Friday, February 25, 2011

Arkansas, Mississippi Vie for Bragging Rights to Largest Speciman of Fraudulent Species

I've written about Arkansas oak (Q. arkansana) before, a "species" with a suspiciously spotty range that looks like someone dripped a few ink blots from a leaky fountain pen across the southeast, skipping entire states in the process.

Of this spotty and dispersed range Oaks of North America says, "Arkansas oak is believed to be a relic of an ancient population which at some time in the past occurred over a much wider range than at present."  That, of course, is the charitable view of the situation.  The uncharitable view (e.g. mine) is that Arkansas oak is more likely a variety of another species, and that there is likely more variation between those widely dispersed pockets of Arkansas oak than there is between those pockets and the local populations of the species of which it is a variety.

My copy of Oaks of North America is copyrighted 1985.  At that time the National Champion Arkansas oak listed in the National Registry of Big Trees was located in Howard County, Arkansas:
138 inches circumference (approximately - I'm converting from metric and rounding)
62 feet tall
65 feet avg crown spread
NRBT score = Circumference (in) + Height (ft) + (Avg crown spread (ft) / 4)
= Score of 216.5

The other day good friend in Mississippi sent these photos:

(Click to enlarge)

Covington County, MS now claims the national champion Arkasas oak, nominated in 1997.  This is indeed the tree currently listed on the National Registry of Big Trees.  The scare as of 1997 was 253, and is now listed as 276.

There are a few interesting aspects to this.  The first is that while some range maps show Arkansas oak occurring in Mississippi, many others do not.  Of course if Arkansas oak is truly a species in its own right, and if it once had a much wider distribution, and if it now is in decline leaving only remnant pockets across its former range... then it seems completely plausible that some of these shrinking pockets would be in Mississippi.  In fact it seems somewhat implausible that there wouldn't be a few pockets there.

And, of course, this particular tree could have been planted there.  But that assumes either that someone quite a long time ago knowingly gathered acorns from one of those teeny-tiny populations of Arkansas oak and ultimately planted the sapling in Covington Cty MS, or that it happened simply by accident with the person assuming the acorns were of another species.  But if they thought they were planting a more common species, what are the odds that the seeds came from one of those tiny pockets of Arkansas oaks in another state?

To further pile assumptions upon assumptions to form a teetering tower of speculation, all of the above assumes that a) Arkansas oak is indeed a distinct species, and b) that this particular tree is indeed an Arkansas oak.

The friend who sent the photos, and who knows about a jillion times more about oaks than I do, wrote:  "(This tree) Looks just like a water oak but the spoon, paddle, or spatulate shaped leaves are "spoonier".  Ie the bottom of the leaves are more flared. Not in a million years would I have said " golly gee look at that Arkansas oak" if it didn't have a labeled sign in front of it. Looks like a water oak with SLIGHT variation to me."

The last thing I want to do is start a border battle among SEC conference states about trees.  It's not even something to joke about given the recent (alleged) poisoning of the oaks at Toomer's Corner in Auburn by a (indisputably) crazed (alleged) Alabama fan.

To me it just illustrates again the elastic and subjective nature of oak taxonomy.

I'm trying to contact some foresters in Howard County, Arkansas to learn if the tree that held the crown of largest Arkansas oak up until 1997 is still alive, and get its current measurements.  Then what I really want to do is to get twig, leaf and acorn samples from both trees, and from some surrounding water oaks in both locations.  I have a feeling that these two trees will have a lot more in common with their local Q. nigra brethren than they have with each other!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Cannibalistic Quercus Runs Amok In Mississippi Woods: Film at Five

It's hard to say which is cooler - the photographs or the explanation that came with them.  Let's start with the photos (taken by and shown with the permission of and in gratitude to Mr. Jeremy Blake):

(Click to enlarge... please!)

What you're looking at here is one oak - one very large oak - which grew to completely engulf another, smaller oak.  Here's the kicker:  The smaller, engulfed oak is still alive!

That photo gives a great sense of scale and a clearer sense of what happened.  This photo would flat out make Ansel Adams jealous:

(Click to enlarge, print and frame)

But as great as these photos are, even better to an oak geek like me is the explanation that came with them.  The easy way to explain this scene would be to say that a cherrybark oak (Q. pagoda or Q. falcata var. pagodifolia depending on who you trust - and since I don't trust any oak taxonomists I don't call it either) swallowed a white oak (Q. alba).

But that's not how Quercophiles like us would describe it!  Writes Dr. Brad R. Lieb of the photo (and I hope he'll forgive my paraphrasing in places):

"I think (it's a cherrybark); if not just a southern red; the leaves appeared to be kind of small, but it is such a big overgrown, overmature old tree and not a vigorous big leafed youngun so that might be it. I think it's pagodafolia, yes. And "george" being hugged to death, appears to be an alba/michauxii/chinkapin cluster (emphasis mine), hard to tell with all the leaves off. I've just never seen "engulfment" or whatever it's called, to that degree."

