For November our Tree of the Month is the Oak, one of only a few local trees to be the last to lose its leaves. Well into the winter season, Bostonians will be able to look up at shivering branches almost uncannily cloaked with tenacious brown oak leaves.
Oaks are an astoundingly diverse group of trees – there are 600 species all over the world, and 90 species in North America. These mostly deciduous trees hybridize easily and are sometimes difficult to identify. The wood of oaks, as well as their acorns, is high in a type of polyphenol called tannin—the source of its strength, resistance to rot and insects, and the flavor oak barrels can impart to their contents (well known to lovers of “buttery” chardonnay).
Here on the Boston Common and in the Public Garden, Pin Oaks, Red Oaks, and White Oaks are among the largest trees. The Commonwealth Avenue Mall has over 30 specimens and four species of oaks, the Garden over 20 specimens and seven species, and the Common over 50 specimens and five species.
The tree fruit—mostly acorns—carpeting the forest floor this time of year is collectively called “mast”, from the same Old English word (“maest”) that gave us the word “meat.” Bumper acorn crop years are called “mast years” and are directly associated with huge fluctuations in wildlife populations, which can then have ripple effects on populations of other creatures like ticks that feed on oak-dependent wildlife such as mice and deer.
Early humans all over the globe ate acorns, after processing them in various ways (soaking, drying, etc). Until relatively recently in human history, acorns were a significant source of calories for humanity – by some estimates up to 10 percent.
When Europeans came to North America, the old growth oak forests here were an attractive natural resource, as oak was an important building material that had been mostly exhausted in Europe. Oak was used in shipbuilding, quarter sawn for oak furniture, and prized for barreling wine and spirits. The old-growth White Oak planks of the USS Constitution withstood so many English shells that the sailors nicknamed it “Old Ironsides.”
Oak forests still thrive in Southern New England, and are characterized by dry, sandy soils, other fire adapted plants such as blueberry bushes and various pine species, and hickory species. On Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket, the familiar low twisty maritime forests are also dominated by fire adapted oaks and their associated understory species and pollinators, some of which are rare and endangered species of moths and butterflies.
In some parts of New England, oaks face a new kind of threat – overgrazing by deer. Without many predators, deer populations have exploded in New England, and excessive browse of oak seedlings and saplings by deer is exerting pressure on successional change in the forested landscape.
As you walk through our three parks, look for urban wildlife feeding on acorns—squirrels are ubiquitous, of course, but you might also see crows, jays, ducks, geese, raccoons, opossums, and perhaps even foxes. Then take a moment to look up at the familiar lobed leaves that not so long ago shaded us on those hot summer days. We have so many reasons to feel grateful to the oak!
Claire Corcoran is an ecologist and member of the Friends of the Public Garden Board of Directors. She is a self proclaimed “tree hugger” and dedicated advocate for greenspace in Boston and beyond. Claire lives in the South End of Boston with her husband and three children.
Anne Swanson has been a member of the Friends almost since the early 1980s. Before joining, Anne volunteered picking trash up in the Public Garden. Through this activity Anne met other people just as passionate about the parks and discovered the Friends of the Public Garden. She quickly got involved and used her editing skills by volunteering to help with programming for the Victorian Promenade, created in the 1970s by the Friends to bring attention to the parks with a positive and festive event. Anne remembers The Victorian Promenades fondly: people dressed in period costume, a croquet game played in whites, and one year Henry Lee dressed in his great-grandfather’s military uniform! History was brought to life with the Promenades.
