I would like to dive into learning about and understanding the Southern Live Oak (SLO) through observations. When I am making an INaturalist post about a particular SLO, what are some good standard things to check out to learn about this particular SLO that sets it apart from others? I guess I can take the diameter of the trunk. but what does that tell me? that the tree is kinda old? What if there are mushrooms growing on it? Does that mean that the tree is unhealthy?
Welcome to the forum!
Not necessarily https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mycorrhiza
If there’re shrooms through the bark then yes, they’re not doing that tree any good, but you can’t change it as it means tree was already weak. Shrooms that grow in mutual relationships with trees are those seen on the ground (not all of them, but you can try to id them).
You can take measurements and a precise GPS dot to learn about particular individual, it can be not very big, but very old, depending o conditions of the place and climate it lived through, if you’re doing a serious research you can find out real age by using special drills to cut into alive tree, but you’re likely not in need to do that. If you have someone with you you can estimate tree height by comparing it with a human.
I cannot help, but welcome to the Forum!
Trunk diameter (measured at 4.5 feet from the ground most of the time, or the narrowest point below that if there are multiple trunks at 4.5 feet) is a useful metric to include. If you were to find a specimen over 95 feet tall that would be particularly notable, but measurements should be made using a reliable method such as a tape drop from a climber or a laser rangefinder/clinometer using Sine geometry (not the “tree height” mode many units have. Broad-crowned live oaks are easily mismeasured using other traditional methods like clinometers, biltmore sticks, etc, often resulting in wildly inaccurate heights. The nuances of both correct diameter measurement and height measurement are covered in this document: https://www.americanforests.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/AF-Tree-Measuring-Guidelines_LR.pdf
With regards to age, it’s important to understand that diameter has a great deal to do with how quickly the tree has grown, and much less to do with how old it is. One of the largest (in both diameter and total mass) Southern Live Oaks was the Middleton Oak. Analysis of some major limbs that failed revealed that this enormous tree is less than 300 years old. No one has ever verified a Southern Live Oak in excess of 500 years old. Traditional dendrochronological analysis is difficult with this species as the wood is extremely hard and trunks very large, making collecting a core sample very difficult, and formation of annual rings is unreliable, so there’s relatively little known about their maximum lifespan, but many of the largest are known to be fairly young, whereas some of the specimens reliably known to be older are relatively small and have grown slowly due to harsh conditions and poor soils- this pattern is seen in most other tree species as well, that the greatest lifespan and greatest size result from two different sets of growing conditions, and rarely coincide.
Very old trees typically have smoothed-down bark, reduced crowns, and proportionally more mass in their limbs than younger trees. I’ve seen some of the big famous live oaks travelling in the south, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this relatively small, battered tree rooted right in the edge of the saltmarsh is actually the oldest one I’ve ever encountered: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/18964967
Perhaps develop a schedule when you return to that particular tree. Maybe once a month, or once a week. Take the same photos each time. For instance, find a spot that gives you the best overall view of the tree. Take a photo from that same spot each time. Other “same” photos could be a view of the roots on one side of the tree, a particular close-up view of the bark, a branch you especially like, and the end of a branch, which will have newly emerging leaves one month, fully developed leaves another month, new buds another month, and so on. This will give you a wonderful view of the life of the tree throughout the year. You could also add a wildcard picture each month, such as a friend standing by the tree, a fern or lichen growing on it, a plant growing under its shade, etc., etc. I like the way your mind works and I wish you luck in this little project…. And there is another idea. You can create a project for this particular tree.
Do live oaks have “mast years” like some other nut-bearing trees? Try observing whether its acorn production varies from year to year.
Oaks are notorious for hosting a diversity of gall-forming insects. Try to see how many different kinds of galls this tree has. And do they change from year to year?
As @jasonhernandez74 mentioned, the variety and crazy forms of various oak galls are astounding. Some are even rather beautiful. There are gall projects where you can explore some of what you might find in that tree:
Have you considered the life beyond the tree that it is able to support? Mistletoe and spanish moss are both regularly viewed in Live Oaks and may speak to the health of the tree (or surrounding environment). Additionally the tree is a host plant to butterflies and moths and a wide variety of other insects, and as mentioned they’re an amazing opportunity to learn more about galls. Squirrels and birds build nests in the trees, and the unique soil quality developed under the trees may provide some great opportunities for observations about what companion plants are underneath the tree. Also, while it may be difficult to make iNaturalist observations about this, it’s worth mentioning that the tree played an important role in Native American cultures. Lastly, another interesting observation you could make is evidence of natural or human activity associated w/ the tree, trees can serve as a sort of fascinating time capsule and an opportunity to think about the stories behind each activity; has someone cut limbs from it, have some teenage lovebirds carved their initials in it, has it grown around a bicycle someone leaned against it years ago, was it struck by lightning during a storm, or does it have dominant winds forced the branches to grow in one particular direction? These beautiful trees have so much to offer - enjoy!
I took into account all your comments and recently did a 15-minute live oak photo study. I hope you enjoy, I did.
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