Tuesday, September 20, 2011

New favorite acorn

(Click to enlarge)

This photo does a poor job of showing the striations on the caps, but these are just plain beautiful acorns.  California black oak (Quercus kelloggii). 

As I said in the previous post, one of the visitors centers in Sequoia National Park has a small exhibit noting the importance of acorns in the diet of the indigenous people of the area.  That exhibit contained a gorgeous woven basket I'm not kicking myself for not photographing.  The basket had a repeating brown zig zag pattern.  The interpretive text said that the zig zag pattern represented the outline of the surrounding Sierra foothills.  That could well be true, but looking at these acorn caps one could easily imagine an alternative explanation for the pattern.  The basket itself is essentially an upside down black oak acorn cap.

(Click to enlarge)

Eastern foresters could make about 7 guesses as to the identity of this leaf - and all would be wrong.  More about the underlying text in the photograph later.

When hiking in Kings Canyon we passed a California black oak that must have been nearly 4ft in diameter - no where near the size of the state champ which was more than 7ft dhb as of the 1985 writing of Oaks of North America, but still pretty impressive given the fact that the elevation was well above that which black oak apparently prefers. 

It is supposed to be relatively intolerant of shade, but it seemed to me that its preferred method of regeneration is to germinate near the base of pine and fir trees - although this is probably a function of the fact that jays and squirrels are more likely to cache acorns near trees as a marker.

So how do the acorns taste, you ask?  I'll let you know as soon as I regain feeling in my tongue.  Eye wateringly astringent would be a good description.  However.  I noticed a couple of things about the tannic bitterness of these acorns as compared to the eastern red/black oak acorns I have eaten.  They are very moist, and the oil content seems higher.  I'll have to see if there's any data to back that up.  Also, the bitterness subsides very quickly.  Couple of liters of Mountain Dew and it's gone entirely!  Seriously, they don't coat your mouth with bitterness like other black - and many white - oak acorns do.

My guess is that the tannins in these acorns are highly water soluble and easy/fast to leech out.  If that's true - and I'm sure it is - it's easy to see how indigenous people (and intelligent European interlopers) came to view California black oak acorns, among other species - as the true staff of life.

Monday, September 19, 2011

They Might Be Giants... But they don't fill your stomach*

We spent the weekend camping and hiking among the giant sequoias of Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks.

Show offs.

Oaks could grow that big if they weren’t so busy devoting a huge chunk of their growth energy into other things… like feeding the entire forest and – in the past and in the future – entire human populations.  With sequoias it’s all about me, me, me.  Hey, look at me!  I’m gigantic.  Never mind that I don’t produce enough mast to feed an elderly vole with digestive complaints for a week.  Just stand there and gape in wonder at my hugeness.  Bow down before me!

I’m joking, of course.  I visited Muir Woods near San Francisco many years ago, but this was my first trip to Sequoia NP and NF – a trip which started with pitching a tent in the pitch black darkness of a state forest Friday night, and peaking out the tent after the moon rose to see the ghostly stumps of 15 foot diameter redwoods felled a century ago.

You go there, you know what you’re going to see, you walk the well marked, well paved paths (alongside, it seemed, half the population of Germany) and you still end up standing there in bewildered awe looking up at these giant trees.  In mean, they are really, really big.  You know how big you think they are?  They are bigger than that.  Jeepers and gosh almighty big.

In the 1800’s a cross section of a tree from what is now Grant Grove was sent east to amaze and delight the populace.  It had to be cut into sections for transport.  Once reassembled out east no one believed that the pieces could possibly have come from a single tree, and it was called the “California Hoax.”

One thing I was pleased to see was the emphasis in the interpretive material – signs and brochures – of the fire scars most of these giants brandish, especially the massive General Grant tree.  I hope that these repeated references to the role of fire cause people – at least a few people and at least in some small way – to view these arboreal giants as part of a dynamic, ever-changing environment – an environment that is at once benevolent and violent.  It also positively addresses a major pet peeve I have:  When wildfires are covered in the news they are usually said to have “destroyed” a certain number of acres.  Destroyed?  In natural terms fires take life, but they also give it.  Fire is both destructive and regenerative, and that usually gets overlooked in the media… until someone in the media realizes, “Hey, there are wildflowers and trees growing again in Yellowstone,” and files a report expressing their wonder and surprise at Nature’s resilience.  You mean fire didn’t leave Yellowstone a scorched and blackened dead zone for all eternity?  You don’t say.

