Black Oak

Deep, pointed lobes

Identification: Our only oak with lobes both deep and pointed, with soft, pointy bristles at the tips. (Live oak’s much smaller leaves have very shallow lobes with sharp, pointy bristles; the lobes of our other large-leafed oaks are rounded and unpointed.) Black oaks are deciduous, but even in winter you can usually find some old leaves hanging on or on the ground to tell you what they are. The bark is blacker than most others, although as with most oaks it is often covered with mosses and lichens and so the blackness of the black oak is probably not its most loudly shouted identification feature to the average eye. The acorns have particularly large caps that cover about half of the nut.

Where: In the Bay Area, we usually find black oak in mixed woodland, sometimes in relatively pure stands, but more commonly as one component of a community shared with live oaks, madrones, bays, toyons, manzanitas, or others, depending on local conditions. There’s a certain middle ground they like: not too moist (live oaks handle creeks or coastal fog better) or too hot (blue and valley oaks dominate in dry, open savannas).

Appreciative Essay

or  Why We Fall in Love with Certain Trees At All

Everyone, I think, will discover personal favorites among the trees as they broaden their circle of sylvan acquaintance. As Aldo Leopold said:

I love all trees, but I am in love with pines.

– A Sand County Almanac, ‘Axe-in-Hand’

Such a personal statement is fairly irreducible and inarguable, self-evident and not subject to factual justification. We generally accept that love need not be perfectly explicable in detail, though we can often enumerate some aspects of a person, place, or tree that we find particularly attractive. Leopold can think of various rationalizations for his bias in favor of pines, but in the end he is left with an mysteriously absolute qualitative difference in the way a pine reacts on his hopes and imagination. Going over some of these rationalized “reasons” for our affections can be a very pleasant pastime and I thoroughly recommend it (it’s a much more satisfying recreation than reciting the reasons for our discontent, though this seems to be the more common practice among many humans). But one of the core tenets of Leopold’s famous Land Ethic – and in the ethic, such as it is, of what you may read here – is the acceptance that in the end we do have personal biases beyond the objectively explicable, and that any real ethic worthy of the name needs to be allied with such affections if it is to successfully guide our actions.

Woodcut by Paul Landacre in D.C. Peattie’s Natural History of Western Trees

If we aim for pure objectivity and disclaim our own right to bias (which encompasses, remember, our right to be in love with a tree or any other fragment of the universe), we might come up with a set of rules for less ecologically destructive living which could satisfy a committee of textbook writers, but we won’t have an ethic, a set of principles which we can internalize, believe, and feel. For a parallel example, many people might concede that monogamy, marriage, and family structures are very handy things for the organizing of society and have all kinds of practical advantages, but take away the originating impulse of individual personal affections and all the pragmatic and sensible reasoning in the world won’t do the job of holding the state together.

Many relatively enlightened people might concede in the abstract that we should preserve redwood forests, oak savannas, or groves of big ceonothuses, but if you don’t have a significant number of individuals able to sincerely justify this position by simple recourse to the fact that they love the trees, plants, or animals in question, then you’ll be left with nothing but the much weaker allies of utilitarian benefit or legal compulsion. Weaker, that is, in the overall aim “to awake in man and to raise the sense of worth, to educate his feeling and judgment so that he shall scorn himself for a bad action” (Emerson, Society and Solitude, ‘Success’). You may win or lose the particular battle according to the accidents of fate, but you are less likely to convince others on a deeper level, less likely to forward the incremental progress of society towards something like Leopold’s ethic, if your position relies on superficial circumstance rather than unchanging essentials.

With that foregrounding done… where black oaks live

As Leopold was in love with pines, I am in love with oaks. In California, this is fortunately not a rare sentiment. And for whatever accumulation of reasons and indefinite impulses of affection, no species of the genus draws me more forcefully than the California black oak.

A first reason, though not the reason, is the overall setting and plant community in which they are found. Our blue and valley oaks are often more widely spaced in open savannas, passing a large chunk of their leaf-bearing season stoically presiding in relative solitude over the dry annual grasses, which welcome walkers with heat, dust, and stiff brown stalks. The coast live oak, a versatile generalist, may be found in cool, moist woods, perhaps mixed with bays or even redwoods in a dense, shadowy place where little light penetrates to the consequently less developed understory. Or they might – in smaller and smaller-leafed form – edge the hot, dry chaparral, another community rather inhospitable to travelers: hot and unshaded in summer, large impenetrable to view and passage at all times.

Black Oak Landscape – In company with buckeye, bay, live oak, and manzanita. Madrones and valley oaks just out of frame. Olompali State Historic Park

The black oak, in contrast, is found in a happy temperate zone, not too hot, dry, or wet, where diversity of trees, plants, and wildlife is high. And within the broader Bay Area landscape, our home here in northeast Marin is well situated for black oaks, which shun most of the hotter inland regions and the over-wet fogginess of truly coastal areas. I like it here; black oaks like it here; our tastes agree.

Around Novato and Marin, its preferred areas of intermediate climate are shared with madrones, toyons, live oaks, bays (where moister), and manzanita (where drier). Compared to the other great oaks of California, black oak’s preference for the mild or cool over the hot and sunburnt leads it to extend its range northward and upward, extending both into Oregon and into the mixed conifer forests of the Sierra. And its avoidance of the wettest, foggiest, and most bay-infested areas means that although genetically susceptible to Sudden Oak Death, black oak is relatively less in the line of fire compared to tanoaks and many live oaks, at least around here.

