I enjoy blowing autumn leaves. All of the colors and crisp air bring back to me fond childhood memories of playing in piles of leaves, making construction paper leaves to tape to the school window, Halloween, hot apple cider, and just the thrill of going back to school after the summer recess.
Every morning now I hear the neighbors blowing leaves. Some people dislike this sound, but to me it is just part of the season. As a boy it was the ‘scritch, scratch’ of leaf rakes. Now it is leaf blowers. I have to blow our drive. There are huge oaks at the end of the drive and arching over the north side of the house.
The two oaks are quite different and in the wool gathering moments when we are doing something mindless our minds wander to all sorts of places. Mine went to “what kind of oak is this?” That’s not surprising. Our ancestors survived by categorizing things; things that you could eat, things that would poison you, things that were delectable, things that tasted really awful. Green persimmons would make you make a face. Yellow, ripe, persimmons were delicious.
We looked at things as a matter of utility. This tree’s wood was brittle. That tree’s wood could be bent double without breaking, and on and on.
We divide oaks broadly into two groups, red and white; Quercus rubra and Quercus alba. Oaks contain a lot of tannin. Red oaks really contain a lot of tannin. You can almost eat the acorns of white oaks. The acorns of red oaks will give you a belly ache. From a forestry stand point the wood of red oaks is less preferable than that of white.
So, how do you tell which is which? In the fall the identification is easy. Red oak leaves have lobes coming to sharp points and white oak leaves have lobes with rounded points.
There are many subspecies of red and white oaks. The one beside our house is commonly called a turkey oak. If you haven’t been around turkeys, many of the leaves look like a turkey track. The Latin name is Quercus laevis. It is a type of red oak.
The oak commonly called a willow oak has a leaf like that of a willow tree.
It is long and narrow without any lobes at all. Quercus phellos, the willow oak is a magnificent tree. A previous home was partially covered by one with a trunk that must have been a meter and a half in diameter. In the fall it was a royal pain. Those skinny little leaves slip through a rake and get caught up in the grass when blown, and they compact into heavy masses if they are damp at all. But no one would have cut that tree down. What a beauty it was.
Blowing oak leaves lasts long into the winter because oak leaves just turn an annoying brown and fall a few at a time for weeks. Eventually, in the dead of winter the limbs stretch stark against leaden skies, arms stretched in supplication for the return of the sun.
Quercos phellos image from the UNC Herbarium. The others came from my leaf pile.