Oaks are one of those trees for which we have an almost visceral attraction. They symbolize strength and permanence; they almost ooze power. Native peoples used the nuts for food (you really have to blanch them first, though, or else they are very, very bitter) and for dye (I’ve made a lovely soft grey dye for wool from white oak acorns). When the first settlers came to this new world, they were impressed (especially along the coast of Maryland) by the vast quantities of oaks. Back in the motherland, however, our oaks were considered inferior to English oaks, but in reality, if cured correctly, American oaks were every bit as durable as those from the British Isles. Used for everything from ship-building to cooperage (making barrels), flooring to firewood, oaks played a major role in the expansion of the human race, at least in the western world. And yet, here in the central Adirondacks, we find ourselves facing not just a scarcity of oaks, but a downright lack of these mighty trees. Why is that?
Consulting botanical lists, I discovered that the Adirondacks are home to six species of oaks: white oak (Quercus alba), swamp white oak (Q. bicolor), northern red oak (Q. rubra), bur oak (Q. macrocarpa), black oak (Q. velutina) and chestnut oak (Q. montana). Four of these (chestnut, black, bur and swamp white) occur mostly along the Hudson Valley (“downstate,” to us Adirondackers), perhaps coming as far north as Lake George and/or the Champlain Valley, regions we consider to be the “banana belt” of the Adirondacks. Based on the range maps I found, few grow naturally within the greater part of the Park, especially the central region, although there are some exceptions, which I will get to in a moment.
I contacted my dendrology professor from college, and a local forester to tap them for any tidbits they might know about oaks and the Adirondacks. The overarching theme I got was that climatologically the central Adirondack region is simply not suited to the growth of oaks.
A little more digging turned up some basic needs for oaks. Since four of the six species are basically associated with lowlands, I ignored them and went straight to the two remaining species, which might possibly have a chance here: the white and northern red oaks.
White oak has the following requirements for successful establishment and growth: mean average temperature (in the northernmost part of its range) of 45 degrees Fahrenheit; average snowfall (in the northernmost part of its range) of 70 inches; and a frost free season (in the northernmost part of its range) of five months. It also seldom occurs above 500 feet elevation (in the northernmost part of its range). Hm – doesn’t look promising.
The northern red oak requires (or tolerates) the following: mean annual precipitation of 30-80 inches (throughout its range); annual snowfall of 100+ inches (in the northernmost part of its range); mean annual temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit (in the northernmost part of its range); an average of 100 frost-free days(in the northernmost part of its range). I also found out that in West Virginia it grows on elevations as high as 3,500 feet; we must keep in mind that it is a lot warmer in West Virginia than it is in the Adirondacks.
And now, the climatologic statistics for the central Adirondacks (Newcomb), courtesy of the National Weather Service: mean average annual temperature of 41.6 degrees Fahrenheit; mean annual precipitation of 41.08 inches; mean annual snowfall of 111.8 inches; average of 102 frost-free days. The elevation in Newcomb is 1,650 feet, and it goes upwards to 5,344 feet on Mount Marcy, the state’s highest point, about 14 miles from Newcomb, as the crow flies. These numbers do not look good for the survival rate of white oaks, and it looks pretty borderline for red oaks.
Let’s now take a look at what other plants typically associate with these two oaks. White oaks can normally be found growing with eastern white pine, eastern hemlock, sugar maple, basswood and American beech. Red oaks associate with pin cherry, paper and yellow birch, sugar maple, eastern white pine, eastern hemlock, basswood, black cherry. All of these trees are commonly found in the central Adirondacks. Spruces and firs, however, trees associated with more boreal forests, do not hang out with red or white oaks. Since we have a lot of spruces and firs, this could be an important clue as to why oaks do not grow well here (it’s too cold).
A good ecologist (and naturalist) will also consider other aspects of the environment that can influence the growth of plants, such as soil type and competition. The forester with whom I spoke said that oaks are found growing quite happily in Warrensburg, which has a much sandier soil than we have here in Newcomb. It is possible that while oaks can grow in our rockier soils, they simply cannot compete with other species that can handle Newcomb’s harsher conditions, like sugar maples. We are surrounded here by the classic Beech-Birch-Maple forest. While oaks grow well with these species in other locations, it is just possible that they (the BBM) are more adaptable to harsher conditions than the oaks are, so they are able to boldly go where no oak has gone before.
This doesn’t mean, however, that oaks don’t grow here at all. For example, I know of homes in town with red oaks planted in the yards. These trees, however, do not seem to thrive. According to one local resident, these nursery specimens last a few years and then typically fail.
Another example of local oaks is a group that is growing on the south side of Goodnow Mountain. There is more than one theory as to how and why this population is there. One idea is that they could have been “planted” years ago by blue jays, which acquired some acorns somewhere and buried them in anticipation of a future meal. The birds never recovered the nuts, which eventually sprouted and established a colony. A second theory is that a natural stand of oaks was established back in pre-glacial times. The glaciers came through and wiped them out, but the nuts persisted in the ground. When conditions were right, they sprouted, reestablishing an outpost in what seems to us a now a very unlikely location.
So there you have it: a speculative answer to a puzzling question. In summary, climate, topography, soil type and competition are all possible contributing factors as to why oaks do not grow in the central Adirondacks. But hey, give it a few decades. “They” claim that with the impending climate change, New York will look (and feel) like present-day West Virginia. When that happens, we may very well see oaks (and maybe hickories) filling the forests where once they would barely dream of a toehold.