Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Oaks in My Yard

As I continue to stay home most of the time (still a pandemic here!), I get a chance to appreciate more what is in my own yard. This week I’m focusing on the many oaks in my yard (a mostly wooded 2-acre tract among many others of similar size). Our part of Cherokee County is just inside the Southern Inner Piedmont ecoregion, a few short miles south of the Blue Ridge ecoregion. The area is rich in a diverse collection of native trees.

Fall color of Quercus alba
Flaky bark of young Quecus alba

The first oak that I noticed and the most prevalent is white oak (Quercus alba). A large canopy tree, it has beautiful leaves and fall color and abundant plump acorns for wildlife. Its flaky bark is noticeable even as a young tree. The deep burgundy-colored leaves are a late season treat.

There are no large water oaks (Quercus nigra) in my neighborhood, but there are plenty of young trees. Perhaps the big ones were removed when homes were built over 30 years ago. The trees are quite noticeable this time of year as they hold their green-yellow leaves longer than almost any other deciduous tree. The leaf shape can be quite variable, and I am never quite sure if very young saplings are water oaks or Southern red oaks.

Water oak (Quercus nigra) leaves
Southern red oak (Quercus falcata)

Southern red oak (Quercus falcata) is abundant in the neighborhood, and the turkey-foot shaped leaves and tiny acorns can be found everywhere. I have a hard time not calling it turkey oak (a common name used for a different species) based on those leaves. The thick leaves with a felt-like underside are mostly a rich brown in the fall but occasionally offer hints of red.

Quercus marilandica leaves catch the sun over the driveway

Blackjack oak (Quercus marilandica) is fairly abundant, mostly as young trees but I did find a large mature one in the back yard recently. I am not sure that I’ve found any acorns for it, however. Fall color can be so-so except for the ones near the driveway which are reddish. Wind-pollinated oaks can hybridize, of course, and in some cases I wonder if a little white oak got into these.

Scarlet oak near my mailbox
Scarlet oak leaves and acorns

Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) is a favorite one and the neighbor across the street has a gorgeous one (perfect for my viewing too). Glossy red leaves are about at their peak right now so a trip to the mailbox gives me a nice look every day. Acorns are good-sized; a quick check at the apex reveals the faint concentric rings that distinguish them so quickly as scarlet oak.

Quercus rubra with great color
The bark of the same tree

I knew that Northern red oak (Quercus rubra) was in the neighborhood but was never quite sure if I had one. I noticed a bright tree in the woods this week and it turned out to be that very species. The color is fantastic this year and it is still holding most all of its leaves.

Over the last 17 years I have watched a young oak sapling close to the driveway grow taller and thicker. I thought for some years that it might be a Northern red oak. A friend suggested that could be Shumard oak (Quercus shumardii). It has not produced any acorns yet and probably won’t for a while. Of course it could be a hybrid (the standard line for those we can’t figure out …). Fall color is so-so, a bit red-orange-brown.

My maybe Quercus shumardii

I have not identified Black oak (Quercus velutina) or Post oak (Quercus stellata) in my yard but both are easily found in the neighborhood, identified by fallen leaves and acorns on my walks. One more oak within the larger vicinity of my area is Chestnut oak (Quercus montana). I visit a favorite spot each year to pick up some the very large acorns for kids to see. The acorns sprout so quickly that if I'm late, most of them are already attached to the ground.

So I have potentially 7 species in the yard, 9 in the neighborhood, and 10 in the greater area (this doesn’t count all the species planted in shopping areas, read some of my earlier blogs about those). I feel fortunate indeed to live in such a diverse place. A wonderful reference about oaks can be found here as a downloadable PDF field guide. Get out there and see what's in your area!

Sunday, November 22, 2020

In Memory of a Tree

The Zeta Storm came roaring through our area with 60-mph winds just before Halloween, downing trees all over the area. Our property suffered no damage but we lost power, internet, and landlines. As we got out over the next few days, I was dismayed to see so many oaks down.

A toppled large scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) outside the neighborhood was a distressing discovery. I had admired it for all the years we’ve been here; it was always a gorgeous color in the fall and a big provider of acorn mast for the critters. This year’s acorns were scattered all over the road as well as still affixed to many of the upper branches. I gathered a big bagful.

The fallen tree in 2019
Acorns will carry the legacy

Not far from this one, two other scarlet oaks were down. One had just survived the construction of a new house and I celebrated last year that it would live to bring beauty for years to come. Another lay across the road, a fence and other trees that were smashed in the downing of it.

