Purest of Noble Trees

By Lynne Pieri-Finn, Fairfax Master Gardener Intern
The real voyage of discovery consists of not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. — Marcel Proust

white oak

White Oak

When I’m out walking my dog, I like to look around at trees and shrubs. I have my favorites, I’ll admit, like Pieris japonica. I didn’t know all that much about trees, though, so I took a class at Northern Virginia Community College called Woody Plants. The class covered over 140 trees and shrubs. We looked at leaves, flowers, fruit, stem, bark, fall color, soil and sun preferences and habit/shape.

With each tree I learned, I had a new favorite. I loved the oaks, so we’ll talk about that in this article. There are whole books on oaks alone. If you cannot identify an oak right away, look at the leaves. Most are lobed, sometimes deeply. The deep indentations in the lobes are called sinuses and may be deeply cut to the midrib or not. Good examples of lobes deeply cut or not are the Southern Red Oak (Q. falcata) and the Chestnut Oak (Q. montana). Of course, the Willow Oak (Q. phellos) is an important exception; its leaves are long and entire, like a willow leaf.

Pin oak

Pin Oak

All oaks have acorns. After I started the course (and probably before, since I still find acorns in the pockets of jackets I haven’t worn for a while), I gathered interesting acorns and leaves to analyze and compare. Some acorn caps look like little French berets such as on the Pin Oak (Q. palustris); others have caps that nearly cover the nut like the Overcup Oak (Q. lyrata). The nuts of Southern Red Oak (Q. falcata) can be striped; White Oak (Q. alba) nuts are a beautiful Hershey Kisses brown. Some nuts are long, like the Northern Red Oak (Q. rubra) and others are short like the Bear Oak (Q. ilicifolia).

By the way, 2019 was what they call a mast year for oaks and other nut-producing trees. Mast years are high-production years. Acorns were everywhere, and the squirrels had a nice feast. Early humans also ate acorns; in fact, it was one of the main staples of their diet. They leeched out the tannins and made the paste into flour or a jelly-like cake. In Korean stores, you can still find it. It is called Dotori-muk. Oaks ranged from Asia, through Europe and the Ame