I was saddened to see the old Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) tree at the end of the walk to the Chapel has passed. We were hoping the tree would resprout from its hollow shell but it continued its slow decline. Oaks like this can grow for 100 years, live for 100 years, decline for 100 years and die over another 100 years.
Looking out the front doors of the chapel, past the Fay Jones fountain, this classic oak with its unique cavities of age was always a thing of beauty–the type that comes from experience, age and imperfections.
Senior Gardener Janet Heter (depicted) said: “It’s like losing an old friend.” I recall the writings of America’s great conservationist, Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac; especially his phrase another “funeral of our flora” as original native plants are lost. Did this tree experience the buggling of Elk? A stampede of Bison? The rush of wind beneath a massive flock of Passenger Pigeons? (all creatures long gone)
I also recalled Robert Hillier’s poem A Pastoral with the orchard man declaring “this empty shell must go;” but we’ve always defied this showy “veteran’s” removal. We will have to remove most of the tree’s trunk for visitor safety reasons but we will save as much of the trunk as possible. Look for a new Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) planted in the tree’s cavity and a young Swamp White Oak planted nearby to continue its kind.
We have 6-foot seedling Swamp White Oaks in our nursery grown from acorns of our wild trees. One or more of these will be transplanted beneath the old oak’s trunk.
Swamp White Oaks are the dominant native tree at Powell Gardens; a few trees are older than settlement (at least 150 years old). This image of its leaf shows the unique lighter underside. The botanical name is “bicolor” because the leaves are dark green above and whitish beneath, creating “two colors.” The fact that Swamp White Oaks are the king of trees here at Powell Gardens is very unique: it describes our very poorly drained clay soils. In most areas of the Midwest where this tree grows, it is found in floodplains and swamps (here it grows on the hills!). It is also interesting we are less than 10 miles from the western edge of its native range, the tree is absent in the wild west of Lone Jack.
Oaks are the most important wildlife tree throughout their range. Their nutritious acorns are a staple of many birds, deer, bear, etc. Even our young oaks in the nursery are already producing acorns. Swamp White Oak acorns are always on a characteristic stem. They share this trait with their first cousin on the other side of the Earth: the English Oak (Quercus robur). Oaks are considered the tree that enabled us to create our civilized society: to learn more read Oak, The Frame of Civilization. They are the official tree of the United States of America.
Remember to plant and replant oaks wherever you can. From tiny acorns, mighty oaks grow!