Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Acorns a growing cash crop on the Greek island of Kea

I have been getting email updates from Red Tractor Farm about their incredible effort to restore acorns to their rightful place in the local economy (an economy, I'm guessing, which has seen better days).

I figured out how to provide links to those updates. 

Here's one:  http://us6.campaign-archive1.com/?u=47137f1c34e4960098f1cf150&id=2bf8fe5b9e&e=90fb9caee5

Here's the other (that I mentioned in a recent post:  http://us6.campaign-archive1.com/?u=47137f1c34e4960098f1cf150&id=d4b5518616&e=90fb9caee5

Sign up to receive these email updates here:  http://www.redtractorfarm.com/acorn.html

Read about their Acorn Initiative here:  http://www.iloveacorns.com/

It is, without question, one of the coolest things going in the world right now... a small but critically important step toward the acorn reclaiming its place in our diets and our lives.

Huffington Post says: I love acorns!

Check this out:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marisa-churchill/i-love-acorns_b_4395356.html

Acorns are going mainstream.  Again.  After only a brief hiatus for a couple thousand years for a brief and failed experiment with grain crops.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Acorn Consumption in Civil War Spain...

... would be a great subject for a master's thesis.  Instead, sadly, it's just the subject of this mediocre blog post.

One of my favorite books is called, Or I'll Dress You in Mourning, by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre.  It tells the story of the rise of Manuel Benitez - El Cordobes - from abject poverty to bull fighting glory (as if there's a long list of men who were born into affluence who decided to make a living facing 1,200 pounds of angry bull in front of thousands of people wearing a sparkly pair of long johns and slippers and armed only with a marshmallow skewer and Linus's blanket).  El Cordobes was born on the eve of the Spanish Civil War, and his father spent time in prison for being part - a somewhat half-hearted part at that - of the resistance.  (Note: this El Cordobes is not to be confused with a later bull fighter calling himself El Cordobes who claimed to be Benitez's illegitimate son - a claim I suspect he shares with a small army of Spaniards.)

James Michener (who my dad always suspected of getting paid by the word) wrote about El Cordobes in his travelogue/doorstop Iberia:

"During this epoch there was a very brave young man who was to give his name to the period, El Cordobes, an illiterate street gamin from a town near Cordoba, who electrified the bullfighting world by the animal vitality he exhibited in the plazas.  Part vaudevillian, part satyr, part inspired improvisator, he sold huge numbers of tickets and charmed huge numbers of people but not me... With a shock of unruly hair, a rock-and-roll manner and a mouthful of unusually handsome teeth, he revitalized bullfighting, but I am not sure that it was any longer an art.  It was something else.  I would have to confess, however, that three times I saw him perform a feat that even now seems impossible.  Eager to make a good impression in classical Sevilla, he came out to cite his bull from a distance four times as great as the ordinary matador would normally choose, and as the bull charged at him, eleven hundred pounds of furious power, El Cordobes whirled in a tight circle, his small protecting muleta furled tightly around him and he in direct line with the bull's charge.  At the last moment he stopped his whirling, dug his feet in and unfurled his muleta, allowing the bull to thunder past a few inches from his chest.  It was exciting, but it wasn't bullfighting; it was vaudeville, and after a few performances I lost my taste for it.  But not even the young man's severest critic could deny him extraordinary courage and the ability to spread his charisma over an entire nation."

I have no idea how I came to own this book - no recollection of how it came into my possession.  I think I stole it from my parents years and years ago (sorry guys).  I have read it four or five times.  I love the story, of love the lyrical way in which it is told, and I love the history.

What does all this have to do with acorns?  A lot.  You could say that acorns, at least in part, made the "Epoch of El Cordobes" - as Michener calls it - possible.  Very simply:  No acorns, no El Cordobes.

The last time I read Or I'll Dress You in Mourning I took a different - and very weird - approach.  I know that Spain is one place where acorn consumption has continued well into "modern" times.  I know that the Spanish Civil War was a period of extreme privation for the people of Spain.  So I thought to myself, "I wonder if acorns are part of the story of El Cordobes?" and I pored over the book searching for acorn references.  I found several.  Here's the first:

"These years would later become known, in the memory of those who suffered and survived them, as los anos del hambre, the years of hunger.  Every facet of man and nature seemed to conspire to produce the terrible, searing hunger that stalked the villages of Andalusia in the years of 1940 and 1941... (The people) turned to other expedients.  On the Plaza de Abasto, the town's covered marketplace, a new commodity soon became a staple item in their diet.  It was grass, wild grass cut during the night along the banks of the Quadalquivir.  It was prepared by being boiled in a big kettle.  To that green and glutinous mass the fortunate added a drop or two of oil or the leg of a stray dog or cat, until the day came when there were no more cats and dogs wandering the streets of Palma del Rio... Nor was grass the only staple furnished by the open spaces of Analusia.  Tangadina, a kind of hard and bitter wild cauliflower usually reserved for mules and horses, and cardo, a sort of thistle, also found their way into the cooking pots of the poor.  Acorns were ground up and used to produce a brew consumed in the place of coffee.  Dried leaves and the shavings of potato peels replaced tobacco."

