Our discovery of a white oak grove required of us considerable wandering. They were not the trees we had been looking for; those had been mutilated by a county right-of-way edict. But our grove of fifty or so trees was safe in a savanna adjacent to a narrow farm lane that had been either spared or forgotten by the chainsaw gang. The corridor that had been so savagely cleared might have been overlooked as well, as it was remote and rarely traveled. But the possibility that one day this road would see heavy traffic outweighed the rarity of a white oak stand in the eyes of the authorities.
We had gone to a lot of trouble to find these rumored trees. This population of white oaks (Quercus alba) was located at the extreme western reach of its range. Though abundant in adjacent northwest Missouri, white oaks are rare in Nebraska. In former times they might have ranged farther west, but whites, along with other oaks, were heavily logged during the early days of settlement. White oak lumber was prized for sturdiness and resistance to decay, making it valuable for flooring, posts, tool handles, and other pioneer needs. It was particularly desirable for making casks. For this reason, my woodsman uncle knew it as “stave” oak.
Our search for acorns went unrewarded save for one old oak that overhung the farm lane. It was loaded with fat, ripe acorns that had not yet begun to fall. Fortunately, I was accompanied by Robert Smith, a professional seed collector who has the advantage of being part squirrel. Our only other asset was my ’98 Honda. Most of the acorns were out of reach as Robert perched precariously on the canoe rack while I worked the clutch. The resulting rocking and pitching put Robert in dangerous reach of one more acorn and then another as he careened like a vertiginous squirrel on the roof of a moving car.
We didn’t have to worry about traffic or the law on that lonely lane. However, my lurching and Robert’s acrobatics did fascinate a far-off farmer sitting on a tractor that was even older that he was. Suspicion, consternation, or befuddlement compelled him to change vehicles and investigate. We tried to appear nonchalant as he pulled up and rolled down his window. To our delight, he turned out to be a well-spoken man of generous spirit. He was a lifelong resident of that land and a devoted steward of oaks.
This man and his neighbors had largely refrained from clearing the remnant woods on their land. In addition to white oaks, other native oaks grow in that county: bur (Q. macrocarpa), red (Q. rubra), black (Q. veluntina), blackjack (Q. marilandica), and chinkapin (Q. muhlenbergii). His land contained beautiful specimens, and we were delighted to learn of his ethic. After giving us a local history lesson and granting free access, he drove off in his vintage pickup to resume the demands of the day. We resumed our work as well, devising elaborate schemes to capture acorns beyond our reach and cleverness.
We had spent a hard season collecting native seed, often attempting feats of agility and strength that are ill advised for men of waxing girth and waning youth. That week we concentrated on the Iowa, Missouri, and Nebraska counties along the Missouri River. The eastern deciduous forest follows the river north and west, painting a green hardwood stripe on the plains—hemmed by tallgrass prairie on either side. We collected seeds from buckeyes, pawpaws, hickories, basswoods, hawthorns, bladdernuts, hop-hornbeams, and many others, in addition to a variety of oaks. Each of these is a tough frontier cousin of eastern kin, often growing in isolated pockets and hard-to-reach habitats.
Of course, it would have been much easier to buy some trees. But high-quality native trees of local provenance can be very difficult to find in commerce. Ironically, it is often easier to buy a tree from another country than one that is native to your own county. And to that irony we can add another: Many conservation and community planting projects rely on exotic trees or “native” trees of distant or unknown origin as a way to improve wildlife habitats or make communities greener. That’s like trying to help sandhill cranes by releasing flamingos.
If you want to help the planet, plant wild plants. If you want to have abundant butterflies and birds in your backyard, plant wild plants. If you want a sustainable landscape that requires minimal water, chemicals, and care, plant wild plants. A wild plant is native and grown directly from seeds collected in natural ecosystems in your area. Seasonal rhythms, resilience, and the ability to successfully integrate into local food webs are preserved in wild seeds and saplings. It’s not enough to plant a native tree; those that are native, local, and wild do the most good.
Desire for wild seed only partly accounts for our obsession. The other part, at least for me, is an Acorn Ethic. That is, the conviction that the act of planting a wild tree benefits the planter. Planting wildly joins a cascade of energy. The seed or sapling creates a community upon planting; energy gathered by photosynthesis and released through reproduction, consumption, and eventual decay moves through countless bodies and takes many forms. The planter will never see the fullness of this cascade but is nevertheless drawn into it. Kneeling to plant, we are at once humbled and enlivened.
