Sunday, January 27, 2008


Or shall I rather the sad verse repeat
Which on the beech's bark I lately writ?
--- Virgil(1)

Did you think that carving words in beech bark was the invention of modern vandals? Not so. The smooth bark of beech trees has been used as a writing surface for millennia. Our word book comes from Old English boc (writing tablet), which derives from Old English beece (beech).(2) The most famous beech inscription

D. Boone
Cilled a Bar
On Tree
In Year 1760.

is preserved in a museum in Louisville.(3) The tree on which it was carved fell in 1916 at about 365 years of age. But, please, let the time-honored tradition of beech-carving die. Once the beech's thin bark is breached, the tree can be invaded by fungi that cause bark disease and heart rot. (4)

Plainfield has numerous beautiful beeches of two species, American (Fagus grandifolia) and European (Fagus sylvatica). There is a fine American beech at 975 Glenwood Avenue.

As this tree shows, beeches can be as beautiful in winter, when their smooth bark is most evident, as they are in summer. Another handsome American beech is at 1515 Charlotte Road.

Beeches hang on to their withered leaves long after most deciduous trees are bare, as shown by the Charlotte Road beech, which was photographed November 25. American beeches typically don't get the attention that their close relatives, European beeches, receive. European beech exists in dozens (hundreds?) of varieties (clones) selected for leaf color and shape. Copper beeches are European varieties. So are the much rarer cutleaf beeches. American beeches have toothed leaves. Teeth are lacking from the Europeans.

The massive European beech pictured at the top of the page is at 996 Central Avenue at the corner of Randolph Road.

Another handsome European beech is at 1077 Hillside Avenue.

1424 Prospect Avenue also has a very fine European beech.

Why aren't beeches used as street trees? They don't grow well when their root systems are restricted or where the soil is compacted by foot or vehicular traffic.(5) Beeches cast dense shade in which it is almost impossible to grow grass. They're at their best used as specimen trees in a large space.

Dan, a blogger from Spain who does a tree blog in English, wrote to point out that he had photographs of pine nuts on his blog. The photographs are great.
He also gives a step-by-step pictorial rundown of what he had to do to collect the cones, extract the nuts, and remove various protective layers. Read his posting and you will know exactly what to do should you encounter a pine cone from a stone pine, the source of most of the world's commercial pine nut crop. (You will also understand why you pay so much for the nuts at the grocery store.)

(1) cited in A Natural History of North American Trees, Donald Culross Peattie, Houghton Mifflin Company 2007, p. 163.

(2) Dictionary of Etymology, Robert K. Barnhart, ed., The H.W. Wilson Company 1988, p.106.

(3) Native Trees for North American Landscapes, Guy Sternberg with Jim Wilson, Timber Press 2004, p. 181.

(4) Trees of Pennsylvania and the Northeast, Charles Fergus, Stackpole Books 2002, p. 103. Fergus catalogues a large number of wild animal species that use beech nuts as food. Donald Culross Peattie, cited above, quotes Audubon at length on beeches and the now-extinct passenger pigeon.

(5) The Trees of Union County College, Thomas M. Ombrello, Union County College 1997, number 10.

Copyright Gregory Palermo

Sunday, January 13, 2008

White oak

Is this the tree that launched a thousand ships? It is indeed. White oak, an American native, reached the pinnacle of its maritime glory during the War of 1812. The white oak planks of the U.S.S. Constitution repelled British cannonballs so well that the ship became known as "Old Ironsides". After a few encounters with the Constitution and its sister ship, the British admiralty forbade its frigates from engaging the American 44-gun frigates in single combat.

William Bryant Logan relates the story of the U.S.S. Constitution in his 2005 book Oak: The Frame of Civilization.(1) Mr. Logan claims a central role for oak (not just white oak) in human development. He reviews evidence that early man was dependent on acorns as a staple food and presents a map showing the distribution of oak trees to be conterminous with the locations of settled civilizations in the northern hemisphere. You already knew, no doubt, that oak made durable furniture, sturdy ships, and watertight barrels. Did you also know that oak galls made ink and that oak tannins tanned leather? Did you know that oak was used in shipbuilding even before it helped Jason and the Argonauts find the golden fleece? Mr. Logan lays out all these details of mankind's reliance on oak in his informative book.

Oak is a complicated genus. There are as few as 250 or as many as 600 species of oak, depending on whose classification you accept. To complicate life, many oak species interbreed with one another. Oaks are conventionally divided into two groups: the white oak group with white oak as its most typical species, and the red oak group with red oak as its exemplar. The white oak group has leaves and leaf lobes that are rounded. The red oak group has leaves and lobes that end in points with bristle tips.

Acorns of the white oak group mature in one growing season; the reds require two seasons. White oak group acorns have a lower tannin content than the reds. The tannin content difference represents divergent survival "strategies". Tannins protect acorns by imparting a bitter taste and by interfering with animals' protein digestion. Squirrels are quite tuned into differences in tannin content. They eat white oak acorns immediately and bury reds. With less tannin protection, acorns of the white oak group are obliged to begin to grow shortly after contacting the ground in the fall. If the squirrels don't eat the white oak acorns immediately, it's too late. The squirrels can permit the very tannic and slower-to-sprout acorns of the red oak group to marinate underground during the winter.(2) People can eat acorns any time they care to do so by leeching out the tannins with water. Recipes abound on the Internet.

The grand white oak at 1310 Central Avenue pictured in leaf at the top of the page and leafless below is 5 or 6 feet in diameter. Surely well over a century old. Sadly, one sees limbs lopped at the property line on the left side. (There ought to be a law.) The tree illustrates the characteristic white oak habit and the vast spread of a mature white oak's limbs. The spread limits the species' use as a curbside planting.

Another fine white oak is at 705 Ravine Road.

Most white oaks are easily recognizable in the winter by their blotchy bark. The blotchiness is caused by an apparently harmless fungal infestation.

Xavier Canela sends word from Spain that he has a blog about the trees of Barcelona: The blog is in Catalan. If you can read one of the Romance languages, you can understand it without much difficulty. One of his posts regards Pinus pinea, the source of most of the pine nuts on the market and probably best known as the pines of Rome. (The pines of Rome, it turns out, are natives of Iberia.)
(1) Oak: The Frame of Civilization, William Bryant Logan, W.W. Norton and Company 2005, pp. 230-249.

(2) A Field Guide to Eastern Forests, John Kricher and Gordon Morrison, Houghton Mifflin 1998, p. 84.

Copyright Gregory Palermo