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

 

 

 

 

Bur Oak: largest native acorns

In Texas the acorns may be the size of golf balls!

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Looking up through the bur oak

While the spelling of bur oak is sometimes burr oak, according to Sibley* it is also called a mossy-cup oak or blue oak. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center adds more names to this list, including Savanna oak, overcup oak, prairie oak, mossy-overcup oak. To add to the confusion, in certain terrains it can be referred to as scrub oak.  It would appear some of its names are related to the various habitats in which this species, Quercus macrocarpa, grows. Alternatively, it refers to the appearance of its acorns.

This white oak is native to much of the eastern and midwestern United States and Canada, although its characteristics vary depending on its location. According to Iowa State University, this tree has the most variable characteristics of any of the oaks. For example, its acorns are large in its southernmost growth area while they can be about a fifth the size in the northern regions.

The overall height of the tree also varies by its habitat. In northern climates it may only grow to half the size of the same species in southern latitudes.  This year saw a new national champion bur oak be honored in West Virginia. This specimen is a bit over 107 feet tall and has a trunk circumference of more than 278 inches. Models of climate change have predicted  bur oak may have an increase in its range, but the locations where it thrives may also shift. Due to its long taproot it may be able to withstand drought conditions.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Its acorns can be the largest of the native oak species and are well fringed, hence its mossy-cup moniker. Its Latin name is related to the acorns; marco means large in Greek and carpa refers to fruit. One author states burr oak acorns in Texas are golf-ball sized! Iowas State University allows the trees do not bear fruit until they are 35 years old. Most sources state the trees can live 300 to 400 years. The university site also states the lumber of the tree can be used like white oak, but isn’t as valuable due to its many branches. The USDA mentions  the most valuable bur oak trees for lumber come from Iowa and Illinois where it is usually marketed generically as white oak.

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Bark of the bur oak

The trees provide food to 96 or more species of wildlife, including black bears. According to this article, acorns are the primary high quality food source for black bears in northeastern Minnesota. Cattle and other livestock may ingest seedlings and acorns even though this material may prove poisonous in large quantities. This same source specifically mentions the Cheyenne of Montana as having eaten a mixture of acorns and buffalo fat.

Like other trees in general, and other oaks in particular, parts of the bur oak have been used medicinally. A unique mention is made of tree galls used to treat intestinal problems and as an antiseptic.

The tagged Quercus macrocarpa in Fort Collins City Park was planted in 1979. It is located between the reservable shelter and the road to the golf course. Look for the electrical box painted with a black cat. If you point to the east at a diagonal from the box, you should be in line with the tree. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

  • Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Trees, 2009.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quirky Quercus and the Leaves of its Genus

Old Ironsides was built out of a species of white oak.

Legislation was passed in November, 2004 proclaiming the oak tree the national tree of the United States. I suspect most of us think of oaks as large trees with majestic canopies and easily distinguishable leaves. Probably we think the leaves look like this:

But the number of trees in the oak genus, all of which are members of the Beech family, are reported to be between 400* and 600 worldwide. Michael A. Dirr and Keith S. Warren in their The Tree Book (2019) list the number as 530, including both deciduous and evergreen species. The outdated The Plant List includes at least 605 species and Tree Names lists 605 plants under Quercus.

There seems to be some question as to the number of oak species in North America, too. Many sources suggest there are about 90 species in the US and Canada (Dirr and Warren) while Sibley includes only 69 native species. There are at least nineteen species of oak in California alone. Many sources list the number of  varieties in the US at about 90, but state there are at least 160 species in Mexico. The USDA map for Quercus shows all states except Idaho and all Canadian providences have native or introduced oaks.

On top of the large number of species, the various species easily hybridize, often making classification difficult. Within the two broad classifications of red oak or white oak, though, the trees do not interbreed. Some recognize an intermediate form of Quercus called golden oak. This subgroup may consist of only five species, although other sources state that there are none in North America.

Both red and white oak trees are used for furniture, flooring, cabinets, veneers and paneling. Historically only three species of white oak have been used in cooperage and for aging whiskies and wines.White oak is more often considered for outdoor uses as it has greater rot resistance. Live oak, a type of white oak, was used to build what is currently the oldest commissioned warship in the world, the U.S.S. Constitution. “Old Ironsides” was launched in 1797! Some of the ways to tell the difference between red and white oak trees, as well as their respective lumber, are discussed here.

Acorns give a clue as to whether a tree belongs to the group of red or white oaks, as well as a way to identify the various species. Acorns are also much more variable than I believed as a kid. Some are hairy, others elongated, a few tiny and some huge.

Red Oak with acorn
Note the large size of the cap of the red oak’s acorn.

