Outdoors Magazine

Quercity—Thoughts on Oaks

Posted on the 20 November 2017 by Hollis
Quercity—Thoughts on OaksCoast live oaks, Quercus agrifolia, in the California Coast Range.Quercity—Thoughts on OaksFree time has been scarce lately, so I’m offering a short post on oaks, inspired by “Querc-y Characters” at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center website.I have a fondness for the Wildflower Center that surfaces at the least provocation, for I once talked plants with Lady Bird! It was 40 years ago, when I was botanist and sole employee of the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database. Jane Sullivan, wife of the governor, invited a small group of botanically-inclined ladies to gather for tea with Mrs. Johnson in Jackson Hole, at the base of the Grand Tetons. Conversation was awkward at first, but Lady Bird had done her homework, and as we introduced ourselves, she responded with what she had heard or read about our work. Soon we were happily discussing plants. Afternoon tea is not my idea of fun in the Tetons—I prefer hiking. But I really enjoyed my time with Lady Bird. She was so gracious and down-to-earth, a wonderful mix.Now to the oaks …Quercity—Thoughts on OaksBur oak leaves, Dugout Gulch Botanical Area in the Black Hills.Quercity—Thoughts on OaksIn Wyoming, we have two oaks, both at the edge of their range here. Bur oak, Quercus macrocarpa, is a tree of the eastern and midwestern US that reaches its westernmost extent in northeastern Wyoming, mainly in the Black Hills. Gambel oak, Quercus gambelli, is common in Colorado and the southwestern US, but in Wyoming it grows only in the Sierra Madre, near Colorado. I was going to add “northernmost extent” but when I checked the NRCS PLANTS Database distribution map, I discovered that Gambel oak has been reported from South Dakota! However, there’s no county recorded, and the Forest Service FEIS treatment doesn't mention South Dakota. This would be a major disjunction, and news to me. But it’s an oak matter for another time.

Quercity—Thoughts on Oaks

Gambel oak; source.

In a way, we’re lucky we have just two oaks in Wyoming. I worked several winters in southeast Arizona, and struggled with the oak situation there. Apparently it’s even worse in Texas … or better, if you're not obligated to come up with identifications. Texas has more oak species than any other state in the US. Amy McCullough has put together an elegant straightforward guide to four of the common ones in Central Texas: Querc-y Characters, illustrated by Samantha N. Peters. Besides being a work of art, it shows clearly the characters and challenges in oak identification.
Quercity—Thoughts on Oaks
If you’re a hardcore oak fan, or looking for a botanical adventure, check out Quercus in the Flora of North America (FNA). There are 90 oak species in North America according to taxonomist Kevin Nixon, who prepared the FNA treatment. The exact number is debatable because oaks hybridize readily. “An astounding number of hybrid combinations have been reported in the literature, and many of these have been given species names, either before or after their hybrid status was known. … Hybridization in most cases results in solitary unusual trees or scattered clusters of intermediate individuals.” Oh dear!!Even if you’re not up for a Querc-y Mega-Challenge, you might find Nixon’s introduction interesting—a revealing glimpse into the tortured world of oak taxonomists.
Quercity—Thoughts on Oaks
“A representative selection of mature sun leaves” is required for oak identification. Shade leaves won’t do. These are leaves of the coast live oak—sun above, shade below.
Quercity—Thoughts on Oaks

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