Plant of the day: tan oak


Notholithocarpus densiflorus

The beautiful tree is dying.

From Big Sur to Brookings, entire groves have browned and fallen. Single snags stand in forests like wisps of smoke, like ghosts.

Sudden Oak Death is old news these days – but how does news of a plague become old? The beautiful tree is dying, and eventually it will be gone. With it, a piece of California will be gone as well.

There is a reason the Kashaya-Pomo tribe called the tan oak Chishkale, or “beautiful tree”. Its bountiful harvest of acorns was one of the best foods around. The Kashaya and other native people soaked and beat the nuts into breads and cakes, gruel and soup. During a flu, they sucked acorns like cough drops. For celebration, strung acorns were twirled in the air to make music.

Notholithocarpus_densiflorus2Chishkale has been a generous neighbor to humans and non-humans alike. Northern flying squirrels, dusky footed woodrats and black salamanders are just a few of the myriad creatures that call its roots and limbs home. Their nutrient-packed nuts are a key fuel driving the engine of the ecosystem here in the coastal hills where it lives; deer, squirrels, woodpeckers and jays all dine on the bitter fruit. They were a favorite snack for grizzlies, before the bears were driven from the state. And when feral pigs arrived, acorns became a rooting prize for the hogs as well.

Other creatures eat the creatures that eat the acorns, and when fruit and flesh decay, still more creatures dine on that. Their offal enriches the soil, from which more plants rise. Without them, the engine will falter – and then, because nature eternally adapts, it will change. But something precious will be gone for good.

So, if you aren’t from around here, go outside now. Go and spend time with the tanoaks while groves still live. While they still stand in crowds or pairs and or singly among other trees on a hillside.

Ideally, do this in late summer, when the acorns have fallen and you can see how thick they are on the ground. Find somewhere that the trees grow closely. In places the acorns crunch under your feet like gravel. Notice how dark green the leaves are: serrated like a bread knife, with undersides coated with a soft beige fuzz.

Leave the trail; you are on a brown carpet of leaf and twig. The air smells uniquely dusty and a little soft, thick with the down from the leaves. Sunlight filters down in shifting patches, and squirrels and jays chatter and call. Sometimes a raven swoops through with a heavy push of wings, a dignified awk awk. With a breeze, you may notice that the sound these particular branches make in the wind is like all branches in all wind, and also like no other branches on the planet.

If it is a warm day maybe you will want to find a nice tree, an old one with a broad trunk, and take a nap at its base. When you wake up, you may think of how long your companion has been in this spot, of what it has stood witness to. And mourn for a minute that soon it – and all of its kin – will be gone.Notholithocarpus_densiflorus3

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Filed under Edible, Plant of the day

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