Their leaves

But black oak’s attractions are certainly not limited to the generally amiability of the community it inhabits. After all, when encountering a black oak and a live oak side by side, I am still drawn to the black oak. Their most obvious visible beauty is in their large, lustrous green leaves (some 4-9” long), cut with deep, elegant lobes. Unlike the soft, rounded lobes of the valley oak, those of the black oak are angular and geometric, each one culminating in a fine, soft bristle. This kind of sharp-edged precision may be intrinsically appealing to humans; most people would say without much reflection that the similarly carven leaves of maples are highly attractive. Up close, the delicate tracery of black oak’s pinnate venation – while not different in type from that of many other trees – is seemingly enhanced by its angular canvas, and by the simply larger-than-average expanse on which it can trace its perfectly chaotic pattern. It makes a fine sight to admire under a hand lens, or to look at from underneath on a clear summer day, when the translucent capillaries illumine seemingly from within, bibulous of the great sea of light that is the sky, the sun, and life’s general radiance.

While the deciduousness of these leaves might make you think that black oaks are more closely related to the valley and blue oaks, it is actually the bristles that are the key to placing them in their correct evolutionary position alongside the live oaks. This group is known as the “red oak” or “black oak” group, as opposed to the “white oak group” of smooth-lobers. Species can hybridize within these lineages (i.e. black oak with coast live or interior live oak), but not between the more distantly related species (i.e. with valley, blue, or Oregon white oak).

Another tally on black oak’s list of charms is its extreme seasonal beauty, greater than that of any other of our local species, with the most wondrous moment occurring in the first few days of unfurling in spring (generally sometime in February), when the leaves, their bristles already apparent, are a soft and felty red, a texture opposite and complementary to the vast shiny greenness of the mature leaves. In fall, while not offering the spectacular crimson of eastern forests or even our own poison oak, black oak leaves do turn a pleasant weathered yellow before falling, after which the large, sturdy leaves will persist on the ground in dried brown form for many months, making identification by association easy even in leafless winter. In death, then, black oak leaves are still useful and distinctive markers. In their prime of life, they’re elegant and shapely. But when they are just busy being born – at that moment they have more soft tenderness than one has any expectation of finding in an oak, archetypes of unbending strength.

A tree’s character

To what does all this add up? Let’s look at Leopold again:

In the course of the years, [one] imputes to each species, from his responses to their beauty or utility, and their responses to his labors for or against them, a series of attributes that constitute a character. I am amazed to learn what diverse characters different men impute to one and the same tree…. Our plant biases…are indeed a sensitive index to our affections, our tastes, our loyalties, our generosities, and our manner of wasting weekends.

I have essentially no utilitarian stake in the prospering of black oaks. I speak as a visitor, not as a caretaker. And I am seldom constrained to a choice for one tree and against another. So perhaps my sentiments run less deeply than those of axe-in-hand Aldo. But the origin of our affections seems the same: the accumulated responses we find ourselves making to a tree over the years, occasioned by the varying impressions we experience of different places, seasons, and individuals. It isn’t in a simply describable account of what they do, but a more subtle flavor of how they do it. That’s how it often is, that one’s way of doing something can elevate and magnify whatever little thing is done to a far greater importance. All trees grow upwards, but only a few have the warm, wide embrace of oaks. Most oaks have lobed leaves, but only a few trees match black oak’s geometrical elegance. And all trees unfold new leaves in spring, but you will scarcely find one that inaugurates the season with such an affecting red felten modesty. The way you sip your tea, as Gershwin might say. Or, as one of Shakespeare’s young men in love put it:

                   What you do
Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet,
I’d have you do it ever. When you sing,
I’d have you buy and sell so, so give alms,
Pray so, and for the ord’ring your affairs,
To sing them too. When you dance, I wish you
A wave o’ th’ sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that, move still, still so,
And own no other function. Each your doing,
So singular in each particular,
Crowns what you are doing in the present deeds,
That all your acts are queens.

– The Winter’s Tale, IV.iv.161-172

As far as the direct experience of our modern lives go, it is debatable whether black oaks do own any other function than moving their leaves in the wind and the sunlight like waves of the sea. Providing marketable lumber, playing host to myriad dependent species – these things weigh greatly for some people, some creatures. For us, it is true that we are less dependent on our immediate surroundings for our subsistence and economic lives, integrated as we are into vast and incomprehensible webs of goods and information. But even in his role as an active custodian of the land, Leopold ending up appealing to a conception of a tree’s character which was informed by his practical and utilitarian concerns, but which was not defined by them exclusively. When we encounter a tree in a relation of one and one, extracted from all the necessary functions of our two day-to-day existences, we will still find that solid core of our most personal bias. In the end, I think we are unlikely to find it elsewhere.

Name: California Black Oak, Quercus kelloggii

Kellogg’s oak from Kellogg’s pen

Here, we can call it simply “black oak”, in recognition of the relatively dark bark. More properly it is California black oak, distinct from the eastern black oak Q. velutina, and indeed a distinctively Californian tree, with only the extremes of its range creeping into Oregon and Baja California. “Kellogg’s oak,” as the Latin translates, is in recognition of Albert Kellogg, an early semi-amateur botanist, co-founder of the California Academy of Science, and by most accounts an all-around decent man. His deeds of note included the first formal descriptions of the giant sequoia, the fairly radical act of hiring women curators at the Academy (including Alice Eastwood), and the posthumous publication of his Illustrations of West American Oaks.