Students, faculty, and parents at Berkeley’s Malcolm X Elementary School welcomed a new dendro-American citizen to our town in a brief ceremony Friday morning, April 29, National Arbor Day. A 35-foot northern red oak had been planted in the schoolyard to replace a senior elm, removed because it was dying.
The new oak, already planted and guy-wired in place, was just beginning to unfurl its leaves. This had been a matter of some suspense, as the tree had been trucked here from its native field in British Columbia; the rigors of transport, especially wind, can dehydrate a plant in full leaf to the point of injury or death. But the tree cooperated, and the nurseryfolk pulled it all off skillfully—no small feat, moving a plant that weighs as much as a elephant, with a delicate rootball and a weird center of gravity.
Malcolm X student Lowell Berry commanded everyone’s attention by opening the ceremony with a saxophone solo of the “Ode to Joy.” Principal Cheryl Chinn and Tony Rossman, a parent of two Malcolm X students, welcomed the crowd and told a little of the history of Arbor Day. Robert Trachtenberg, who had organized the purchase of the tree, spoke of its individual and species life history and its journey to Berkeley. He elicited the promise of the students not to climb the tree while it’s young and fragile, and told them a little about its life and trees in general.
Second-grade students Rose Trachtenberg, Celia Bolgatz, Louisa Mascuch, Josephine Thornton, Alice Rossmann, and Molly Rossmann read Joyce Kilmer’s anthemic tree poem (“I think that I shall never see/ A poem as lovely as a tree…”) in chorus. After the recitation and remarks and thanks, a practical connection: students and others lined up with paper cups to pour a little water flavored with fertilizer onto the tree. Mr. Berry closed the ceremony with another sax solo, of the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.”
Student Hileena Engedasow told me about how much she’d loved the late elm, and how sad she was that it was gone. Several classmated chivvied her about that—“Well what if a big branch fell off on your head?”—and she agreed that the new oak was a nice tree too, and welcomed it earnestly.
The immigrant from Canada is a descendant of more easterly ancestors: the species, Quercus ruber, has a home range from southeast Canada to the midwestern United States. Assuming that the Canadian wholesale nursery got the identification right—and that’s harder than you might think, as oaks hybridize freely and have lots of individual differences besides—the seed of that tree itself was an immigrant to its British Columbia field.
Northern red oak is a title the species came to after a sort of taxonomic winnowing process, according to Donald Culross Peattie, doyen of tree writers. “Lumbermen used to recognize only two sorts of Oaks—‘White’ and ‘Red’—from the color of their respective woods.” Over the years, as the preferred “white” species of oak were overharvested and their lumber became scarce, lumbermen had to become both more discriminating and more adaptable, and came to appreciate the several biological taxa of oaks and name them more accurately.
Northern red oak grows fast, and like most fast-growing trees, has relatively light, porous wood. But it’s still oak, and with the right processing has been used for railroad ties and building material. Its branch angles are broad enough to dispose it to sturdiness as it grows.
Its favored use is in landscaping, since its form is stately and graceful and its foliage handsome. It has a ruddy glow in autumn, and smooth bark. It’s been widely used in Europe since the late seventeenth century, one of the early strictly ornamental plants from North America to be imported there.
The species isn’t known to be invasive, shallow-rooted, or prone to self-pruning, and has a long and widespread track record. It will be some years before this fellow starts supplying acorns for the local jay and squirrel interest groups, but its shade and dynamic beauty are already making it an asset to the neighborhood. Perhaps it should have a name. What do you think, Malcolm X students?›