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If Oak Trees Could Speak

Credit: Museums of Lake County

The wild winds of the past two winters have shown us just what power Mother Nature holds as she downed limbs and whole trees, power lines and more. The ancient El Roble Grande tree that graced Lower Lake for hundreds of years came to mind, along with the striking display section of the tree that sits outside of the Lower Lake School House Museum in Lower Lake. I have our new curator of Museums of Lake County, Carolynn Birilli to thank for sending information she garnered from old news accounts, etc. to add information for this piece. By the way, I know that we will certainly miss our previous curator, Clark McAbee, who has moved on, but performed many wonders for our three museums!

The December 11, 1952 edition of the Clear Lake Observer stated, “One of the casualties of the weekend’s rampaging storm was “El Roble Grande,” said to be the largest valley oak in California, which crashed down across highway 53 about 3:30 A.M. Sunday. In these pictures, taken Sunday afternoon, Monty Vernon of Middletown, employs the state highway division, is shown standing on the highway on the south side of the downed giant. On the right, highway crewmen are shown making the first cut into the nine-foot trunk. The road was opened to one-way traffic Sunday evening. The venerable oak, a local trademark located four miles south of Lower Lake, was still a sound tree, but its root hold was weakened by the torrential rains, and Sunday morning’s high winds did the rest.”

Credit: Museums of Lake County

It’s hard to imagine just how immense and aged this tree was! Further information sent by Birilli from the museum’s archives stated, “At the time, the tree was the largest known valley oak in California, having a crown that spread more than 200 feet, and a trunk diameter of 11.7 feet, and was over 300 years old. After the fall, the Native Daughters of the Golden West had a slab of the oak cut and preserved, today you can see the cross section at the Lower Lake Historic Schoolhouse Museum.” The El Roble Grande’s interpretive sign explains that the tree was actually 360 years old when it fell. It says, “That means this tree sprouted from an acorn about the year 1592, the year Galileo Galilei invented the thermometer. William Shakespeare had just written Romeo and Juliet.” Astounding!

Valley oaks, Quercus lobata and other oak species hold a complex role in nature, sustaining many other plant and animal species. The mighty oak can be considered the quintessential giving tree, since it plays host to many woodpeckers and other avian species, mosses, lichens, mistletoe, squirrels, insects, and more. Oaks have provided sustenance for most Indigenous people of California via the tree’s nutritious acorns. There are dozens of oak species found to be native to California.

If these venerable oaks could talk they would tell the rich stories of the people of the past. Here in Lake County that would be the Pomo, Miwok, Wappo, Patwin and Yuki Indians. Then, the people made their villages among the oaks, and worked together to prepare their staple food from the abundant acorns. Acorns from a single oak added up to around 400 pounds of acorns per year depending on the tree.

Oaks’ other stories include the variety of life they play host to. Oaks play host to apple-like growths, or galls that form when a Cynipid wasp drills into a leaf and deposits eggs. Then, gall wasps hatch, and the larva allows for the production of a unique plant structure or tissue that envelops the larva, and supplies it with both shelter and food. Experts in the know say that a single oak may host to over 30 kinds of Cynipid wasps, each forming a distinct type of gall! A gall may reciprocate and host a variety of insects which depend upon it.

Oaks also host frilly ferns that can cover its bark like a coat, as well as net-like flags of Spanish moss that float freely from its outstretched limbs. Spanish moss is not really a moss or lichen, but a flowering plant, or angiosperm, belonging to the bromeliad family. Birds and other woodland creatures steal oak’s Spanish moss, employing it as nesting materials; and it has been utilized by environmentalists to ascertain air quality and used commercially as an ingredient in perfumes, dyes and medicines.

American Mistletoe, a plant native to the United States and Mexico, is often seen growing in oak’s canopy. Mistletoe holds chlorophyll and makes use of photosynthesis like other plants, but it’s not able to absorb nutrients and needed water from the ground. Instead, mistletoe uses its roots to acquire moisture and nutrients from trees like oaks, ash, walnut and other tree species. If a tree is drought-stricken and already ailing, mistletoe in great numbers can finish it off, but it does not appear to harm healthy trees.

Amongst the various flora and fauna thriving in an oak woodland, oak’s herpetological life forms may also surprise you. According to The Oaks of California (Cachuma Press & California Oak Foundation 1991) oak communities host around 80 species of amphibians and reptiles. Salamanders, lizards and frogs all benefit from the oak’s environment. Oaks have been important for numerous reasons over time. Threats to oaks include fire, climate change and Sudden Oak Death, and of course humans encroaching on the once vast oak savannahs.

It is clear that oaks have much to teach us, and that we can grateful for oak trees on many levels. Spend some under an old oak tree. The ancient oak slab sitting at the Lower Lake School House Museum has much to teach us, too, and is worth repeated visits.

Kathleen Scavone

Kathleen Scavone, MA., is a retired educator who has resided in beautiful Lake County for over 45 years. She freelances fiction, poetry, nature writing, curriculum ideas, and local history. She writes for The Press Democrat, Napa Valley Register, News From Native California, Green Prints, etc. She has published three books, a play and a poetry chapbook. The second edition of her locally set historical novella, People of the Water- a novella of the events leading to the Bloody Island Massacre of 1850 is available in local museums and stores, as well as on Amazon.com and IngramSpark in both paperback and e-book formats. She has written Anderson Marsh State Historic Park- A Walking History, Prehistory, Flora and Fauna tour of a California State Park, and Native Americans of Lake County. Kathleen is a photographer and potter. Her other interests include hiking, assisting on archaeology digs, travel, gardening and reading.

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