Oak trees are interesting during the summer months, but come fall when they lose their leaves, they take on a completely different character. I was thinking about that around Halloween when I went for a walk through the Turtle Mountain forest. As I paused to observe an old gnarled bur oak, it dawned on me that most of those trees illustrated in spooky stories and cartoons must be modeled after bur oak.
Take a good look at some old bur oak trees. Trees, like people may age gracefully. Oaks, not so much. They look like life has not been kind to them. It is as though each gnarly branch displays the cumulative effect of each and every raging blizzard, drought, and hot scorching summer day it has withstood. But what character these oaks have!
There are somewhere around 600 species of oaks (Quercus spp.), about 100 of which are native to North America. Most of the North American oaks are found in the eastern portions of the continent. The native range of bur oak is roughly within a line from southern Manitoba south to east Texas then northeast to New York and back to southern Manitoba. It might surprise you, but bur oak is the most widely distributed oak in North America and has the northernmost distribution of the oaks.
Part of that bur oak character is likely due to bur oak being one of the most drought and cold tolerant oaks. It can also tolerate a wide range of climactic and soil conditions. And that thick bark gives it protection from fire. Bur oak is a slow growing tree, and a 10-15 year old tree can likely survive repeated fires. An old mature tree would likely suffer little if any damage from a fire. Those characteristics help explain why bur oak it is so widely distributed in our region. And where forest and grassland wage their turf battles, bur oak is often on the front lines.
So the next time you see an old oak tree, pause a few minutes to consider what that old oak has been through. All those blizzards droughts, and blistering summer days have made their mark on it. But it probably is still standing tall and strong. And if all goes well, next summer it will again provide some welcome shade.