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Between the Rows

Between the Rows: The mighty oak

Suddenly, there seem to be many young oak trees growing by the side of Heath roads. They are particularly noticeable at this time of year because they retain their leaves until late in the season and they have turned a burnished shade of red. I do not know for sure which of the 600 species of oak they are, or even which of the 70 species that grow in the United States, but it is possible they are Quercus rubra, or red oaks.

I have been paying more attention to oaks ever since the walk we took through our woodland this spring with Stu Watson of the Audubon Society. He came to give an assessment of our woods and overgrown fields and give us suggestions on how to improve them for logging and for bird habitat.

We were surprised that someone from Audubon was able and willing to give advice about logging, but he explained that thoughtfully cutting down trees can mean better habitat for birds, as well as possible profit for landowners. Removing trees can open up the canopy so that more sun can penetrate, allowing new trees to germinate and grow. Birds need tall trees, but they have an equal need for shrubs and young trees for protection as well as food. Some birds spend most of their life in those lower elevations.

As we walked through the woods with Watson, he identified different trees. I now can recognize striped maple with its large rounded leaves and green striped bark. But I was able to identify the tiny oak seedling all by myself. I was so surprised to see it growing in our woods. There were no other oaks in the neighborhood. It must have been carried and dropped by a squirrel or other creature.

I was very excited to see this oak seedling, less than a foot tall, because when Douglas Tallamy spoke at the Western Mass Master Gardeners Spring Symposium this year, he said that oaks, the king of trees, support over 500 species of native insects and animals. Since we all need to be aware of our local food web, of plants, insects, animals — and us — I have been thinking of the ways I can do my bit. I don’t use herbicides or pesticides, my husband mows the fields after the nesting season and I plant many native flower varieties. Of course, I want trees that will support the largest number of species.

You can buy oak seedlings from tree nurseries. You can also collect acorns and plant your own. However, you will need to identify the type of oak tree the acorn belongs to. Immediate planting should be limited to the white oak species group, including white, bur, chestnut and swamp oak. Acorns from Red oak species must be planted in the second season — the following spring.

I had thought I could just get some acorns from a friend with oak trees, drop them here and there in my woods and wait for Mother Nature to do the rest of the work. Since planting acorns successfully depends on knowing what kind of oak you are dealing with, I think I will just check on my seedling from time to time and send it encouraging thoughts. I will visualize it growing tall and king-like.

Oak trees have been used and enjoyed since ancient times. The oak has been used for construction and is an important timber tree to this day. Some trees in England are so ancient that they have been named. The Major Oak in Sherwood Forest is reputed to be the place where Robin Hood and his merry men met and plotted. The romantic stories surrounding this oak make it a tourist attraction today.

I don’t know that we have any romantic stories, but when I looked up large oaks on the Internet, I found the American Forest website and its database of champion trees of every variety.

American Forests is the oldest national nonprofit conservation organization in the country. Its mission is to protect and restore forests and to help preserve the health of our planet for the benefit of its inhabitants. The organization educates and advocates for trees. In cooperation with others, it has planted more than 40 million trees in the last quarter century. It also has a Big Trees program that invites people to find and nominate a Big Tree for inclusion in its database. It was in that database that I found the only listing for a Champion oak in Massachusetts; it is in Shelburne Falls, It was nominated by Peter Bravman in 2007. It measured 368 inches in circumference, 82 feet tall, and with a spread of 105 feet. I hoped this enormous tree grew on a street corner where we could all marvel and admire it, but it grows in the woods on Flagg Mountain. Storms in the last couple of years split the tree so it is no longer in good health. The land the tree grows on now belongs to New England Forestry and is available for walking and hiking.

I will never see my oak seedling reach even the size of one of its limbs, but other people will sometime in the future and that makes me happy right now.

Readers can leave comments at Pat Leuchtman’s Web site: www.commonweeder.com. Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980.

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