Unfortunately, we have a lot of squirrels in our park and it is difficult to come across an intact acorn, but if you have an area with an abundance of acorns, this article discusses the foraging and processing of them for use in recipes such as Acorn Mousse and Acorn shortbread cookies. Guidebooks such as Sibley and the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees will usually include a picture or description of the nut to help with identification. While many species forage for acorns, other animals apparently can be poisoned when ingesting acorns, oak leaves, and bark. Acorns contain tannins and may be bitter. This can be remedied by repeated rinsing of the mashed meal.

Another reason acorns may be hard to come by in our park is the trees may not produce until they are twenty years old and the crop might not be considered a full one until the tree reaches fifty. According to this same source and others, the more bitter the acorn, the longer it will store.

An easy way to tell if an oak is a red or a white is by the leaf. White oak leaves generally have rounded lobes while red oaks have pointy tips. In many cases you have to look very closely as the tip is as thin as a hair.

Red oak tips
Leaves from three species of red oak

With the large number of oak species, it might be of little surprise that not all oak leaves look like you might expect. Some do not resemble that typical sketch above in the least. To complicate matters, the same tree may have leaves of distinctly different shapes! (Sibley, P

There are twenty-six tagged oak trees in City Park, although a number of these are hybrids or varietals. For this first post in a series on Quercus, we look at variations in leaf form. I have ignored the leaves of the hybrids.

Burr, others
The Oregon mountain oak has a small leaf while the burr (or bur) oak has larger leaves with many lobes. The typical leaf might have a more indented mid-section.
English Oaks
All English oaks, which are native to England, are white oaks. This can be seen in these three varieties rounded leaf lobes.
Graves and MOngolian
Note the rounded ends of the Mongolian and Chinkapin Oak, indicating they belong to the white oak group.
Red and Swamp
The swamp oak is a white oak although it is difficult to tell its lobes are rounded. The tips of the northern red oak, though, are decidedly pointed!

The photo below shows the Oriental White oak leaves growing on the tree. I would never have picked out either of these two leaves to belong to the oak family!

 

Although I do not have a photograph, as this tree is not on tree tour, there is a species called the Maple-leaf Oak. This endangered tree currently numbers only about 600. According to Sibley this oak is related to the Shumard, although the pictures of the leaves look  more similar to maple leaves than the skinny Shumard leaf pictured below.

Shumard and Gambel
Shumard Oak (Quercus shumardii) a red oak on the left with its acorn and a Gambel Oak (Quercus gambelii) on the right.

*The Sibley Guide to Trees, David Sibley, 2009

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Swedish Whitebeam-Don’t Let the Tag Fool You!

What do I know about the Swedish Whitebeam tree? It belongs to the genus Sorbus which is in the rose family. This large family of over 3000 species includes apples, cherries, plums, pears, and mountain ashes, as well as the flowers known as roses. Mountain ash trees are members of the same genus (Sorbus) as white beams and therein may lie some of my confusion in finding this speciman. I kept returning to the area on the tree map where this species was said to be located, but the unmarked trees in the area seemed to be true ashes and elms. The one unusual tree had leaves that were completely wrong. I thought I knew the smaller deciduous tree was an Oakleaf mountain ash as I’d read the tag the year before.

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The darker green Sorbus intermedia in forefront

As the name implies, the Swedish whitebeam is not native to North America. As it doesn’t appear on the USDA maps, it must not be considered significant in the United States, although Toronto mentions it on its parks pages. In Great Britain it is suggested as a street tree. One source suggests it can withstand harsh conditions, is hardy to zone 3, and grows on Shetland Island. It may also be a tree useful for birds and bees.

The wood of the whitebeam has been used for handles, wheels and cogs. According to a few sources, the berries have been used to make bread and jam or used similarly to raisins. They may also be distilled into spirits.

As mentioned above, some of the confusion in finding this tree may be related to some of its attributes. Whitebeam are related to mountain ash trees and rowans. Tree Names lists fifty species of whitebeam, but also mentions whitebeams and rowans naturally hybridize. Some authors hypothesize that Swedish whitebeam are a hybridization of mountain ash and two other species or are derived from the Finnish whitebeam. With all the mountain ash genes involved, it isn’t surprising the sign on the Swedish Whitebeam

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Swedish whitebeam with correct latin name on label.

displays Oakleaf Mountain Ash as a common name along with the latin name of Sorbus intermedia, or that of the Swedish Whitebeam. Seems like it just continues the confounding nature of the Sorbus genus!

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The leaves of the Swedish whitebeam looking very similar to that of the Oakleaf mountain ash.

And why the two trees are so easy to confuse:

 

The tree on the Fort Collins City Park Self-Guided Tree Tour was planted in 1994 with a 2″ diameter. Although they are supposed to have white flowers in Spring turning to red berries in fall, no berries were visible in late September. This tree may live to 134 years.

