First Installment of Chad's Garden: Saving "Heritage Trees" & Their Genetic Memory

The oldest oaks left in the area are special in that they have a genetic memory to deal all of the local vigors & harshness of weather & climate. They are also special in that they represent a wildfire buffer zone between prairie & forest that goes back thousands & thousands of years.

Posted: Sep 26, 2018 4:07 PM
Updated: Jan 22, 2019 9:24 PM

You can go to any nursery or garden center & buy a tree, whether it be native to the U.S., or Indiana, or not.  However, have you ever thought about where the original seed came from & why that matters?  Trees we buy locally may have genetics that originated in trees native to the Appalachians, the Deep South, Michigan, even the Northeast.  Non-native, exotic trees may have their genetics in trees in China or the Japanese island of Honshu to Great Britain, etc.  Even native & non-native trees that have been bred & hybridized in the U.S. still have a genetic code with original code back to a certain region or habitat.  In that region or spot, the plant was specifically adapted to its weather, climate, soils, wildfire frequency or lack thereof, temperature fluctuations, moisture, exposure, etc.  This is often why our landscape trees do not perform well when we think conditions are ideal for their survival.  The plants natural genetic do not adapt to the site.

However, there is another issue at play here.  Take our oaks, for example.  The oldest native oaks in our area have a long lineage of adapting to the harshest rigors of our weather, climate, wildfire frequency, soils, disease, etc.  These old, old trees are disappearing fast.  Just years ago, a 300-year old Bur Oak was nearly chopped for right-a-way of the Hoosier Heartland Highway.  Original White Oaks growing around prairie when the first Europeans arrived were chopped for the new Ivy Tech years ago.  White Oaks dating back 1810-1865 were chopped down recently at the Tippecanoe County Fairgrounds.  White Oaks up to 175 years old were chopped at Kampen Golf Course at Purdue years back.  There has been very little conservative effort of these grand, stately rare trees.  The past several years have seen such an assault on the original White Oaks that were mere seedlings to small trees when settlers began to arrive in these areas of prairie & oak barrens to oak woods-prairie borders.

I call these very old oaks "heritage trees" or "witness trees" & they all have the original genetic code to thrive in our soils of the specific location they reside.  The genetic code of White Oaks that have been exposed to wildfires for thousands of years on the prairie-forest border in Tippecanoe County on black, deep mollisol soils will have a different code of adaption then a White Oak growing on an acidic sandstone ridgetop in southern Indiana with Black & Chestnut Oak.  So, a tree or group of very old trees are just not "White Oaks", but very specific genetically to a site.

A great example of this comes from my own experience.  My original town park in southwest Indiana has many "heritage" or "witness" trees.  These are largely Post Oaks that were barrens surrounded on three sides by tallgrass prairie when the first land surveys were completed.  The flat, rich soils of floury loess texture are slow-draining.

In the western part of the county, the same species grows on very sandy, dry soil.  I transplanted seedlings from old, old parent trees on the sandy, droughty soils to the town park & not a single survived.  Seedlings from the old, old parent trees in the park are thriving & have done so for 16 years.  The leaves & bark vary slightly in size between the sand dune Post Oak & the flat, wetter, rich, dark-soiled prairie Post Oaks & they have clear adaptions.

Here is one of the Post Oak seedlings I have been growing from an old, old parent tree of 185 years of age!  What is interesting is this tree's leaves are extremely sandpapery & covered in hairs.  Also, it has taken it three years to get to this size with mainly a rosette of leaves the first two years with a rapidly-growing carrot-like tap root.  This is one Post Oak that is made for the rigors of barrens/savanna/prairie fire & drought, despite its parent growing in rich, deep fertile soil.

I have made efforts to save the genetic code of these great, original trees, whose lineage dates back over hundreds & thousands of years specific to our area.

Below is a large bucket of White Oak acorns collected from the oldest tree cut at the fairgrounds; a behemoth with a base girth as wide as the back of a pick-up truck.  This one was from 1810.  It stood on the northside of the fairgrounds at the border of original forest that spread out from the edge of the creek bottom area into the tallgrass prairie that extended to the southeast.  These acorns have the genetic code that dates back a very long time to thrive in our soils & climate.

I also recently discovered an old natural Swamp White-Bur Oak hybrid on the edge of the original Grand Prairie closer to Montmorenci.  I do have acorns of this adapted unique hybrid as well. 

There is a behemoth Bur Oak that I hope to get permission to collect acorns from northwest of West Lafayette & with a grand-dad Chinkapin Oak nearby in a cemetery (which has some original prairie grass that still grows in it).

The beds are made to begin the process of growing the hoards of seeds to collect from our heritage trees.  Part will be bare root in beds & part in pots.

So, the goal is to preserve the genetics & distribute the trees to local residents, parks & nature areas once they reach larger size.  The Daviess County Post Oaks will be used to re-populate the oaks in my town park.

Another thing about growing these oldies is that the roots have a very, very close tie to the mychorrhizae in the native soils.  The mychorrhizae species of the soil of the trees are specifically adapted to a symbiotic relationship with them.  This is important in nutrient uptake.  When growing these trees in pots or beds, it is important to re/introduce the native fungi to the soil to begin that natural symbiotic relationship that dates back thousands & thousands of years.  Such a soils assemblege may be very specific to that tree's genetics.  I like to dust native soil from the parent tree or get a very, very good, pricey soil mix that is fortified with preferably native mychorrhizae to grow the new trees.

Species to continue to be collected & site of the genetics:

1.  White Oak (Quercus alba)

Tippecanoe County

Silty, dark soils; somewhat poorly drained site

Original oak barrens area on forest-prairie border

2.  Bur Oak x Swamp White Oak Hybrid

(Quercus macrocarpa x Quercus bicolor)

Tippecanoe County

Loamy, dark soils; somewhat poorly-drained site

Original oak barrens area on forest-prairie border

3.  Post Oak (Quercus stellata)

Daviess County (southwestern Indiana)

Silty, dark soils, somewhat poorly-drained site.

Original oak barrens surrounded on three sides of prairie

4.  Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor)

Tippecanoe County

Loamy, dark soils, poorly-drained site.

Original oak barrens on prairie-forest border

5.  Bur Oak (Quecus macrocarpa)

Tippecanoe County

Loamy, dark soils on mesic site right on edge of creek bottom.

Original forest & oak barrens edge.

6.  Chinkapin Oak (Quercus muhlenbergii)

Tippecanoe County

Loamy, dark soils on mesic site

Original barrens-prairie edge

So, when purchasing & planting trees, look for native trees, specifically whose seeds are from nearest to your area (largely from specialty nurseries).  They will do much better than buying a tree from a garden center with no record of where the seed came from, which may make the tree much less adapted to the site at your home or business.

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