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My love of oaks

May 4, 2021

So, this is not Chicago. I was born, raised, and live in the Salt Lake area. Our native oaks are scrub oaks (Quercus gambelii). They are very common in the canyons and foothills of the Wasatch Mountains. I never paid much attention to them when I went camping or hiking. They make almost impenetrable thickets, spread by underground runners, and they burn readily. This is not a tree you would want in close proximity to your house. 

After getting older and developing a greater interest and in plants, I started to notice the trees that people put in their yards.  Maples, ash and more sycamore than you can shake a stick at. I noticed a general lack of oaks of any kind. The scrub oaks do not like the valley floors. In the neighborhood I grew up in, which was about a mile square, there was only one oak, a bur oak. The owner of the property worked for the Utah State Department of Forestry. We don't have native bur oaks; I don't know why he chose it, but it was one of a kind. 

I went to Brigham Young University in Provo. It was there that I became aware of the differences of the oaks. One class I took was a landscaping class. It was in the summer and the teacher would lead us on plant spotting excursions all over the campus and into the surrounding neighborhoods. He kindled and encouraged my love of trees. 

BYU has an extensive collection of trees. In our walks through the campus, I noticed that there were a bunch of bur oaks. I did not like them all that much. At the time, I thought they were rough and kind of unkempt looking. The teacher showed us the only red oak on campus, probably the only one in the Utah Valley. I was immediately smitten. This tree does not do well in the valleys. BYU sits on a large alluvial deposit, so it is less alkaline than the valleys. The rain and snow, although not as plentiful as back east, drains rapidly through the rocky-sandy soil, leaching enough alkali to allow the red oak to grow. 

Then we went around the corner. There were two large English oaks casting heavy shade over a large area of lawn. This was my idea of what oak trees should look like. They were not craggy-shaggy like the bur oak. They were smoother with smaller leaves and a generally more sophisticated aspect. This was a tree I wanted to get to know better. We then went to what was a grand allee that almost bisected the campus. It was lined with upright English oaks. They were about 50 feet tall. Only about 10 are left now. 

I learned a lot in that class: ginkgo fruits do not smell that bad, silver maples should not be planted here because they can't handle even limited alkali, we don't need to put lime on our soil, something as big as a tree can be a weed, and the oaks drop their acorns in October. I became an acorn-gathering fiend.

I had multiple pots growing bur oaks, English oaks, and upright oaks. At my parents' house, I had three upright oaks by the patio. I planted a standard English oak for their neighbor. I learned that about 90% of the upright acorns would come from seed, so it is best to start them and transplant them when you see what you have. I found that the bur and the English oaks grow reasonably fast, about two feet or more a year. 

When I was able to buy my own house and yard, the first plants I planted were my oaks. I planted two English oaks in the parking strip in the front, and my sole bur oak in a small portion of the yard I have kept wild.  I am planting plants and flowers to attract pollinators. The taller of the two oaks in the front yard is about 20 feet tall, as is the bur oak in the back.

They are beautiful trees. The English oak leaves are shiny, deep green. The trunks are strong and the roots look like they are grabbing the soil. I have come to appreciate the rugged look of the bur oak with the corky ridges on the branches. The leaves are deeply indented.They have a lighter color on the bottom than the darker green on the top. When the wind blows, it flickers light and dark. 

Both of these trees are quite drought tolerant. They have taproots that go deep into the soil and can access moisture unavailable to other plants. That's a good thing since our summer here averages about three inches of rain from June through August. Because the English oaks are lawn trees, they get watered more regularly. Water is a precious commodity in our climate. I almost never water the bur oak in the back. It doesn't seem to mind at all. 

In addition, I have three upright oaks in a triangle to mark the points of the triangular peony bed I am establishing. All of my oaks have been grown from seeds I planted. 

I have become familiar with the history and lore surrounding these oaks, especially the English oaks. Ships, castles, and cathedrals were built from oak wood. Oaks were sacred to the Druids and still thought, by some, to have magical powers. 

I am not magical, but I delight in my oak grove. 


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