Fallen scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea)

Despite the sadness, I know that other plants will get a chance to thrive in the sunny void these trees left behind. Nature creates and nature destroys … and then creates again. I’ll take that bagful of acorns and help to create many more trees to honor the ones lost that day. Trees to remember a tree.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Fall Foliage Delights Again

Pinks, oranges, and yellows make for a pleasing view

The Zeta storm came through with fierce winds at the end of October and many people predicted a diminished fall foliage season because so many leaves were ripped off the trees. Turns out, they were a little too pessimistic: slowly but surely, color began to appear.

Sourwood shines bright
Since I am staying home most of the time, this report is mostly based on the trees in my area. The first color to appear was on the sourwood trees (Oxydendrum arboreum). Their long leaves slowly turned a variety of pinks and soft oranges, deepening to vibrant purples as the days continued. Hands down, the sourwood trees have been the stars of Fall 2020, putting on a show for 2-3 weeks, even holding on after a rain.

While the sourwoods were still there, red maples (Acer rubrum) burst into color. In their usual variety of yellow to pink-red, I sometimes had to get closer to figure out if what I was seeing was a sourwood or maple in my mini forest. As the golden yellow of the hickories (Carya sp.) started, the woodland glowed like a botanical fruit cocktail of color. For two days, I could hardly bear to stay inside, and my camera seemed unable to capture the magic.

View from the front

As I write this now (Nov 14), the maples are gone, the sourwoods persist, and the American beeches (Fagus grandifolia) are changing to their buttery colors. Hints of the deep colors of native oaks are just emerging, a prelude to phase 2 of North Georgia’s fall show. 

While the number of leaves this year was reduced because of the storm, those who got to stay did their best to put on a good show and it was beautiful! Be sure to watch as the oaks finish this one out.

Like to have more color? Read through some of my earlier blogs on fall foliage.

A neighbor's black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) is always red

Sunday, November 8, 2020

How to Rake Leaves

I was out raking my leaves this week and, while listening to leaf-blower noise from neighboring properties, it occurred to me that perhaps people need a primer on how to do what we did for many years growing up. 

I hope this small reminder will help encourage more folks to set aside their leaf-blower in favor of some good exercise and a more environmentally-friendly way of dealing with our fallen leaves.

And yes, in a few weeks, I'll get to do it again (just as those with leaf-blowers will). It's a great way to work off some of that Halloween candy.

Here are my tips:

1.      Own a rake. I like the flexible metal ones and, when properly stored, they last for years.

2.      Dress comfortably and in layers so that you can be more comfortable as you warm up with the exercise.

3.     Wear lightweight gloves to avoid blisters and unexpected icky things when you pick up the leaves. Long sleeves and yard shoes help too.

4.      Reduce your lawn so that you don’t have so much to do each year.

5.      As much as possible, rake your leaves into your non-lawn areas so that you don’t have any work associated with bagging them. It’s like sweeping!

6.      Get a buddy to help you out.

I personally think that #4 (reduce the lawn) is a very important one. Let’s plan to do that more in time for next year’s leaf season.

My raking buddy
Still plenty left to fall!

Sunday, November 1, 2020


These spindly bits of brown “twigs” might catch your eye this time of year in moist woods with American beech (Fagus grandifolia). In some areas, they can be abundant around the roots of these trees. Often what is most noticeable are the taller stems from the previous year of this very modest plant called beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana). Tucked among them, almost protected, you might see the pale but soft stems of the new flowers emerging. 

Cleistogamous flowers
Last year's flowers

Beechdrops is an obligate parasitic plant that requires its host, specifically the roots of the American beech tree, to complete its life cycle. The genus name of the plant, Epifagus, is from the Greek “epi” which means ‘on’ or ‘upon’ and the word Fagus which refers to the beech tree. It is an herbaceous plant—meaning it has no woody parts—that grows up to 18 inches tall and lacks chlorophyll. Most of the ones I find are about 12 inches tall by the time they finish up and turn brown.

Group of Epifagus virginiana around a beech tree

The small flowers are alternately arranged on the stem and have attractive purple stripes if you get down close enough to look at them. According to my research, the flowers on the lower part of the stem are cleistogamous (self-fertile); these flowers are small and more round. The flowers on the upper part of the stem are chasmogamous, more tubular in shape, and about 8 mm long. It is unclear what pollinators are associated with this plant but one research source suggested that ants may be involved.

New and old flowers

This plant is a member of the broom-rape family (Orobanchaceae). This family contains other similarly unusual plants like Conopholis americana (parasitic on oaks and beech) and Orobanche uniflora (parasitic on saxifrage, sedum, sunflowers, and goldenrod), both of which are found in Georgia. [Monotropa, known as Indian pipe and which also lacks chlorophyll, is not in that family.]

So if you're out exploring and you come across these modest plants, take a moment to appreciate them for their uniqueness. They are but one part of the very complex ecosystem in which we live.