Short and Spreading Oak

Nearly anywhere you go in the United States you will find oak trees. They are often large and common, so they can often contribute significantly to the look and feel of a place. The effect reaches consciousness if you are a plant nerd. During the year I lived on the Central Coast of California, I was somewhat distracted by the fact that several species of oak did not lose their leaves in the winter. And what could be more different than the spreading, moss-draped live oaks of the Southeast versus the upright, austere red and black oaks of the Northeast?

Spreading post oak in Texas
Spreading post oak in Texas

I have been reading that before the European settlement period Martha’s Vineyard was not as heavily dominated by oak forest as it is now. (When I repeated this statement to a naturalist in the employee of The Nature Conservancy, she contested it. And David Foster’s book A Meeting of Land and Sea indicates that it is a lot more complicated than that.) Supposedly, the up-island portion of Martha’s Vineyard, which is higher, rockier, and less sandy than down-island, was once more of a northern hardwoods assemblage, characterized by beech, maple (mostly red), black tupelo (locally called beetlebung).

But clearing of the forests for sheep raising between the 17th and 19th centuries led to erosion of organic-rich top soil, so when animal husbandry and farming faded and the island became a site for second homes, the forest that returned was one more adapted to drier sites with more mineral-dominated soils. In the Northeast, this tends to be the preferred habitat of the post oak (Quercus stellata).

I am not familiar with this species. It is a common oak in the South and southern Midwest, but is confined to marginal areas in the Northeast: sand barrens and rocky ledges. In Massachusetts it is found in Bristol and Barnstable counties on the mainland (Buzzards Bay and Cape Cod) and on the Islands. This represents the northeastern corner of its range; it extends southward along the Connecticut coast and on Long Island.

"Maltese cross" shape of the post oak leaf
“Maltese cross” shape of the post oak leaf

It is a famously slow-growing species and the wood is rot-resistant. It gets its common name from its sturdiness as a component of fence construction. It often takes a spreading form, the branches assuming sinuous shapes, and generally reaches the height of 50 feet, although it can grow to twice that height in a suitable location.

It is in the white oak group, so the lobes of the leaves are rounded and without the terminal ‘pins’. The acorns mature in one year and are sweet tasting. White oaks also readily hybridize among species, making identifying characters somewhat variable from tree to tree. The post oak usually has leaves that are said to resemble a Maltese cross; they are narrow at the base and have three broad, squared off lobes at the distal end. The underside of the leaves are covered with fine hairs called trichomes. In the post oak these have a star-shaped cross-section, hence the trivial name stellata.

Allen's Farm, Martha's Vineyard
Allen’s Farm, Martha’s Vineyard

Oak leaves are poisonous to sheep and goats, so it seems odd that they are so common on this island, where sheep raising was such an important part of the economy. Apparently the sheep won’t each the leaves if there is enough grass around. Sheep are consummate grazers, even less likely to browse than cattle or horses.

When you wander the conservation lands of Martha’s Vineyard, you frequently encounter stone walls that now wend their way through the woods, but once delimited the boundaries of sheep meadows. Amid the younger trees you find larger, spreading trees — they are occasionally post oaks — that must have been there to provide shade for sheep and shepherd. I still have some questions about whether eating oak leaves was a concern, but it is a pleasant picture to conjure.


A New Kind of Ancient

Ancient woodlands path on Martha's Vineyard. Photo: David R. Foster
Ancient woodlands path on Martha’s Vineyard. Photo: David R. Foster

I recently learned a new term to describe a forest ecosystem. The water district of Oak Bluffs, a town on the northern tip of Martha’s Vineyard, proposed going “green” at the site of their pumps and wells. They would add solar panels to the site to make electricity to power the pumps that supply the town center with drinking water. The plan was shot down by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, the regional planning council, on the grounds the project would entail entirely clearing between 6 and 10 acres of the site to build the frames that hold the panels. David R. Foster, the director of Harvard Forest, which is in central Massachusetts, happens to live in West Tisbury, which is on the island. He told the commission that “ancient woodlands” would be destroyed should the project go forward.

