way or another, let's push the drive over the top.  Don't make me go all Jerry Lewis on Labor Day weekend (or NPR on the last day of pledge drive) on you.

Which, unfortunately for you, reminds me of a story.  As a kid, sitting in Mass every Sunday, it always seemed to me that "Annual" Catholic Appeal occurred much more frequently than once a year.  One time, while listening to the Bishop's tape-recorded appeal for support, I whispered to my dad (and probably none too quietly), "Dad, isn't this the third annual appeal this year?"  Sheesh, by the look on his face you'd think I had stolen the Sacrimental wine or something.

This pledge drive is different. It's once per year. But every bit as spiritually renewing. 

Go forth and plant.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Growing Vicariously

I won't even tell you my goal for posts in December.  You wouldn't believe me, and keeping it to myself allows me to fail in private ;-)

I have been meaning to post these photos for some time.  I don't own a large piece of Earth.  We own a little less than a half acre, which was very thoroughly "treed" when we moved in.  Ironically, none are oaks - unless you count those in pots waiting for planting and the volunteers I favor over the ash and Norway maple volunteers I compost.

So mostly I grow trees vicariously through my customers and friends - and am very fortunate in the amount of overlap between those two groups.  Nothing makes me happier than to receive photos of trees I had a hand in helping to grow - either by providing seed or seedlings, or by selling tree tubes that protect the seedlings from harm until they get established.

Reader & friend David Olsen in Oregon sent me these photos earlier this fall:

Above: English oak (Q. robur) acorns collected in Jutland, Denmark
Below: Gambel oak (Q. gambelii) acorns collected, well, somewhere where Gambel oak grows.

Bur oak seedling grown from acorns I gathered from three sprawling, majestic trees on the campus of Carleton College.  Looks pretty happy so far!

English oak (Q. robur) seedling grown from acorns (stay with me here) sent to me by a friend who gathered them from a tree in Pennsylvania grown from acorns originally gathered in Sweden.

Thank you so much for the photos, David.  I can't wait to see how they do next year!

I'm still, after all these years in forestry, sorting out exactly where I stand on the issue of "native" plants.  So many negative things have happened from moving plant materials around the world: Disease. Insect infestations. Invasives (kudzu, buckthorn, purple loosestrife, etc etc etc). 


I'd be willing to bet that in the photographs above there are at least 3 non-native plant species shown - plants with which the native oaks of David's area did not evolve to compete.  There's a part of me - a growing part - that, while I absolutely see real value in efforts to restore huge swaths of our land to its pre-settlement (but not "unmanaged") state, thinks that in many other cases the "native" Pandora is long since out of the box. And rather than trying to cram Pandora back in we need to look at the land as it is, not as we wish it was, and make decisions about what to plant based on "ground truth."  And in some cases that means planting non-natives.

Those of us who are interested in getting back to a reliance on oaks as a food source - not just as a once a year novelty but as a daily staple food - recognize that given the population today we could never achieve this vision without "supercharging" those oaks - finding individuals and hybrids that produce many times what your average oak in the woods produces. And that means moving plant materials.

It is a conundrum wrapped in an enigma.  Or vice versa.  Or something equally pithy to that effect.

This is a topic I'd like to explore more, and on which I'd like your feedback and thoughts.

But on these freezing cold December day I'm going to brew up some coffee and enjoy the simple pleasure of growing trees vicariously through my FWD's (Friends With Dirt).

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Giving Thanks

Living in the shadows of St. Olaf College like we do it's natural that our street is largely populated current and retired St. Olaf professors. The most colorful of these was Gordon Rasmussen, who sadly passed away a couple of years ago.  One of a kind, Gordon was.  He grew up in a tiny town in South Dakota speaking mostly Norwegian.  He went on to master Latin, Greek and Hebrew and become a professor of religious studies.

The highlight of our Memorial Day Block Party was when Gordon would reminisce about his 50+ years on our street.  He once said that when they got married his wife, Char, didn't want to have any children, "so we compromised and only had seven."  Another time he told the story about how all the houses on the street were white and he wanted to paint his red.  He painted every other tier of siding red, turning the house into a candy cane.  He left it that way for most of the summer, and when he finally painted the whole house red all the neighbors were so relieved nobody was angry it wasn't white.

Another friend on the street is the swimming coach at St. Olaf (and college Hall of Fame inductee for his own swimming exploits while a student there).  He told me that Gordon used to come to open lap swim wearing a huge fluorescent pink swimsuit, "So I'll be easier to see on the bottom of the pool."

He and his wife Char would take a slow walk up and down the street every afternoon.  You could always tell Gordon was coming because he was preceded (depending on the wind) by a waft of cigar smoke.  Our conversation was always the same; even though his brilliant mind getting wrapped in the haze of dementia he still had a ready joke.
"Hi Gordon, how are you doing?"
Dramatic pause, puff on cigar, and then he'd assume a serious expression.
"I can't answer that question.  I'm Lutheran and we're not allowed to brag."

We all miss Gordon. I'd say "rest in peace," but I have a feeling resting in peace would bore him.  So I'll say Rest in joy.

All of this is a long, but hopefully mildly entertaining, way of saying that if I list all of the things I'm thankful for at this time I'm afraid it will sound too much like bragging.  But unlike Gordon, I'm going to do it anyway.  Because I'm not Lutheran. Or Norwegian.  Or remotely humble.