Yum.  Remind me of this next time I complain about eating a vegetarian meal.  I have to question the historical accuracy of this a bit.  Using acorns to produce a coffee-like brew has a long history, both in Europe and among indigenous North Americans.  But I have a very hard time buying the fact that the starving peasants of civil war era Andalusia ate wild grass, bitter cauliflower and thistle (although granted artichokes are thistles) while at the same time relegating the most nourishing food available to them - acorns - for use only in the coffee pot.  I'm guessing that acorns played a large role in sustaining this starving population through this period.

 Here is the second reference to eating acorns.  According to Juan Horrillo, who shared Benitez's dream of becoming a famous matador, who traveled with the young El Cordobes from town to town begging bullfights (and sometimes stealing clandestine bull fights in the moonlight in the pastures of the local Don) and food alike - and who eventually, when finally given the opportunity to face a real bull in a real bull ring, did what any sane person would do - he ran like hell and was thoroughly humiliated:

"'We learned to live in the field.  We ate acorns and fir nuts, wild asparagus, sorrel and cardo.  In the worst time we ate the grass the bulls ate.  We knew what herbs to crush and spread on our wounds to stop the bleeding if the bulls got us.  In the winter when the bad weather came and we caught cold, we learned to burn eucalyptus leaves and breathe in the smoke to cure ourselves.  It was the season of our adventures.  Manolo Benitez was learning to be a bullfighter and I was his soul.'"

This is a bit more like it, spoken by the man who actually lived through this time:  acorns as a dietary staple and grass as, well, a salad I guess.  Acorns helped fuel Manuel Benitez through the time when he was living in the field and fighting bulls in the moonlight.

Here's the third reference I found:  "Their pursuit of the corrida's mirage took them that summer over half of Spain.  They existed on the fruits of their petty thieving and, when that failed to nourish them, on whatever they could rip from the fields in which they fought (the landowner's prize bulls).  Sometimes for days the only items in their diet were acorns and grass.  They lived in a constant state of fear: of the Guardia Civil, of the ranchers' vaqueros, of the railway police on the freight trains they hopped, of the animals they fought."

In the poignant epilogue to the book three young bullfighting aspirants shiver outside the gates of El Cordobes mansion, hoping for a chance to meet their idol and beg him for a chance in the ring - exactly as he had done a decade or so before.  "Scattered around them were the acorns which, with the grass underneath their feet, had constituted their sole nourishment for three days."  Eventually their hero drives down the lane in his Jaguar and instructs the kids to head to his kitchen and get something to eat.

Eventually, Benitez - with the same intensity he brought to his life or death battles with the bulls - learned how to read, write and do arithmetic... primarily so he could count his growing stacks o' money.

All of these quotes talk about acorns as an emergency food source, sustenance of last resort.  And to some degree, undoubtedly, they have always played that role.  However, I also wonder if the forebears of El Cordobes and his fellow Andalusians who I'm sure made acorns a staple of their diet and cultivation of oaks their primary form of "agriculture" were nearly as vulnerable to the vagaries of other crops and better able to deal with times of drought or upheaval that hindered the production and transport of other foods.

I have to finish with this extended quote from the book.  Nothing to do with acorns, except to say that if acorns give you this type of courage/stupidity I'm not sure how healthy they really are.  Imagine a portable bull ring hastily set up in a tiny town.  Imagine a homeless waif in a rented suit of lights striding to the center of the ring, to the jeers of those who have only known him as a delinquent and a thief.  Imagine that his best friend, the above mentioned Horillo, has already run from the ring in disgrace.  And imagine that by the end of this halcyon summer this young man will be the most famous matador in Spain.  I will let his trusted picador Antonio Columpio tell the story:

"Manolo came strolling back to the barrier, trailing his cape behind him.  He took the two banderillas I gave him and showed them to the public.  Then he took them and broke them in half on the edge of the ring.  Then he broke them in half again.  By the time he had finished, they weren't any bigger than a pencil.  With that big smile of his, he started to sneak along the edge of the ring like a cat to the spot where Almendrita (the overly experienced, enormously horned and very dangerous cow recruited for duty in the absence of a fighting bull) was waiting.  Five or six meters from the horn he stopped.  The crowd gasped when they saw what he was doing.  He turned his back toward the wall and knelt down.  'He's trying to kill himself,' I said.  I slipped behind the burladero closest to him. The animal was so close, I didn't even dare shout to him to stop.  Put in sticks like that, kneeling down, with your back to the wall, sticks no bigger than a pencil, I can tell you there isn't anything much more dangerous you can do in bullfighting.  It takes incredible precision and you have to be dumb with courage to do it.  The slightest error, the slightest twist in his charge, and - op - you've got a horn in your eye or your mouth... Manolo raised his arms with those tiny sticks stuck in his palms.  He stuck out his chest and yelled, 'Vaca, venga!' Almendrita shook her head.  'Vaca, vaca!' he shouted again.  She hesitated. The whoosh she charged.  For one second it looked like she would get him.  I did the only thing I could to help. I flicked the corner of my cape from behind the burladero, trying to get the cow's eye. That sudden flash of color bent he charge just enough. As her horns went by his face, he spun and stuck his sticks right where they belonged.  