“Ancient woodlands” was initially a baffling term to me (although I found it is used routinely in the United Kingdom). The forests of the island date from the 19th century, generally speaking. As is the case for much of New England, particularly the southern portion, the land was almost entirely cleared for agriculture, pasturage, and for firewood, between the 17th and the 19th centuries.

Beeches on Gay Head Moraine terrain. Photo: David R. Foster
Beeches on Gay Head Moraine terrain. Photo: David R. Foster

Martha’s Vineyard was settled by Europeans after 1641 when Thomas Mayhew purchased the island from the Earl of Sterling and Sir Ferdinando Gorges. The Wampanoag had (and have) inhabited the place since you could walk to it on dry land after the last Ice Age. Like other coastal tribes they burned the land to keep it clear for agriculture and for hunting. Parts of the Vineyard, the portion that is glacial outwash plain, was also open heathland (home to the heath hen), perhaps even before the Wampanoag began burning it systematically, and not forest at all. But in a March 2016 letter (included in an August 2016 letter) to the commission Foster, the author of a monograph about the island’s forests, stated that 40 percent of the Vineyard’s woodlands had come through the historical clearances intact, and the Oak Bluffs water district site was within the largest remaining tract.

Foster explained that an ancient forest is not really about the age of the trees; it is about the age of the ecosystem. The parcel owned by the Oak Bluffs water district turned out to be a piece of land that had never been tilled. The soil architecture and its attendant microbial and invertebrate ecosystems had never been disturbed. It therefore supports a sub-aerial floral communities that is similarly continuous. These are not majestic, old growth forests with towering trees and haunted silences. Instead it is a scrubby-looking tract populated by several species of oak in the canopy and a sub-canopy somewhat oversubscribed with ericads. There is, of course, more to it than that, but that is definitely what meets the eye of the casual observer.

The carbon cycle
The carbon cycle

This is an ecosystem distinct from an old-growth forest. Old-growth as defined by non-foresters includes the idea that the mature trees in a stand have never been felled by a lumbering operation. Old-growth forests presumably share a lot of sub-surface characteristics with ancient forests, but the sub-aerial expression is quite different. No one claimed that the trees at the water district site were hundreds of years old, but Foster said that the ecosystem had been undisturbed by human activity for millennia:

These ancient woods are particularly important because their soils are intact, their vegetation has continuity on the landscape going back thousands of years, the resprouting trees on these sites are many hundreds of years old, and the habitat that they provide is globally rare and valuable to many unusual as well as common species. (excerpted from Foster’s March 6 letter)

Foster and other opponents argued that the forest was doing its job sequestering carbon and keeping it out of the atmosphere, and it was “counterintuitive” to remove it and build solar panels, which were after all meant to contribute to the switch away from carbon-based fuels. Although there is a difference between the short-term storage of carbon in a forest and long-term in a coal deposit, we have little hope of actively creating or maintaining long-term storage (although Freeman Dyson and some others do feel otherwise) and maintaining our ancient woodlands where we still have them seems prudent. Especially, as Foster points out, there are so many roof tops, gravel pits and other disturbed sites where solar panels can be erected.

Gathering the Laurels

I grew up enjoying the site of mountain-laurel blooming in profusion each June. It is a common understory shrub in the Hudson Highlands, one of the northeast-southwest-trending chains of mountains that make up the northern Appalachians through downstate New York. Kalmia latifolia is an evergreen member of the Ericaceae (heath family), but it is definitely most noticeable when it flowers. The pink-tinged white blossoms are arranged in corymbs; the petals are attached to form pentangular bowls. The corymbs are several inches across; each flower is about an three-quarters to an inch in diameter. It is a showy plant.

Mountain-laurel in flower in Maryland.
Mountain-laurel in flower in Maryland.