This has been a wonderful and remarkable year.

We had 2 children undergo surgery - neither serious and both highly successful

I made a change professionally that has led to the best and most successful year of my life.

I'm thankful for Alice, who fills my life with more grace and beauty and joy than anyone, especially me, deserves.  I'm thankful for three amazing children, and especially this year for little Nicholas who proved it's never too late to join a family and multiply its happiness (even while minimizing its sleep ;-)

And I'm grateful for you, the folks who drop in and take time from busy lives to read the words I need to write, for allowing me to do what I got into forestry to do, and for crediting me with more and deeper meaning than I'm probably capable of.

Thank you.  Best wishes one and all for a safe & happy Thanksgiving!

More People, More Trees

From ecological restoration, sustainability & balanoculture guru David Bainbridge:

Watch it.  And rejoice.

BTW here's the scoop on the tree frequently mentioned, Grevillea robusta, silky oak.  It's not really an oak, but we won't hold that against it.

Dotorimuk in NY Times

Some friends told me about this article about dotorimuk, a traditional Korean acorn jelly.

From the article:  "The truth is that homemade dotorimuk is more complicated than opening a box, but certainly easier than using the winnowing baskets of yore. And with acorns blanketing lawns across North America — including mine — a hyper-local dish was waiting right outside my door."

Hyper-local... I like it!

I have some acorn starch sent by another friend and have been meaning to make some dotorimuk.  Regular readers know not to hold their breath when I promise to cook something because it rarely happens on schedule... but I will try to do it over this long weekend.

Acorns Revive Pilgrims

I'm farther along in reading Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick (which I highly recommend), and continuing to look for acorn references.  It didn't take long.

After a harrowing first winter* during which more than half their number perished, the Pilgrims, with Squanto (who had previously been given a 6 year all-expenses paid tour of Europe... as a captive) acting as intermediary, struck an alliance of friendship with Massasoit, sachem of the Pokanoket people.

Later that summer Governor William Bradford dispatches Stephen Hopkins and Edward Winslow to travel with Squanto to visit Massasoit with the goal of strengthening friendship.  Just a brief 40 mile two day hike.  At noon of the second day the group stops for a quick lunch of herring and boiled acorns... the 17th century version of fast food!  Except that this fast food won't kill you.

* Of course much of the reason that first winter was harrowing was that the Mayflower arrived in New England on November 11, 1620 just in time for winter.  Remember that this was the "little ice age" with much harsher winters, and it snowed just a few days after they arrived (sounds like Minnesota where we've had snow on the ground since November 13).  They had no shelter and were short of rations.  Not a recipe for success.  By spring 52 of the original 102 settlers would be dead.

The summer of 1620 went well.  After getting off to a bad start by stealing corn from the local Indians' cache and looting one of their graves, the Pilgrims were able to achieve friendly relations with several local sachems.  With Indian expertise and assistance they were able to grow a good crop of food, enough to see them through the winter ahead...

... until another ship arrives in November, 1621 with 37 more settlers sent by Mayflower "adventurer" (financier) Thomas Weston.  Not only does Weston send 37 more mouths to feed and bodies to house just before winter, he doesn't send them with any additional provisions.  Even better, the passengers carry a letter from Weston berating the Pilgrims for sending the Mayflower back the previous spring without enough saleable trade goods!

This time they send the ship back to England loaded with beaver pelts and other valuable goods.  I would have included a letter saying, "Dear Tom, Sorry the return voyage of the Mayflower was light on trade goods.  Providing a return on your investment must have slipped our minds, since the majority of us were busy dying.  Your humble servant, William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth Plantation (because Carver is dead)"

Can't wait to see how they make it through the winter of 1621/22.  All the sustenance they need had fallen from the oak and chestnut trees the month before.  Stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Place For Hybrid Oaks

Whenever I hear of or come across a source for hybrid oaks I want to highlight it. Rhora's Nut Tree Farm & Nursery offers a large selection of hybrid oaks.  The descriptions lack the Latin names that an oak geek like me prefers to see, but most give the two parents.  An exception is Sargent Oak, which is an English (Q. robur) X chestnut (Q. prinus) cross.

The descriptions provide a window into what is possible with hybrid oaks, and shatter the myth of the "slow growing oak."  Even making an allowance for the hyperbole that oak enthusiasts in their zeal sometimes propagate, the growth and performance of these hybrid trees is staggering.  Acorns in 4 years. Acorns in 4 years.  Acorns in 5-8 years.  500 to 1000 lbs of acorns per tree.  800 to 1000 lbs of acorns per tree (that's 15+ bushels for those of you keeping score at home).

I know I have said this a million times, but... think of it!  These trees are the result of a single selection and cross.  The hybrid corn planted today is the culmination of 8000+ years of intensive selection, nearly 100 years of intensive hybridization (the primary goal of which is to produce patentable intellectual property that doesn't grow "true" from the seed it produces), and 20-30 years of genetic engineering. 

Give me oaks with their willingness and ability to "hybridize" (and as always I use the term loosely since I don't believe we're actually crossing any true species boundary when we cross, say, white oak with bur oak), and give me 8000 years and by the end of that time I'll have them doing everything but singing show tunes.  And that's only because I don't like show tunes.

In the meantime let's patronize the nurseries who are doing the yeoman's work of producing and selling hybrid oaks!

