For the past several weeks, the glory of the southeastern Massachusetts landscape has been its oaks.
I admit that my love of oaks came later in life. Don’t get me wrong, I always liked the trees and their acorns; indeed, a large red oak arched over my childhood home. Yet their strength and subtle beauty eluded my attention as I relished the splashier maples and discovered new species: eastern hemlocks, yellow birch, Atlantic white cedar, and many more.
When vacationers plan a foliage tour, they head north to see New England’s famed northern hardwoods: especially, its sugar maples, birches, and American beech. Have you met anyone eager to see the oaks turn color? Or, to plan a foliage trip to southeastern Massachusetts? Yet this region’s autumnal beauty is truly special.
The first thing to realize is that several different species grow in Massachusetts and, although they share some basic characteristics, they don't all look alike. Their fall foliage can range from golden brown to scarlet to colors that are hard to describe.
The dominant upland forest in this region, an area where forests are the norm, is an oak forest. In some of these woodlands, especially those that were cleared or previously used for agriculture, white pines are abundant. In other forests, hickories play an important role. Of course, other tree species grow in these forests including red maple, black birch, and sassafras. Prior to the devastating blight, American chestnuts dominated alongside the oaks. Even in the pine barrens of Cape Cod, scrub oaks complement the pitch pines.
The oak forest community is not readily apparent at the Ames Free Library because this and the surrounding properties have been modified by people for quite some time. Parking lots, lawns, hardscaping, and formal gardens constitute the majority of the acreage, and these landscapes are maintained with mowers, sprinklers, and other treatments. Some of the noticeable trees growing on the property were planted as part of its landscape design: tulip trees and black walnuts would not ordinarily be growing in such abundance; little-leaf lindens aren’t native to the U.S.
The place to look for remnants of the oak forest is at the property’s edges. This is also where I found mushrooms, for our fungal species are closely associated with the eastern forests. There are several oaks along the southern edge of the property, that is, the same side as Oakes Ames Hall. Here’s one that’s hard to miss!
The specimen on the left is closer to Queset Garden; the tree on the right is near Main Street.
On the steep, grassy slope between these mature trees, vigorous seedlings are building the next generation.
All around the area one can find some impressive oak trees, in good health or otherwise.
Manley Street, West Bridgewater
Pearl Street, Brockton
And, in some locations such as Borderland State Park, the oaks grow as part of a healthy plant community.
This week, I urge you to pay extra attention to oaks. Collect several oak leaves of different shapes and colors. Find three acorns whose caps differ in their details. And, if you want “extra credit,” start noticing bark. Next week, we’ll consider some of these distinguishing characteristics and begin to address the enormous role that oaks play in the ecology of American forests. As a preview, consider the following scientific assessments. According to the authors of American Wildlife & Plants, acorns are “the staff of life for many wildlife species” (meaning birds and mammals). Similarly, entomologist Douglas Tallamy speaks of oaks as “quintessential wildlife plants” for their ability to support Lepidoptera, that is, butterflies and moths. This all-important genus of plants grows all around us . . . in my backyard and, maybe, yours.