In addition to their large size, the flowers are set against glossy, dark green foliage. K. latifolia has the tendency to form large, continuous thickets, sometimes covering part of an acre on rocky, well drained hillsides. In the southern Appalachians, they can attain the size of a small tree (over 20 feet tall), but in the northeastern states they are usually five or six feet tall.

I haven’t seen any mountain-laurel on Martha’s Vineyard yet, but it does occur here and is likely to be found “up-island” in the towns of West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah. The Gay Head and Martha’s Vineyard Moraines create a series of northeast-southwest-trending ridges that form the upland portion of the island. The terrain is dotted with large boulders (especially in the Gay Head Moraine areas) and was apparently originally forested with more beeches and maples (Northern Hardwood assemblage), tempering the dominant Oak-Heath presence that still dominates the down-island portion of the island, which a sandy outwash plain formed by the erosion of the moraine.

Sheep-laurel. (Photo: Bob Cunningham)
Sheep-laurel. (Photo: Bob Cunningham)

The most common member of the heath family in the outwash plain is the sheep-laurel, Kalmia angustifolia. This is a much smaller plant than K. latifolia, getting only about three feet all, but it has the same tendency to grow in extensive thickets. It is a common part of the Oak-Heath assemblage wherever it is found. It has evergreen leaves that hang down at a sharp angle. As its trivial name implies, the leaves of sheep laurel are narrow. It can also be distinguished from other Kalmia species because its branches end in terminal whorls of leaves, while the flowers emerge from the stem beneath the terminal leaves. The flowers resemble those of mountain laurel, but are a deep pink and much smaller.

The third member of the genus that is found in the northeastern U.S. is Kalmia polifolia, the bog-laurel. While the other two species are associated with mesic or even dry habitats, K. polifolia lives up to its name and is strongly associated with hydric conditions, although not necessarily bogs. K. polifolia is distinguished from K. angustifolia by the position of its flowers, which are terminal rather than growing further down the stem like the sheep-laurel’s. K. polifolia also blooms in the spring (April or May) rather than in the early summer.


All Kalmia prefer acidic soil conditions. But while sheep-laurel grows on a variety of sites ranging from wet sphagnum bogs to dry jack pine forests, bog-laurel is confined to wetlands (it is also called “swamp-laurel”). Mountain-laurel, on the other hand, prefers drier sites, but can tolerate moist soils at the edges of wetlands. While the sheep-laurel is widespread on Martha’s Vineyard, the bog-laurel is not found here at all.

The fourth member of the heath family found in the Northeast is Kalmia procumbens, the alpine-azalea, but as its name suggests, it is confined to the tundra-like areas on the higher peaks of New Hampshire and Maine and grows to be only 4 inches tall.

All parts of all members of the genus are poisonous to many mammals. The sheep-laurel gets its name for its morbid effect on that species, but the plant is poisonous to all livestock, as well as to humans. Some mammals, caribou for example, can tolerate it, and many birds depend on the fruits for winter forage.

Holding the Beach in Place

I guess I had never visited the dunes of the Atlantic coast in September before, because I was surprised to discover the seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) growing amid the beach grass (Ammophila breviligulata) on South Beach, Martha’s Vineyard last weekend. It is an odd-looking goldenrod; most Solidago species have toothed leaves, usually with rough surfaces, and the individual flowers are tiny. Seaside goldenrod flowers are larger than those of other members of the genus and the leaves and stems are fleshier and thicker, an adaptation to living in a salty, windy environment, where preservation of water is important.

Seaside goldenrod at South Beach, Martha's Vineyard
Seaside goldenrod at South Beach, Martha’s Vineyard

Coastal beaches on Martha’s Vineyard consist of un-vegetated beach faces and berms, sparsely vegetated foredunes dominated by American beach grass and seaside goldenrod and more stabilized and densely vegetated inner dunes with bayberry, saltspray rose (Rosa rugosa), poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) and winged sumac (Rhus copallina).