Acorns: How to trap a governor

I'm reading Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick - just in time for Thanksgiving (although the book is, of course, a complete debunking of the Thanksgiving story that was drilled into our heads as grade schoolers).

Me being me, I read any history of early settlement looking for references to reliance on acorns as a food source.  In Mayflower acorns are conspicuous mostly by their absence (about which more below).  The only reference to acorns so far is actually pretty hilarious.  Shortly after landing at Plymouth Harbor a scouting parting is walking through the woods.  They come across an ingenious snare set by the Indians. A sapling is bent over, and tied to the sapling is a rope lasso, the loop of which lays flat on the ground and encircles a pile of acorns - bait for deer.  While those at the head of the column of Pilgrims are marveling at the ingenuity of the deer trap, William Bradford - soon to be named governor of Plymouth Plantation, a position he would hold for 35 years - blunders up, steps in the trap, and is promptly hoisted off the ground by his ankle... and earns the respect of the others (and of me) by good naturedly commenting on both the skill with which the trap was made and his own clumsiness in getting trapped.

The religious separatists who landed in Plymouth were by no means entering a untouched wilderness.  The area had been, until very recently, home to thousands of people. The Pilgrims walked into the equivalent of an outdoor morgue; a plague, probably Bubonic Plague spread southward from European fishing settlements in Maine, had decimated the population in the years prior to the Pilgrim's arrival.

As a practical matter this meant that the Pilgrims were able to simply take over and plant fields that had been cleared by others.  But what interested me was this:  those fields, in which Native Americans had grown corn, squash and beans, were almost completely depleted of their nutrients and could only produce a decent crop with the addition of copious amounts of fertilizer - in this case fish.

I found it interesting that there, in the shadows of towering oaks and chestnut trees which rained down nutrition in the billions of tons, the indigenous people had over the course of centuries become more and more reliant upon crops that damage and deplete the land... land which once depleted would need to be replaced with other land cleared for the purpose of farming, a process which would inevitably create conflict between adjacent tribes or groups.

And so history repeats itself.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Valley Oak Leaves

Still catching up on the random photos I shot while traveling in California last week... 

(Click to enlarge - but it will be blurry)

This valley oak leaf came from the fast growing (but poorly photographed) valley oak I mentioned in a previous post:

Planted as an acorn 5 growing seasons ago, now 20 feet tall.  The leaf shown above was typical in size for this tree... which is to say tiny:

Adorable little thing isn't it?  As you can see from the photograph above, the total leaf surface area of that young but fast growing valley oak is relatively small.  You wouldn't think by looking at it that it would have the photosynthetic surface area necessary to fuel that kind of growth.  But what these leaves lack in surface area they make up for in thickness; they are little power packs of energy.

As with all oak "species" (a term regular readers know that I use loosely since I view the entire oak genus as a single species with a continuum of traits, rather than as hundreds of species with thousands of hybrids), there is an enormous amount of variation in valley oak leaf size and morphology:

I collected the larger leaf from a valley oak just a few miles away (and yes, I still owe you the story behind that tree).  Think those two fully developed, late-season leaves can't be from the same "species"?  Think again.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Recruiting Wars... a question of priorities

Boy does this story take me back to the days when, as a highly-touted "blue chip" high school forestry prospect, several forestry schools were recruiting me for my 4.4 second dash through a dichotomous key and my 800 lb. peavey roll

My dad told University of Minnesota representatives that, "it was going to take more than a scholarship" to get me to wear maroon and gold, and that the forestry school dean was, "going to have to put a smile on his  face*."

I won't go into the sordid details here, but let's just say that money changed hands and leave it at that.  I wouldn't want the U of M to have to vacate the Midwestern Foresters Conclave victories it earned during that time.

My point - and I do have one - is about priorities.  I was no prize addition to anyone's forestry school.  But there are young men and women who are prizes - who could become the next Leopold, the next Carson, the next Goodall.  There are brilliant young people who find it more and more difficult to pay for the education that would allow them to make an impact, to literally change the world.

Meanwhile, if you can throw a football or shoot a basketball you can (allegedly) command a 6 figure income... as a college student getting a free education!!  The argument has always been that having highly ranked basketball and football teams a) carries the financial water for all of the other sports, b) puts alumnae in a more giving mood.  Well, as for a), according to USA Today only 14 universities had self supporting athletics programs in 2009.  Yes the high profile sports turned a profit, but not enough of a profit to support the non-revenue sports (that, among other things, attract accomplished young people actually interested in academics in addition to athletics).  As for b), shame on alumni who make their giving contingent upon touchdowns and three pointers.

Ask yourself this:  when is that last time you placed your faith in an athlete or a team and weren't disappointed - by scandal, by lack of effort, by lack of professionalism... but just plain stupidity?

Universities that somehow couldn't maintain the hybrid oak trials of Helge Ness, or the long term forest research of others, can somehow field money losing football programs with national pretensions.

As for me, from here on out I'm putting my faith in oaks... and the heroes who plant and nurture them.

* Anyone who knows my dad knows what a fundamentally kind person he is, and therefore realizes how hilarious the idea of him shaking down college recruiters actually is.  Turns out the Univ of Minnesota did put a smile on his face - by taking me off his hands just for the cost of tuition!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Pictures of the day 2

(Click to enlarge)

Arboreal perfection.  This tree has a remarkable story to tell, and I'll tell it soon.

Then again, every old oak has an amazing story to tell. The only question is whether we happen to know the story or not.