I was going to say that Brad "gets it" - with "it" being the elastic continuum nature of oak classification - but I am sure that would be doing him a great disservice.  I am sure that he "got it" long before I ever did.  The more I correspond with oak enthusiasts the more I realize that I'm pretty late to that particular party.  (The key, now that we have all found each other, is to truly turn it into a party!)

I love how he doesn't just blithely classify the big red "engulfer" as either southern red oak or cherrybark oak (to the extent that there is truly a well defined difference between the two); instead he takes into account the age and condition of the tree, and is content with a certain amount of ambiguity.

I love even more his description of the "engulfee" not simply as white oak, but as falling within the white/swamp chestnut/chinkapin cluster - with a mix of Latin and common names that actually clarifies his meaning and belies a deep understanding of what he's trying to communicate.  I love the idea of thinking of oaks as falling within a cluster along a continuum.

But even more than the photo, even more than the deeply insightful description, I've been amusing myself thinking of the best oak geek yellow journalism headlines I would write to describe the carnage!





To answer the obvious question, the answer is yes.  Yes, I do have a D for dork stamped on my forehead.  Then again, if you're reading this, you probably do to!

So what headline would you write?

Friday, February 18, 2011

A good walk unspoiled

Mark Twain famously referred to golf as, "A good walk spoiled."  I couldn't agree more.  I tend to think of a golf course as, "A good forest spoiled."  I haven't played golf in nearly 20 years, a fact for which golf courses everywhere are thankful, but which golf ball manufacturers lament.

To me, nothing is more boring than someone else's old golf stories.  So I won't tell you someone else's old golf stores.  I will tell you a couple of my old golf stories.

My younger brother is a much better player than I was, which isn't surprising seeing as how he's much more talented than me in almost every respect.  We often played at a little par 3 muni course in the Mpls suburb of New Hope where we grew up.  The 7th or 8th is a short hole, just a pitching wedge over a pond and a sand trap to a slightly elevated green.  My brother hit a beautifully lofted shot that landed on the green and just rolled off the back edge.  I completely sculled my shot - instead of a high, arcing shot I sent a screaming line drive heading right for the middle of the pond.  The ball skipped on the surface of the water, still traveling at the speed of sound and heading for the sand trap, where instead of getting buried it hit the far lip of the trap and popped high up into the air.  Still going way too fast it was going to go sailing over the green - until it hit the flag stick and came to a stop 3 feet from the hole.  We both followed the shot with stunned disbelief, then we looked at each other.  I nonchalantly said, "I'll be putting after you take your chip shot."  At which point he - quite correctly - tried to wrap his pitching wedge around my neck.

Another time we coaxed my dad into playing with us while on vacation up north.  As usual I had sliced my tee shot into the woods.  Instead of wisely chipping the ball back onto the fairway I decided to try to thread a 3 iron through a tiny gap between two trees.  I know what you're thinking: if I was the kind of golfer who could make that shot, I wouldn't be in the woods in the first place. Oh ye of little faith!  I absolutely crushed that 3 iron, best one I ever hit.  It rocketed off my club face and headed right for that tiny gap... until it hooked slightly (I still contend it was pushed by a sudden gust of wind which I had not taken into account when doing my precise calculations).  It drilled the tree on the left - an oak of course - with a perfect 'Glock!' sound and went screaming out over the fairway, like a heat seaking missile, headed straight for my dad.  Headed straight for my dad's head, to be exact.  I have never seen the old man move so fast as when dove to the ground to avoid ritual decapitation. 

Having had a great deal of experience in this area of study (I could never hit a fairway but of course I could hit a 3" caliper tree at 200 yards without even trying), I can state unequivocally that golf balls richochet off of oak trees much farther than they do with any other tree species.

The best thing about not being a golfer is that walks can just be walks.  Yesterday I took a long walk over my lunch hour.  It was a foggy, melty day here in Northfield.  A week of thawing has diminished our snow drifts to a mere 5 feet in height, but have been good for the soul; yes, we'll get more snow and brutal weather, but a thaw like this breaks winter's death grip on the mind, and reminds us that no matter what else winter throws at us this year, it will end.  Eventually.  Pitchers and catchers are reporting to spring training, and tree planting season is coming soon.

I'm lucky to live in a place where - despite the absence (or, sadly, maybe because of the absence) of a city forester - many oaks were planted as boulevard trees to replace the elms lost in the late 1970s.  The presence of oaks in such variety gives my mind just enough to chew on and ponder while I wander... How come some of the swamp whites have persistent leaves, and others don't?  And what does Oaks of North America have to say on the subject? (Answer: Nothing - doesn't mention persistence under swamp white oak.)... Do I still think that favorite tree down the block is a Q. rubra x palustris hybrid?  (Yes, I do.)... What would the massive northern red oak on St. Olaf Ave have looked like in its prime, before losing a big chunk of its crown to lightening?  What is its diameter - 46 inches at least?  (Note to self for the 50th time - bring a dbh tape on your next walk.)

