Oaks Revisited

Wow! Quite a reaction to last week’s piece about my difficulties identifying by sight the different oaks in our forest.

Criticism, advice and gracious hands-on offers to teach me proper recognition of red, white and chestnut oaks came my way in rapid fashion. The feedback came from hunters and gatherers, hikers and foresters, ladies and men. Clearly, it’s high time I put this confusion behind me. Oh my, look what I got myself into by pillorying my ignorance on the public square.

Oh well, like the old trapper at Punkin’ Hollow used to say: “There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” a lesson I learned long ago and have learned to lived by. And the fact is that I already know more than I did a week ago about oak trees, and I never left my toasty study, flames dancing upward like snakes’ tongues in the Rumford fireplace. Ah, praise the Internet, despite the winter layer of fat this type of surfing can build. But, hey, don’t animals need fat to survive winter? Why should we, animals too, be any different?

But wait. Enough self-deprecation. It’s not like I’m totally clueless about the trees in our forest. Actually, I’m not bad at picking out the basic species as I traipse through the woods, trees like oak, beech, ash, maple, hickory, cherry, walnut, butternut, apple and hemlock. There are many other trees, bushes and plants I recognize, but I am by no means a botanist or dendrologist. In fact, I have never taken a course focused on the study of trees and plants. Or, maybe I did and have forgotten. I hated science; too much memorization. But who says you need a formal classroom to learn anything? Myself, I’ve just poked around over the years and picked things up in my travels, including information about trees and plants related to my favorite woodland pursuits. So I guess you could say I know enough to get by, and have done just that for decades, making exciting new discoveries along the way; likely many more before I check out.

I guess I’m no different than most hunters and woodsmen who patrol the forest for work or play. Remember, it was just such a man, a hunter and cordwood merchant no less, who taught me to misidentify white oaks by their bark’s deep grooves and prominent ridges. That was a bogus identification key, one I bared for all to see last week. Several readers were quick to point out the error, scolding that the deeply grooved bark, dark in color, belongs to red (and chestnut) oaks, not whites, which display smoother, scalier bark, whitish-gray in color. Thanks. I needed that. Forever enlightened. On to nature’s next riddle.

My mistaken bark-identification key was “learned” in the past five years, and I accepted it without delving deeper because I trusted the teacher. Prior to that woodland “lesson,” the white-oak identifier I most often used when inspecting a pawed-up feeding area was round, stubby acorns, which I have even tasted for sweetness to confirm my amateur assessment. I have also sampled red-oak acorns, their tannins producing a bitter taste that I suppose you could ignore if really hungry. A Heath forester I respect wrote to confirm that white acorns do indeed tend to be stubbier than reds, especially at the cap. Of course, Internet photos and “Peterson’s Guide to Trees” then cast doubt by showing some elongated white-oak nuts as well.

So it appears that the safest way to identify white oaks is by their leaves. Red-oak leaves are long and pointy; whites are similarly structured but rounded. Then arises another problem, that of chestnut oaks, which have rounded leaves similar to their white cousins. The difference between those two oak species lies in the bark. Judging from Internet photos I viewed, the chestnut oak’s bark has more prominent ridges and deeper grooves than the red. So, if the grooves are very deep, the leaves rounded, the ridges like the widest of all corduroys, you’re dealing with chestnut oaks, said to produce acorns favored by deer over those of red oaks.


Off to a couple of interesting observations that appeared among the many responses to my white/red oak dilemma. One, from a South Deerfield chum who spends a lot of time poking around in the woods, said he knew a white oak by sight and has discovered they’re less likely to bear acorns
for some reason; either that, he speculated, or foraging critters snap them up as soon as they hit the ground, maybe even before. Another more comical remark came from a woman who hunts salubrious wild foods and has been searching for white-oak acorns near her hill-town home. She said that, although she has thus far been unable to find white oaks near her property, she did find a beautiful, mature white oak at Arms Cemetery in Shelburne Falls, a prolific acorn producer, at that.

“But I’m not eating those acorns,” she wrote, for obvious reasons.

Well, chubby, gray, burial-ground squirrels are not so fussy and reap the benefits.

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