S. sempervirens gets its trivial name (“always green”) from its habit of holding on to its leaves through much of the winter and sprouting new ones in February or March. They are red when they emerge and then turn green. It begins flowering in August, along with the other goldenrods, but keeps flowering into November, after the other goldenrods have been felled by frost. Seaside goldenrod can be from 3 to 6 feet tall (some sources say up to 8 or 10 feet all); it is shorter in more exposed and nutrient starved locations and taller elsewhere.

S. sempervirens var. mexicana growing at Delaware Seashore State Park
S. sempervirens var. mexicana growing at Delaware Seashore State Park

There are two subspecies. S. sempervirens var. sempervirens, which has showier flowers and grows south to Connecticut, and var. mexicana, which is smaller and grows from Massachusetts south to Texas. It also hybridizes regularly with rough-stemmed goldenrod (S. rugosa).

It is quite salt tolerant and has spread inland in some areas, where it is confined to heavily salted roadsides. It occurs naturally not only from Newfoundland down the east coast of the United States, but also down the St. Lawrence River valley to the Great Lakes. It has spread further into to the Great Lakes region, becoming established in saline areas where few other plants are present to compete with it. It is not regarded as invasive, as it does not spread out of these marginal areas.

Because it is adapted to dune dwelling, seaside goldenrod is one of the species is that is replanted in areas where beach and dune restoration is underway. Beach grass is the primary species to be planted in these projects, but S. sempervirens, beach pea (Lathyrus japonica), beach plum (Prunus maritima), bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) and bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) are all planted as well.

Replanting at Bend in the Road Beach, Martha's Vineyard
Replanting at Bend in the Road Beach, Martha’s Vineyard

I haven’t seen any references to a restoration of South Beach on Martha’s Vineyard and the beach grass/goldenrod community in the dunes there is likely natural. But Joseph A. Sylvia State Beach, a barrier beach between Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, on the northeast side of the island, sees more heavy use and it has been restored using dredged materials 12 times since 1997. In 2008 the Friends of Sengekontacket commissioned the Woods Hole Group to do a study of the state beach and it produced a plan that serves as a guide to managing the beach in the face of heavy use and rising sea level. In November 2012 Hurricane Sandy badly damaged the barrier beach and the sand replenishment and revegetation effort after that event was the most restoration.

In addition to growing on beaches and sand dunes in coastal areas, seaside goldenrod grows in high parts and along the edges of fresh, brackish and salt marshes. It is found in parts of the marsh that are irregularly flooded by tides. It can play an important role in providing nesting habitat for shorebirds like willets, killdeer, and black skimmers.

Who Is This Joe Pye?

Joe-Pye weed has an identity crisis on a couple of fronts. First, its classification has recently changed from Eupatorium to Eutrochium. All the purple-flowered members of the old genus have been place in the new one. The purple-flowered species also have mostly whorled leaves, while those of Eupatorium are generally opposite.

Eutrochium maculatum
Eutrochium maculatum

I have written about Joe-Pye weed before as an enthusiastic volunteer in our meadow garden. It, along with boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), were colonizers of the wetter portions of the side yard that we let go unmown until the first week of November each year. Now that I live in a different part of the village I see Joe-Pye and boneset growing together in the ditches everywhere.

Both have loose clusters of flowers—sort of a sloppy corymb–at the top of the plants and in some species sprouting from the stem joints. The plants tend to be about three feet tall, but they can be much taller. This year, perhaps because of the drought, the Joe-Pye weed seems to be done with flowering early; the blossoms are faded and ragged at the end of August. They are usually beautiful right into October.

The second identity crisis is the question of Joe Pye himself. Sometimes common names can have only tenuous connections to real people: what does Queen Anne have to do with Queen Anne’s lace? There has also been the suggestion that “Joe Pye” is a corruption of a native American word jopi or jopai for typhus, which a decoction of Eutrochium is said to have cured.

