Thursday, April 8, 2010

Brilliance & Stupidity In 1970

Reader David Olsen send a link to this fantastic article, published in the October 21, 1970 Salt Lake City Deseret newspaper.

The brilliance: The article describes work with hybrid oaks done by Walter P. Cottam who had "retired" as a botany professor 8 years before in 1962. (One is reminded of Dr. Charles Burnham who, as a supposedly Emeritus professor of agronomy went to his University of Minnesota office every morning at 7am and who oh, by the way, founded the American Chestnut Foundation in his "retirement.")

Cottam is thought to have been the first person in American to successfully hybridize a member of the white oak group, turbinella oak (aka Sonoran scrub oak), with a member of the black oak group, Texas post oak.

More fascinating to me is Cottam's work with turbinella x Gambel oak hybrids. Utah Fish & Game biologist Rudy Drobnick identified a naturally occurring stand of hybrids in the Salt Lake Valley in 1954. Here's the interesting part: Q. turbinella is not native to that part of Utah! So how on Earth could there be a naturally occurring stand of hybrids? Drobnick and Cottam determined that 7,500 years ago, during a period of drought and elevated temperatures (yes, there were periods of elevated temperatures in the past ;-) turbinella oak migrated northward and in some cases crossed with Gambel oaks. When temperatures cooled, the purebred turbinellas died off in that area, but the hybrids survived (and reproduced - there's that question again of what defines a species).

I'm always amazed by people who can identify stands of naturally occurring hybrid oaks, because the range of characteristics for leaf shape, bark pattern, branching, etc. is so great within each species it takes an incredibly keen eye to notice trees that clearly exhibit characteristics of two different species.

But then again, I'm getting less and less amazed by this talent every day, and more and more convinced that many (most?) of the oaks we see in nature are, at least to some degree, a hybrid.

The stupidity: Cottam had planted his hybrids on the university campus for years, but had recently been stopped by a blanket ban on planting anything less than 6 feet tall. Plus, grounds crews spraying 2,4D to kill dandelions had sprayed some of his cross pollinated trees, causing the acorns to abort... Two years in a row... Second generation trees Dr. Cottam had been waiting eight years for!

Eight years is a big deal for any of us. For the 76 year old Cottam it was a VERY big deal. Like all tree lovers, his mind was filled with experiments he wanted to perform and trees he wanted to try growing... and by an acute awareness of his own mortality. I love this line: "I was a darn fool for starting this. I can't finish it. We have a lot more crosses we want to try. We haven't even scratched the surface."

The question is: Did anyone continue his work? I'll look into this. The answer, as in the case of Helge Ness at Texas A&M and all too often, is probably not.


  1. Great distillation, Chris. The story does have that same sad element of public indifference that characterized Ness's work and a number of other pioneers mentioned in J.R. Smith's Tree Crops. In both cases an "eccentric professor" received a certain amount of notoriety for having a peculiar dedication to planting oak trees, and even had groves named after themselves. That the profound agricultural potential of such work consistently seems to elude commentators and academic botanists alike is disappointing if not surprising.

    On the bright side, a truly seminal idea or "great notion" often is revived even after a period of dormancy. This story does have a sequel! A guy who likes riding his bike in the mountains of Utah found more of the curious turbinella x Gambel hybrids in even more unlikely locations. Also, some of Cottam's hybrids are now being sold in the nursery business. (e.g, Oikos Nursery)

    Walter Cottam was a maverick in his career before he became a "darned fool" in his "old" age. He left BYU as a young professor over religious restriction of free thought. He was an early critic of the public land cattle grazing business, which almost cost him his career. Incidentally, Cottam lived to the age of 94.

  2. Several botanic gardens still are growing these Cottam hybrid oaks. At Denver Botanic Gardens, we are looking at these trees in our Oak Grove, determining which ones are the most interesting, have the best aesthetics and have not shown disease and pest problems.