'After that, they were ready to tear the ring down.  Everybody was standing up, yelling, applauding, stamping their feet.  Manolo was glowing."

Can you possibly imagine the scene?  Benitez was carried from the ring and through the town on the shoulders of those who had mocked just an hour before, to the door of his sister's home.  The sister to whom he had that morning promised success in the ring, "Or I'll dress you in mourning."

A dream.  Sustained by acorns.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Monday, December 9, 2013

Yours in Quercus,

How cool is this?  I received an email from a tree tube customer last week with the closing:

Yours in Quercus,

Totally awesome.  Tells me I'm doing something right.  Although I have to say it's not the best letter closing I have ever received.  That honor goes to a rather elderly gentleman member of the Pennsylvania Nut Growers Association who signed his letter to me, nearly 25 years ago:

Yours for better nuts,
George Dickum


Hope on the horizon - Red Tractor Farm

Red Tractor Farm in Greece is turning the dream of re-discovering acorns as a food source into a reality.  It gives me great hope for the future.  Read this, watch the video.  Looks like paradise to me!

I received a "mail chimp" email from Red Tractor Farm about their 2013 acorn harvest.  I'll try to figure out how to post it on this site.  To quote:

3000 kilos (6600 lbs) of acorn collected in 5 weeks.

We began whacking green acorn out of the trees in late September. Trees that have been harvested in this manner, in the past, are healthier and heavier with acorns this year. We've learned that the best method for whacking the trees, in order not to damage the next year's crop. is from the trunk outward. Volunteers must be fearless of heights and able to climb trees as well as swing a stick.
That whole "fearless of heights" thing rules me out of the harvest process.  Second rung on the step ladder and my knees start to quake.  I will learn more from them about methods of harvesting acorns that do not reduce the size of the following year's crop.  This is fascinating to me, and critically important.

On an unrelated - and very stupid - note, it's surprising that the Greek economy is in so much trouble.  My family alone buys about 50 tubs of their yogurt every week.

Good bye, Mandiba

The greatest man of our age has left us.

Thank you Nelson Mandela.  For everything.  Never has someone left shoes so large to fill, to a world that so desperately needs them filled. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Slow Growing Oaks #782: 6 inches of growth, but per year or per week?

A friend sent a link to this informational piece on swamp chestnut oak, Quercus michauxii.  Tons of great information about a very cool tree, and further proof that hunters are light years ahead of the landscape nursery industry in terms of planting trees that matter.

Two items in this piece caught my attention:

1) Swamp chestnut oak is allelopathic - it exudes chemicals that inhibit the growth of surrounding vegetation.  In Forestry 101 we are taught that black walnut is the Typhoid Mary of forest trees, exuding the dreaded juglone (good ol' 5-hydroxy-1,4-naphthalenedione or 5-hydroxynaphthoquinone) and killing everything in sight.  I had never heard of an oak being allelopathic, but the author's sources - and they are good ones - were probably this... and this

I have no reason to question this... other than that I always question everything regardless of how much more learned the source is than me.  It struck me that a) swamp chestnut oak is very closely related to (to the point of blurred and overlapping species lines - but you know my thoughts on that) several other oak "species," b) so if swamp chestnut oak is allelopathic other oaks must be as well.

Turns out they are, to varying degrees.  Along with just about every other tree in the forest.  So what have we learned today kids? Shockingly, trees use chemistry to gain a competitive advantage. 

2) Then there's this (and I'm not blaming the author - I'm sure this information came from another highly reputable source):  "Seedlings then grow fairly slowly at less than 6 inches per year."

Since we all know that the poet's conceit of oaks as the emblem of all that is slow but lasting, we therefore know that this must be a typo.

I'm sure what the author of the source of this little nugget meant to say was either a) "Seedlings then grow extremely rapidly at more than 6 inches per week." Or perhaps, b) "Seedlings then grow mind-blowingly fast at 6 squared inches per year."  (Sorry, I don't know how to do a superscript 2 in blogger and I'm not about to learn just to make a point.)

Six inches per week during the height of the growing season?  No problem.  36 inches of growth per year?  Child's play.

