Saturday, February 14, 2009

Love song to the post oak

Drive through Rolla, the nice parts of Rolla with the historic Craftsman homes and big lawns, miles away from I-44, and you'll see them standing there like sentries at a gate: Large, stately old post oaks punctuate lawns up and down the main drag through town, all planted otherwise in Bermuda Tifway 319 and rangy shrubs bought at a discount from Lowe's. The vast, rolling expanse of mowed turf in front of the city's recreation center is loaded with them, six big post oaks, all averaging over 100, maybe 200 years old, standing by quietly as runners and swimmers hike past them through the parking lot to the well-lit, nicely appointed gym inside.

Post oaks are scattered all over the Central Plateau, way out of context now, remnants of fire-adapted savannas and open woodlands, all part of a historic landscape that no longer exists here. Rolla isn't the only place with old post oaks, trees my colleague calls "character trees" because they remain as the only semblance of a Missouri landscape lost to rampant agricultural, urban development and roughly 80 years of fire suppression.

A short hike through some of the last tracts of old growth woodlands in the Current River Hills reveals the same story: 200 and 300 year old post oaks surrounded by fire-intolerant sugar maples and the now ubiquitous trashy red oak/black oak matrix that now typifies thousands of acres of the Ozark Highlands. The post oaks serve to remind us of an open landscape, a fire-mediated world rich with a grassy understory and all of the faunal attributes that attracted settlers to the area in the first place. Bison and elk roamed the Ozark woodlands during the time of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, a land surveyor who wrote detailed journals of his expedition through Arkansas and Missouri in the early 1800s; he wrote of grassy woodlands that soaked his trousers each morning because the dew was so heavy. He mentions post oaks, "thinly timbered," with not much else around but grasses and wildflowers. The Current River Hills are often described as forests now, textbook examples of closed woodlands in desperate need of fire. Lots of fire.

Heading east on Hwy. 54, away from the prairies of southwestern Missouri, you glide onto the Springfield Plain. And there, along the highway, are little roadside parks, pullouts with picnic tables resting beneath the wide arms of old post oaks. Lonely, solitary trees, they're surrounded by Bradford pears planted by the local garden club to commemorate loved ones in the community. In September, I gathered a handful of tiny post oak acorns, growing in groups of three, slated for destruction by car tires. The lifespan of a Bradford pear averages 15 years, but the post oaks are still standing there after 300 years of neglect and several centuries of having their roots smothered by a four-lane highway.

Move into the relict tracts of uninterrupted landscapes of the Niangua Basin and you'll see post oaks almost the way Schoolcraft saw them: squat, gnarled old trees, surrounded by big bluestem, Indian grass, lead plant, coneflowers, Baptisia, and all the deer mice, prairie warblers, speckled kingsnakes and, unfortunately, ten times more deer than occurred here historically. Even here, the post oak savannas and woodlands aren't pristine; we don't have the large, roaming, grazing herbivores, we don't have the large predators that would keep the deer population in check. But at least in the great tract of woods I call home in the Niangua Basin -the ones I like to burn, to camp in, to hike through every chance I get- the post oaks are in the right setting, perfectly in tune with the landscape.

More importantly for the Ozark Highlands, however, is that post oaks are regenerating in the Niangua Basin. Elsewhere in their range, like on the Springfield Plain, old post oaks stand in the middle of an allelopathic fescue field. In Rolla, once the post oaks in front of the rec center die, they won't be replaced by others of the same kind, but by Japanese plums or some other showy horticultural cultivar. It's the same story in the Current River Hills, in the White River Hills, in historic fire-adapted savannas and woodlands throughout Missouri's Ozark Highlands. Once the present-day generation of old growth post oaks die, they won't be replaced by other post oaks but by fire-intolerant trees or, more likely, red oaks or black oaks. These post oaks on the landscape represent the last of their kind, testaments to a more open landscape where the forces of nature were once allowed to work freely.

I'm sharing one of my favorite original drawings by Paul Nelson that I took from my living room wall. This elegant, stippled drawing doesn't represent my favorite tract of woods in the Niangua Basin, though it's close. It's a Missouri of the past, a pre-European settlement landscape punctuated with gnarly old post oaks, free flowing creeks, and all the floral attributes once associated with it. We visit the Niangua Basin as often as we can; it's a primeval place down there, where the 300 year old post oak trees grow to a mere 85 feet, but regenerate freely thanks to regular fire regimes. My colleague burns the landscape there every three to five years to insure that ours won't be the last generation to see what Missouri once looked like across thousands of acres.


Justin said...

Nice post, Allison! I share your sentiment for the Post Oak; especially the gnarled ancients that, Ent-like, speak both of days long gone and the possibility of days to come. It is the dominant tree on my small acreage in Dent County. And though I'll never live long enough to see their true graduer, I take comfort in their potential.

Allison Vaughn said...

You're so lucky. Dent Co. is great country, and to have old post oaks out there! I have an old chinquapin who has seen better days, filled as it is with punky wood now, but short post oaks are beautiful, aren't they?

Anonymous said...

Post oak, to me, is more emblematic of Missouri than any other tree. They are common in the woodlands around the Jefferson County glades - still small, straight and narrow as they came up in a choke of growth as those woodlands were fire suppressed prior to the decade that I spent my hours in them. Those woodlands have since seen the return of fire, and the post oaks are sprouting laterals with their new-found elbow room. I look forward to the 23rd century when I come back as an insect - perhaps to bore in dead twig shed from one of those round, stately trees.

Allison Vaughn said...

You'll make a wonderful insect.

Anonymous said...

The Bradford pear belongs with the Mimosa tree...somewhere else.

Allison Vaughn said...

It belongs in a wood pile. I've hacked and squirted almost 1,000 mimosas in my day, all growing along Crowley's Ridge, threatening the rare ecosystems within. I love it when we get terrible ice storms and Bradford pears split right down the middle. I bet they'd make good kindling.

Quinta Scott said...

Several years ago I was doing a lot of work on Missouri's natural areas. Then I got way laid by work on wetlands created by Mississippi.

Last week, on a beautiful February day I got back to Missouri's natural areas with a hike along the Castor River Shut-ins.

I am only beginning to understand the interplay between landscape and vegetation.

I shall continue visiting your blog to learn more.

Allison Vaughn said...

A very noble cause, wetlands created by the maligned Mississippi. Our big rivers are so you get to work with least terns? Neat birds. I'm fascinated by the mussel diversity once common in the Mississippi. Of course, most are extinct now, but it was a productive nursery back in the day. Thanks for reading; I hope I keep you interested. I'm guided by some of the state's finest leaders in conservation (who will totally call me out if I'm wrong on anything...).

Quinta Scott said...

The wetlands project developed into a book to be published next summer: The Mississippi: A Visual Biography. It's a photographic essay.

I introduce the photographs with a history of how the river was formed by glacial action, what we have done to change it, and how we are trying to restore it.

The captions to the photographs pull that information together for each place photographed.

Check out my blog: and my website,

Keep up the good work.

James C. Trager said...

I'm coming to comment on this post rather late, but stimulated by a "Beetles in the Bush" post I noted with interest that, driving home through central Missouri after the 2008 Natural Resouces Conference, I was really struck by the fact that post oaks were virtually undamaged by the ice storms that "tore up" the silver maples, Bradford pears, elms and sycamores planted in yards all over the area.