Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

May 8, 2008

Living on Oak Time

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:43 pm

   It wasn’t so long ago that farmers timed their annual planting and harvest cycles on seasonal phenology. They didn’t call it that, but they were practicing an age old recognition that certain natural things happened at certain times of the year – every year. Calendar dates weren’t as important as naturally observed events.

  Corn planting time around these parts has always been from late April through the first week of May, but old time farmers simply looked to their local oak trees for the go ahead.  “Plant corn when the oak leaves are as big as a squirrel’s ear,” they’d say.  They didn’t need to worry about the soil temperature getting up over 50 degrees or fret a whole lot about fancy hybrid growing needs. The oaks were good enough to determine the relatively short optimum planting time. Oak trees are among the last trees to commit their greenery to the whims of spring, so their decision implies that the warm season has really begun.

  This week, our oak trees are leafing out so I sampled a few budding clusters to see what stage they were at.  Indeed they are at the squirrel ear stage right now. The large white oak tree pictured above arrived at squirrel ear stage earlier this week and was already surrounded by freshly tilled ground by the time I photographed it. Here is a scene as old as farming itself.

  With the emergence of the leaflets, the trees also send out their clusters of dangling flower catkins. Take a look here at this cluster of Burr Oak leaves and you’ll see that each catkin has 30-35 beadlike floral clusters strung along its length.  These are the pollen producing male flowers that will soon fall off.  This discussion isn’t about the flowers, however, it’s all about the leaves and the squirrels. (You may find it interesting to know that the leaf sample I am holding in the picture was provided to me by a Fox Squirrel. The creature nipped it off and dropped it to the ground in front of me.) Notice that these perfect little baby leaves are about an 1- 1 ½ inch long. In order to determine if this particular tree (and this particular squirrel) was telling me to plant corn, I needed to establish the dimension of an average squirrel’s ear.

  There is no such thing as a plain “squirrel,” but for the sake of simplicity and in the interest of keeping this thing in line with folk wisdom, I decided that the familiar Fox Squirrel will be the designated “squirrel” in question. This is the woodland squirrel that associates with the oak woodlots and the one that brought the subject down to my level.  According to the Mammals of Michigan book, a classic tome by Dr. Roland Baker, the ear measurement of Sciurus niger (aka Fox Squirrel) is ¾ -1 ½ inch from notch to tip. The leaves and the ears are a match. It is time to poke the ground with yellow seeds.

  Of course, today corn planting is neatly done with mega machinery, but back in the old days the corn was planted in mounds. The same farmers that cited squirrel ear lore also took pains to plant seven kernels in each mound to honor the age old tradition that acknowledges: “One for the blackbird, one for the crow, three for the cutworm, and two to grow.”  Even if the seeds were planted at the correct time, the farmer had to heed the other realities of nature.

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