Don't believe me?  Watch this.  Brought to you by Dudley Phelps of Mossy Oak's Nativ Nurseries, aka The Wizard of West Point MS.  I told you hunters know more about growing trees than the whole landscape tree industry put together.

Slow growing oaks my heinie.

Monday, October 14, 2013

An acorn filled weekend

My sons definitely out-acorned me this weekend, I'm embarrassed to say.

On Friday night we played Scategories, an activity I enjoy only marginally more than a rousing game of Poke Your Head.  Or a really deep paper cut.  Anyway, one of the topics was Ethnic Foods, and the letter in play was A.  I suffered the brain lock I am prone to whenever an hourglass is transferring its contents with (seemingly) increasing rapidity from top to bottom and as the scrit-scrit of opposing players' pencils on their score sheets reaches a crescendo.  I scored a big fat zero.

My son wrote Acorn.  I immediately awarded him double points.  And stabbed myself with my Bic pen for being such a moron.

The next day we were working on his book report on Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve.  My son has read the book.  I have read the Wikipedia version (Wikipedia = the Cliff Notes of 2013; those beautiful black and yellow books that got me through high school and college).  One of the characters in the book was named Nikola Quercus, but later changed his name to Nikolas Quirke.  Two weird things about this:  First, if you were lucky enough to have the surname Quercus, why would you ever change it?  (Well, apparently in this case you'd change it if you were bent on creating a post-nuclear-apocalyptic new world order in which mobile cities roam the barren countryside devouring each other for food and spare parts.  You'd probably want to play down the "green" aspect of your family name.)  Second - and I'm not kidding - I desperately wanted to name our second son Nicholas Quercus Siems.  I was vetoed... for which Nicholas will no doubt be very grateful.  In the same way our daughter is forever grateful she didn't become Harriet. 

Later on Saturday, Ethan had a soccer match in nearby Templeton.  While I was riveted to the action (lost 2-1 but Ethan got the lone goal and we had a penalty kick that would have tied the game get saved by the goalkeeper.  A 6'2" twelve year old.  Who shaves.  But I'm not insinuating anything.  Or bitter.), Nicholas was busy doing this:

(Click to enlarge)
Gathering a cap full of massive valley oak (Q. lobata) acorns.  I asked what he planned to do with them.  He said, "Pant dem and grow oat tees!"  How cool is that?? Then I asked if we should grind some up and eat them, to which he replied, "No, papa. Dat would be ewey."

So the weekend wasn't perfect.  But it was darn close.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Battle Lost?

While traveling on business in California over the last twenty years, and even more so since I moved to California just over 2 years ago, I have marveled at the way California oaks cling so tenaciously to life, even after losing huge chunks of crown to lightening, wind and decay.

One tree I have been watching for several years might have finally given up the ghost and gotten out of the proverbial canoe.  It's a valley/California white (Quercus lobata) in Shandon, CA.  I took this photo on August 31, 2012:

 (Click to enlarge)

This tree had looked exactly like this for several years.  It had obviously been through the wars; huge branches dropped, roots disturbed by road construction on one side, agriculture (hay field) on the other side.  But every year it leafed out, every year it kept fighting.

I took this one last week:

(Click to enlarge)

It's dropped all its leaves, much too early for autumn.  We're in the midst of a terrible drought in this area, and I'm afraid this oak might be a casualty - along with the vineyard industry and along with good relations between neighbors whose wells tap into the same shrinking aquifer.

I will keep watching this one for signs of life next spring.  Could be that in these dry conditions the leaves became more of an evaporative burden than a photosynthetic benefit, and it just "decided" -no, I'll get rid of the quotation marks and give the trees its cognitive due - it just decided to go dormant for the remainder of this season, conserve what little water remains within its reach, and try again next spring.

I'm hoping.  I'll let you know.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Echoes in stone

I recently visited a vineyard customer west of Paso Robles.  As I walked up to their winery building I just about fainted when I saw a shelf mounted on the outside to display these: 

 (Click to enlarge)

And these:

(Click to enlarge)

… a collection of native American – probably Chumash – mortars and pestles used for grinding acorns.  The vineyard owner told me they had been found on the property by the guy she bought the vineyard from years ago.  Best of all:  I’m welcome on the property to hunt for more mortars! Ahem, ahem... I think I feel a cough coming on that will require me to miss a couple of days of work next week!  I'd give one of my less important limbs to find one of these, in working order.  Especially with acorn drop almost upon us.

I love wine.  I love the vineyard industry. I love art and science of combining soil and sun to produce a liquid with magical, complex properties.  I deeply admire the people who perform this alchemy both in the vineyard and in the winery.  And – if I’m being candid – I love the way sales of grow tubes and bird netting to vineyards puts food on my family’s table.