Eutrochium purpureum
Eutrochium purpureum

In the case of Joe Pye there is an oft-repeated story that doesn’t seem to have any substance at all. In many places (that is, blogs and plant information sites), you will read of Joe Pye as a native American healer from Salem, Massachusetts, who saved colonists from an outbreak of typhus. It was said to induce sweating. This is interesting in that one of the symptoms of typhus is fever.

An excellent blog post by Richard Pearce at, a site owned by a land stewardship and ecological restoration company, uncovered the likely true story of Joe Pye. Pearce identifies him as Shauquethqueat, a member of the Stockbridge “tribe” of western Massachusetts. Most of the surviving Algonquian people of New England took “Christian” names, at least in part because their own were so badly corrupted by the colonists. There were a lot of Pyes in the Stockbridge area, according to census records from the early 20th century. Shauquethqueat lived in the late 18th century and was a sachem for his people, which meant he probably did have knowledge of herbal medicine.

Goldenrod and late summer Joe-Pye weed
Goldenrod and late summer Joe-Pye weed

Pearce tracks down Shauquethqueat by following the earliest references to “Joe-pye weed” as a common name for various Eupatorium species. The first mention is in Amos Eaton’s Manual of Botany from 1818. In a revised edition of 1822 he adds a footnote that leads Pearce out into western Massachusetts; the president of Williams College reports curing himself of “an alarming fever” that Eaton implies was typhus-caused using a tea made from Joe-Pye weed.

Rationalist that he is, Pearce makes a tea from Eutrochium flowers that he buys in a story and finds that it does not induce a fever (but tastes delicious). He allows that his store-bought herbs may not be as efficacious as fresh ones, but does wonder whether Joe-Pye weed would really be effective against typhus. He cites a mortality rate of 10 to 20 percent for typhus. Typhus and typhoid fever are two different diseases, and he seems to be citing the dangers associated with the latter, which is said to kill 25 percent of victims without treatment. Typhus can kill up to 60 percent of its victims without treatment.

At any rate, Pearce makes a convincing case for the identity of Joe Pye, although its effectiveness as an herbal remedy is left in question.

Inferior Rubber, Superior House Plant

Rubber tree as house plant
Rubber tree as house plant

The rubber plant that you see so often in corporate lobbies, doctors’ offices, living rooms and other large, bright, indirectly-lit rooms is a member of the family Moraceae, which includes mulberries and figs. Ficus elastica is native to the Himalayas, India, western Southeast Asia, and Indonesia. It has become naturalized in many other parts of the world including the Mediterranean, Caribbean, and even south Florida.

It was not the primary source of rubber before the petroleum era. That was Hevea brasiliensis, the Pará rubber tree, which, as its name indicates, is originally from Brazil, but through the 19th century was planted all over the tropics, particularly in Southeast Asia.

Both plants produce a latex material that can be processed into rubber, but that of F. elastica was inferior to that of H. brasiliensis. Latex is found in 10 percent of all plants in one form or another and seemed to have evolved independently many times. It has been shown to be a defense mechanism against herbivory. It is perhaps not a coincidence that latex allergies are common in humans.

Rubber tree as street tree in Brazil
Rubber tree as street tree in Brazil

F. elastica is popular because it is easy to take care of and grows to a relatively large size—8 or 9 feet—relatively quickly. There are dozens of websites that tell you how to take care of these plants. Its biggest problems are overwatering and too much direct sunlight.

As is common among tropical plants, F. elastica is actually fairly drought-tolerant. You should wait until the potting soil is dry to the touch before you give it more water. Then you should really soak it until the water begins to run out the bottom of the pot. It doesn’t like to sit in water, however, and the tray should be empties after the pot finishes draining. If it is over watered the leaves will turn yellow and drop off.

This particular fig likes bright light, but it should not be direct, as the plant does not like temperatures above 85 degrees F. Leaving the plant in bright sunlight will cause it to get stringy. Like a lot of figs, it doesn’t like to be moved around a lot, although some care sites recommend seasonal changes in location.

