Book Review: “The Nature of Oaks”

By Sam McClary

The Nature of Oaks
The Nature of Oaks

Doug Tallamy’s The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecol­o­gy of Our Most Essen­tial Native Trees” encour­ages the aver­age home­own­er to rec­og­nize the many ben­e­fits of oaks. The book pro­vides exten­sive infor­ma­tion, both sci­en­tif­ic and anec­do­tal, on the advan­tages oak trees bring to our land­scape, our plan­et, and, per­haps most impor­tant­ly, our bio­di­ver­si­ty. Oaks may be the sin­gu­lar­ly most impor­tant genus when it comes to pro­vid­ing food and habi­tat for crea­tures of all sizes, from the quar­ter-inch gall wasp all the way up to the white tail deer. There is much going on in your yard that would not be going on if you didn’t have one or more oak trees,” Tal­lamy writes.

The Landis Great Oak
The Lan­dis Great Oak before its death

Many peo­ple are famil­iar with the way that oaks pro­vide nutri­tion to pass­ing for­agers: acorns. These delec­table lit­tle morsels are a potent com­bi­na­tion of pro­tein, car­bo­hy­drates, and fats, while also pro­vid­ing notable quan­ti­ties of cal­ci­um, phos­pho­rus, potas­si­um, and niacin. Fall is not com­plete with­out the crunch of acorns under­foot, and many of our res­i­dent bird and mam­mal species rely on them. They are a crit­i­cal com­po­nent of the diets of turkey, squir­rel, chip­munk, rab­bit, black bear, and white­tail deer. Oaks also pro­vide food in less obvi­ous ways, espe­cial­ly to insects and birds. A vast major­i­ty of our migra­to­ry and res­i­dent birds are not grani­vores, mean­ing they can­not sub­sist on grains alone. This is espe­cial­ly true when it comes to chick rear­ing: baby birds require sub­stan­tial­ly more calo­ries and fats than grains alone can pro­vide. Oaks are a host plant to over fifty per­cent of cater­pil­lar species (942 to be exact!) and are the top bio­di­ver­si­ty sup­port tree in eighty-four per­cent of coun­ties in North America. 

Pro­vid­ing food isn’t the only super­pow­er oaks have: they are also cham­pi­ons of enhanc­ing soil sta­bil­i­ty and mois­ture. A seedling oak tree has 10 times more root mass than leaves and shoots. With a tap­root which pen­e­trates deep into the soil, oaks pro­vide both soil struc­ture and mois­ture reten­tion. Soil sta­bi­liza­tion is fur­thered enhanced by oaks’ very durable leaves. The deep lay­er of fall­en leaves helps dis­perse rain water with less soil ero­sion, fil­ter­ing it on the way through. This dense lit­ter is also host to numer­ous ben­e­fi­cial insects which over­win­ter there. 

Oaks have also devel­oped an inter­est­ing rela­tion­ship with a local bois­ter­ous bird species, the blue jay. Oaks and jays are thought to have co-evolved some 60 mil­lion years ago in what is now South­east Asia. Jays bury acorns as a win­ter food sup­ply, some­times as far as a mile from the moth­er tree! A sin­gle blue jay can stash as many as 4500 acorns each fall, with a 25 per­cent retrieval rate, there­by plant­i­ng some 3000 oak trees through­out its lifes­pan. This pro­vides very effec­tive seed dis­per­sal for oaks and a nutri­tious food source for jays going into winter. 

The Nature of Oaks” pro­vides the read­er an oppor­tu­ni­ty to peel back some of the mys­tique of the majes­tic genus Quer­cus. If you’ve got local oaks, know that you’re stew­ard­ing a key­stone species for bio­di­ver­si­ty and envi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fit. If you haven’t got any, con­sid­er the numer­ous ben­e­fits of plant­i­ng some. 

The Arboretum’s col­lec­tion of North­east­ern oaks has been rec­og­nized as one of the finest. Per­haps read­ing Tallamy’s book will inspire you to vis­it the Arbore­tum – and hug an oak!

Spring 2023

Volume 41 , Number 1

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