To locate tree D192 Swedish Whitebeam (Sorbus intermedia), go to the southwest corner of the intersection of Sheldon and City Park Drives. This section is lined on the north and east by elms and ash trees with conifers making up the other boundaries. In the center are two conifers, the Engelmann Spruce and a Baker’s Blue Spruce.  Of the three deciduous trees, the Swedish whitebeam is the most southerly and smallest. It is also the only one with a visible tag.

 

The Shellbark Hickory; A Tough Nut to Crack

Hickory ice cream is delicious

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Hickory nut on the Shellbark hickory

The taxonomy for the hickory tree is a little nutty. Members of  the walnut family, Carya (hickories) represent about 25 species worldwide. Eleven are native to North America. Also a member of the walnut family, and of the same species as hickories, are the the trees which produce pecans.

The SHELLBARK Hickory (Carya laciniosa) is native to most of the eastern United States and Ontario. Like many other species, it has many alternate names including; big shellbark, bottom shellbark, kingnut, and thick shellbark.

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The compound leaves of the Shellbark hickory

Another moniker, bigleaf shagbark, may cause some confusion between the two types of hickory tree. Even though some say the flavor of the shellbark’s nut, with its difficult shell to crack, isn’t as good as that of the shagbark, a few plantations of shellbark trees have been established. The shellbark hickory can hybridize with pecans to produce a larger nut. It may crossbreed with shagbarks as well.

The wood of the shellbark, as with most hickories, is considered one of the hardest of the American native trees and is difficult to work as it tends to blunt edges. Because of the strength of the wood, it may be used to make chairs and rockers.  The lumber also has a high BTU output, making it desirable as firewood. It is also used for smoking meats, such as in this recipe for hickory smoked turkey. 

When in Portland, ME, I had the pleasure of eating a blueberry crumble with hickory ice cream at the Portland Harbor Hotel. I must admit while I was enjoying the very woody flavor I had no idea there was more than one kind of hickory tree. I include this recipe for hickory ice cream, which does call for shagbark chips, as well as one for hickory nut shortbread cookies.

Native peoples had numerous uses for the parts of the shellback tree, including the

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The shaggy bark of the shellbark hickory

innerbark for snowshoe rims and baskets and the wood for arrow shafts and blow darts. The shellbark hickory had numerous uses in traditional medicine including as an abortifacient, cold remedy, analgesic, an emetic, and a digestive system  aid. Other uses included gun stocks and tool handles. The species has also been used to produce dyes and make soap.

Due to the large and long taproot, the trees may be difficult to transplant. They are slow growing as well. The nuts are food for many small mammals as well as turkeys and deer. There are many husks on the ground near the specimen tree, but none are intact, verifying their use as squirrel food.

The champion tree, crowned in 2018, is 109′ tall and found in Virginia. Although the height of the tree may depend on environmental conditions, Carya laciniosa are said to usually be about 60′ to 80′ tall. The specimen in Fort Collin’s City Park was planted in 1991 and had a trunk diameter of 3.5″.

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The shellbark hickory

Find D198 Shellbark Hickory (Carya laciniosa) along Sheldon Drive. The best way to describe where to find it is south of the intersection with City Park Drive. The tree is east of the shelter near the lake and almost directly west of the exercise station on the east side of Sheldon Drive. The nut husks are the give away as I don’t think this tree is labeled.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carya laciniosa was used extensively by the Cherokee, according to Moerman (1998)

The Possumhaw—Neglected and Inconspicuous?

None of the six tree books I consulted even mentioned this native tree

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Berries and leaves on the Possumhaw

The possumhaw is in the genus Ilex, which consists of over 400 species of holly, some of which are evergreen and many of which are associated with Christmas. Alas, this neglected and oddly name shrub or small tree is not one of those with a legendary past. One source suggests its name comes from opossums feasting on its berries.

Most of the year, except for its shiny leaves, it is barely noticeable. It is, though, native to North America, growing mostly in southern states. The national champion tree is found in North Carolina and is but forty-two feet in height with a trunk of three feet in circumference.

One thing this humble plant does seem to have is a plethora of names and spellings—Possumhaw, Possum-haw, Possumhaw holly, swamp holly, meadow holly, prairie holly, winterberry, bearberry, welk holly, deciduous yaupon, deciduous holly—the last two names because, unlike the more famous hollies of holiday fame, this tree is not evergreen. No mention is made of uses for this shrub’s wood. Apparently it has no known medicinal value nor is it edible to humans.

Why then would you want to grow this? Birds and small mammals eat the berries in the winter. It may be a host to a species of butterfly as well as bees and other nectar insects. And the berries are delightful in winter, providing color to a bleak landscape.

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Possumhaw berries in winter

If you are looking for E61 Possumhaw (Ilex decidua Grace) on the City Park Tree Tour in winter, it should be easy to spot in the enclosure across from the pool, near the miniature train station. Of course it is located in the same spot the rest of the year, but you may need to look more closely to find it!

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Possumhaw across from the City Park pool