The Bur Oak: A Meditation on a Tree and Time, Fathers, and Sons

By Nolan Marciniec

When I was grow­ing up, par­tic­u­lar­ly dur­ing my teenage years, my father used to coun­sel, All things in time.” 

Thir­ty years ago, he and I came upon an impres­sive stand of bur oaks (Quer­cus macro­carpa). He took a hand­ful of acorns and pot­ted them up, plant­i­ng the seedlings on my prop­er­ty two years lat­er. Today, the trees are more than 30 feet tall, mag­nif­i­cent spec­i­mens that delight me in all sea­sons. They remind me of my father and some­how seem to embody his val­ues, his way of look­ing at the world.

In the spring, the oak pro­duces male and female flow­ers on the same branch. The long and pen­dant catkins” are male. The Farmer’s Almanac advis­es plant­i­ng corn when oak leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear. In the sum­mer, the mature leaves are lobed and round­ed, glossy, wider at the top – and occa­sion­al­ly home to oak galls,” which, I am told, were once the source of ink. In the fall, the leaves turn a non­de­script brown but, unlike most oak leaves, do not hang on through the winter. 

In the fall, one can see the dis­tin­guish­ing fea­ture of the bur oak, a mossy” or fringed bur-like cap that cov­ers most of the acorn. But to my mind, the tree is most beau­ti­ful after the leaves have fall­en in the fall and win­ter because, with its spread­ing, gnarled, and twist­ed branch­es, it has that clas­sic spooky Hal­loween” look! 

The stems and bark of the tree are grey, cork-like, and deeply fur­rowed. The oak’s dis­tinc­tive bark makes it fire tol­er­ant and thus able to sur­vive the prairie fires caused by light­ning strikes or set by Native Amer­i­cans: fire is crit­i­cal in main­tain­ing the prairie’s eco­log­i­cal balance. 

Peri­od­i­cal­ly, in mast years,” my bur oaks pro­duce heavy crops of acorns. These attract squir­rels (of course) to the yard, but deer and jays and turkeys as well as, on one mem­o­rable occa­sion, a young black bear. The squir­rels duti­ful­ly bury the acorns in mulch and in the tilled soil of the veg­etable gar­den. Every year, I pot up the seedlings and give them away to fel­low gar­den­ers who have the room for these mas­sive trees, the fastest grow­ing of all the Amer­i­can oaks. The trees seem to thrive, even in the heavy clay soil I strug­gle with.

It may be rel­a­tive­ly uncom­mon to find the bur oak in New York State: my father had to resort to a field guide to iden­ti­fy the tree. How­ev­er, vis­i­tors to Lan­dis can view sev­er­al mature spec­i­mens in the Arboretum’s Oak Col­lec­tion. Bur oaks, a species of the more com­mon white oak, seem to be more preva­lent in the Mid­west, where they tow­er, silent sen­tinels, over the prairie in those areas that have been pre­served from development. 

The state­ly and soul­ful bur oaks that line the streets of Oak Park, Illi­nois, are descen­dants of the oak savan­na that pre-dat­ed the arrival of the Euro­peans. They are a beau­ti­ful and mon­u­men­tal com­ple­ment to the nature-inspired archi­tec­ture of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose build­ings are a hall­mark of this Chica­go sub­urb. Many of these trees were prop­a­gat­ed from sev­er­al 200 – 300 year-old native bur oaks as part of the His­toric Oak Prop­a­ga­tion Project.

Sev­er­al huge bur oaks must have been plant­ed years ago along one of the roads near my home. One of the trees has a met­al piece embed­ded in its trunk. I won­der if the orig­i­nal own­er of the near­by Wal­ter But­lers­bury home (1742) had a hand in plant­i­ng them. (The home, inci­den­tal­ly, also has a love­ly grove of ancient locusts.) 

The bur oaks in front of my house, on the prairie, and on the near­by road, seem to embody time. In nature, how­ev­er, time moves infi­nite­ly more slow­ly than in man’s world. The poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote that the one who plants trees, know­ing that he will nev­er sit in their shade, has at least start­ed to under­stand the mean­ing of life,” a valu­able les­son my father taught me, when 30 years ago, he plant­ed the trees in whose shade he would nev­er sit.

For fur­ther reading: 

Peat­tie, Don­ald Cul­ross. A Nat­ur­al His­to­ry of Trees of East­ern and Cen­tral North Amer­i­ca. Boston, MA, Hough­lin Mif­flin Com­pa­ny, 1948.

Tal­lamy, Dou­glas W. The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecol­o­gy of Our Most Essen­tial Native Trees. Port­land, OR, Tim­ber Press, 2021.


Summer 2021

Volume 39 , Number 2

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