Traveling South with the Arborsmiths, Part 2

Traveling South with the Arborsmiths, Part 2

 Burr Oak tree, king of the prairie, summer

Burr Oak tree, king of the prairie, summer

Backyard Wisdom
Gilbert A. Smith, ISA Board Certified Master Arborist
all photo credits: Lesley Bruce Smith

In Northern Illinois the dominant species, the king of the prairie, remains the giant Burr Oak. Standing strong where most trees fail. You can see it on hill tops and out crops from Chicago to Rockford and all the way through Iowa. Burr Oak still grows down south but it becomes far less prominent, while the Red and Shingle Oak, Sweet Gum, Red Maple and of course Sycamore are the trees we notice at 60 MPH.

 Burr Oak tree, king of the prairie, winter

Burr Oak tree, king of the prairie, winter

The Flowering Dogwood, in October, was in burgundy fall color taking over the understory. In May before the big trees foliate, when the Dogwoods and Redbuds dress the forest in white and pink lace it is wonderful to behold the Tennessee and Kentucky woods. Though it is one of the best known flowering trees in the country I’d never even seen a flowering Dogwood until I was 17, when I left Illinois.    

 Redbud, Cercis canadensis in full spring flower

Redbud, Cercis canadensis in full spring flower

The waxy green interior leaves of the Tupelo tree (as in, “she’s as sweet as Tupelo honey”) contrast sharply with the blood red of the exterior leaves. They’re just thinking about changing for the fall. A normally shy and reserved member of the southern forest this tree has tried and failed to survive at The Chicago Botanic Gardens a victim of heavy clay soil.

 Flowering Dogwood, Cornus florida

Flowering Dogwood, Cornus florida

As soon as we cross the Ohio river into Kentucky the soil changes from flat sandy clay to rolling rocky outcrops and rusty red soil.  The red color comes from oxidized Iron. This is what the soil in most of the tropical world looks like. You’d think that the soils down South and in the rain forests are luxuriantly fertile, but it is quite the opposite. The Iron Oxide is a tip off that the soil has been washed of all of its nutrients by relentless rain.  Our delicious, black, Illinois soils are the ones with all of the nutrients. Red soils teach us that the plants that grow there are the nutrient holders, not the soils they grow in.
    
In the South, around the 1800s the forests were lumbered or cleared for cotton and tobacco, the soil was quickly depleted, eroded and destroyed. It was good for nothing. Pictures of the 1920‘s agricultural lands in Georgia and much of the South looked like a desolate moonscape. However, soil conservation pioneered by the Callaway family of Callaway Gardens, located just south of Atlanta, essentially saved the South. The Callaway’s used rotation planting, cover cropping, interplanting with peanuts, and shelter belts. These new soil conservation techniques completely restored the beautiful agrarian south. It is sad to note that slash and burn farming is still used in the majority world with the same destructive results. The lesson that I learned; one family can make a difference in protecting our greatest heritage - the land.

Next month, crossing over into endless summer. Printer friendly version of Backyard Wisdom January 2015