One of Anne’s favorite things about the three parks the Friends cares for is their deep and rich histories that few parks can claim. The Public Garden’s origins as the first public botanical garden in the country, and the efforts of Bostonians to ensure that it would remain a public garden, make it special. The Boston Common boasts centuries of history, but the Shaw/54th Regiment Memorial stands out. Anne says, “One can’t look at it [Shaw Memorial] without thinking of its historic impact.” The piece created by celebrated American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens commemorates the first regiment of African American soldiers who fought in the Civil War. The Commonwealth Avenue Mall is her backyard, an essential part of the Back Bay community. Another volunteer effort of Anne’s was creating cards for the Friends that featured historic etchings of the Mall. Anne has spent countless volunteer hours on behalf of the Friends and is a member of the Board of Directors. As a board member she loves working with a dedicated group of people sharing a common mission and finds the way it all comes together to be fascinating.
A sense of community is what inspired Anne to volunteer and to be committed to the preservation and enhancement of these parks. She wants everyone to know that anyone can be a part of this community that cares for the parks. She recalls one of her favorite memories that depict the passionate commitment of this group: elm trees were ailing, and back in the 1960s Ted Weeks, Dan Ahern, and Stella Trafford worked tirelessly to save them by injecting disease-fighting fungicide into the trees using bicycle pumps. These veteran park lovers mentored the present group of stewards who are now reaching out to educate future generations through events such as Duckling Day and Making History on the Common. For Anne, the preservation of these parks is essential for their “function beyond greenspace by fostering community filled with history that accumulates to a spiritual quality.”
The future of Boston parks and public spaces is counting on your imagination!
The City of Boston is developing Boston 2030, its first citywide plan in 50 years. We are calling on all parks advocates to share your voices about the importance of parks for the City, and in particular ideas for protecting and enhancing the Boston Common, Public Garden, and Commonwealth Avenue Mall as the city grows. Boston 2030 is developing a vision and creating a roadmap to realize this vision in time to celebrate Boston’s 400th birthday in 2030.
How to participate?
SHARE your vision by answering a few questions at imagine.boston.gov.
- This is your chance to let the City know that your life in 2030 will be better with great parks and public spaces!
- If you have a big idea for our parks that will make Boston a better place to live in 2030, submit it!
ATTEND an Open House!
Boston 2030 Open House
Date: Monday, November 16
Time: 4:00 – 7:00 pm — drop in anytime
Location: Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building 2300 Washington Street, Dudley Square
As the Friends online art auction winds down to a close at 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday, October 21, we thought you might like to see which items are currently topping the list for bids. There are plenty of items left to bid on so don’t let a little competition scare you, instead let it serve as the inspiration to compete for wonderful pieces of art and support the Boston Common, Public Garden, and Commonwealth Avenue Mall in the process. www.biddingforgood.com/fopgauction
Here is your only chance to own a scale replica of Mrs. Mallard. This unique, one of a kind piece was sculpted by artist Nancy Schon, who created the iconic “Make Way for Ducklings” sculpture in the Boston Public Garden. What an incredibly special gift this would make for a Bostonian, or a visitor, who truly loves one of the most popular pieces of public art in Boston.
Celebrate the fall season with this beautiful and unique Katherine Houston Porcelain piece for yourself, or give this as a gift to one of your very best friends! A wonderful centerpiece or accent and will bring warmth and elegance all year round. Handmade and hand over-glazed.
Thanks to all who joined us for the Friends of the Public Garden 2015 Members Reception at the Four Seasons Hotel! It was a night to celebrate trees and our Friends who support them.
Roughly 200 turned out to learn how they are helping 1,700 trees in the Boston Common, Public Garden, and Commonwealth Avenue Mall. The presentation, Digging In: Beyond the Roots of Urban Tree Care, was led by Lyn Paget, Swan Boats owner and Friends Council co-chair. Panelists Margaret Porkorny, longtime greenspace advocate and Friends Board Member; and Friends Project Manager Bob Mulcahy explained the trials and tribulations these trees face while living in the heart of Boston, and how the Friends efforts continue to help them persevere in a stressful city environment.
Guests were invited to mingle over drinks and hors d’oeuvres following the presentation. Our special thanks to the Motor Mart Garage, our lead sponsor for this event.