Alex Palmer's Natural History Notes and Thoughts

Thoughts and reflections on various social and environmental issues, as well as naturalist observations from the great outdoors.

Oak Dork

Ever since moving to the Mid Atlantic (see Figure 1), I have taken on a recent fascination with oak trees.  True oak trees are in the genus Quercus, and are most easily recognized by the presence of acorns when in season.  If a tree has acorns at some point in its life, chances are it is an oak tree.

The Mid Atlantic region of the United States (shown below) has some of the best diversity of oaks in the country.  This is likely due to the fact that the Mid Atlantic has a moderate climate and sandy soils.

Figure 1: The Mid Atlantic region of the United States (dark red shaded area). Image from the Wikimedia Commons.

The moderate climate provides reasonable growing conditions for both northern species of oaks and southern species of oaks.  Oaks typically are early colonizers.  That means they like to grow in areas where trees were recently cleared (Figure 2) or where a wildlife has moved through.  This stands in stark contrast to our mythological view as oaks being trees of mature forests  such as ones envisioned in fairy tales like Robin Hood.

Figure 2: Most oak species actually thrive in recent forest clearings such as the meadow in this photo, or in areas where a wildfire has recently swept through.

Sandy soils and disturbed sites, combined with a moderate climate, allows for some stately oak trees in my parent’s neighborhood in the urbanized town of Norfolk, Virginia.   Perhaps the best representative in my parent’s region is the Southern Live Oak (Q. virginiana).  Typically associated with the deep south (e.g. New Orleans, LA), this remarkable tree reaches its northern range in the Hampton Roads area of Southeast Virginia.  It’s sprawling branches filled with evergreen leaves (hence the name “live” oak since it does not shed its leaves in the fall) provides the perfect summertime shade and adds a touch of lush warmth to parks and neighborhoods (Figure 3).

Figure 3: The sprawling branches of the southern live oak.

Another oak growing near my parent’s house doesn’t really look like much of an oak at first.  The leaves are long and lacy, much like a willow.   The stately posture, however, and the occasional presence of acorns immediately gives it away as the infamous Willow Oak (Q. phellos):

Figure 4: The stately posture of the willow oak is evident in this picture of a residential neighborhood in eastern Maryland.

Sometimes seen growing along roadsides and in parks and yards is the southern red oak (Q. falcata) which looks similar to other red oaks in that the leaves have sharp points (Figure 5), but this oak is usually smaller in size and more “branchy” in posture (Figure 6).

Figure 5: Leaves of the southern red oak.

Figure 6: A mature southern red oak with a showy display of branches hovering over a residential front lawn.

Besides being pleasing to the eye, oaks provide a valuable food source for a wide variety of wildlife.  Familiar animals that oaks are essential for include but are not limited to squirrels, chipmunks, voles, moles, field mice, and even some songbirds.  Oaks are also a part of our natural ecosystem diversity, and they provide important ecological services such as genetic diversity, nutrient cycling, erosion control, and lumber.

So hopefully you, the reader, can understand why spending time in the Mid Atlantic has made me an “oak dork.”

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