Chinkapin oak, including the Story Behind its Latin Name

The Latin name for this tree features a misspelling.

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Acorn growing on the chinkapin oak.

Once again, like many other species of oak, the chinkapin oak is native to most of the United States east of Colorado as well as in two states sharing a border with the Centennial state, New Mexico and Oklahoma. This species, Quercus muehlenbergii, is also known as chestnut oak, yellow oak, common chinquapin oak, rock oak, rock chestnut oak, and yellow chestnut oak. It is one of those oaks whose leaves the uninitiated might not consider to be oak leaves. Instead, with their ragged or sawtooth-like edges, they could be mistaken for elm or chestnut leaves .

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Shiny chinkapin oak leaves

The acorns of this species of white oak are considered of the best eating quality. They are an important food for a variety of birds including woodpeckers and turkeys, as well as black bears and many small mammals and deer. The Chinkapin oak could be considered instrumental in the mobility of this country as the logs were once used as fuel in steamships. Later, logs were used as railroad ties. The wood is often fashioned into cabinets and furniture. The tree also has a few medicinal uses as an antiemetic and astringent.

In the wild the trees grow to 60-80′. Cultivated, they may only reach about fifty feet. The current champion tree in the U.S. grows in Virginia. It stands 66′ tall with a crown spread of 113′. The four trees listed as Colorado champions, all of which are in Denver, range from 62 to 66 feet in height but the largest tree has an overall point value (height plus crown spread plus trunk circumference) of less than half that of the national champion.The oldest recorded tree in the US is around 343 years old and can be found in Springfield, Ohio.

Where did this species get its common name? It bears a similarity to a tree in the same family (Beech) but a different genus and species, Castanea pumila, which has an overlapping  range with the oak species. The Allegheny chinkapin, also called a drawf chestnut, is a small tree or shrub with a single burr containing a nut. The leaves of this species look very similar to those of the Chinkapin oak, but the lack of an acorn should be a distinguishing feature.

The American Gotthilf Henry Ernst Muhlenberg (1753-1815) is credited with describing this variety of oak along with the German botanist, Carl Ludwig Willdenow. Muhlenberg was an ordained minister, college president, and botanist who published at least two influential books. A genus of grasses, Muhlenburgia, was named after him. He also discovered a turtle, which was called the Muhlenberg’s tortoise until the name was changed in 1956 to the bog turtle.

The Latin name of the chinkapin oak has a convoluted history, complete with a misspelling. In the past this species was considered to contain three varieties of trees, but on reclassifying and renaming, the species was given the Latin name Quercus muehlenbergii by George Engelmann, which would account for the full name Quercus muehlenbergii Engelm.

And the misspelling? When Engelmann honored Muhlenberg, he used the German spelling with an umlaut, which when transcribed resulted in the muehlenbergii spelling. Both spellings are now sometimes used.

There are two chinkapin oaks identified on the Fort Collins City Park Tree Tour. One  is located in the quadrant bordered by Jackson and W. Mulberry. This specimen (C159) is in a group of trees and may have lost its identifying tag. The second tree (E16), located behind the fire station in the southwest corner of the park, was planted in 1996. It also appears to have lost its tag. The tree can be found on the peninsula between the parking lot and the roadway, near a fake rock.

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Chinkapin oak near the Parks Department parking lot

 

 

 

 

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