Native Son – October, 2007

So I’m cruising back to Weatherford on the always scenic Tin Top Road, fresh from a presentation over in Glen Rose. I felt good, as the talk went well and the folks in that little Glen Rose Garden Club were as wonderful as anyone ever portrayed in a Norman Rockwell painting. (They even sprung for some of that Dublin Dr. Pepper for me!)

My talk, “Monarchs from Mexico,” centered around a butterfly gardening lecture I gave and the subsequent life-changing event I experienced in Monterey , Mexico , so my mind was churning with thoughts about nature’s fluidity and its ability to adapt and change.

Suddenly, I saw the live oak up ahead. I’ve driven right by it many times, but never stopped to personally visit it, which is really odd, because the beauty is only about 15 feet from the road. So I pull into the little U-shaped driveway that surrounds this magnificent tree and hop out of the truck. I shiver because it’s cold and the wind’s blowing, and I wonder how many winters and summers it has stood here, braving it all.

My memory floats back to when I was in a trees class taught by semi-famous and now retired Texas Forest Service legend, Larry Schaapveld. You can learn a lot of things from someone who’s been doing something a long time (a tip of the hat here to both Larry and Neil Sperry), and Larry was a great teacher. He just kind of told it like it was, instead of playing to what you wanted to hear. Among many other things, I learned from Larry that you actually can be a tree hugger and forestry industry supporter at the same time. I also learned that people want trees to be much older than they actually are, and they attach a sense of reverence to anything over 100 years old – and rightfully so, I suppose.

So I eyeball this awesome, multi-trunked live oak: roughly 55 inches DBH (diameter at breast height), maybe 40 feet tall and 60 feet wide, growing on unirrigated upland soil on a flat grade in southern Parker County for, I’m guessing, 150-plus years. If it were in a deep-soiled flood plain or by a creek, I’d go maybe half that. But there it is, prairie-grown and magnificently adapted to its environment.

I’m also assuming that it’s an escarpment live oak, since according to my estimate, the tree pre-dates the time when people began to introduce non-regional plants into the area (and tree growers began to buy seed stock and liners from non-regional sources).

But that brings me to a point: What’s the real physiological difference between a coastal live oak (Quercus virginiana) and an escarpment live oak (Q. fusiformus)? I think most gardening folks know by now that the escarpment flavor is more drought-tolerant and can grow well on more alkaline soils. I’ve had experts tell me things like, “the escarpment’s leaves have a flattened base and the acorns are more slender,” but I’ve seen enough live oaks to know this answer just does not hold water. I’ve seen live oak leaves from 1 to 5 inches long, shaped like everything from railroad-smashed pennies to seven-spiked holly leaves, and acorns with just as much diversity.

Then it hits me like a brick to the forehead – diversity. Genetic diversity is a gradient, with an infinite amount of tiny differences between members of the same species. