Plants of the Prairie: Northern Red Oak

One of the trees which I believe was planted on purpose in prairie #1 is a Red Oak. Red Oaks are native to Wisconsin. They are distinguished from white oaks by the sharp points on their leaves (as opposed to the more rounded lobes of the white oaks, which seem to be preferred for planting around here). In the fall, the leaves will turn a beautiful, deep cranberry red in fall.

Wisconsin is not one of the prairie states, but large swathes of the state were covered in prairie before European settlement. Alongside the prairies were oak savannahs, which are a blend of pairie and woodland. They are estimated to have covered about 20% of our state. To be considered a savannah, a prairie must have less than 30% tree cover. As you can perhaps see from the photo above, the Western prairie patch at GDS may be on its way to exceeding that percentage, due to the volunteer trees that have taken root next to the red oak tree. Typically, the dominant trees in oak savannahs are, unsurprisingly, oaks but other trees pop up. This is a great resource to read up on the typical trees of the oak savannah.

In our prairie at GDS, rather than the black cherries, hickories and pines that tend to pop up in savannahs, we see aspen, field elm, and box elders. Perhaps this is due to the disturbed nature of the prairie and the mix of trees in the nearby hedgerow? The fact that these prairies have not been burned is also likely a factor. Wildfires played a hugely important role in both the prairies and the savannahs. Oaks dominated the savannahs because they were more likely than other trees to survive a wildfire. A lack of fires on restored prairies like the ones at GDS means other trees, which are not resistant to fire, can take hold and eventually turn the prairie into a woodland. This is where the western patch of prairie at GDS is headed.

Let’s get back to the red oak, though, and why it is important. Oak trees support a huge number of species. I’ve seen resources that list the number of species dependent on them from 2,300-4,000. Whoever is right, I think we can agree that it is a huge number! This includes everything from black bears down to micro-organisms. And don’t forget us humans! While few of us eat acorns anymore (although perhaps that number is growing with current interest in foraging), we do seek oak trees out for their strong, beautiful wood.

In addition to using the wood, oak leaves, bark and galls can be used to make dyes of varying shades of brown, grey, ochre and mauve.

The bark can also be used to make tea to treat arthritis, diarrhea, and colds. The inner bark can also be applied to the skin to reduce inflammation. In both cases, the tannins seem to be the active ingredient.

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