Sunday, February 28, 2016

A Good Book And Some Humble (Oak) Pie

It's such a rookie mistake!  I knew there were several species of evergreen oaks down here.

But let me start again.... 

A while back, I discovered a promising book on, Finding Home in the Sandy Lands of the South: A Naturalist's Journey in Florida, by Francis E. "Jack" Putz.  Despite having absolutely no extra room for books in the house, I convinced myself that I truly needed this addition to my library. After all, we were talking about an author from the north (who was a naturalist!), living in the same general ecosystem we've just moved to, writing about what he's discovered about the plants and animals of the area since he moved here.  Of course I bought it.

Then, equally "logically", Sandy Lands stayed on my bedside bookshelf "maturing" for a while until the time seemed right to read it.  That time came a few days ago, as the weather and my schedule started to coalesce, making gardening seem more possible after our move.

As I delved into the book, I enjoyed Dr. Putz's tales of botanical and other adventures immensely, reading some of them aloud to Greg so that he could share them too.  Both of us decided that we would love to live in an environmentally focused, land trust based, community neighborhood like Flamingo Hammock, the spot near Gainesville that Dr. Putz has called home for many years now.  I know many of the species that were mentioned in his vignettes, so I could accurately picture them as I read, but I learned all sorts of additional, interesting bits and pieces, creating a much fuller understanding of our new habitat.

If you live in the southeastern coastal plain region, this is an enjoyable and informative read - I highly recommend it.  Actually, it's an enjoyable and informative read even if you don't live in this region!

Getting back on topic, I highly recommend this book, in fact, despite the fact that it has made me feel like a total dunce about my basic plant identification skills.  

The problem started when I read the chapter on "Liberating Live Oaks".  Our neighborhood is lucky in having many, many live oak (Quercus virginiana) and sand live oak (Q. geminata) trees, draped with Spanish moss, defining the landscape.  The original developer's daughter apparently loved the trees and convinced her father to save as many as he possibly could when he was building the homes.  Truthfully, the live oak trees were what drew our daughter to the neighborhood, when she moved to Ft. Walton Beach almost 5 years ago.  (She and our grandson were what drew us to the neighborhood...but the live oaks certainly helped clinch the deal.)

Putz, however, was talking about the decline of these beautiful old live oaks due to the encroachment of other hardwood trees, and he listed several species of particular concern that tend to grow fast and tall, overtopping established live oaks and causing their decline.  The problematic trees he mentioned specifically were laurel oak (Q. hemisphaerica), water oak (Q. nigra), and sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua).

Suddenly I remembered an earlier essay where he had mentioned that laurel oaks and live oaks could be difficult to tell apart, with similarly sized and shaped leaves.  And he was constantly, constantly talking about having to cut out laurel oaks that freely seeded and grew - fast - to crowd out all sorts of other plants.

Oh, no!  I had thought that the reason the live oaks in our back yard - left, center and right - were dying was because of the construction of the seawall back there, 8 years ago...but what if they weren't actually live oaks at all? With fear and trembling in my heart - but really knowing the answer already - I went outside and looked specifically at the back sides of the leaves of my trees:  shiny and bright green, not dull and whitish from tiny hairs.  Horrors!  Not only were all the "live oak" trees in the back yard actually laurel oaks, but even the big "live oak" in the front yard was a laurel oak!  No wonder they were all beginning to decline.

To add insult to injury, I've been flagging seedling oak trees in the yard, thinking to save a few of the best placed ones but, when I looked, all of the seedlings - every single one - was a laurel oak as well.

I guess the best lesson to take away from this humbling experience is to keep learning and to keep questioning my own assumptions.  I am truly glad that I realized my mistake now, and not 5 years from now, when the young laurel oak seedlings were well established and hard to pull out.  Now I need to decide whether to find tiny live oak seedlings to transplant from neighbors' yards, keeping the local ecotype going, or whether to buy commercially grown young trees for planting.  I want to use live oaks for their longevity and wind resistance, even though we'll be long gone before they mature.

One thing's for sure:  I'm glad I read Jack Putz's book and I'm glad I questioned my original identification.  I'd much rather know the truth than believe in a comfortable lie.  In the long run, as my son says, "It's all good."


Cam @ArcadiaTrails said...

YES! When we bought and moved into our property, I thought it was covered with live oaks. During our first year here, I wondered why they looked so ratty and not grand, like the live oaks on our previous property. I did some research and read the same thing about laurel oaks, made the same "fear and trembling" walk outside to check the leaves, and the same disheartening discovery. Almost all of our evergreen oak trees (we have dozens of them) were laurel oaks, and most of them are ratty-looking and dying (some have already died during the 7 years we've been here...we cut the top of the tree down and leave a 6-foot stag if possible. I made one into a bird bath base and put a feeder next to it, and it's a favorite bird spot in the yard). There were only three live oaks. I've done the same thing with all the laurel oak seedlings I find (so long as they're in good spots)- made sure to mulch around them to protect them from harm so they can grow up. I decided our property is big enough that I may as well let these "free" trees grow, since they grow quickly. Even though I know they're short-lived trees that don't look nearly as grand or majestic as live oaks, we have a lot of property to fill, since land clearers cleared much more of our land than we'd wanted cleared, and I need help getting the forest back in the outer areas. We've planted a couple more young live oaks in closer-in, specimen areas of our yard, and I don't let any laurel oaks grow near them. Fascinating to find someone else who knows and understands the difference, and has the same dilemma trying to decide whether or not to let the seedlings grow (I decided to do it in most cases).

Cam @ArcadiaTrails said...

Oh, I see you're in FWB. I'm originally from Crestview, so spent a lot of time down in FWB (and Destin) during my teenage years, at the beach. We live in Milton now and rarely make it to FWB, but we go to Destin every fall for a few days on the beach. Beautiful neighborhood you're in, and thank goodness for that live oak-loving daughter who saved all those trees. :)

Gaia Gardener: said...

Hi Cam, It is very reassuring to know I'm not the only one who's been fooled by the laurel oaks! As I realize what I have now, I'm noticing that the laurel oaks are wonderful for wildlife, so I'm not quite as upset as I was a couple months ago when I realized my original mistake. We have a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers nesting in the (dead) top of the laurel oak by the dock, for example, and the migrating warblers seem to prefer the laurel oaks to the other trees in the yard. (Or maybe I can just see them better there.)

If I had a larger property, I would definitely be letting seedling laurel oaks grow up, but I would probably keep them a ways away from the house.