I had the delightful good fortune to follow a recent walk on the site led by Tin Smith of the Great Works Regional Land Trust (gwrlt.org). While this particular walk was on land the trust hopes to acquire in South Berwick, Maine, GWRLT and many local land trusts regularly offer guided hikes and walks on their reserves.
I love these walks because I always learn something new, usually both about the history and the natural history of the land. This time, in addition to seeing the property we were on, we visited a historic oak tree – a white oak tree around 200 years old.
We have a number of oak species in New England, the most common here are northern red oak (one of the tallest trees in the northeast) and white oak.
When most of us think of oak trees, we probably imagine a northern red oak (Quercus rubra). These majestic trees are distinguished by the deep cracks (often red) in their bark and their spiky-tipped leaves. White oaks (Quercus alba) are equally majestic but have lighter bark (hence the name “white”), even though the bark is more often light gray than white and the leaves have rounded tips.
One thing that’s really fun about these rides is that you can count on everyone there to be super excited about something like an old white oak tree. The land we walked on had been managed and exploited in the past. Fortunately, the owners have kept this beautiful old oak tree. It was hard to miss. As we rounded a bend in the trail, there it was, towering above its younger neighbors (a mix of poplar, red oak, white oak, and beech).
His trunk could easily have held 10 of his smaller neighbors. The age of this tree is a guess, but based on its size it is believed to be at least 200 years old. According to the Native Plant Trust (gobotany.nativeplantrust.org), this species is one of the slowest growing but longest-lived oak species. Since the lifespan of a white oak is 500 to 600 years or more, it is only a young adult.
This tree is an incredibly important member of the forest. It probably didn’t start producing acorns until it was 50 to 100 years old, and now those acorns feed over 100 species of birds and mammals. White oak acorns are more attractive to wildlife than their red oak cousins because they contain less tannin. Tannin is a natural chemical with preservative properties and a bitter taste. Red oak acorns take two seasons to mature and therefore need these preservatives to keep them from rotting while on the forest floor. White oaks only take one season to mature and therefore have less tannins and a smoother flavor. If you hunt, you know that white oak acorns attract deer. Deer will walk past piles of red oak acorns to reach those of a white oak.
This white oak spoke to me about the importance of conservation in general. Protect this land and we protect the entire ecosystem that supports this tree and the ecosystem services this tree provides. We protect the river and the salt marsh that adjoin this forest. We protect a place where each of us can experience nature. When we came across this tree in the forest, the first thing the kids in our group did was run up to it for a hug. With the increasing pace of development in rural areas of New England, it is more important than ever to keep as much open space as possible for future generations.
Susan Pike, researcher and teacher of environmental science and biology at Dover High School, welcomes your ideas for future topic topics. Send your photos and observations to [email protected] Read more of her Nature News columns online at Seacoastonline.com and pikes-hikes.com, and follow her on Instagram @pikeshikes.