December Wisdom from the Trees 2014

Tree of the Month • Live Oak - Quercus virginiana
by: Lesley Bruce Smith, ISA certified arborist

Live Oak

The Live Oak is so named because it is a tree that is native to the southern climates of the United States and is actually “evergreen”.  We encountered this tree, up close and personal, for the first time, while on our bike ride through Louisiana this fall. Often graced with the softening effects of the spanish moss that hung from its branch tips and the ferns that would grow along its massive horizontal branches, it is without question a quintessential example of enduring arboreal beauty.  While riding one day I stopped and photographed the tree shown here and paced off its size.  It has a 125 foot branch spread and its trunk was 10 feet in diameter!  It made me reflect on the fact that it was alive and probably quite large at the birth of our nation.  A conservative estimate of its age would be between 350 and 450 years old and I felt quite humbled standing below its massive canopy.

  Reserrection Fern and Spanish Moss on the branches of a Live Oak.  photo: Lesley Bruce Smith ©2014

Reserrection Fern and Spanish Moss on the branches of a Live Oak. photo: Lesley Bruce Smith ©2014

The Live Oak was used for ship building and starting in 1799 large stands of southern land covered in Live Oak were purchased by the federal government for naval purposes. The Oak, it has been said, can be compared to our dog friends in its place as man’s companion. Throughout Europe and North America the Oak has a long history of deep religious and magical significance. The growth of mistletoe on Oaks appears to contain lectins, a substance hotly debated by scientists who have discovered that lectins specifically target cancer cells and kill them.* In the Americas Oaks have been an important source for food, especially in the winter months.  It seems appropriate to share, in a discussion of ancient Live Oaks, that leading edge research has revealed that trees can actually “hear”.  Their listening range is a bit louder than the range of a normal human voice.  Interestingly, the listening response in plants is the creation of gibberellic acid, a hormone that stimulates growth.*  So there is great truth to the idea that our plants respond positively when we “talk to them” and I think it lends credence to the sense of wisdom we feel in their presence.

* Source for these statistics is Arboretum America, A Philosophy of the Forest, by Diana Beresford-Kroeger ©2009, The University of Michigan Press

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Backyard Wisdom
by: Gilbert A Smith, ISA master arborist

Traveling South with the Arborsmiths - PART 1   

   Sycamore Tree.   photo © 2012 Lesley Bruce Smith

Sycamore Tree. photo © 2012 Lesley Bruce Smith

What do two Arborists see when they travel?  Come along with us for a 3 part series, Traveling South. Normal families have games to occupy their children when they travel, but in the Smith family we played: “Who can find the first Beech tree?”  If you know what to look for as you leave the Chicago region, you’ll see that the forest tells us stories.

Very soon, upon leaving the city, we encounter our first tree detective clues that we are headed out of town. When you see the white trunks of the Paper Bark Birch you’re probably heading into the great northern woods.  The grey elephant skin trunks of the American Beech peak out of the roadside woods telling you that you are entering the vast eastern Beech/Maple forests.  When you observe trails of tall, alligator bark, lightning struck Cottonwoods following the river courses you know you’re heading west into the great plaines where trees are not welcome.  But the stately, white trunks of the American Sycamore say we are headed south. There is no doubt why this picturesque tree is part of the Indiana state song, “Through the Sycamores the candle light is gleaming...”

   Riverbirch Stand   • photo © 2012 Lesley Bruce Smith

Riverbirch Stand • photo © 2012 Lesley Bruce Smith

By mid-state Indiana the River Birch spring up naturally along the rivers.  Groves of Sassafras with their root beer tasting twigs show up as well. These three trees, the Sycamore, Sassafras and River Birch grow in N.E. Illinois when planted, but none of their thousands of seeds will germinate. However, when I install my pots of potting soil beneath these trees the seeds germinate so heavily they threaten to crowd out my flowers. Why? Here is a hint, mid state is right where the glaciers in the last ice age halted their southern advance.  If you look at a topographic map you will see concentric circles south around Lake Michigan, of glacial moraines or ridges where the detritus carved out of the lake were dumped. The final ones, terminal moraines end at about Champaign/ Urbana and Indianapolis.  

Most of us who live in the midwest take our beautiful black soils for granted, thinking that the dirt is like this throughout the world. Not so. Nowhere else in the world are the soils as rich and productive as those in Illinois, Indiana and Iowa. It’s also surprising that as we pass out of the world’s most fertile soils the trees grow a full 30% taller. The short explanation is trees in general like acid, well drained, loose soils.  However, our soils, where the glaciers once walked, are alkaline, poorly drained heavy clay. (For the longer explanation see the Arborsmith Wisdom, called “Ice, Water, Wind and Fire, the Story of Illinois Soils” - Wisdom from the Trees September 2014).

Next month we’ll see how one family saved the south.

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Mother Nature’s Moment
by: Lesley Bruce Smith, ISA certified arborist

A Brief Pause, Tyler’s Ride Update, Harvest Salad


Many thanks to all of you who followed our fundraising bike ride across the state of Louisiana to raise awareness and funding for childhood cancer research.  With your help St Baldricks received over $40,000 in memory of our late niece, Tyler. It was an amazing experience to ride along side Gil’s brother, Jon, and sister in law, Kim.  We were continually humbled by the warmth and support of everyone we met. We give thanks for you, our supporters, and for our healthy bike riding bodies that carried us across 400 miles of the deep American South and then another 4000 auto travel getting to and from our bike ride start and finish destinations. Upon our return I learned of the unexpected death of my brother, John, and so we are a bit behind in our newsletters. Please forgive us.

I thought in light of all the holiday celebrations I would share an original recipe from our gardens that was a huge hit at our Thanksgiving table this past week. Gilbert grows kale in our all season garden and it is a cold tolerant vegetable. In the interest of good taste and healthy living I share it with you here after listening to table conversation at a fundraising dinner last month where our table mates announced that they were  trying to eat more kale but found that it was always bitter.  Well, not when you prepare it this way.  Bon appetite!  

Harvest Kale Salad
4-6 cups of washed organic de-stemmed fresh kale leaves
1/4 cup of pine nuts (can substitute slivered almonds or chopped pecans)
1/2 large organic pear, crispy hard to ripe (can substitute crisp apple)
1/4 cup of shaved parmesan cheese
1/8 cup of organic balsamic vinegar
1/8 cup of organic olive oil
salt to taste, approx. 1/8+ teaspoon natural sea salt
approx. one Tablespoon of either organic grape seed oil or organic olive oil


  • De-stem and chop kale into bite size pieces and put aside
  • Heat wok or large frying pan until hot and then add cold grape seed or olive oil to hot pan. Very important to keep pan hot and oil cool until just before cooking.
  • Immediately add kale to hot wok and lightly sear until all leaves are bright emerald green. This will only take about 30 seconds to a minute, so keep tossing the kale through the searing process then immediately remove from pan and put into serving bowl.
  • Sauté to a light brown the pine nuts in heated wok adding a small amount (1/2 teaspoon) of additional oil if necessary. This will only take a minute or two, then add nuts to salad.
  • slice pear very thin and add to kale
  • Mix equal parts of balsamic vinegar and oil and add salt to taste and whisk until smooth.
  • Pour dressing over salad and then garnish with shaved parmesan cheese.

The entire salad only takes about ten minutes to prepare and is packed full of nutritional goodness and yumminess. Our dinner guests said it was their favorite dish in the Thanksgiving feast, who knew?

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