Pictures of the day

Time is short this morning, and I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep, so I'll leave you with a couple of photos from my recent California wonderings.

(Click to enlarge)

This old soldier has been through the wars - fire, lightening, cattle - but still clings tenaciously to life.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

You Be The Judge

(Click to enlarge)

Stale dinner roll or oak gall cut open?

And yes, to answer your question, I did taste it.  Very tannic.  With a hint of pumpernickel. 

Genesis As History

We know that for thousands of years mankind subsisted primarily - and by all indications happily & healthily - on acorns as a primary source of food.  From time to time I attempt to answer the question: Why did we stop?  Why did we start instead to do battle with the soil every year rather than being content with the bounty falling on us from above?

Well it turns out that these dudes called Gideons put Bibles in hotel rooms so that secular humanist acorn lovers can search for clues at the very Beginning: The book of Genesis.  What a coincidence! This is hardly a novel idea; J. Russell Smith wrote a brilliant essay nearly 70 years ago about Agriculture in the Garden of Eden.  But I had never gone back to the original words.  So here they are.

1:29 And God said, "See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every trees whose fruit yields seed; for you it shall be for food.

1:30 "Also, to every beast of the earth, to every bird of the air, the earth, in which there is life, I have given every herb for food"; and it was so.

2:8 The Lord God planted a Garden eastward of Eden*, and there He put the man whom He had formed.

(The East of Eden reference is a bit eerie, since just a couple hours ago I drove past the spot where James Dean crashed his Porsche and died.)

2:9 And out of the ground the Lord God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.  The tree of life (an oak, no doubt - Ed.) was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (probably a 'Crimson King' Norway Maple - just kidding) was there also.

2:15  And the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it.
2:16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, "Of every tree of the garden you may freely it,
2:17 but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die."

Of course we know what happened next.  For Eve's part womankind was punished with painful childbirth and with, well, men.

3:17 Then to Adam He said, "Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you saying, 'You shall not eat of it,' Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.
3:18 Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you and you shall eat the herb of the field
3:19 In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread til you return to the ground for out of it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you shall return."

2:22 Then the Lord God said, "Behold, the man has become like one of Us to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever"-
2:23 Therefore the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden to til the ground from which he was taken.
2:24 So He drove out the man and He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden and a flaming sword which turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.

Wow, it really is all there.
In the Beginning - if not of the world at least of humankind's collective memory and oral history - humankind, symbolized by Adam and Eve, lived happily in the Garden (forest really) of Eden, eating the "fruit," meaning also nuts, for time beyond reckoning.
Humankind, not content to live in Paradise in leisure and plenty, then tries to acquire the knowledge and power of God.
We are cast out from the forest and onto the plains, cursed to till the soil and live by the sweat of our toil.
The Fall from Grace, the eating of the forbidden fruit, was, of course, not a single event, but a series of events over time.  Did we overuse and exploit (fail to "tend") the Eden we were given, forcing us to search for food elsewhere? Did we multiply beyond the number that could be sustained by the forest?  Did we fight among our selves until some groups were driven from Eden and forced to draw food from the soil of the plains? Given the history of humankind these things all seem likely.  However I also believe - and this is closer to the idea of humankind trying to become Gods - that cultivation of annual grain crops allowed for a stratification of society that allowed some people to wield power over others in a way that communal gathering of the bounty of Eden did not.

However it happened, we now know the cost.  The difficulty is getting back to Eden.  Especially with those pesky cherubim and that flaming sword guarding the east entrance.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Omnivore Who Has Solved His Dilemma

That line, from the About page of Hank Shaw's extremely cool blog Honest Food, is one of my favorite lines of all time.  Which makes sense because his is one of my favorite blogs of all time.

Reader/commenter/friend Eric recently asked about acorn recipes.  Here are three from Honest Food.  I'm embarrassed to say I haven't tried any of them, but I plan to soon (possibly at gunpoint since with all the acorns I've been hoarding our refrigerator now has room only for a quart of milk and the subject of my favorite Minnesota joke* tucked way in the back).

Someone please give these a try and we'll compare notes: (I better not attempt this - if I successfully produced acorn pasta my family might keel over from shock)

* It is said that the refrigerator of every aging Minnesota couple contains the same bottle of Tabasco sauce they bought when they first got married; it was needed for some recipe or it was thought to be an staple condiment in the well-stocked fridge.  And then it was never used again.  It probably hasn't even been a liquid for more than a decade.

And I will make extra acorn flour.  If you're interested I'd be happy to send you a cup or so.  Acorn weevils no extra charge!  Just kidding.  I do plan to charge for them.

Seriously.  Let me know if you'd like some acorn flour, and I will send some.

The Choice

(Click to enlarge)

I know that California has rules limiting the removal of mature oaks from vineyards and other ag fields, although I don't know the details.  I should know, and I certainly should look them up... tomorrow.

For tonight I'd like to think that the vineyard owner made a choice to keep this oak, even though it stands smack in the middle of a vineyard row.  And even though its presence and its shade reduces the yield of that part of the vineyard.  That he or she chose to keep the oak knowing full well it will be there long after the vineyard has been planted to new varieties three times, and probably after the vineyard is abandoned due to lack of water for irrigation.

Another cool thing; in the photo it looks like there are two trunks.  The one to the left is the trunk.  To the right is a grape vine that's using the oak as a trellis. 