But these mortars & pestles are a simple reminder of another, much more life sustaining, crop once produced, harvested and processed on this property - and of a different alchemy, that of turning an astringent, tannin filled nut into a delicious meal rich in nutriment (I love that old fashioned word!), an alchemy that required only water, stone and time.  If you listen hard you can still hear the echoes of the thump, thump, grind of pestle striking mortar, turning acorns into meal, turning sunlight and soil into another year’s sustenance for the People.  And the laughter and song of the People as they worked.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Oaks in repose, oaks battling for life

Typical California.  While driving a country road outside of Atascadero, CA to deliver bird netting to a vineyard customer I saw these two beauties just a few hundred yards from each other:

(Click to enlarge)
(Click to enlarge)
California is laid back and mellow.  And California is a hardscrabble battle for survival - to pay the rent, buy food, pay for insurance... to balance the state budget.
I - with the type of personification I mock and ridicule coming from others - see both of these reflected in the oaks I see on the golden California hillsides I drive by every day.  

I see oaks which must have had huge, spreading crowns that were long since lost to lightening or rot still standing, their massive boles sending out one or two pathetic limbs in a desperate attempt to cling to life.  And they do... for decades.

I see oaks on hillsides that just seem as though they just plain got tired, and decided to lie down for a nap.  And never got up.  I see so many of these beautiful, reclining oaks that I'm thinking of doing a coffee table book on the subject, Oaks in Repose.  That will scream to the top of the NYT Best Sellers List I'm telling ya!  Publishers, call me.  We'll do lunch.

Valley/California white oak (Quercus lobata).

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

What do you see?

(Click to enlarge)
Death or life?  Destruction or regeneration?  All of the above?
This hillside along CA-101 north of San Luis Obispo burned recently.  I don't know the story of how it started (thrown cigarette, lightening strike, playing with matches, etc.) and I don't know how it stopped.

I do know that fire, both fires started by lightening and by people, were instrumental in the regeneration, health and productivity of oaks in California.  Indigenous people would burn the grass and brush around certain oaks to increase their production of acorns - and to make it far easier and faster to harvest those acorns.  And I know that fire suppression is one of the causes of the recent lack of oak regeneration in many regions of California.

As Aldo Leopold pointed out, oaks and grass are mortal enemies.  Grass out competes oaks for soil water and nutrients.  Oaks' resistance to fire gives them a respite from grass competition and gives them the foothold they need to get started.  Once they get going they can deploy their greatest weapon in the war against grass competition:  shade.  Their roots can draw sustenance from a geometrically increasing radius.

I write this as the Rim Fire rages in and around Yosemite, now thankfully 70% contained.  I always have mixed emotions when watching, reading or listening to coverage of wildland fires in the media.  I used to go apoplectic because it was common for reporters to cite the number of acres "destroyed."  Acres are a unit of measure, and cannot be destroyed.  An acre of land cannot be destroyed by fire.  Vegetation is destroyed, but only temporarily.  I think the sea change in media coverage and terminology regarding fires came after the Yellowstone fires when the country at large witnessed how rapidly these "destroyed" acres spring back with abundant life.  The word these days is "scorched" - as in 156,000 acres have been scorched by the fire.  That's progress I think.  Scorched is a temporary condition.  Scorched heals.

But the issue of fire is complex.  Fires today are worse than ever, mostly because the longer we suppress them the worse they are when they finally - and inevitably - occur.  But who of us would let fires rage through mountain communities, and who would risk controlled burns (oxymoron?) near dwellings, schools and towns?  And who of us isn't touched to our soul by the loss of the heroes that battle these blazes in an effort to protect life and home?

The west is a tinderbox right now, in the middle of the worst and most expensive fire season in history.  I find myself dividing in my own mind "good" fires - those started by lightening - from "bad" fires - those started by human stupidity - or worse.  We live in a landscape that was formed and managed to a degree we have only just begun to understand by millenia of human started fires; to me those are "good" fires by virtue of the fact that the intent was regeneration. But I am equally sure that not all indigenous use of fire was benign.

Smoky Bear (contrary to popular usage, there is no intervening "the") was created to protect commercially valuable timber from wanton carelessness and stupidity.  But Smoky also gave people the impression that all fire is bad and destructive.

Like all natural resource issues, the truth is a lot more complicated, and a lot more gray.

But unlike I'm sure the majority of motorists whizzing by this scorched hillside, I see life and regeneration.  I see more oaks given a chance, a foothold, a start.

And that is good.

Almost 25,000 page views

I just noticed that Oak Watch is approaching a major milestone:  25,000 page views... a fact that fills me with wonder and to which I can only say... Get a life, people!

