5 minute read

Field Notes: The Willow Oak

~by Jim Eagleman

I have always been a lover of trees. I’m naturally drawn to them and enjoy their presence. I like to confirm the type, noting silhouette, form, and size. If I can’t identify it right off, the challenge remains with me until I can.

Some, like old friends with familiar faces, are recognized immediately. Habitat and range can help while you rely on tactile characteristics like leaves, bark, and buds.

A newcomer to the scene piqued my curiosity. As a botany professor once claimed when identifying any new item, it’s “nature to books, then books back to nature.” She meant for us to first use reference books, keys, and guides to help our inquiry, and then confirm it with a closer look.

This was my recent approach to help identify a large, and unknown to me, tree in our community.

I guess I had parked under this tree and walked by it dozens of times, and drove by it hundreds (probably thousands) of times. It’s located at the entrance to the Brown County Inn parking lot in Nashville. I must have gazed, too, at this tall, natural landmark for years, particularly each fall with its yellow color and massive size, without questioning its kind.

So, as I was leaving the inn one evening, I took a closer look with an app on my cell phone called Seek. I learned this mystery tree, and a neighboring one just like it, is a willow oak.

With more references at home, I read the willow oak has a range along coastal plains from southern New York to Florida, west to Texas, and north to Illinois in the Mississippi Valley. It is described as “a handsome tree used widely for street planting in the south,” as the American elm is in the north. The long and slender leaves are “willow-like” but to me, broader, and not as long and skinny as willow leaves. The willow oak leaves are glossy, have an entire margin with no curves or indentations and, true to its membership in the red oak group, possess a “bristle tip,” a tiny extension of the midrib vein past the terminal end. The willow oak has no relation to the willows, but they may have a preference to soak up water in a similar fashion, since they thrive near streams and floodplains.

Other references term the oak a “large, long-lived and fast-growing deciduous tree,” and it develops a fairly short trunk when grown in the open. Quercus phellos, its scientific name, and the species name phellos loosely translates to “water plant.” These facts and others helped me further, and with a quick look at Deam’s Flora of Indiana, a big, thick book termed, “the naturalist’s bible.”

The author and first state forester, Charles C. Deam, recorded the willow oak close to the year1919: “there have been six reports for this species from Indiana.”

When things become rare, identified as threatened or of special concern; when they pop up like birds blown off course, or trees out of range, they grab attention. For example, when a roseate spoonbill was sighted at nearby Monroe Reservoir, birders from many counties arrived for a glimpse at this unusual shorebird.

The willow oak was equally intriguing to me, and I was eager to learn more. How did it get here? Was it planted, or were its acorns distributed along nearby Salt Creek years ago? I assumed a willow oak could be found here, like on southern flood plains, but it would be a long shot. Was its rare but natural occurrence here due to a mature willow oak with a fall crop of acorns further upstream? Who might know more?

The search was on but with no help from my tree-loving friends, or DNR colleagues. I thought of local residents, our Brown County History Center and Brown County Inn managers. Early construction photos could help me learn more about the tree, which I estimated its age to be close to the century mark. Could IU’s Lilly Library that houses early Brown County photographer Frank Hohenberger’s negatives and photos possibly help?

I soon exhausted all my options, even talking with the city arborist in Bloomington. He knew of a few naturally occurring willow oaks in Monroe County, less than six he thought, most likely planted, “probably a chance occurrence when trees are bundled together and sold as mixed deciduous trees for landscaping.” He estimated the Monroe County willow oaks to be far younger than our Brown County willow oak.

My curiosity continued when I visited the archives at the Brown County Historical Society. I scanned the files but with no luck. If I learn more, I will be sure to include it in upcoming publications. In the meantime, anyone with information on the willow oak at the entrance to Brown County Inn, be sure and contact me through Our Brown County.

You can be sure I’ll be tracking down more unusual and uncommon nature items here in our town and county. It’s what makes this place unique.