This little vignette just got me thinking about how we all make choices - in what we eat, what we plant, the volunteer seedlings we rip up - that influence the number of oaks in this world.  They are trying to sustain us as they did for millenia, and all too often they are seen as an anachronism or quaint inconvenience. 

Slow Growing Oak Myth Shattered - Part 43

(Click to enlarge)
OK so Ansel Adams I'm not.  This is as bad a photograph of an oak as you'll ever see.  With apologies to Kilmer, I think that I shall never take a picture as lovely as an oak.  (Then again, Kilmer should have apologized to decent poets everywhere and been dragged before an international tribunal and charged with torturing metaphors.) 

As a great man (I think it was Rod Stewart) once said every picture tells a story, and luckily the story behind this picture is a lot better than the picture itself.  (Yikes, I don't think ol' Rod could get away with those lyrics in 2010!)

This is a valley oak (Quercus lobata) that is nearly 20 feet tall.  It was planted as an acorn in the spring of 2006, which means that it is now coming to the end of its fifth growing season.  For those of you keeping score at home, that's 4 feet of growth per year... starting from an acorn!

We need to overcome this ridiculous myth - ironically promulgated by poets (and I use that term loosely) like Kilmer - that oaks grow slowly.  They.  Do.  Not.

Oak Gall du Jour

(Click to enlarge)
I hate, hate, hate business travel.  I hate flying.  I hate being away from my family.
There are only two things that make business travel tolerable:  Meeting customers face to face and working together to solve their problems, and seeing new oak trees - or at least oak trees I don't see very often.

Valley Oak.  Central California.  That is one awesome oak gall.  And to think that wasps are somehow, through some unfathomable combination of witchcraft and alchemy, able to get the oak to manufacture this home for them.

Just another way that oaks sustain life.  Just another oaken miracle.

And as I've discussed before oak galls yielded the permanent - to the point of being eternal - ink with which so many masterworks were penned.  Bach's Concertos.  Leonardo's drawings.  The ink will last forever.  Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the paper though which oak gall ink gradually eats.

Which is another way that oaks sustain life in the form of job security.  For document conservators ;-)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Great Primer on Acorn Prep

Eli Sangor, one of the moderators of the University of Minnesota Extension's excellent My Minnesota Woods discussion board, contibuted a post to a thread on acorns as food that I started a while ago.  Eli's post gave a link to this site, which gives one of the best overviews and primers on processing acorns for food. 

Some great excerpts (bold text added by me) from the blog post Eli links to:

"Acorns are THE most consumed human food source in history. Are you listening? That means that, as a species, we’ve eaten acorns more than corn, more than wheat, more than rice."

"And, as I learned, there are many reasons why they’re an awesome food source:
1. Acorns are incredibly healthy, and they’ll fill you up quick.
2. Oak trees have enormous yields – one tree will create up to 200-300 pounds of edible acorn goodness in a season.
3. Oak trees are hardy as hell.
4. Oak trees grow all over the world.
5. Acorns are deeeee-licious."

"Step Five: Consummation...
This step was pretty awesome. We each packed up a cup of acorn flour to take home, and with the rest we made acorn dumplings (which looked exactly like poo), acorn pizza crust and an acorn loaf, somewhat the same consistency as banana bread. We were going to make pancakes, but everyone was full. We also talked about ways to work acorn flour into everyday recipes replacing some of the white flour content with acorn flour for greater protein and nutrition generally. Julie regaled us with stories of their other successes, including acorn muffins, acorn waffles, and an acorny topping for apple crisp. Yum."

(Looking "exactly like poo" is probably not something we balanophages want to tout moving forward.  Deeeee-licious is probably a little more helpful.)

Yum indeed.  Good motivation for me to get grinding on my own stockpile of acorny goodness waiting in the fridge!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Pledge Getting Closer
OK gang, the pledge drive sponsored by Mast Tree Network to plant 20 oaks by December 31 is getting closer to its goal, but still needs more folks to make the leap and take the pledge over the top!

I know that regular readers of this blog plant a ton of oak trees.  It shouldn't be hard to make this happen. 

It can be this simple:  Plant some acorns this fall and protect it from animal damage over the winter, with wire mesh or with a plastic tree tube*.  Yes! Amazingly enough tall oaks from little acorns do grow.  It's amazing how easy it is to forget this simple fact.

If you're looking for a good source of seedlings to plant, here are some great ideas:
Oikos Tree Crops - great selection of hybrid and species oaks (among many other things)
Mossy Oak Nativ Nurseries - high quality (super charged!) hybrid oaks and others - mostly for the southeast but remarkably cold hardy.
St. Lawrence Nurseries - Founder Fred Ashworth was a pioneer in selecting & breeding oaks, and his bur oak selection (page 30 of the catalog) is the only I have seen that specifically mentions how sweet the acorns are for eating.

... so click on the link above for Mast Tree Network... go for the pledge, stay for the great information!

* Full disclosure:  I am in the business of selling tree tubes, so I have a vested interest in promoting them, but I sell them and promote them because I believe in them.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Darn Them!

There is a group of people that is selfishly conspiring to prevent me from blogging, people whose insidious demands have taken up huge swaths of my time.  I am speaking, of course, of my customers.  Sheesh.  It's been a never-ending "I want to order this," and "I need a bunch of those," and all of the corresponding and annoying paperwork that comes with processing orders.

It is a wonderful problem to have!  But there are times when your job gets in the way of your work.

