Native Oaks of Colorado–the Ubiquitous and Dichotomous Gambel’s Oak

Quercus gambelii is a tree native to the Southwest, including Colorado.

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Gambel oak leaves

On the Fort Collins City Park Self-guided tree tour two oaks are listed as native to Colorado, the bur and the Gambel. Jennifer Ackerfield, Flora of Colorado, 2015, lists the Gambel oak as well as two shrubby oaks with which it hybridizes as native to this state.  The USDA map shows the Gambel oak being native to states of the west and southwest, including  Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota. The USDA map shows the Bur oak as native to most of the Canadian provinces and the eastern United States as well as states north, south, and east of Colorado, but not Colorado itself.

According to the passage in Western Explorers and other sources, Gambel oak may also be called scrub oak. Ackerman agrees Quercus gambelli Nutt. can be either shrubby or a small tree*, but other authors call different species of Quercus scrub oak. Some of these also may be native to the region, and all of them do appear to be mostly shrubs. To add to the confusion, other plant databases also call Gambel Oak Rocky Mountain White Oak or Utah White Oak. This short article says Gambel oaks are well-suited to Colorado by their smaller form as they require less water than many of their relatives. The smaller size also helps them withstand wind and snow. This species is common in Grand Canyon National Park.**

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Trunk of a Gambel Oak

Nearly all sources agree the wood from Gambel oak is mostly only good for fuel, although it might also have been used for equipment handles and furniture such as cradle.

Many concoctions of oaks in general (Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, Michael Moore, 2003) and Gambel Oak in particular, have been used for gum inflammation, diarrhea and other intestinal conditions. Another use mentioned in the book is a chewed bolus of the leaves applied to insect bites. Other uses include as an analgesic for postpartum pain. Acorns have been eaten to increase sexual potency.

The acorns of this oak have very short or nearly nonexistent stems. The hairy cap covers less than half of the actual nut.*** Properly prepared acorn meal can be added to breads or soups to increase protein content. Some use acorns as a coffee substitute that does not contain caffeine. You can make your own or even buy it!

Although the Gambel Oak provides food and cover for wildlife such as deer and squirrels, it is considered poisonous for many domestic species, such as cattle and sheep. Gambel oak holds a similar dichotomous place in fire management. Under moderate conditions it may act as a firebreak, but in severe conditions it can be explosive and deadly.

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Looking through the branches

Thomas Nuttall, one of the most famous naturalist of his time, named this species after a young naturalist. William Gambel was only 15 when he began working under Nuttall. Soon he ventured out to the Southwest and discovered a new species of oak near Santa Fe. Also on his journeys he found numerous new bird species, some of which also bear his name. Gambel named one of these, a woodpecker, after Nuttall. Eventually he returned to Philadelphia where he earned his medical degree and married a childhood friend. Shortly after this, he packed his bags and headed back to California for the gold rush and to set up his medical practice. During his trip, he contacted typhoid and died at age twenty-six.

To find the Gambel Oak (Quercus gambelii) specimen in City Park look for E59 on the map.

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The Gambel oak on the west side of the stone wall

This tree is near the intersection of City Park and Bryan Avenue’s NW corner in a small cluster of trees. You can locate this cluster with the Gambel in the middle on the west side of the stone wall located between the derelict miniature train station and the road.

*Ackerfield, Jennifer, Flora of Colorado, 2015 p. 486

**Little, Elbert National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees, Western Region, 1994 p.398

***Preston and Braham, North American Trees, 5th edition, 2002 p. 303

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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