May 20, 2018
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The red oak in Marjorie’s garden

Reeser Manley | BDN
Reeser Manley | BDN
Staminate (pollen-bearing) catkins on the red oak in Marjorie’s Garden.
By Reeser Manley

“The oak tree,” by Matsuo Basho

The oak tree:

not interested

in cherry blossoms.

A red oak grows at the edge of Marjorie’s garden. Twenty-five feet high and nearly as broad through its longest branches, I have watched it more than double in size since first meeting this garden 10 years ago. Now, in the first week of June, it raises its golden spring leaves to the sun in celebration of a new season.

While still a young tree, still slick-barked, this oak is flowering for the third consecutive year. Golden staminate catkins release their pollen to the wind, some grains no doubt coming to rest on the stigmatic surfaces of future acorns.

This oak has transformed the garden. A nearby perennial bed, once considered suitable only for full-sun plants, gets shadier each year. We have encouraged the transformation, removing spruce and fir that crowd the oak. Everything that can be done to enrich the future of this oak, we do.

This red oak is a playground for scampering red squirrels and chipmunks, a feeding ground for songbirds. Writing by a window that looks out on the tree, I watch birds feeding on insect eggs and larvae, blue jays hopping among the branches, chickadees darting in and out of the canopy, nuthatches creeping upside-down on the trunk in search of bugs, black-and-white warblers in the topmost branches nipping — what? —  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 of trees that support 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.

Late in a spring afternoon, thousands of crepuscular insects swarm in the canopy of our red oak, crawl over its new 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 herbivores. Some are predator species that will help control the plant-eating insects on the oak throughout the garden.

In spite of the birds and predacious insects, by mid-summer most of the oak’s leaves will be riddled with holes, ragged with chewing, punctuated with galls. But the oak will have leaves to spare. Acorns will grow to full size, as they have done in previous years, 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, leaving only tracks. 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, red oaks like this one 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.

Winter winds will drive snow against the trunk of our oak, calmer snows will trace its strong horizontal limbs. Crows will greet frigid sunrises from the highest branch.

For now, we watch young red squirrels chasing one another around the bole and through the branches. No doubt, it was a squirrel that started it all.

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