Even though I loved every minute spent gawking at the sequoias, it is probably very safe to say – and not surprising to regular readers - that I was the only guy in the parks this weekend more interested in the oaks than the redwoods.

I saw and identified (I think) my first California black and canyon live oaks (more on those in upcoming posts).  And came up with more questions/thoughts about possible hybrids thereof.

And in one of the visitors centers there was a small display (which I should have photographed but didn’t) about the heavy reliance of indigenous people in the area on acorns as a food source, complete with a photograph of a woman grinding acorns into flour and an absolutely gorgeous woven basket used in gathering and hauling acorns.

It struck me:  Here we are, Lilliputian in the land of massive trees, but it was the rugged, often scrubby oaks of the area the provided sustenance to wildlife and humans alike for thousands of years.  Spectacularly enormous trees are great, but they don’t put dinner on the table.  That requires a tree capable of drawing nutrients from the granite and selflessly (not really, since it’s really all about successful reproduction from the point of view of the oaks) converting those nutrients to convenient, tasty little bundles o’ energy.

* Ha!  I wrote the headline after the post for once, so it actually has something to do with the drivel that follows!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Oak gall du jour

Oak gall from a California live oak (Q. agrifolia) in the hills above my house.

I'm going to try my hand at making oak gall ink soon.


This site has some interesting factoids, and some advice that might foil my attempts: It says be sure to use galls that the wasps have not yet left (as evidenced by the exit holes) because the tannin content is higher.  I'll still give it a try.


Oak gall ink was the favored ink of Leonardo and Bach.  Unfornately, "corrosive to cellulose" is probably not a great property for ink to have.  At least not if you are the paper.

High speed oak

Valley oak (Q. lobata).

Hey, at 60 miles per hour that photo isn't too bad! 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Coincidence? I think not.

The great observation on the Las Pilitas Nursery web site that in many cases (so-called) hybrids of blue oak and California white oak (a.k.a. valley oak) are more plentiful than pure examples of either "species" had me curious, so I looked up the ranges of both "species" in Oaks of North America.  Here's what I found.

Range of blue oak (Quercus douglasii)

Range of California white oak (Quercus lobata)

Beside the fact that the latter map was apparently rendered with a felt tip pen on the verge of drying out, the two maps look strikingly similar to me.

Hmmm... more hybrids than pure breds, and the exact same range.  Still sure we're talking about two separate "species" here?

Post has nothing to do with title. Again.

Now why I know why newspaper headlines are written after the articles are done.  That last post was titled "Blue Oak Leaves, slightly crispy."  I meant to chide myself for leaving the leaves in a hot truck for 30 hours before photographing them, rather than pressing them as I should have.  Already leathery in texture, these blue oak leaves feel like potato chips.  But don't taste like them (I know because I tried them).

Once again my thoughts (if they can be considered such) took me in a totally different direction.  Remind me to re-read the title before I click Publish!

Blue Oak Leaves, slightly crispy

(Click to enlarge)

Random leaf samples from the blue oak pictured in the previous post (I could reach these from the road without disturbing the bovines).

While searching for more information on blue oaks and leaf photos with which to compare these, I came across more brilliance from the website of Las Pilitas Nursery.  I can't believe I never noticed this before!

Blue oaks (Quercus douglasii) hybridize with many of the other oaks in California and often you're left guessing which it is. Sometimes Blue Oaks (Quercus douglasii) and Valley Oaks (Quercus lobata) get together and you get more hybrids than 'real' trees. Sometimes Blue Oaks (Q. douglasii) and scrub oaks (Quercus berberidifolia) make a mess of little oaks that leave most of us confused and one or two newbie botanists thinking up new species names.

I would be very happy if a group of botanists by consensus combined almost all the oaks into one species, with the subspecies, forms, varieties and hybrids listed under them. THEN, if you were not sure which one you were looking at you could 'go up the tree' one step.

Amen brother (or sister), amen.  When a particular hillside has more "hybrids" than true "species," that should be a clue that our current system of taxonomy is not up to the task of accurately describing oaks.  Regular Oak Watch readers know I am a proponent of a One Species/Many Varieties approach to oak taxonomy - more of a gradient like the three-sided gradient (sand, clay, silt) used to classify soils.

