Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Birds and Bees of Oaks

As the father of a 17 month old – nearly nine years after we last had a 17 month old! – we have found ourselves in settings with other parents of babies for the first time in a long time. I had forgotten how annoying that can be.

There are many types of parents. There is a type of parent I like to call the “question as oblique boast” parent. You know the type. A group of parents will be discussing the development of their kids and someone will say, “Well, I’m really worried about little Algernon. We used to do these Junior Einstein Pre-Calc Flashcards every day before yoga and violin and he mastered them very quickly. But now he’s really struggling with the differential equations I tape up around the house. Is that normal for an 18 month old?”

Gag me.

Kids develop at their own pace. Our little one is in no rush to speak, but already exhibits what I can only describe as a wry sense of humor. And a left-handed two seam fastball that I refer to as “my retirement plan.”

I have been working on a spreadsheet matching up all of the different oak hybrids covered in Oaks of North America – and I will eventually be adding more. I’m looking for anomalies – white oaks that cross with red oaks, an oak with acorns that mature in one year crossing with a two year acorn oak, etc. Hey, it keeps me off the streets.

The first step in that process is simply wading through the nomenclature… What’s the currently accepted designator for the white oak sub-genus, Leucobalanus or Lepidobalanus? Is the red oak sub-genus still Erythrobalanus or is Lobatae now the accepted term? Where do live oaks – many of which exhibit characteristics of both whites and reds – fit? Are they still lumped with reds? On what basis? And that’s before we get into the changes and disagreements in Latin binomials for several species. So that’s been fun.

Then you get into the issue of what does “acorns mature in one year” or “acorns mature in two years” really mean? I’m learning it’s not as straightforward as you’d suspect, kind of like how so many things depend on what your definition of “is” is. In oak reproduction – as with all reproduction – timing is everything. And the biological mandate to reproduce – or else – causes some kooky behavior that blurs traditional boundaries.

Where am I going with all of this? As usual – and in similar fashion to my driving - two directions, neither of them particularly well defined or thought out. First, I’m testing my contention that oaks are essentially one species with a great deal of intraspecies diversity, as opposed to hundreds of species that routinely hybridize. And that they will always find a way to reproduce, taxonomic distinctions be damned.

Second, I think – no, I know – that within this diversity and reproductive elasticity lays the ability for oaks to sustain and nourish us, while safeguarding our most precious asset, our soil. The distance from the hybrid oak in a Mississippi bottomland to a food source for the world is a whole lot shorter than the distance from a couple of scraggly (and botanically unrelated, as defined by taxonomists) grasses to the soil-killing and people-fattening maize plant they became.

So yes, many subsequent posts will be about the birds and the bees – in some cases literally – of oak reproduction. Sort of like health class for oaks. But unlike my daughter’s middle school health teacher, I don’t require a permission slip from home for you to attend. And also unlike her health class, I hope no one passes out or throws up.

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