After the kind farmer drove away, we approached our task from every angle. We searched the grove on knees and bellies, finding few acorns and even fewer that were not half-eaten by weevils or squirrels. Most of the trees were taking the year off from reproduction, and the few low-hanging acorns we could reach required viability testing. Some collectors carry a knife to open acorns for visual inspection. I prefer to eat a few; a moist, meaty acorn indicates a viable crop. After a long while, we returned to the lane with just a handful of acorns and an impressive collection of frontal chigger bites.
The long afternoon began to cool. Robert and I had harvested what we could reach (and some that we couldn’t), so we resigned ourselves to half-empty buckets and a long drive home. As we packed up, the kind farmer returned with an enormous tool of his own creation: a sinister-looking steel hook that was at twelve feet long. We speculated that it was used either to close a gate while sitting on a tractor or to teach hippie tree huggers a lesson. To our delight, this tool enabled us to risk serious injury even further and to double our reach and take. Our hopes increased with the weight of our haul. The promise of having wild oak saplings next planting season made a good day in the woods even better.
Others who want to plant wildly also have reason for hope. An increasing number of nurseries are growing wild local trees and other native plants, and there may be one in your area. Or better yet, embrace the Acorn Ethic in its purest form by collecting your own seeds. Planting an acorn produces a sturdy oak sooner than you may think, and something wild might germinate in you as well. We will embrace the ethic by returning to those lovely white oaks to collect and to entertain a farmer when the acorns are ripe. Robert can use his new hook.
Favorite Native Trees and Shrubs for the Loess Hills and Missouri Valley
A native plant is one that was indigenous to an ecosystem at the time of European exploration and settlement. Early explorers documented the plants that they saw along the way, and later botanists made more detailed accounts. This work continues today. My colleagues and I rely on historical accounts, published floras, verification from botanists, and our own fieldwork to locate native plants in the wild. The following includes some of the woody plants we have documented and recommend for planting in the southern Loess Hills in Iowa and Missouri and adjacent Nebraska counties.
A variety of oak species are indigenous here: white (Quercus alba), bur (Q. macrocarpa), blackjack (Q. marilandica), red (Q. rubra), black (Q. veluntina), and chinkapin (Q. muhlenbergii). We have also found populations of western buckeye (Aesculus glabra v. arguta), pawpaw (Asimina triloba), shagbark hickory (Carya ovata), bitternut hickory (C. cordiformis), hackberry (Celtis occidentalis), redbud (Cercis canadensis), downy hawthorn (Crataegus mollis), Kentucky coffee-tree (Gymnocladus dioica), hop-hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana), black cherry (Prunus serotina), choke-cherry (P. virginiana), basswood (Tilia americana), and prickly-ash (Zanthoxylum americana) in the Missouri Valley. Local ecotypes of these tree species are excellent for planting in southwest Iowa, southeast Nebraska, and northwest Missouri.
Green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), white ash (F. americana), honey-locust (Gleditsia triacanthos), and American elm (Ulmus americana) are also native but can be troubled by pernicious pests and diseases in the landscape. Planting specimens grown from wild, local seed can mitigate some of these problems, but the use of these species should be limited.
These are some of our favorite woodland shrubs in this region: button-bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), silky dogwood (Cornus ammonium), rough-leaved dogwood (Cornus drummondii), red-osier (C. sericea), wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus), smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), black currant (Ribes americanum), goose-berry (R. missouriense), bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia), wolf-berry (Symphorocarpus occidentalis), coralberry (S. orbiculatus), and nanny-berry (Viburnum lentago).
Care should be taken to plant the appropriate local ecotype for your area and to plant trees and shrubs together in natural communities. The native plant societies of Iowa, Missouri, and Nebraska are excellent resources for learning about natives.
Phillips’s latest book, The Bur Oak Manifesto: Seeking Nature and Planting Trees on the Great Plains, has been published by Prairie Fire Press. For more information and to place a preorder, visit www.nebraskabooksource.com/products/the-bur-oak-manifesto.