Seriously, thanks for visiting, thanks for reading, and thanks for contributing.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

"Slow growing" oaks #863

I'm going to go all Jackie Gleason on the next person I hear say that oaks are slow growing.  Take a look at this.  Keep in mind this is from a discussion board & web site dedicated to deer hunting and creating deer habitat, and you have guys waxing rhapsodic about the growth rate of their oaks (more about Concordia oaks coming soon) and talking about cutting scion wood for grafting.  I love it!!

So to beat my two favorite dead horses yet again...

1) Oaks are capable of astounding, jaw-dropping growth.  Why does this matter?  Because people need to view oaks as food - not just for deer but for healthy-meat-producing livestock and for people.  They won't do that as long as they labor under the popular poetic misconception of oaks symbolizing slow-growing longevity.

2) Our hunting quarry eat better - and smarter - than we do.  We plant oaks to feed our prey, and corn to feed ourselves.  Doh.

(Thanks again Walter!)

Friday, August 9, 2013

Apropos nothing...

I just saw a truck completely covered in a camouflage pattern with a huge dent in the side.

Guess it works.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Burl Burglar Bagged... Story at 10

My last post showing a huge burl on a huge Atascadero, CA valley oak prompted Oak Watch reader Walter to send this Boston Globe link* to a story about a series of burl thefts from Boston area parks.

Norm Helie is a plant and soil scientist hired by the Friends of the Fenway Victory Gardens to keep the garden healthy.  He heard the sound of a chainsaw coming from the woods, went to check it out, and saw two dudes standing over an amputated red oak burl - and probably looking more than a bit guilty.  He walked away so as to not become the main character in a really bad and stupid horror movie, and called 911.

Here's a tip for all you wannabe burl thieves out there:  When stealing valuable oak burls be sure to do so in broad daylight, and be sure to be seen hauling the burls (and your chainsaw of course) off to your apartment immediately across the street.  This saves a lot of time and trouble for the police in locating and questioning you.  It is a courtesy they really appreciate.

Under what I am sure was intense questioning burl burglar Michael Scanlon admitted to taking the burls (the ones he was seen by God and everyone taking) but said the others were dropped off at his apartment by a friend.  A friend whose name escaped him at the moment.  Right.

I was of course shocked to learn that the dude who was with Scanlon at the time was arrested on unrelated drug possession charges.  

The story reminds me a bit of a story I heard about 18 years ago of a gang of black walnut tree thieves in Indiana.  The group stole dozens of veneer grade black walnut trees, some valued at more than $10,000.  They always left behind a pile of empty Budweiser cans.  They were caught returning to the scene of a crime to collect the cans for recycling.

OK, I made that last part up.  But the story of the Budweiser Gang is very true.  They were eventually caught, but I can't remember (and even worse can't Google) how.  I'm sure they did something equally dumb.

Only to have another idiot do the same thing.

* This Boston Globe story is worth much less than it was a few days ago.  The newspaper itself sold for $1.1 billion not that many years ago.  The paper plus a number of other affiliated companies/publications was purchased by Jeff Amazon.com Bezos yesterday for a paltry $70 million (which he probably found loose in the pocket of his spare jeans).  He's mostly buying it for the purpose of data mining online Boston Globe readers.  Sign o' the times.  Said the blogger.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Now THAT'S what I call a burl

California white (aka valley) oak (Quercus lobata), at the entrance to a vineyard near Atascadero, CA.  A giant tree, with a serious burl.

(Click to enlarge)

No, the tree is not growing horizontally (although many oaks in California do seem to).  I took the photo on my phone in portrait format, pivoted it before saving the file to my computer, but &^%#$@*&^@ blogger only wants to display it horizontally.  Doh.

No matter how you view it, it's pretty dang cool.  Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The FAST GROWING giant oaks of the Congaree

Thanks once again to Walter for this great link to a Native Plant Society field trip report on the giant trees of Congaree National Park in South Carolina.

The only problem with these cool links is that they keep adding new places to my list of places I must visit before I croak.  Sadly, the the length of the list of places I need to visit keeps growing, while the number of years before I get out of the proverbial canoe continues to diminish.  Oh well, c'est la vie (or, for the glass-half-empty types out there, c'est la mort).

Pulling a quote from the linked page:

The second tallest tree is of all things an oak! The incomparable cherrybark
oak (Quercus pagoda) is one of the fastest growing, widest and tallest trees
in the east. Jess and Ed confirmed one to 160.2' tall, making it the 6th
hardwood species to join the "160 Club", joining tuliptree, sycamore, pignut
hickory, black locust, and white ash. If 160' tall wasn't enough, we found
one that measured 154' across! Folks, these trees are immense! I am baffled
by the sheer strength of the wood to hold a canopy so high and so wide
through so many hurricanes.

Utterly massive.  160ft tall with a 154ft crown spread.  Wow.  That monster shades nearly 1/2 acre (actually it's probably more than that, depending on the time of day, angle of incidence, and ... but I'm not smart enough to do that math, just a big enough tree geek to think of it).

