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).