I'll be picking up the pace of post this week - a backlog of topics to cover, a request for some recipes (so I'll be posting a ton of links) and an attempt at cooking later in the week.

Hope you had a great Halloween!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Cemetery Oak Skeletons

(Click to enlarge)

City cemetery in nearby Dundas, MN on the Friday evening before Halloween.  I love this time of year because I love the form of leafless bur oak skeletons against the fall sky.

Looks like a good spot to spend Sunday night waiting for the Great Pumpkin.  I just hope that, unlike Linus, I have enough faith to earn a visit.  These oaks will definitely help.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Welcome New Readers!

I finally have the site set up with Google Analytics so that I can monitor traffic on the blog. The amazing thing is that there actually is some!  And it's growing! 

The interesting thing is that the #1 search term that brings people do this site is: acorns + poisonous, or the question are acorns poisonous?

The answer will be a quick primer into what this site is all about, and could, I hope, change your life.

No, acorns are not poisonous.  Not at all.  (Disclaimer: certain types of livestock should not eat too much of certain acorns - cattle, sheep and goats shouldn't eat white oak acorns, but they thrive on other types of acorns).  Acorn-fed pigs produce the highest quality pork and prosciutto in the world. Poultry love acorns.

More importantly, acorns are an extremely nourishing food for people.  Humankind thrived on a diet rich in acorns for hundreds of thousands of years. Every indication is that the acorn eating cultures of the past (all the way up through the late 19th / early 20th century in California and Oregon, parts of Spain and parts of Asia) have been among the best fed, happiest and most peaceful cultures ever to live.  The amount of man-hours expended per unit of nutrition was amazingly low, and therefore the amount of leisure time was incredibly high.  Giving these cultures incredible amounts of time to devote to activities such as fishing. And bocce ball.

When we first started cultivating cereal grain crops, we fed them to our animals and saved the acorns for ourselves.

Our fall from Grace (either literal of symbolic, depending on your religious bent) came when we stopped living on the fruit of the trees, and started living by the toil of our back and the sweat of our brow, when we started our annual war with the soil in which the plowshares are the swords.

In 1929 one of the great geniuses the United States ever produced, J. Russell Smith, wrote a book called Tree Crops, A Permanent Agriculture  in which he decried the destruction of soil (the true measure of a nation's wealth) in the production of annual grain crops, and eloquently argued for a system of agriculture based on woody perennial plants - trees and shrubs - which would produce more nourishment with less soil erosion (and as our awareness has grown in the meantime, less pollution and less consumption of fossil fuels).

Smith was almost entirely ignored.  His landmark book was quickly followed by the Dust Bowl (which he foreshadowed), the Great Depression, and World War II.  By the time WWII ended we had stockpiles of chemicals that could be converted to producing more and more corn and soybeans, and nobody wanted to hear about going back in time to a time when we lived high on acorns, chestnuts, and hazelnuts.

Smith's time has come.  And this blog is just one tiny part of making it happen. And now you are part of making it happen.

Eat acorns.  Some are sweet and can be eaten right off the tree.  Some are high in tannins and curl your toes if you eat them right off the tree.  It is easy to leach the tannins and prepare delicious breads, cookies and more.  I'm the world's worst cook, and I've done it.  I'll show you how if you stay tuned.

Plant oaks.  They grow much faster than you think, and will feed our children and our children's children.

Conserve oaks.  That doesn't mean we never cut one down. I am, first and foremost, a forester.  It means we manage, we regenerate successfully, we don't lose oaks to avoidable, preventable diseases, and we work together to find solutions to the disease and insect threats oaks face today.

So Welcome.  We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog.

Acorn Meals Forthcoming... Or else!

It's probably a good thing that I wasn't born a  Po-lik-lah (lower Klamath) woman.  Countless Po-lik-lah men and women were and are no doubt happy about this as well.  I would have been a dismal failure.  For me it's just one more thing to add to the ever-growing list of things at which I would be, or indeed have been, an utter, unmitigated disaster.  For the Po-lik-lah people I would have been dead weight, an unproductive body to feed.

The Po-lik-lah (and forgive me if I'm using an outdated tribal designation - it's taken from the very old National Geographic article on acorns as an alternative food source linked to above) subsisted largely - and by all accounts extremely well - on a diet rich in acorns.  That means that for a Po-lik-lah woman much of her time would have been spent drying, cracking and pounding acorns into meal which was then baked as a cereal mush or made into a very nourishing bread.

Which brings us to me, the guy with a bajillion pounds of various and delicious acorns in the fridge and freezer, who hasn't found the time to crack, leach, dry and grind them into flour for all the great things I promised to bake.  In my defense, 1) I'd rather get a root canal than spend much time in food preparation (And I know whereof I speak; I have had a root canal.  It wasn't so bad.  The novacaine had very nearly started to take effect before he started drilling), and 2) the men and women of our indigenous acorn-eating cultures didn't have full time jobs on the side...

...which is, of course, the point, and which makes them a whole lot smarter than most of us, who spend our days working like crazy just to afford processed food we don't have time to cook grown from grains that destroy the soil while our hope for a better future (which looks strikingly like our past) languishes in the fridge waiting only to sustain my family and me.

Time for me to get cracking.

