Garden oaks are worth their weight in gold

Posted May 21, 2010, at 5:55 p.m.

My life was filled with the beauty of oaks this past week. Red oaks in Marjorie’s Garden, like those across the street from our church in Ellsworth and those defining the hills along the woods road between Franklin and Cherryfield, all raised gold-plated leaves to the sun, their life source, in a celebration of creation.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf.

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.

— Robert Frost

The leaves are golden for only a week, a brief moment along the path of pigment synthesis that leads to dark green sugar-producing summer leaves. Surely this golden moment was the poet’s inspiration, its transience the source of his last line.

Sitting on the shore of Passamaquoddy Bay, as the surrounding hills filled with the gold of red oaks, the new green of birches and the gray-green of aspens, I remarked to a friend that autumn has nothing over spring in Maine.

Now, as gold gives way to dark green, the red oaks in Marjorie’s Garden throw pollen to the wind from drooping catkins, a hit-or-miss proposition for the little acorn-shaped pistils along the branches.

Judging from past years, there seems to be enough pollen to go around.

The oaks have become a playground for scampering red squirrels and chipmunks, a feeding ground for songbirds. Working in my favorite rocker by a window that looks out on the oldest of the oaks, I watch birds feeding on insect eggs and larvae, blue jays hopping along the branches, chickadees darting in and out of the canopy, nuthatches creeping upside-down on the trunk in search of bugs hidden under bark, black-and-white warblers in the topmost branches nipping from the surfaces of leaves.

Douglas Tallamy, in his popular book “Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in our Gardens,” tells us that oaks top the list in terms of supporting lepidopteran larvae; more than 500 species of butterflies and moths depend on oaks for food. Turn over an oak leaf, find a caterpillar and you understand what bird food looks like.

I believe in the popularity of oaks among insects when late in a spring afternoon, as the sun sets behind the trees, thousands of insects swarm in the canopy of our red oak and crawl over its leaves. Many of the flying adults are tiny moths laying eggs; their caterpillars are called leafminers. Many of the crawling larvae are leaf-eating caterpillars.

But not all of the insects in the oaks’ canopy are lepidopteran. Some are predator species that will help control the herbivore populations.

In spite of the birds and predacious insects, by midsummer most of our oaks’ leaves will be riddled with holes, ragged with chewing, punctuated with galls. But the oaks will have leaves to spare. Acorns will grow to full size, then disappear.

Who eats the acorns? Certainly the red squirrels and chipmunks, but possibly the wild turkeys, raccoons, deer, black bear, and mice that share the garden with us, creatures that visit the garden at night or in our absence during the day. All we know for sure is that it takes only a week or two and the acorns are gone.

In late October, after the sugar maples have shed their technicolor leaves, the red oaks will paint the hills in rich earthy tones of yellow-brown and russet red. And then one night, a strong wind will break the already weakened connection between petiole and twig and rain-soaked leaves will fall to earth.

All I ask for is the chance to see it all one more time.

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