Obviously, I'm not the first.  Or the smartest. Or the most eloquent.  Or... Well now I'm really depressed.  But the point is even though I'm late to the One Species party, at least I'm there. 

You might be asking:  Why does it matter?  Who cares about the taxonomy and nomenclature surrounding oaks, except for a bunch of acorn heads in their ivory towers?

It matters.  It matters because instead of viewing oaks as separate, static "species" that exist only in the realm of "nature," the One Species concepts sees oaks as ever-changing, ever-evolving possibilities - in the same way that a couple of nondescript, virtually inedible grasses ultimately became maize, the oaks we see today could - and I would argue must - become the corn of tomorrow.

Oaks served mankind as a primary staple food source for millennia.  And served mankind well.  Now corn and its cereal counterparts have allowed us to increase our numbers to the point where woody crops as they currently exist couldn't feed the world without selection and breeding.  But corn and its cereal counterparts' effect on the soil which sustains us and fossil fuel consumption have made it imperative that woody crops take their place as soon as possible.

I harp constantly on the genetic elasticity of the Quercus genus - I mean species! - to illustrate how much genetic potential exists within this one remarkable species.  It took corn about 6,000 to completely control our land and our stomachs.  Oaks could regain their rightful position as the Staff of Life in just a few decades - but only if we stop trying to separate them into different species are start viewing them as One Species within which resides the diversity that will save our soils and our souls.

Blue Oak Sunrise

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Sunrise on CA route 166.

The one of the left is blue oak, Quercus douglasii.  I think the one on the right is coast live oak (Q. agrifolia) but to know for sure I would have had to scale a barbed wire fence into a cattle holding pen.  I wasn't worried about getting hurt or trespassing; I was worried about what I'd step in on the way to a day of sales meetings ;-)

Friday, September 2, 2011

The hybrid that isn't?

In the Southeastern USA live oak (Q. virginiana) hybridizes with three other oaks, at least according to Oaks of North America:  Overcup oak (Q. lyrata), post oak (Q. stellata) and swamp white oak (Q. bicolor). 

In one respect these hybrids are not supposed to happen.  Live oak is considered, by virtue of being evergreen and using the "modern" convention (at least it was modern as of the 1985 printing of my copy of Oaks) of grouping all evergreen oaks together, to be a Red/Black oak (Erythrobalanus).  Its three dance partners listed above, of course, are firmly placed in the White oak group (Leucobalanus).

But these are clearly artificial designations.  All of these oaks have acorns that mature in one year, so it makes sense that, at least in that regard, live oak is more of a white than a red.

Now come with me to the west coast.  Coast live oak (Q. agrifolia) is the dominant (in a bonsai sort of way) tree in my area.  Go a few miles inland and you quickly begin to find California white oak - a.k.a. valley oak (Q. lobata) mixed with coast live oak on the golden hillsides.

Both have acorns that ripen in one year.  It is, to say the least, a very romantic setting.  Morning fog, sunny afternoons, ocean views, wine country.  So of course the local hillsides resound with the pitter patter of roots of little Q. agrifolia x lobata hybrids, right?

Wrong.  I can't find any mention of such a hybrid existing.  And you'd think it wouldn't be hard to notice: An evergreen oak but with the lobed leaves of a valley oak, or a decidious oak with the bristled, cupped leaves of a coast live.  But apparently you don't, or at least no one has.

So yes, the stage is set for Q. x siemsii.  I know it's out there, I just need to find it.

Then again it might not be out there.  Instead of marrying the girl next door, coast live oak apparently goes gallivanting around the interior with California black oak (Q. kelloggii), a clear Erythrobalanus whose acorns mature in two years.  This apparently frequent union results in Q. x ganderi C.B. Wolf or Q. x chasei McMinn, Curly and Moe - depending on where you are and who you talk to.  And their parents said it would never last! 

It's got me wondering about the whole red oak / white oak division and what it means.  My guess: Not much.

Oak Abuse

(Click to enlarge - if you have the stomach for it)


Paging Dr. Shigo.  Paging the spirit of the late father of modern aboriculture Dr. Alex Shigo, you are needed in El Paso de Robles.

Before there aren't any more robles in these pasos. 

(Click to enlarge - photoshop the fence - and enlarge)

Now that's more like it.  What a beaut.  California white oak (Q. lobata).