Planting an Oak Tree

Feb 24, 2020

Planting a tree is an act of love and sacrifice, knowing that depending on the species, you may not live long enough to see it reach maturity. In this episode of Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist reflects on the meaning behind the act of planting an oak tree.

I am a big fan of reusable bags and tote bags, and I pick them up wherever they are available. At one conference, I picked up a bag from a company that sells tree seedlings. Although it is small, it has become one of my favorite bags. One of the sayings on the side says “if you are only going to plant one tree, make it an oak.”

I think about that a lot. Planting a tree can be rewarding. Come to think of it, I have really planted a lot of trees. Starting when I was very young, and my grandparents owned a tree nursery, I was riding a planter and putting trees in the ground. It has continued my entire life. Some of them were seeds, some were saplings, and thanks to my dad selling tree transplanters, some of them were full grown. I have planted blue spruce from Colorado and acorns from Florida too.  I have a pear tree that I planted in Minnesota when my oldest child was born, and have transplanted it three more times since then.

I have planted thousands of trees in my career, too, very few of which were oak trees. Well, I take that back. There were a couple of times where we attempted a direct oak seed planting by flinging acorns out the back of a manure spreader. However, most of the trees I planted were white ash, red cedar, dogwoods, plums and willows. Oh, and Siberian crab apples. And on my friend’s property we planted red pine and spruce trees. While I can take you to see many of the trees I have planted in the last decade or so, I never got to see if most of the trees even grew. It takes a special person to plant a tree that they will never see grow.

So what is so special about oak trees then? Well, nothing and everything. They produce some of the hardest wood for walking sticks, canes, furniture and firewood.  Oak trees can be found around the world, especially in the Northern hemisphere. Many of our ancestors revered this tree for its strength and beauty; I have a German cuckoo clock at home that is carved out of oak, and it is adorned with oak leaves and acorns. Oak trees are considered a tree of life; the acorn is readily recognized as a symbol of growth and renewal. Oak trees are strong, spreading trees that stand up to any kind of weather. In 2004,  Congress declared the oak to be the official tree of the United States of America. In the early days, these trees would serve as classrooms for children and a place for ranchers to meet and worship. Treaties were signed there, and they were used as battlefield landmarks and property boundary markers.

Another reason oak trees are special is because they are considered a symbol of enduring love. Couples have long sought out lone oak trees in which to carve their initials, or under which to hold their weddings. In folk songs, women who died lovelorn would ask to have an oak tree planted by their grave to signal heartbreak to the world. During World War II, a soldier asked his beau to tie a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree as a signal that she still loved him after three years. Much to his delight, upon his return, there are a hundred yellow ribbons tied around the old oak tree.

Wildlife loves oak trees. Any animal that can fit an acorn into its mouth will eat it. The trees provide excellent habitat, often providing cavities and dens for wildlife. A healthy oak tree is very long lived; they may not even start to reproduce until the age of 50, and can live for hundreds of years. They can take a hundred years to die, during which time they provide more homes for animals and food for woodpeckers.

Planting an oak tree is a commitment to the future. Most of us will never see what becomes of an oak tree grown from an acorn in our lifetime. It is a move of faith that the tree will live long enough to benefit future generations of wildlife and people. So, if you only ever plant one tree, make it an oak.