I felt little hard things hitting me on a mountain walk with a friend one year. I turned around, and he was laughing; he’d been throwing acorns at me. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized that those plants were oaks. Waist-high bushes? Leaves that looked, not like lobed deciduous oak trees, or even like the different forms of live-oak leaves, but, well, like huckleberries. I’d just never noticed the acorns. I mean, does this look like an oak to you?
I think part of my problem was that shrubby bushy things just didn’t get my attention the way flashier plants do. It’s only fairly recently that I’ve come to appreciate foliage en masse–leaves that aren’t unusual close up, like grapes or gooseberries, but make a great effect massed together. It’s probably something psychological, as if I was looking for the individual, but wasn’t interested in the community. Something like that.
It’s also just that I never imagined there could be an oak that comes only to my waist. It’s the same high-mountain variation as the manzanitas, only in this case the leaves are entirely different from any other oak. But since I’ve read up on this, I’ve found there is another oak in the desert southwest which is called “shin oak” (Quercus mobriana) because it grows in thickets that are about knee-high. I’d imagine that this oak has adapted to severe desert conditions in the same way huckleberry oak has learned to grow in high altitudes.
Like the other high-mountain plants, huckleberry oak has a short time to make its growth and produce fruit. The catkins come out in May or June, when there is often still snow on the ground (in a heavy winter, quite a lot of it). I took photos of these acorns in early to mid-September, and as you can see, a lot of them are still quite green. They had about six weeks to two months before the first serious snowfall. (I have seen snow sticking in September at this altitude, but it doesn’t really settle in until later.)
Many of these oaks just had empty acorn caps, and I’m guessing the critters harvested the ripe ones right away. While Native Americans used acorns as a staple food, I’m wondering if they would have left these thumbnail- to fingernail-sized acorns for the chipmunks, squirrels, and other rodents? I’m not sure about this, since there are grinding holes in the high altitudes.
Grinding holes are deep round bowls in the rocks, a sort of natural mortar made by using smaller rocks as pestles. In my area, they are called acorn holes: the assumption is that they were used for grinding acorn meal, a large staple. But maybe that wasn’t their only use. Manzanita berries are also a huge crop in my area, and the tribes here ground them to make different kinds of food. Would the high-mountain grinding holes have been used for the high mountain manzanita berries (some of which mature earlier), but not oaks?
That might be the case, because the indigenous people moved down the hill in the colder weather, which would have coincided with acorn harvest at lower altitudes. Further down the hill, acorns come off large trees, plentiful, much bigger, and easier to harvest. But I don’t really know.
I was interested to find that some of these bizarre miniature (as I think of them) huckleberry oaks have wasp galls, just like their larger cousins down the hill. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get a decent shot of the oak galls. This kind looks like a strange swelling on the branches, about the size of a jawbreaker (or a large hazelnut): round, cream-colored, and hard, with a textured pattern weirdly like an acorn cap.
The galls are made by a type of gall wasp, Cynips maculipennis. They burrow into the branches and lay their eggs. I’m not sure exactly how the gall forms, but the larvae live in it until they are ready to hatch. According to my natural history books, they sometimes lay eggs on other plants, but I have only seen their galls on oaks.
My gardening lesson? To look more carefully at the plants around me. I might actually recognize them. And maybe the lesson huckleberry oak has for all gardeners is: look for different forms of plants. They may work in your garden better. Or they may just be interesting to know about. All gardeners like to contemplate the infinite variety of the plant world. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be gardeners.
Tracy I. Storer and Robert L. Usinger, Sierra Nevada Natural History, University of California Press, 1963 (There is a newer version out, but this is the one I still own and use.)
Elmer L. Little, The Audobon Society Field Guide to North American Trees: Western Region, Alfred A. Knopf, 1980