Pondering oaks is a whole lot more relaxing and enjoyable than pelting them with golf balls, and a much better way to spend a walk.  Which reminds me of the time I hit an errant 7 iron into the swimming pool & patio area of a nursering home...

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Yes, I can write about something other than oaks...

... as long as it's still about a member of the Fagacaea family, my admiration for those who grow them, and my hope to help in any way I can.

Welcome Little One

Welcome to the world DGP5.  I hope the acorn doesn't fall far from the tree.

May you grow as strong, tall and fast as the oaks your papa grows,
and may you live in a world that values them as much as he does.

Other than that, may you inherit your mother's looks and brains!

To Kill An Oak Tree

The historic trees of Auburn University's Toomer's Corner have been murdered, probably by a pathetic, misguided football fan.  Read it and weep for the stupidity in our culture.

Then read this to know that sanity still prevails in many quarters, among the quiet majority.  Even among 'Bama fans.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

When (Balano)Cultures Collide

Great story, wrong tree.

I have been meaning to write this post for months.  The person who introduced me to the story and who knew I planned to write about it was probably starting to wonder if I'd ever get around to it.  (Now that I finally have he can skip straight from anticipation to disappointment with the result.)

For background material I am working primarily from a Wiki page, which is always a bit iffy, but is even more so in the case because the entry on this topic is written with the tortured syntax and creative comma use of a 6th grade book report (actually that's an insult to 6th grade book reporters everywhere, including in my house)... so my apologies for any inaccuracies.  But here goes...

In about 1798-1800 a boy named Sem-Yeto was born into the Suisunes tribe, near Suisun Bay, California.  He would grow into a giant of a man - 6'7" tall by all accounts - and would live through times of tectonic changes for his people - and appalling tragedy. 
In 1810, two months after most of the adult males of his tribe were wiped out in a raid by Moraga, ten or twelve year old Sem-Yeto was baptized at the San Francisco Mission and was re-christened Francisco Solano.  We don't know if he was taken as a prisoner in the raid, or if the survivors of the raid brought him to the mission to live.  The raid had demoralized the tribe and many chose to move to the mission in surrender.  However, the surviving members of the tribe didn't move to the mission permanently until a year after Solano's baptism, giving credence to the theory that he had indeed been taken captive in the raid.

In 1823 he moved to present day Sonoma to help build the Mission San Francisco de Solano, the final Spanish mission north of San Francisco.  Many of his fellow Suisunes joined him, a move which brought them closer to their homeland.  By this time Sem-Yeto was known as Chief Solano.  He was not a chief in the true hereditary sense, but he became a leader of his decimated people.

In 1835 General Mariano Guadulupe Vallejo was dispatched to secularize the Sonoma Mission, disperse the mission's properties (mostly to himself), and maintain military control over the area.  Solano became Vallejo's ally in the effort to pacify the tribes of the area; in some cases he led raids in cooperation with the Spanish, but more often his role was that of an emissary between the Spanish and the native people in hopes of maintaining peace.
Born into a time of war and turbulence, having lost dozens of loved ones to a seemingly unbeatable foe, possibly having been taken hostage, and attaining a position of responsibility for the welfare of his people, I can only imagine the crushing weight Sem-Yeto had to carry, and the difficult decisions and trade offs he was forced to make in their interest.

Sem-Yeto faced the tragic no-win decisions faced by so many Native American leaders before and since.  The arrival of these strangers from overseas brought diseases which ravaged indigenous populations, shook their traditional beliefs and shifted the fragile balances of power betweening neighboring tribes.  Their arrival also brought new technologies that offered the promise of an easier life, but the curse of the loss of cultural identity and ancient tradition that formed the basis of their self image. 

One aspect of the Suisunes' cultural identity, of course, was his people's reliance on acorns for nourishment.  Converting indigenous people from an acorn-based diet - a balanoculture - to reliance on farmed grain crops was a means of pacifying them.  People who are forced to live in one place and constantly tend their fields are a whole lot easier to keep an eye on and control than people who roam freely over the land to exploit the seasonal bounty of different habitats.

And so it still is today.

And of course, the arrival of the Spanish brought a new religion, impressive in its pagentry and ritual splendor and no doubt enormously appealing with its promise of eternal life.

A small pox outbreak in 1837 decimated the Indian population north of San Francisco.  Solano, one of the few Native Americans to be vaccinated, survived the epidemic.  He was one of only two Native Americans to be given a land grant by Vallejo - four square leagues.  One source says that as he neared death he sold the land to Vallejo for $1,000.  In the end the land ended up in the possession of Archibald A. Ritchie and J.H. Fine - forever out of indigenous hands.

Last fall I was visiting a reader, friend, and producer of gourmet acorn-fed pork in Solano County and he told me a bit of the story and mentioned that Sem-Yeto had been buried beneath a massive oak tree on the campus of Solano Community College.  I followed his directions and saw this magnificent tree, a valley oak (I think - I'm still learning my California oaks):

(click to enlarge)

Incredible.  Beneath the tree is a plaque:

Here's a closer look:

(Click to enlarge & read)

Oops.  A little more research when I got back home revealed to me that this is not Sem-Yeto's burial site at all, but that of one of his brethren.  There is a different marker somewhere else on campus:

(Click to enlarge)

 This history, however, claims the exact location of Sem-Yeto's grave remains unknown.  I will have to visit again the next time I'm in that area... and like Paul Harvey I'll give you The Rest of the Story.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Holy Toledo!

I just noticed that Oak Watch has two new followers... Woohoo!  Thank you to one and all.  You don't know how much I appreciate you.

Tharp oak update

I found this site which verifies that Tharp oak (a hybrid of Emory oak of the white oak group and chisos/graceful/slender oak of the red oak group) do indeed hybridize naturally where there ranges overlap.

Visalia Oaks

(click to enlarge)

I spent the last three days at the largest ag expo in the world.  I met an unbelievable array of people, from the guy who, with no sense of irony, encouraged - well, berated with the spittle-laced sincerity of the slightly mad - me to uphold and "reclaim" the Constitution* by joining an Egypt-style popular uprising to overthrow President Obama (To which I answered, "Or, another thought is you could wait two years until our next free and fair election and cast your vote - as per the Constitution."  Apparently this heretical thought classified me as a traitor.  Oh well.), to a cool dude who studied botany at Cambridge under a guy who coined the term "hybrid swarm," and endulged my lengthy monologue on how perfectly the term can be applied to oaks.

I'll leave it to you to decide which zealot has the firmer grip on his sanity.

I drove past this field on my way back to the hotel.  I am always heartened when I travel in California and see oaks that were spared in the conversion to ag crops.  I'm looking east, to the Sierra in the distance through the smog. 

* At one point in my "conversation" with the gentleman who wanted me to storm the White House (at least figuratively speaking, via chain emails and letters) he asked me if I have read the Constitution and, without waiting for my reply, he turned his back to me.  I thought perhaps he was going to walk away in mid sentence.  Then I realized that the Constitution was printed on the back of his t-shirt.  He expected me to stand there reading his back.  He stood there so long he clearly thought I was still there reading his back with rapt attention.  That was three hours ago.

I hope he's not still standing there.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Little Oak That Shouldn't

We are told that North American oaks can be divided into two sections: Red/black, whose acorns mature in 2 years, and white oak, whose acorns mature in 1 year. And we are told that never the twain shall meet.

We are also told, in Oaks of North America, that live oaks - evergreen oaks - can have characteristics from both groups, but are grouped with in red/black section.

Nice, clean and tidy, right?  How, then, do we explain Q. x tharpii (Tharp's oak)?

Before I go any farther, I should explain my latest project.  Here's how a real oak geek spends his time: I have been going through Oaks of North America and recording every hybrid oak given and which section the two parent trees come from.  Geez, it sounds even more pathetic when I write it than it seemed when I was actually doing it.

Tharp's oak is Quercus emoryi X Quercus graciliformis - Emory oak crossed with an oak variously known as chisos oak, slender oak or graceful oak - meaning that Q. graciliformis has one common name for every individual in its 2 square block range.

Emory oak:  Deciduous.  White oak.  Acorns mature in one year.

Chisos/slender/graceful oak:  Partly evergreen (I guess that makes it "mostly deciduous").  Does that make it partly live oak?  Acorns mature in two years.

I have always said that there is one oak species with hundreds of varieties (making me the ulimate "lumper"), but lately I have been willing to concede that perhaps the sections of oak might form 4 species whose boundaries are not crossed in the wild.

I am back to the whole one species thing.

Largest Oak In California

... Meantime I need to figure out where this is:

We Now Return To Our Regularly Schedule Blog...

Sorry for the hiatus of the last couple of weeks.  One irony of what I do is that the time of year when I have the most to say is also my craziest, busiest time of year for work.  Blog post ideas have been building up in my wee little brain to the point of overflowing (of course my brain is more like a shot glass than a tankard) so I either need to commit them to pixels or would forget them to make room for others.

So stay tuned.  The usual disjointed, half-considered, contradictory and hypicritical  oak-related tripe you've grown to love will start to flow once again by tonight.

Thanks for your patronage!