WINTER is beginning to crawl back into its cave and the trees are beginning to show their jewels, offerings in lieu of the warm and welcome approach of her majesty…Spring! Leaf and flower buds are swelling! With a squint of the eyes or a broad glance at a wooded city park, one can see the slight subtle hues of rubies glowing from maple flowers on the eve of their burst.
This posting is the third in a series of stories describing that amazing oak tree over on route 250. Here I will focus on the journey taken to an accurate identification of the tree. In a follow-up story, I plan to share some specific history of this unique tree, and the power of sharing stories.
I was stumped. My trusty winter tree finder (by May Watts) very quickly pointed me in the direction of the Red Oak Group. From there I was sent to the trees with “normal shape and size” (not scraggly and contorted). Well, this is where the dead end came. The buds, acorns and leaves were similar to Scarlet and Pin Oak. But, similar ain’t good enough. The tree structure is different from the pin oak, and the acorns don’t have those concentric rings like the scarlet oak. So, I shut that book with frustration. This tree is not in there.
I made what might be a common mistake. In brushing through my other field guides I commonly use the range maps to weed out potentials. Well, I can now say that this is not wise…especially in a city where planting “native” trees from other areas is common. You see, planting trees that are native to North America is becoming more and more popular. The definition of “Native” to reflect a better understanding of local habitats. But, we have been very slow to shift the meaning of the word “Native” toward this more local interpretation. We now find so-called “Native” trees growing in places that are well out of their historic native range. After tossing out most of the 24 species of native red oaks using the “range map method”, I had removed the potential for identifying this tree!
Feedback from you, and a visit to a thorough ID source (no pictures or maps), pointed me in the right direction. A seasoned forester stopped by and snagged a branch from the tree….”it’s a Shumard Oak”, he proclaimed. “Dang!” I proclaimed. Yep, for sure. Looking closer reveals that there are only four native eastern species of Red Oak that have extremely deep lobes that extend nearly to the mid vein of the leaf: Scarlet Oak, Pin Oak, Shumard Oak, and Georgia Oak. The Amazing Tree has leaves with multiple bristles at the end of each lobe and its acorns are consistently over 15mm long. This narrows the possibilities to Scarlet and Shumard Oaks. A closer look at the acorns will distinguish them from here. The Scarlet Oak has concentric rings around the tip of the acorn….the Shumard does not.
The Amazing Tree is indeed a Shumard Oak (Quercus shumardii …pronounced shoo-Mar-dee-eye). I take a frustrating glance back at the range maps…and ponder the location of the tree. Yeah, it was planted! Of course it was! Look at the locality. I should point out, however, that this tree’s naturalized range appears to be expanding. Have a look at the new Sibley tree guide. There is a pocket of wild growing Shumard shown on the range map. It extends down from Northern Virginia down into northern Albemarle County….undoubtedly an expansion that is furthered by the helping hand of human.
A couple of notes about three tree guides:
1) Winter Tree Finder, May Watts. As you read above, my attempt to ID the tree unravelled quickly. This book only covers the most common native tree species of the East. Expect to be stumped in areas with uncommon trees.
2) The Sibley Guide. The beauty of this guide is two-fold. For those learning more about relationships between species, it conveys taxonomic relationships quite well. For us amateur tree-watchers it is beautifully illustrated. The illustrations go to the extent of showing the great variety that is possible on a single tree. The range maps are somewhat useful as they are more current than those in other field guides I’ve seen. Despite these wonderful qualities, the book absolutely nothing for me when trying to identify the Amazing Tree.
3) The monster guide that gave me an Id is “Flora of the Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia, northern Florida, and surrounding areas”. Here’s a link to it if you are brave enough to take the step…the file is over 7mb, so be prepared. Careful, it is 924 pages of pure text and dichotomous keys.