And I know regular readers will have caught the money phrase (at least as far as I'm concerned):  cherrybark oak is one of the fastest growing trees in the east.

The widespread - and utterly erroneous - preconception of oaks as the quintessence of slow growth has kept people from planting them in the numbers that they should and must.  It's a preconception we must fight.

As a guy who grew up among the relative pygmy oaks of Minnesota and who now lives among the true pygmy oaks of the California central coast (the former due to a 12 day growing season, the latter due to coastal fog combined with sand dune soil), I would love to stand in the shade and glory of 160ft tall oaks.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

I'm such a lucky guy...

... because I get PAID to talk to awesomely cool people like a founder of the San Diego Sustainable Living Institute.

Keep your eyes on these folks.  They will be doing - and growing - some incredible things in the years ahead.

The Giants of Bialowieza Forest

Wow, the number of Oak Watch followers continues to grow despite my paltry output of late... thank you!  Or, perhaps, the number of Oak Watch followers continues to grow because of my paltry output of late.  Maybe if I stop writing altogether this will become the most read blog in the world!

Huge thank you to reader Walter for emailing a list of fascinating links.  I will pass them along to you one or two at a time. 

Travel to Poland, to be honest, has never been on my bucket list... until now.  Click here to visit the amazing Bialowieza Forest.  Incredible.

The oaks of Bialowieza - and we're talking about pedunculate/English/common oaks (Quercus robur) - are truly massive.  Quoting from the web site: 

In order to emphasize uniqueness of such trees the term CLASSICAL BIALOWIEZA OAK has been introduced. To bear this proud name an oak must meet the following criteria: the trunk's perimeter of such tree at the height of 130cm should be at least 550cm, the height of trunk up to the first branch should be at least 15 meters, the total trunk's height should exceed 25 meters and the tree's height should be at least 36 meters. While in the Forest there are thousands of oaks with monumental sizes, only 10-20 meet these criteria. I think that nowhere in Poland or even Europe there are such oaks like here, in the Bialowieza Forest. 

 For those of you keeping score at home 550cm in perimeter measured 130cm from the ground equates to about 5ft 8in in d.b.h. (diameter at breast height).  Holy cats.

So take a break this afternoon or evening and travel to Bialowieza Forest, at least via pixels.  The druid's Sistine Chapel.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

How to kill an oak tree #973: Killing me slowly with backfill

God, this is disheartening.  Stopped for gas in Paso Robles, CA on Friday afternoon (Paso Robles = Oak Tree Pass in English - the most recent and perhaps most ill-fitting language of the area) and I saw this:

(Click to enlarge)
This tree is dying. It is a massive California white oak/valley oak (Q. lobata) with a crown spread of about 80 feet or so.

And therein lies the problem.  A crown spread of 80 feet equals a root system spread of more than 80 feet.  But when the gas station was built the grade was raised around the tree, save for a 10 foot diameter dish right around the trunk that was left at the original grade.

The grade wasn't raised by much - 6 inches in most places, maybe 12 to 18 inches farther away from the tree.  But that's enough, especially if (as I suspect) construction equipment compacted the soil in the drip line root zone.  Roots that were inches below the surface poised to swallow precious moisture from the rare Paso Robles cloudbursts and which had plenty of pores of air space in which to breath, are now several times farther from the hard packed surface, with no air space to breath and no water to drink.

The sad parts are:

1. Someone actually made an effort to help the tree by leaving a dish at original grade.  They just didn't know (I prefer that to thinking they knew and just didn't care) that the most valuable roots are way out below the drip line or beyond.  They didn't know that even a minor change in grade, especially when combined with soil compaction, can suffocate the fine feeder roots that are the lifeblood of any tree, no matter how huge.  The knowledge gap on construction sites is still, after all these years, immense.

2. The tree is dying so slowly - this gas station was built several years ago - that by the time it dies no one will connect its death to the damage that was done during construction.  Instead its death will be blamed on old age (Ha! This tree would live another 150 years left to its own devices) or on the insect and/or disease pests that aren't the primary cause of death but are only the secondary and opportunistic beneficiaries of the tree's stress and struggles.

The third and saddest part?

 (Click to enlarge)

3.  There's another tree right next door behind a car dealership that is dying in exactly the same slow way.


Obey the drip line people.  And if you're not going to - or can't - obey the drip line, then do the tree the honor of harvesting it and putting it to use, rather than leaving it to die a slow, drawn-out death that will leave its wood rotten and its spirit ruined.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Slow growing oaks #463

I spend much of my time selling tree tubes to commercial pistachio, almond and pecan growers, helping them shave a precious year or two off the time from planting to first commercial crop, while reducing the inputs of water, labor and chemicals needed to reach that point.  When planting a new pistachio orchard in the San Joaquin Valley, under drip irrigation, fertilization and with a kajillion degrees days (OK, that figure is approximate) per growing season, getting a commercial crop in the 5th growing season is considered very good.

