In the spring of 1982 the National Science Foundation sponsored a trip to Santa Cruz Island. Fighting seasickness for the hour and a half, I accompanied my husband and his field botany professor to the island, in a motorboat. Once on land again, I was ready to hike, and would soon see Quercus tomentella for the first time in the wild. I left the island later that day hoping to someday have one of these dignified and majestic trees, commonly called island oak, growing in my garden.
The following December my husband and I drove south to collect acorns from mature island oak at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. Having secured permission from the director, we arrived on a Saturday morning and went right to the coppice of trees. Eager to reach them, my husband was marching briskly along, while I, three months pregnant at the time, followed at a slower pace. As soon as I caught up with him I struggled to my knees, to fill my burlap sack with the bountiful supply of seed that covered the ground.
After returning home the next day, I poured the acorns into a large bucket of water to see how many would float. The majority fell to the bottom, indicating they were viable. These were sown into a flat, watered, and placed in the greenhouse. Within a short time the acorns sprouted and a crop of seedlings grew. The Quercus tomentella seedlings were transferred to liner pots, and several months later, shifted to one-gallon containers. Watering, weeding, and general maintenance of the plants was carried out by my high school age son and his friend after school. When the one-gallon plants were fully rooted and filling the can, the boys shifted them into 5-gallon containers.
The following year I planted one five-gallon island oak, from that crop, beside the front gate of the nursery. In 1985 the rest of the crop was donated to the local high school for a campus beautification project. My teenage son and his friend, then seniors at the high school, delivered the remaining trees to the school, where a crew of parents, students, and teachers eagerly awaited planting them.
Seventeen years passed, and my daughter was enrolled in the same high school, when one early Sunday morning in November 2002 there came a knock at the entrance of my home. An unusual time for a visitor, I wondered who was calling. Opening the door I saw a tall slender gentleman clutching a brown paper bag.
“Is your husband in?” he asked. “I have something for him.” Stretching out the palm of his hand he revealed three large chocolate-brown acorns. Recognizing him as the local arborist, and the large acorns as those from island oak, I stepped away from the door and motioned for him to enter. After inviting him inside, I called my husband from the next room. The two
men greeted one another and shook hands.
“I was passing by the high school and noticed a Quercus tomentella had set seed. That was one of the trees you donated to the high school wasn’t it?”
“Yes, seventeen years ago.”
“I thought so”. He opened the bag he was holding and stretched it out in front of him. “These are for you and your wife. I collected them from that tree. It is full of fruit!”
“Remarkable” my husband said, peering into the sack that was filled to the brim with ripe acorns from the tree. “Are there more?”
“There will be soon, on the other trees.”
Over the course of the next few weeks my daughter collected them on campus whenever she passed the trees. After school each day she would leave two or three acorns on her father’s desk, seed from our first crop of island oak.
When a large branch had to be removed from the grown tree next to the nursery entrance, I noticed many acorns scattered in the leaf mulch below. Gathering them into a bucket, I counted a total of three hundred. This island oak was from the original crop that went to the high school campus. A low branch was obstructing legal clearance for a fire truck to enter in an emergency. Removing the branch did not compromise the tree, and several logs were salvaged in the process, to use as fuel for my wood stove. Collecting the logs in a wagon I stacked them near the house to dry.
We are now approaching December 2007. My daughter graduated from college eighteen months ago, and is applying to graduate school. She no longer collects acorns, even though her father and I do, but there is another generation of neighbor children. Two young brothers come knocking at my door when they need a little extra spending money.
“Will you pay us to collect acorns?”
They know I will say yes, and if they are willing to float them, I will pay them by the pound.
Children and grownups seem to enjoy collecting acorns. I returned home late at night on the Monday after Thanksgiving, and found a bag sitting on the walkway in front of my door, next to the stack of dry wood. In the bag was a note from the arborist that read “I collected these acorns with my son. They’re from the trees at the high school. Have a happy holiday”. I smiled to myself, as I carried a couple of island oak logs, into the house to build a fire. Soon the hearth was blazing and the air had lost its chill. I thought to myself, with this bag of acorns there will be close to four hundred, and when they are planted, and sprout into seedlings, we will be well on our way to three generations of Quercus tomentella flourishing.
Rainie Fross Dec 2007