Sorry about that.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Shock troops of the prairie (and one lucky dog)

It's been a long time since I have read A Sand County Almanac, probably dating back to when I complained to my advisor that it wasn't required reading for a forestry degree at the University of Minnesota in the late 1980's.  Come to think of it, there wasn't a lot of required reading at all.  Required calculating. Required memorizing.  But very little required reading, and probably even less required thinking.

My favorite sections of SCA are, of course, "The Good Oak" and "Bur Oak."  I have always loved his description of the bur oak:  "Have you ever wondered why a thick crust of corky bark covers the whole tree, even to its smallest twigs? This cork is armor. Bur oaks were the shock troops sent by the invading forest to storm the prairie; fire is what they had to fight... Engineers did not discover insulation; they copied it from these old soldiers of the prairie war."

Leopold goes on to explain that when settlers plowed the prairie in the 1840's they deprived the prairie of its "immemorial ally: fire."  Most of the trees in Leopold's part of Wisconsin dated to the 1850's or so, when the balance of power in the prairie wars shifted from grass to trees.

But even that change was just one of many throughout the millenia; the moving front in the battle for ecotype supremacy shifted over time - sometimes the hardwood trees advanced as far north as Lake Superior, sometimes they retreated nearly to the Illinois border.  And European settlement surely wasn't the first wave of human impact that influenced the cover type in that area.

Of the bur oaks that pre-date the 1840's shift from prairie to plowed field and woodlot Leopold writes, "Thus, he who owns a veteran bur oak owns more than a tree. He owns a historical library, and a reserved seat in the theater of evolution.  To the discerning eye, his farm is labeled with the badge and symbol of the prairie war."

I have another, very strange connection with Aldo Leopold.  In the late 1990's we lived in Baraboo, Wisconsin.  Our next door neighbor was Aldo Leopold's great granddaughter.  At that time we owned - or, more accurately, were owned by - a sweet but utterly incorrigible chocolate lab named Maggie.  We were moving to Tucson, Arizona and would be living in an apartment for an undetermined but extended period of time.  We had chosen an apartment that accepted pets, but were dreading living with this 100 pound bundle of energy and mischievousness in a tiny apartment with two small children.  On the last day before we were to move our neighbor rang our doorbell, and asked if perhaps we might want to leave Maggie to live with her grandmother.  Nina Leopold. On the 1000+ acre "Sand County" farm. With another chocolate lab. And a pond to swim in.  We thought about it for approximately 1 nanosecond and said yes!

So we got to meet Nina Leopold Bradley, a very sweet lady, and see the Sand County farm.  We later received a letter from Nina saying that Maggie was doing great - she spent her days completely unleashed and free, and her nights sleeping snuggled with Nina's other lab. 

So Maggie the impossible and incorrigible chocolate lab spent her remaining days in her - and my - idea of heaven, Aldo Leopold's farm.  Lucky dog.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Tree Crop Lunch

Today's lunch:
Salami made from acorn fed pork
Hard apple cider

It doesn't get any better than that. J. Russell Smith and Johnny Appleseed would both be proud!

The Cat Who Didn't Eat Acorns

Every now and then for a light, fun read I pick up one of Lilian Jackson Braun's The Cat Who... mysteries.  Like the very appealing main character Jim Qwilleren, we have a Siamese cat who is either highly intelligent or completely insane - we haven't decided which.  These books are about the last place I'd expect to find anything acorn related.

Qwilleren often reads aloud to his two Siamese.  It's usually Shakespeare, sometimes Robert Louis Stevenson, sometimes Whitman.  But then in The Cat Who Said Cheese I came across this:

"On this occasion the selection was Stalking the Wild Asparagus.  Qwilleren often read about nature, and he had enjoyed Euell Gibbons's book, even though he had no desire to eat roasted acorns or boiled milkweed shoots."

It's funny how we dismiss certain foods out of hand as being "too wild," when a) we were sustained by them for hundreds of thousands of years, b) they are so much better for us than what we now prefer to eat, and c) eating them would be so much more sustaining for our planet than what we now eat.

Qwill is a really cool guy, but his clueless about acorns.  His attitude on acorns just means more for us who know better!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

All Blather No Results

I used to be a huge sports fan. Not anymore. These days I take a "bread and circuses" view of sports' role in our culture; sports are the circuses; corn-syrup laced processed food is the new bread.

I do follow the Twins throughout the summer, and to a lesser degree the trials and tribulations of my alma mater the University of Minnesota.  In a ten, now eleven, soon to be twelve team Big 10 Conference the Golden Gophers have not been to the Rose Bowl since something like 1962.  Nearly fifty years of football incompetence punctuated by moments of near mediocrity. 

This past Sunday marked a new low: they fired head coach Tim Brewster in the middle of the season.  I have felt sorry for most of the procession of coaches who have held that unenviable job (with the exception of Lou Holtz who will live in infamy for bringing the Gophers to the cusp of borderline respectability and then bolting when the Golden Dome of Notre Dame came calling; the letter I received from my best friend about Holtz's departure is a literary classic, with a single expletive laden sentence spanning more than two pages).  Some have started the job with great confidence and bombast.  Others have taken a more low key approach.  All have tried valiently.  All have failed.

Brewster now joins Holtz as the only other coach I don't have any sympathy for.  Others before him have been "full of it," but Brewster brought pompous pronouncements to a whole new level. He claimed the program was "light years" ahead of  where it had been under his predecessor (who once won 10 games in a season), and then proceded to lose to South Dakota and Northern Illinois.  He promised a trip to the Rose Bowl, but delivered 6 Big Ten victories in three seasons.  Or was it 5?  Does it matter?  According to him his 1 or 2 win teams were always a few plays away from being undefeated.

