In the USA, most of the oaks grow south of the Upper Peninsula. However, we have five species tough enough to endure our winters. The oak family, or Fagaceae, is actually a large family consisting of six genera and about 600 species throughout the world.
Oaks are well-known for their acorns, a valuable food source for many species of wildlife. Beech is also a member of the oak family in another genus and produces a nut also valuable as wildlife food. “Mast” is the term used by biologists to describe the nut production of trees and shrubs.
The oaks are divided into two main groups, red and white. Red oaks have pointed leaf lobes and white oaks have rounded leaf lobes. The acorns of red oaks take two years to mature. The species displays a wide range of genetic variability and many hybrids exist.
Beech trees can be easily identified any time of the year. Even in old trees, the bark usually remains smooth and gray. The light brown buds are long and narrow, somewhat cigar-like. Even in late winter, understory beech retain some leaves, a faded reminder of what they were the summer before. Oddly enough, there is a distinct line from Marquette to Iron Mountain that beech will not cross further west. It is most likely related to soils developed from very different geological origins. Nevertheless, beech is the most common member of the oak family in the U.P.
Northern red oak is concentrated in the southern counties, but can be found almost everywhere in the region. On good quality sites, trees can grow tall and straight, accruing high monetary value. On poorer sites, the trees take on a scrubby appearance. Leaf and bark characteristics are quite variable. Acorns and buds provide more reliable identification features. The species may often be an associate of northern hardwoods stands, but occurs in a number of forest types.
Northern pin oak also goes by the name Hill’s, jack, or scrub oak. The species usually doesn’t grow well enough to be commercially useful, except for firewood. Poor quality red oak will appear similar to northern pin. Trees usually grow on sandy soils because they cannot compete well with other trees on better soils. This species should not be confused with “regular” pin oak that grows further south.
White oak distribution in the U.P. is pretty much restricted to Menominee County, although trees can be found here and there in other places. Specimens rarely reach full size this far north. Further south, trees become large and well-formed. White oak was the best species from which to make whiskey barrels, wine casks, and other cooperage.
Bur oak looks much like white oak, except the leaves have deep lobes at mid-vein, the acorn cups are fuzzy, and the twigs often possess a corky growth. Bur oak may be best known for its ability to grow in the fire-prone native prairies. Several years without a fire allow seedlings enough time to develop the thick protective bark. Pioneers referred to groves of prairie oaks as “oak openings”.
Oak and beech make up a small percentage of the wood volume in the U.P. but have a disproportionate high value to wildlife. Red oak and northern pin oak are threatened by a disease called oak wilt. Much of the beech resource will likely succumb to beech bark disease, which has eliminated much of the beech further east. These losses will have particularly hard impact on some species of wildlife, which also live at the northern edge of their natural ranges.
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Bill Cook is an MSU Extension forester providing educational programming for the entire Upper Peninsula. His office is located at the MSU Upper Peninsula Tree Improvement Center near Escanaba. The Center is the headquarters for three MSU Forestry properties in the U.P., with a combined area of about 8,000 acres. He can be reached at email@example.com or 906-786-1575.
by Bill Cook, Forester/Biologist, Michigan State University Extension, 6005
J Road, Escanaba, MI 49829
906-786-1575 (voice), 906-786-9370 (fax), e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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