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Going for Burr Oak
By Panayoti Kelaidis, Senior Curator & Director of Outreach on Oct 14, 2013
Random sampling of Burr Oak Leaves
Our spring may have been the worst I can ever remember, but fall is shaping up to be extraordinary. Yesterday, towards the end of the amazing Pumpkin Festival at Chatfield I found myself wandering through the extensive windbreaks, most of which were planted twenty or more years ago by my friend Chris Hartung, who now runs an amazing nursery in Canyon City with his wife, Tammy. It would be fun to walk the windbreaks with Chris and hear his stories: the trees have grown surprisingly well despite no irrigation, abundant bunnies, deer, elk and you name it in the way of herbivores. Even the "slow growing oaks" are getting some size despite the lack of irrigation! Burr Oaks (Quercus macrocarpa) do not color brilliantly as most trees do in Denver: but they make up in rugged charm and wonderful leaf shape and acorn what they may lack in brilliance! Just look at the amazing variabillity in leaf color and shape in this very random sampling!
Burr Oaks at Chatfield
Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield is truly stunning: although the plant collections are still modest (the Visitor Center Garden--designed by Lauren and Scott Ogden, is world class, however, and large nevertheless), what makes a visit to Chatfield so gratifying right now are the wonderful vistas! The Rockies looming all along the West, the gently rolling countryside: it is our Secret Garden (although the tens of thousands of people coming to pick their pumpkins yesterday must have had an inkling! There were record crowds this year!)
Windrow of Burr Oaks: each one different!
It's great fun to stroll the windrows: every plant looks different. Some have already lost all their leaves, a few are still bright green. I wonder where the acorns were collected for these: are they from the Midwest? Or did Chris find a source from the wonderful Burrs that grow around Devil's Tower in Wyoming. On a recent visit to Gillette in early spring a few years ago, my hosts drove me up to the Devil's Tower and we walked around it (clockwise--the way you should walk around mountains of course!). This is the Westernmost colony of the tree in the northern Plains, and they were almost exactly intermediate between Gambel's and Midwestern Burr in character--some even stooling like a Gambels. The ones at Chatfield look more treeform (although still only fifteen or twenty feet tall at the max). I planted two burr oaks at my house about the same time Chris planted these and my Burrs are enormous now--one has to be over 30' tall and almost as wide and starting to take on the rugged adult form: three or four times the size and girth of these specimens: such is the power of irrigation!
Burr oak acorn
There were not a lot of acorns (the trees are yet young) and the ones I found were much smaller than the golf ball sized burr oak acorns I used to marvel at as a child in the park next to my house: those more than justified the common name "mossy cup" or "overcup oak".
An example of variability
This shows how variable the trees are: the one on the right was still mostly green, the one on the left is all brown and in the distance the burr oak is totally naked. All in proximity with what must be very comparable soil and exposure. Go figure!
Sprig of oak
For tree lovers, oaks and pines have a special resonance. If you've ever been lucky enough to see the massive burr oaks throughout the Midwest--all the way to the East Coast actually. Although I associate them especially with the magnificent oak savannahs around the Great Lakes and the rolling hills of the upper MIdwest. From a distance the white oak (Quercus alba) and burr oak look somewhat similar--but closeup the leaves and acorns are immediately distinguishable. Right now the handful of white oaks in Denver are a blazing, furious scarlet color (well worth their own blog!)--but even despite their superior fall color, it's the burr oak one finds here and there throughout our fair city. I believe the State Champion is just west of Cheesman Park--a massive creature that fills all the neighbors yards with leaves...(I know one of those neighbors and she's not to crazy about that tree)...
What sets this oak apart from many of Denver's street trees is its obvious drought tolerance. Chatfield's vast strings of windbreaks (so lovingly planted and cared for by Chris for years) are coming into their own: they make Chatfield a friendlier, more inviting place.. and they are teaching us a lot about the adaptability and variability of plants we should be planting more: the survivors!
Category:Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield