Black Oak or Yellow Oak TreeBlack Oak, Yellow Oak (Quercus velutina, Lam.)-A tree 70 to 90 feet, rarely 150 feet high, with narrow, open head of slender branches, occasionally wide spreading and short trunked. Bark usually very dark grey or brown, thick, with rough broken ridges and deep furrows; inner layers orange yellow, rich in tannin. Wood light reddish brown, coarse grained, with annual layers strongly marked and thin medullary rays, hard, strong, heavy, not tough. Buds large, pointed, angled, downy. Leaves alternate, 4 to 10 inches long, 2 to 6 inches wide, deeply cut into 7 to 9 broad, bristly toothed lobes with rounded sinuses, thick, almost leathery texture, lustrous, dark green above, smooth, or somewhat hairy, brownish beneath; petioles long, yellow, flattened; autumnal colour brownish yellow, rarely reddish. Flowers, May, with halfopen leaves; hairy, reddish, stigmas bent back. Acorns biennial, solitary or in pairs, short stalked; nut ovoid, smooth, in cup of loose scales; rim fringed, not incurved; kernel yellow, bitter. Preferred habitat, rich, moist soil. Distribution, Maine to Florida; west to Minnesota, Kansas and eastern Texas. Uses: Rarely planted for ornament and shade. Wood used in cooperage, for furniture and in general construction; bark in tanning and dyeing.
Since early spring I have been watching life kindle and glow in the top of a grim old black oak. I knew the tree then by its black bark and its large, downy winter buds, and the velvety scurf on its young shoots. Still another sign, constant the year round, proclaimed this tree a black oak beyond question. Under the rough outer bark is an orange-yellow inner layer, easily reached by a little digging in one of the furrows. No other oak need be confused with this species if the observer carries a pocket knife.
This tree, though it was late March, was still holding some of its old leaves. On twigs destitute of leaves I found a leaf stem, here and there, frayed into many threads, showing how tough its fibres are.
My black oak leans up against a bluff, and thrusts its giant arms out over the wide roadway. One sided as the situation compelled it to grow, it is yet a majestic tree, "framed in the prodigality of Nature." From the path below I can just touch its lower limb with the ten-foot pruning shears; but by climbing the bluff I walk right into the treetop. Here I go to see things happen in the spring days.
The buds open and the shoots set with leaves push rapidly out. The whole treetop flushes crimson in the morning sunshine, and there is a "pale moonbeam's light" gleaming through it. Can it be dewdrops pearling the young leaves? I ask the question, and the tree answers it as soon as I get near enough to examine a spray. The red glow is from crinkly, half-awake, baby leaves, and their brilliance is softened by a silky covering of white hairs. This is especially thick on the under side, but the silvery mist over the treetop lasts only a day, or until the leaves are grown large and self-reliant enough to get on without such protection. Then the fuzz is suddenly shed from the upper sides of the leaves, but the under surfaces are more or less coated throughout the summer with a dull scurfy down.
The coarseness of the leaves is one trait that distinguishes the species from the red and scarlet oaks, whose leaves it often imitates in form. Crumple a leaf of each in your hands. The red oak is intermediate between the leathery, harsh texture of the black, and the thinness and delicacy of the scarlet. The incisions in black oak leaves are rounded and deep, their bristly lobes point outward as often as they incline forward.
The bloom of black oak may be profuse or scant; the tree has its "off years." As the leaves lose their red the flowers take up the theme, and glow with ruddy stigmas and fringed tassels of stamens among the half-grown foliage. The lustiest shoots set acorns-sometimes a pair under each leaf. While the new ones are swelling and forming their little basal cups, on twigs a year older ambitious acorns of a larger growth are hurrying through their second summer to be ready to fall in October.
This species is the type of the black or biennial-fruited oaks a large group which takes two years to ripen an acorn crop. As a rule, these trees always show half-formed acorns on their terminal twigs in winter. The white or annual-fruited oaks never carry any over; they ripen their fruits and cast them in the autumn. Black oaks have bristly pointed leaves; white oaks have only curved lines on their leaf margins. These facts are well worth remembering.
Most people know an oak "just by the looks of it." Ask them which oak it is, and they can't be sure. The bark of the black oak, with its orange lining, is the key to its name. The woodsman knows that this oak leads the country as the source of tan bark. Only the chestnut oak comes near it in percentage of tannin. Beside tannin, there is in the inner bark the yellow dyestuff called quercitron, which, before the discovery of aniline dyes, was largely used in the printing of calicoes. The yellow bark was dried, then ground, and the powdery citron-yellow colouring matter sifted out of it. Besides the yellow tints and shades, it gave, with the addition of salts of iron, various shades of grey, brown and drab.
Black oaks would doubtless be planted oftener for shade and ornament but that there arc so many other beautiful oaks to choose from. In the wild they are noble ornaments to the natural landscape.
For my giant black oak on the hillside I have developed a kind of personal regard that surprises me. It is the result of getting acquainted with the tree at successive seasons of the year. It has taken on individuality. It ought to have a personal name, not merely its tribal cognomen. I have learned to read the answers to my questions. I have acquired, therefore, the rudiments of a new language-for tree language is a code of signs which anybody can learn. It is astonishing how much of interesting personal and family history a tree will freely give in one year of friendly intercourse.