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Oaks thrive despite climate change

I worked with a group of 9 volunteers the other day to plant 120 oak trees. While taking a mid-morning donut break, folks were talking about whether or not we should be planting species other than native oaks because of climate change. The concern was that as the climate warms, the more northern species will not fare as well as species that are found further south.

I explained that the species of oak most commonly found in McHenry County – white, bur, red, black and scarlet (or Hill’s) – occur throughout the state of Illinois. That’s right, one can find these same species of trees in the southernmost part of the state with a climate more similar to southern Missouri than northern Illinois.

A couple of folks also mentioned the summer drought, wondering how we could possibly water the 2- to 4-year-old seedlings enough if there is a drought next year.

Frankly, we couldn’t, and we won’t. The oaks are on their own, as trees have been for millennia. I pointed to 10 young oaks that were planted just two years ago, noting that they were all doing fine despite no additional water during the recent drought.

Just imagine, oaks were thriving on every continent except Antarctica long before humans were much more than food for larger animals. I’m guessing they have a few tricks up their genetic sleeves.

As we resumed digging and planting, I looked over at a nearby bur oak that was close to 300 years old. It grows on the fence line between the planting site and the adjoining farm field. That tree was growing in that same location before the Declaration of Independence was signed. That oak survived a series of droughts in the 1930s (known as the Dust Bowl years) and a severe drought from 1954-56.

We’ll keep planting oaks.


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