In 2015, October was designated Oak Awareness Month in Illinois, and OAKtober was born. Let’s celebrate!
Why celebrate Oaks?
Oaks are an exceptional plant genus for a multitude of reasons. Oaks are the genus Quercus derived from the celtic quer, meaning fine and cuez, meaning tree. Here is a short list of benefits:
- Oaks are distributed globally, with 400-600 species and over 90 different species in the United States.
- Oaks are the dominant tree in most forest ecosystems (except the desert and the northern coniferous biomes).
- Oaks support more insect, bird and mammal species than any other plant as habitat.
- Oaks are particularly important for caterpillar production. Oaks support 934 species. No other tree genus supports even 100 species.
- Oaks have lignin-rich leaves which are slow to decompose, so the leaf litter provides habitat for soil organisms like arthropods, nematodes, and other invertebrates.
- Over 300 different insect species lay eggs inside the leaf tissue producing unique galls that are the food source for the egg to larva stage.
- Oaks provide ecosystem services such as: oxygen production, carbon sequestration, food production for plants and animals, soil protection from erosion by absorbing the shock of precipitation falling, providing cooling shade, and blocking impacts of strong winds.
- They are extremely long-lived, providing their ecosystem services for an exceptional length of time, in some cases for nine centuries.
- Big size creates big impacts. Their potentially large size provides ecosystem services at an exceptional scale.
- They produce tannins which gives them abnormal resistance to leaf eaters.
- For humans, their wood is very strong and has numerous structural uses with a beautiful grain pattern for things like flooring and furniture.
- Because of the wide distribution and very dense nutritional benefit from the acorn (a fruit, not a nut), some give the oak the distinction of being crucial in the human survival and expansion of human cultures.
- Oaks, like many trees, provide us with cleaner air, stormwater management, energy savings, improved mental health, and sheer beauty.
Oaks are a symbol of strength and stature. The white oak is the Illinois State Tree. The largest oak in Wisconsin is within the Fox River Watershed on a private farm in Waukesha County. Though mighty as the oaks are, nearly a third of the species are endangered worldwide. Oaks are considered a “keystone” species. Keystone comes from the term for the crucial middle block in a stone arch that joins and supports the whole structure, and without it, there comes the potential of collapse. In the case of the oak, it could result in an ecosystem collapse.
The Chicago Region Trees Initiative sprouted out of the Morton Arboretum and currently has over 200 partners covering a seven- county region. The initiative has many branches (pun intended), and one of the branches is Oak Awareness Month. To learn more, visit their page on OAKtober https://chicagorti.org/program/oaktober-oak-awareness-month/
Another initiative is the Morton Arboretum’s Centennial Tree Planting Initiative, which provides trees that will grow and spread their branches, making communities more beautiful and improving people’s lives for the next century and beyond. Amid a changing climate and other threats, the trees are essential to improve the urban forest and provide a multitude of benefits to people and the environment. The project goal is to plant 3000 trees by the spring of 2023 and for the next 100 years. To learn more about this program, visit the Morton Arboretum information page. https://mortonarb.org/centennial/tree-planting-initiative/
Meaningful Watershed Educational Experiences
This year Friends of the Fox River hosted It’s Our Fox River Day across the watershed. As a part of the celebration, the Elgin Math and Science Academy (EMSA) and Morton Arboretum staff came together to plant 20 oak trees on campus. It was a combined celebration of the watershed and OAKtober. Under the supervision of Morton Arboretum staff with Friends of the Fox River and other volunteers, 450 students participated. Students and staff learned about the value of oaks/trees, proper planting technique, and the joy of offering a handful of soil to individual trees as a gift to prosper. All students had the opportunity to actively participate, and for many students, it was their first time using a shovel and planting a tree. It was a beautiful event with 20 different mini ceremonies. It was the kind of educational experience that provides active learning and lasting impressions, something that is missing for youth today, which is the focus of Friends of the Fox River.
Our education services come in many forms. We focus on boots-on and in-stream water experiences. Being in the river is an emotional experience. One thing students learn is to collect water quality data. To learn more, visit: https://friendsofthefoxriver.org/about-us/education/
Please enjoy OAKtober however it works for you. Consider these suggestions:
- Go visit a grove of oak trees.
- Hug and thank an oak tree.
- Collect and pot acorns for gifts.
- Make art or write a poem, verse, or personal quote with oaks as your inspiration.
- As leaves begin to fall, try catching one to make a wish.
Or select from other OAKtober ideas at https://chicagorti.org/program/oaktober/