Oak Stew

Seems I just can’t abandon the topic of oak trees, red and white, how to differentiate.

This week I will share comments from a wildlife biologist, an arborist and my own brother-in-law, with whom I quite spontaneously broached the subject on the phone Wednesday morning. He, the owner of a large, paradisiacal retirement spread in southern Maine, has successfully planted many white oaks on his property, acquiring a wealth of knowledge along the way. When told I had pilloried my ignorance for a public flogging because I figured to be no less informed than most hunters trying to quickly identify red and white oaks by sight, he was in total agreement. “It’s true,” he said. “I knew very little before I decided to introduce white oaks to my property and studied them.”

The man is now an authority, having planted hundreds of Eastern White, Swamp White and Chestnut oaks on a property that contained only reds when he bought it some four decades ago. A Johnny Appleseed of sorts, he took it upon himself to gather acorns from tall, straight, extraordinary white oaks on the UMass-Dartmouth campus where he taught for many years, the Providence, R.I., private school where he sent his daughters, and several spots along the route from southeast Massachusetts to Maine. One such location, off Route 146 in Rhode Island, held many ancient Chestnut Oaks whose offspring are now doing just fine, thank you, on his Maine farm. As we chatted Wednesday, he said he now has more than 100 white-oak sprouts growing in his cellar, soon to be transplanted into separate cups for future planting.

He learned by trial and error how to successfully grow the seedlings in his woods. He started by concealing the infant oaks among natural seedlings and saplings, which protected them from browsing deer until they reached a height at which he could remove the closest protectors. In the process, he learned a more important trick to combat rodent destruction. Germinated acorns sprout two shoots, one that points to the sky, another a taproot that reaches in the opposite direction. He found that a planted acorn stays remarkably intact long after the sprouts grow, and that the pungent nut attracts rodents that dig it up and eat it in the spring. “They’re quite efficient and troublesome,” he said. “I found that they’d eat those acorns within a week or so of planting, amazing how fast they’d find them and wipe them out.” The problem required creativity. During the indoor transplanting process from a large container holding many sprouts into small individual cups, he now carefully twists the acorn, breaks the tubular taproot and sprout free, pulls it gently through the nut and buries it in the cup. There, the tiny plant continues to grow until planted in the spring. A friend surmised the experiment wouldn’t work. He was wrong. Ten or 12 years later, the small trees started bearing fruit. Wildlife today gravitates to the young white-oak groves. The traffic will undoubtedly increase as the trees mature.

As for the arborist, well, he wrote to inform me that there are only two species of oaks in our woods, red and white. He was responding to my warning that Chestnut Oaks could create confusion when trying to find white oaks because they both had rounded leaves. “The Chestnut Oak is a white oak,” he wrote, “along with the Eastern White Oak, the Swamp White Oak and maybe the Burr Oak, which is, in my opinion, rare here.“White-oak acorns are very different: Eastern has a shallow cup and the acorn is often green, Swamp has a deep, shaggy cup, Burr has a deep, very shaggy cup, and Chestnut has a slender deep acorn and cup. The bark of the two white oaks is similar whitish and furrowed or blocked. The bark of the Burr and Chestnut oaks is rugged thick furrows. Leaves of Swamp and Chestnut oaks are very similar.”

On to our wildlife biologist, an old friend and former state Deer Project Leader I always look forward to hearing from. He wrote to shed light on previous feedback from a reader who said he knew the difference between red and white oaks but found the whites less apt to bear fruit, speculating that this perceived scarcity of acorns could be related to their favored status among foragers. The biologist didn’t disagree that white-oak acorns are favored by animals in the fall but said the observer was ignoring a key factor.

“One important difference between red- and white-oak acorns is when they germinate,” he wrote. “White-oak acorns germinate the fall they drop. Red-oak acorns over-winter and germinate in the spring. So, while white oaks have less tannin and are more palatable, they disappear quickly. Red oaks are valuable to wildlife coming out of winter. In our bear study, in springs following a good red-oak acorn crop, about 25 percent or more of the bears’ diet was acorns after they left their dens. Following a poor acorn year, it was almost 100 percent skunk cabbage. Deer, turkeys and all the other critters also eat those over-wintered red-oak acorns in the spring. Red oaks are by far more common in our New England forests than whites, though in the valley it will vary from wood lot to wood lot.”

So, there you have it: more interesting winter fodder to chew on. God, what did I get myself into, anyway? Actually, give me more, a great cabin-fever antidote. Remember, Native Americans once ground the sweet white-oak nuts into meal and flour for gruel and bread. Now this discussion of red and white oaks is sustaining me through a cold, snowy winter.

Although it may be difficult to believe, spring is near for optimistic spirits. Count me among them. Why dwell on the negative, which then only gets worse? I’d much rather focus on the positive.

Ooooops! Better go. Gotta get in the last round of shoveling before work.

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