Tree Notes is about trees -- especially native trees, trees for wildlife, and trees in history.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Bur Oak Canyon of Hitchcock County, Nebraska

Remnant population of bur oaks in southwestern Nebraska

A deep, rugged canyon just 2 miles long, surrounded by vast expanses of prairie, is an unlikely outpost for the bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa). Nevertheless, the Bur Oak Canyon in southern Hitchcock County, Nebraska, has sheltered a remnant bur oak population for thousands of years.

The stand of oaks in Bur Oak Canyon is believed to date back 5,000 to 10,000 years. Of the 300 to 400 bur oaks in the canyon today, some individuals may be 200 years old. They are the only known native bur oaks within 200 miles.

Forester Tim Buchanan of Fort Collins, Colorado, explains that after the last ice age ended about10,000 years ago, the climate became favorable for oaks to spread across the prairies. Oaks advanced even into some parts of Canada. Then about 5000 years ago, the climate became hot and dry on the Great Plains -- and in the area of the Bur Oak Canyon. Oak trees on the surrounding prairies died from the stress of prolonged drought.

The microclimate and geology of the deep canyon helped the bur oaks survive. The bur oak's long taproot also gave the tree a survival advantage. A bur oak seedling sends its taproot deep into the ground before it begins to add height above ground. In the first growing season, it may develop a taproot over a yard in length. It also develops an extensive system of lateral and feeder roots. 

It is suspected that the bur oaks in the canyon carry some genes from hybridizing long ago with other oaks, probably with gambel oaks (Quercus gambelii) and post oaks (Quercus stellata). Gambel oaks are native to South Dakota, Colorado, and the American Southwest. Post oaks are native to most of the Eastern United States. Neither post oaks nor gambel oaks are native to Nebraska today -- presumably they died out in the great drought 5000 years ago, if they ever grew in the area.

Due to cattle grazing in the canyon (which is privately owned and part of a ranch) and a lack of squirrels to disperse the seed, seedlings have a hard time getting started.

The activities of the 2009 Bur Oak Symposium include planting seedlings and acorns, and protecting new and established seedlings. The goal is to reestablish and preserve the stand of oaks in Bur Oak Canyon for the future.

More about Bur Oak Canyon:
Bur Oak Symposium 2008
Bur Oak Symposium 2009
Bur Oak Canyon -- Flickr photoset
Bur Oak Canyon -- Flickriver photoset

Bur Oaks Grown from Seed -- Flickriver photoset

Images in this post are from Wikipedia.

2 comments -- please add yours:

Eastcoastdweller said...

I read somewhere that burr oaks were also more fire resistant than other trees, enabling their survival on the prairies, which are to some degree a human-created habitat (Native Americans).

Genevieve said...

Mature bur oaks are resistant to fire damage because of their thick bark. This, and the ability of their root system to compete with those of deep-rooted grasses, made it a dominant species of the prairies. They are not a forest tree -- their seedlings need sunshine.

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"The power to recognize trees at a glance without examining their leaves or flowers or fruit as they are seen, for example, from the car-window during a railroad journey, can only be acquired by studying them as they grow under all possible conditions over wide areas of territory. Such an attainment may not have much practical value, but once acquired it gives to the possessor a good deal of pleasure which is denied to less fortunate travelers."

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Print references I frequently consult

Benvie, Sam. Encyclopedia of North American Trees. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2000.

Brockman, C. Frank. Trees of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Ed. Herbert S. Zim. New York: Golden, 1986.

Cliburn, Jerry, and Ginny Clomps. A Key to Missouri Trees in Winter: An Identification Guide. Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri, 1980.

Collingwood, G. H., Warren David Brush, and Devereux Butcher. Knowing Your Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1978.

Dirr, Michael. Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs: an Illustrated Encyclopedia. Portland, Or.: Timber, 1997.

Elias, Thomas S. The Complete Trees of North America; Field Guide and Natural History. New York: Book Division, Times Mirror Magazines, 1980.

Grimm, William Carey. The Book of Trees;. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1962.

Hightshoe, Gary L. Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America: a Planting Design Manual for Environmental Designers. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988.

Little, Elbert L. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. New York: Chanticleer, 1996.

Martin, Alexander C., Herbert S. Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson. American Wildlife and Plants. New York: McGraw Hill, 1951.

Mitchell, Alan F., and David More. The Trees of North America. New York, NY: Facts On File Publications, 1987.

Randall, Charles E. Enjoying Our Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1969.

Settergren, Carl D., and R. E. McDermott. Trees of Missouri. Columbia: University Extension, 1995.

Sternberg, Guy, and James W. Wilson. Native Trees for North American Landscapes: from the Atlantic to the Rockies. Portland: Timber, 2004.

Wharton, Mary E., and Roger W. Barbour. Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1973.

Wyman, Donald. Trees for American Gardens. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

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