Acorns, on the other hand, could never be a commercial crop because oak trees are so "slow growing" and because they take at least 15 to 20 years to produce a crop of acorns... right?

Wrong.  Take a look:

 (Click to enlarge)

This is a sawtooth oak tree (Quercus acutissima).  It was planted in Georgia in the spring of 2008 as an 18 inch bare root seedling.  It is now about 30 feet tall (I'll post a photo of the whole tree soon).  Sorry the foreground is a bit blurry - turns out I don't do my best photographic work with chiggers digging into my skin.

The red circles in the photo mark the locations of acorns.  Yes, acorns.  This is the 6th growing season for this tree and it is going to have a very sizable crop of acorns.

This is not a specially selected sawtooth variety - just a standard "bed run" bare root seedling.  It wasn't watered.  It wasn't fertilized.  Weed control has been sporadic at best.

With even the slightest modicum of genetic selection and 1/1,000,000th the amount of plant breeding that has gone into corn, and with only slightly more intense growing practices, I guarantee we could have oak trees producing a sizable crop of acorns in the 4th growing season, if not sooner.

Tell me this shouldn't be the basis for a viable "new" (and yet very, very old) crop.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

But I was always told that oaks are slow growing trees... right?

A major reason people don't plant more oaks is the widespread - yet mind blowingly stupid - notion that oaks are slow growing.  Slow growing?  Cripes, I have customers texting me nearly daily photographs tracking growth. 

A customer in the panhandle of Florida planted 18" tall sawtooth oak seedlings in March. On May 7 he texted this photo with the caption "It will be out (the top of the tube) tomorrow."  That's a 4ft tree tube.   That means the tree had already grown 30 inches in about 60 days - 1/2 inch per day - despite being newly planted (so much for "transplant shock") and despite March and April being much cooler and cloudier than usual for the area.

(Click to enlarge)

The next day, May 8, he texted me another photo with the succinct caption: "It did."

(Click to enlarge)
Two days later - 2 flippin' days later - on May 10 he sent me this one:

 (Click to enlarge)

Five days later he sent this one:

(Click to enlarge)
For those of you keeping score at home, on May 7 the tree was tickling the top of a 48 inch tall tree tube.  On May 15 is was 56 inches tall, growing at a rate of 1 inch per day... and the growing season has barely begun.

Corn is jealous of growth like that.   And no, my customer did not trade the family cow for a bag of magic acorns.  Somewhere in the panhandle of Florida a dude is sitting on a lawn chair with a cold beer watching an oak tree grow.

My point:  Plant oaks.  They grow way, way faster than you think, especially when you give them the protection and care they need/deserve.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Unproductive productivity

Last spring I was speaking with a customer for tree tubes, a guy I have known for years.  I hadn't spoken to him since we moved from Minnesota to California.  He asked where in California and I said the Central Coast, near San Luis Obispo.

"Oh yeah," he said, "I've been there many times."

"Really?" says I.

"Yes," he said, "every time I hired a new sales manager to cover that territory I had to fly out there two years later and fire him because he'd start spending all of his time hiking, surfing and fishing.  It's just too beautiful there to get any work done."

I can easily see how that could happen.  However, sadly - or perhaps happily - I have the opposite problem.  Since we moved here I have never been so busy, nor have I ever worked so many hours.  Customers won't let me slack off.  That and having three kids to get through college tends to be all the incentive I need to keep my (extremely large) nose to the ol' grindstone.  Surfing?  Cripes, as you have seen I don't even have time for blogging - an activity I enjoy more and which carries a 97.3% reduced risk of getting attacked by sharks.

No, any reduction in overall productivity I have at this time of year is due primarily to this:

(Click to enlarge)
And this:
(Click to enlarge)
And, finally, this:
(Click to enlarge)
Coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) flowers, taken last week at a park in San Luis Obispo. To paraphrase my words at the time, "Ha-ha-ha...CHOOO!"  Yes, I am deathly allergic to oak pollen.  Ironic, no?

I tracked this small grove of oaks from flowering through acorn harvest last year.  I took this photo about this time last year (obviously a little later since the flowers were browning by then):

These small coast live oaks had what I'd call a moderate acorn crop last year.  In autumn every time we visited the park my then 2 year old son would want to pick some acorns and taste them... and then spit them out in disgust while shouting "Ewwwwy!"  It became a sort of ritual.

This year's blossom seems much more dense and verdant.  It will be cool to see how that translates into an acorn crop.  And it gives me about 5 months to teach my son how yummy acorns can be!

Meanwhile, as long as the oaks are blooming and my allergies are raging every burst of productivity from me takes seemingly three times the effort.

Stupid trees.