wrote Thomas Carlyle, but a hundred acorns are sown in silence by an unnoticed breeze. Here at Lasdon Arboretum in Katonah, New York, foresters, ecologists, gardeners and volunteers are giving that breeze a little bump.
To wind up with an oak forest you need to start small–even tiny, with seedlings that look more like sticks than the mighty trees they will become.
These bare-root specimens are being coaxed to thriving in an experimental 1,000-tree “oak orchard” as part of an important initiative called the Northeastern Urban Silviculture Study. Its purpose is to demonstrate how local ecotypes perform at different locations across the Northeast. Westchester Parks, which runs Lasdon, is partnering in this experiment with the United States Forest Service.
The idea emerged from a series of five virtual workshops with experts earlier this year that focused on how traditional forestry might translate to urban forests. Oak trees have been celebrated over time as symbols of longevity, strength and stability, endurance, power and justice. They can grow to the age of three hundred or more. Often the leaves of Quercus hang on all the way through the winter. You can see a few even on these twiggy seedlings.
Lasdon is an extremely civilized place. Yes, the 234-acre former estate boasts lovely wooded trails, but it also has family-friendly exhibits (dinosaurs, butterflies) and a botanical garden in which visitors may stroll and enjoy perennial flowers and shrubs.
Specimen trees like Japanese maples are now just springing forth.
There are carefully labeled border plantings.
Now exhibiting one of my favorite botanical phenomena, cauliflory, whereby flowers bud and bloom directly on trunks and branches.
Nice benches appear on pleasant walkways to rest and contemplate it all.
The oak project is a bit different. The boughs of the oak are roaring inside the acorn, wrote the English poet Charles Tomlinson.
Max Piana, a research ecologist with the US Forest Service, breaks briefly from his labor to tell me that two species will be studied. First, white oaks are being planted here at Lasdon to investigate climate adaptation. The work is being funded by folks in Kentucky, because they are running out of the white oak needed to produce barrels in which bourbon is aged. Apparently no other wood will do for this purpose. “Otherwise it becomes scotch or whiskey,” Max tells me. White oak is so cool.
To prepare for today’s planting, volunteers collected acorns from locations all the way from Memphis to Massachusetts, including sites in Baltimore, Kentucky and New York. The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, said Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was probably speaking metaphorically, but he might have approved of the literal version underway here at Lasdon.
The acorns were propagated and “families” of seedlings gathered. This is Max holding one such family, which looks to me more like a twiggy bouquet of infant oaks.
Spread out across the oak plot at Lasdon is a “rainbow” of trees, red, white, purple and so on, reflecting the originating conditions of the acorns, “from hot to cold.”
Trees will be assessed as they grow for qualities that include drought resistance. “That’s how you improve cultivars,” says Max. “We’ve got to get a jump on climate change.”
Specimens were mailed to the University of Kentucky, where they’ve been kept in cold storage until the spring planting season. “They’re still asleep, just waking up now,” says Max.
The project will also install 8,000 chestnut oaks in forest gaps beginning this fall. A member of the white oak group, the chestnut oak currently grows here in New York at the northern edge of its range. The idea is ultimately “to increase their abundance here,” says Max. When urban forestry is discussed, he says, “Nobody ever talks about these forest tracts. They talk about street trees.” Yet, remarkably, there are fully 10,000 acres of urban forest in New York City alone.
Students have come to Lasdon today to help in the planting.
They cut down through the tough sod with their spades and insert each seedling firmly in its new habitat.
Mulch will follow, along with plenty of water, especially in the first year as the trees get established.
Think of the fierce energy concentrated in an acorn! wrote George Bernard Shaw. You bury it in the ground, and it explodes into an oak!
One student assesses things more simply. “Planting is so therapeutic,” she says. “Why cut trees? We need them for our life.”