The mighty oak tree is seen by many of us as a sign of strength and fortitude. As a transplant from the Great Lakes region, that's certainly how I think of them. Burr oak, red oak, white oak and pin oak dominated the forests around my house and shaded the yard where I played. They were great climbing trees, with branches the diameter of car tires and trunks that two kids could not touch hands around. They were towering symbols of natural endurance that spans multiple human lifetimes. The acorn that grandfather plants can become the leviathan that his grandson climbs and plays beneath.
Here in Colorado the oaks are a bit less majestic. If it weren't for the acorns and the distinctive lobed leaves, Gambel oak could be mistaken for a shrub. It grows in marginal lands, often mixed in with sage and mountain mahogany (not the fragrant hardwood imported from the tropics to construct bookshelves and end tables). Its stands are more like tangles. The thick mesh of branches and leaves must shade the ground below, but the knotted branches leave no space for a family to set down a picnic blanket.
While Quercus gambelii may never have inspired a poem, it is nevertheless a remarkable species, deserving of its place in the same genus with the monstrous oaks from the east. The Gambel oak can survive in arid, sparse lands where its mat of roots helps protect loose, rocky soil from erosion. It may not offer much shade to human beings, but it welcomes smaller creatures who seek shelter from sun and predators or a private place to raise their young. Especially in a dry season, when berries are hard to come by, the acorns this scrubby tree provides can be life sustaining for animals as small as chipmunks or as large as black bears.
Gambel oaks have a suite of unique adaptations that allow it to claim a place for the oak family here in the arid highlands of Eagle County. Entire hillsides covered by this runt of the family are able to prosper on a fraction of the water its mighty counterparts east of the Mississippi would consume. And, when it comes to wildfire, Gambel oaks don't take any chances; they have a fail-proof insurance policy. While Gambel oak can reproduce from acorns, most of new plants sprout from lignotubers. Lignotubers are special root nodules which contain buds that can sprout new plants. This ensures that even if a stand of Gambel oak is burned to the ground, its genetic material remains safe in the soil and new trees can emerge from the ashes of the old.
Mountain life isn't for everybody. The challenges of a long, snowy, winter, combined with the dry air, desiccating sunlight and seasonal droughts of summer make it a habitat that many species, including some humans, shy away from. It takes a hardy species to thrive in the mountains. So while the oaks of the east may be tall and majestic, their western cousins have their own charm and bring some key ingredients to the ecological table. So, if you ever find yourself off trail, cursing your path through a think tangle of Gambel oak, remind yourself that mighty and majestic things may come in small packages.
Peter Wadden is a field science educator at Walking Mountains. He's thrilled to be exploring the wilds of Colorado while collecting research for the U.S. Forest Service. Walking Mountains Science Center is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. with free admission.