Forest cleanup efforts helping oaks thrive
They’ve been called mighty oaks, their long branches reaching out across the canopy of trees. But since the time of European settlement oaks have been harvested, had to compete with introduced species and are less common as landscaping trees, as communities planted parkway trees like the non-native pear trees that look pretty in the spring with their white blossoms or the Norway maples whose leaves offer bright hues in the autumn. Some of these introduced species have spread into natural areas and are making it difficult for oaks to thrive.
Within the St. Charles Park District is an effort by ecological restoration staff to help with the conservation and even a bit of a comeback for oak trees. St. Charles natural areas contain many red, white and burr oaks, come of them 100 to 150 years old.
Based on documents from the Federal Land Survey in the 1830s, roughly 22 percent of the land in the Chicago region was known as oak woodlands, said Chris Gingrich, assistant superintendent of outdoor education for the St. Charles Park District. Oak trees provided lumber for early settlers.
Today, less than 27 percent of those original oak woodlands remain and without efforts to educate, preserve and plant more oaks, that number will continue to decrease with passing time.
“A lot of species rely on oaks. They’re a pretty important tree in the forest,” Gingrich said.
Ecologists consider oak trees a keystone tree in the forestry ecosystem. From the birds and squirrels that make their homes in the branches of a tall tree to the insects, as well as other small mammals that will make their homes in a fallen oak in the forest. Birds feed off the insects in the trees, in addition to enjoying acorns, which are an important food source for small mammals like squirrels. There are even fungi that live on the trees.
Avid fans of wildlife understand that native trees, like oaks as well as native plants attract wildlife. Gingrich explained animals and insects are drawn to these native species.
“These plants and trees attract wildlife and pollinators because as they’ve evolved together over hundreds of years, they’ve been a reliable source of food and shelter,” Gingrich said.
The St. Charles Park District has made a commitment to preserve oak trees in its natural areas, as part of its restoration and conservation efforts. Gingrich said the oak tree seeds and acorns need plenty of sunlight to grow. When there are densely growing plants, like the invasive species of buckthorn or maples extending large amount of shade, acorns and oak seedlings can’t get enough sunlight.
Naturalists and volunteers have worked hard to clear out buckthorn and other underbrush to provide room on the forest floors in wooded park lands, to help the acorns in woodland parks such as Delnor Woods Park, Hickory Knolls Natural Area, Norris Woods Nature Preserve and Persimmon Woods. Utilizing burn regimes can help clear the forest floor, Gingrich said. At times, this clearing away brush can look extreme, but opening up the woodlands will make a difference for future generations.
“We try to clear out the non-native species and the underbrush,” Gingrich said. “This gives the native species a chance to thrive.”
Additionally, park district staff promote planting new oaks and other native plants for residential landscaping. Homeowners who are interested in using natives in their own landscaping can work with organizations like the Wild Ones Greater Kane County Chapter, which promotes the use of native plants in landscaping, gardening, nature-scaping and land restoration.
Gingrich said, “The more we use native plants, the more the area will be hospitable to oaks.”