Ficus elastic flower
Ficus elastica flower

Although it gets to be a big house plant, this is nothing compared to its wild state, where it becomes a substantial tree 90 to 100 feet tall. It is also noted for developing, like the related banyan (another fig) it produces aerial and buttressing roots that hold up the limbs of the tree and give an architectural look.

Like all figs, F. elastica has an unspectacular flower that is pollinated by a local species of fig wasp. Where the wasp does not occur, e.g. Hawaii, the species can grow, but not reproduce sexually. Unless the flower is fertilized, it will not produce fruits.

The new leaves of the plant are first visible as curved, rose-colored spikes sprouting between existing leaves. Eventually the rosy sheath falls off and the deep green leaf unfurls.

The leaves of the rubber plant should be keep clean and moist. They should be wiped with a damp cloth if they get dusty and misted with warm water in the morning if the plant is being kept in hot, dry conditions (e.g. houses warmed by electric heat).

There is mixed information about how often rubber plants should be fertilized. One source recommends once a year in late March or early April. Other sites recommend more frequent applications. This may be related to whether or not the plant becomes dormant or not. Fall to late winter is considered to be the dormant season and watering should be reduced.

An Actual Norwegian

A lot of people love Norway spruces (Picea abies). It has whole websites devoted to extolling its virtues as a landscape tree, as a source of lumber, and as a windbreak and a good species to plant on reclaimed land. I have great memories of climbing them as a kid. One in particular was right outside my window when I was between the ages of 10 and 18 years old.

Mature Norway spruce

When my mother and stepfather took us to look at what would become our home on Spy Hill in Beacon, the first thing my brother and I did was look for trees to climb. The house was at that time over 80 years old and some of the trees on the property may have been that old too. There was a Norway spruce planted in front of the south-facing porch and it was probably over 80 feet tall. It had branches right down to the ground because it had been grown in the open. It was especially wide because one of the lateral branches had decided to grow upward and had become a sort of mizzen mast to the main trunk.

The lower branches become angled downward in old trees; they descend from the trunk and rest on the ground all around the tree. The needles are attached to small, pendulous branches that hang straight down from the lateral branches that extend outward from the trunk in whorls. The overall effect is to give Norway spruces the appearance of being covered with needled drapery that sweep outward in a broad skirt near the ground.

Pendulous branches and cones
Pendulous branches and cones

My brother Ray and I both climbed the tree, but either he started up it before I did, or he was just more excited to be up there. In any case, he did not come down when my mother called for us. Instead he went all the way up to the top of the tree and stood amid the little branches there crowing, “Look at me. I made it to the top!” and waving his arm around while making the crown of the spruce sway wildly back and forth. Mrs. Grady, the elderly woman who was about to sell us her house, just about had a heart attack.

We moved into that house when I was 10 years old and just starting to get interested in natural history. (My first Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds (third edition) was in a pile of debris the Gradys left on the front lawn.) I identified the huge conifer as a Norway spruce and have seen them pretty much everywhere for the rest of my life. Native to central and northern Europe, they grow at all altitudes from Norway to the Ural Mountains and south to southern Poland and also in the Alps and the mountainous regions of Germany and the Balkans.

It is not particularly widespread in Norway, growing in the central portion and along the border with Sweden in the south, but it is at least more aptly named than the Austrian pine, which barely grows in Austria at all.

Rockefeller Center Christmas tree
Rockefeller Center Christmas tree

In the U.S. I have frequently encountered it growing in the woods where it has survived after being planted as a landscape tree and then abandoned. It grows quickly—two to three feet per year—during the first 25 years of its life and can be planted in shade or in the sun. It can be planted in the middle of a grassy pasture and it will outgrow the grass. It is used in Pennsylvania and Indiana to replant strip mined areas.

Because it grows quickly and requires little maintenance, it is often planted as a Christmas tree. The enormous tree required by Rockefeller Center each year is frequently a Norway spruce.