I am in sales.  I have learned something important in the 21 years I have been selling forestry and horticultural supplies.  The guy who is full of it, who talks (and talks and talks and talks) a big game is not the guy who sells the most (or who, in sports parlance, wins).  The quiet guy who concentrates on solving problems and getting things done is the guy who sells the most - the guy who wins.  Because he's the guy (or gal) people enjoy working with and is the guy (or gal) they can count on.

I'm blessed to be working with - employed by, employed with, and selling to - an amazing assortment of "anti-Brewsters" spanning a wide array of enterprises.  That includes all of you.  People who don't have to talk a lot, but spend their time doing amazing things that are literally changing the world while others spend their time on bread and circuses.

By the way, other than being completely full of it and in way over his head Tim Brewster seems like a decent guy (unlike many others of his ilk).  I don't wish him ill at all.  Now he has the absolute best job in the world: Fired College Coach.  All of the money, none of the work!

What does this have to do with oaks?  Nothing. And everything.  Oaks just perform, but without the showy bombast of other trees.  They grow faster than everyone thinks they do, and are simply, quietly waiting for their chance to feed the world. 

A strained (to the point of being tortored) analogy to be sure and a long way to go to make a very vague point, but I enjoyed it.

Slow Growing Oaks? Not Where I Come From

I just realized something (OK I should narrow that down because the sheer number of things I don't realize, or realize long after most people do, could - and in fact does - fill libraries).

My town of Northfield, MN was ravaged by Dutch elm disease in the late 1970's and early 1980's.  That means most of our boulevard trees date to around that time.  To Northfield's great credit a relatively small percentage of those replacement boulevard trees are green ash, especially as compared to other Minnesota cities.  The temptation in the early 80's to plant seedless green ash cultivars was great: no mess, "fast growth" and tolerance of the poor growing conditions that often exist between sidewalk and curb.  Everyone knew the risks of repeating the boulevard monoculture mistake of American elms, but all too many places went ahead and got ash-happy anyway.  And yes, with the arrival of the Emerald Ash Borer they will learn yet another hard lesson.

Even more to Northfield's credit is the relatively high percentage of oak trees that were planted on the boulevards to replace the elms.  Red oak, swamp white, white, bur and the occasional pin oak.  And they did a great job of mixing species on each block.

That means that in many, many instances oaks are planted next to sugar maples, red maples, lindens, hackberries and green ash trees - and that they were all planted at nearly the same time.  What a great way to put the old "slow growing oak" canard to the test!  What an idiot I am for not thinking about this 5 years ago when I first moved here!  So if oaks really are slow growing then the neighboring trees planted at the same time would be way taller by this time, right?

(Click to enlarge)

Wrong. Here's a typical Northfield boulevard, in this case looking west up toward the Old Main building on the St. Olaf College campus (the sledding hill that begins at Old Main is the site of my annual near-demise experiences).  In order you are seeing: northern red oak, sugar maple, green ash, northern red oak, little leaf linden.  If the green ash is the tallest it's only by the smallest of margins; perhaps 12 to 18 inches when viewed by my (admittedly biased) naked eye.  The next two tallest are the red oaks, then the sugar maple, then the linden. 

Now that I'm looking at our boulevard plantings in this way, I'm seeing this pattern repeated time and time again.  Oaks of all species (and in some cases indeterminate or in-between species) planted along side trees that have reputations for much faster growth - and the oaks are as tall if not taller.

It's frustrating that people continue to think of oaks as being slow growing, despite the evidence that's all around us if we only look and think.  Then again, I'm supposedly an urban forester and it took me five years to look and think... and see.

J. Russell Smith said oaks should sue poets for damages, for always and erroneously using them as a metaphor for slowness.  Of course suing a poet for damages is as potentially lucrative as suing a forester for damages.  Two words come to mind:  Blood and turnip.

Monday, October 18, 2010

L-O-N-G Leaves

(Click to enlarge)

I was out walking these morning with the little one in the stroller and I saw these on the ground... then looked up into a whole tree of these:

(Click to enlarge)

I pretty much knew what it had to be (the leaf on the right in the uppermost photo starts to give some clues), but that sure isn't the way the leaves looked in my college Dendrology book.  Nowhere in a taxonomy of oaks in Minnesota are you going to find the phrase, "leaf sinuses (indentations) 3 inches long, with 3 lobes spanning a leaf stem of 12 to 14 inches."

But this being 2010 and this being the internet, it took about three and half seconds to find a guy that had taken virtually the identical photograph.

Yes, if you put a gun to my head (not a suggestion mind you, just a metaphor) and forced me to choose a species I'd say it's a bur oak.  But I'd also say there is no way that this is 100% bur oak.  It crossed with something somewhere along the line.

I love this line from the Dirt Doctor web site I linked to:

NATURAL HABITAT AND PREFERRED SITE: Bur oak is a resident of the tall grass prairie from north Central Texas to Central Texas. It will adapt to a wide range of garden and landscape conditions.

Such a great Texas-centric definition of the range of bur oak!  What? You mean bur oak's range extends beyond the borders of Texas?  (Yes, it has the largest range of any North American oak.)  What? You mean there are trees beyond the borders of Texas?  Classic.