Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Garden of the Trees: What is that Brown Stringy Stuff Falling From My Oak Tree?

            Oak trees have the same unblushing approach to reproduction that characterizes the plant world's expression of all necessary physical functions, including growth, nutrition, birth and death. Green plants do the weirdest things, and you never see them sweat.
            Oak trees, it turns out, fertilize themselves, having the necessary equipment for both male and female functions. The botanical term for this overdetermined status, according to the sources I have consulted, is "monoecious," an unpronounceable word meaning they produce both male and female flowers.
             So in the spring, when a green plant's fancy turns to reproduction, oak trees produce male flowers called "staminate" and female flowers called "pistillate," both on their own tree self. These flowers are such modest tints of green, yellow and tan -- unlike the reds and hot pinks and orange and lavender of shameless fruit trees resulting in events such as "cherry blossom time," or the pure alba of the dogwoods -- that you hardly know they are there.
            Yet quietly in the sturdy, straight-ahead manner characteristic of its kind, the oak gets the job done. The male flowers "grow into a thin, wormlike shape known as a catkin or an ament," according to my source (
            There we have it: "catkins," a word redolent of Victorian drawing classes and a famous love scene in a once-shocking D.H. Lawrence novel called "Women in Love."
            That 'wormlike' shape has a certain masculine sneakiness to the sound of it. Sure enough catkins consist of "stamens," the male flower part that releases the substance that so troubles allergy sufferers int he spring: pollen. I now know where to look for the cause of the many sneezes that have accompanied this year's early growing season. I recall the word "stamen" as one of those common "parts of a flower," now I know that stamens are in biological cahoots with 'catkins.'
            OK. Stamens give us pollen, which besides making people go red-eyed and sneezy, comes to rest (according to my source) on "receptive stigma in the female flower." That's pretty blunt.
            But add this: "with a little help from the wind." Ah, those pandering breezes of spring. 
            So I now know why those light brownish wormlike organic somethings are all over my yard, a fresh supply of them every morning on the 'bistro' table where we breakfast in warm weather under the oak tree. I have been picking them off the upper leaves of plants, just because their pervasive accumulation dulls the color.   
             We're ready to bring this indictment to a close now. The oak tree's female flower -- don't ask me what they look like, but I know they're not long and stringy like catkins -- "grow where the leaf stalks meet the branches or twigs." They are modest and unassuming, I suppose, but in the end they conquer, and endure, hang around all summer, and deliver the goods. Because by summer's end those "receptive stigma" grow into acorns. And here we are in familiar territory.
            How do these acorns, that we step on on the sidewalk and make that satisfying crunchy sound, come about? Now we know.
            One last term is introduced as our source informs us that acorns "sit in hard cups called peduncles."
            So do we all understand now why in a boom year like the current one we have brownish, yellowish tree detritus all over our yards?
           Well I'll be a monkey's peduncle.