Friday, March 2, 2012

Live and let live oak

Are your front-yard trees looking a little sick at this point?  You might want to read this short post before taking the pruning shears or loppers to them.  This morning as I was driving my child to one-of-the-last-of-the-original WAVE buses, I noticed a resident sawing into one of their trees, and I'm not sure that this was necessary.

Almost all of the front-yard trees we have in Centerpointe are the live oaks, which were originally planted by both of the neighborhood builders (Brighton and Meritage). 

I'm not certain of the exact live oak species we have here (there are many), but if I look up live oak on the website of the big-box retailer Lowes hardware for instance, it tells me that what they carry is the species Quercus Virginiana.  This is probably typical of other local suppliers.

Q. Virginiana is a quasi-evergreen tree that looks like it ought to be a deciduous tree, because it has the shape and size of leaf that one expects to see falling off once per year. But this tree has a peculiar habit: when it decides to defoliate (shed its leaves), which is not every year, it does so in the spring, rather than the fall or winter as typical deciduous trees do.
Here's a close-up of one of mine this morning.
Looks pretty pathetic, eh? 
Brown, and then they fall off en masse until the tree looks like a scraggly hot mess.
To complicate matters, it can be very difficult to determine whether a browning live oak branch is a dying branch or simply a normal spring-defoliating branch.
Here is that same brown-leaf branch broken open.  It's not overwhelmingly green anywhere, is it?  You have to look very carefully at the layer immediately underneath the outermost bark to see any green-ness at all.  Furthermore, with live oaks, even a healthy branch will appear fairly brittle like this.  It won't be all green and easily flexible like other trees.
For even more complication, here is a distribution map for this tree species:
It immediately becomes apparent from this map that this tree, as common as it is in Houston subdivisions, actually has a very restricted distribution.  For this reason, if a homeowner is not from the deep south, or hasn't lived in the deep south for some time, they may not be familiar with the quirky behavior of live oaks.  And therefore that resident may mistake a naturally-defoliating spring tree for a dying or dead tree that needs to be cut down.

Moral of the story: What you see today with your live oaks is not necessarily what you're going to see a month from now when they have bounced back from their current leaf-shed.  Check before chopping.
Looking rather crummy at this point, but not to worry.  This tree is actually healthy.

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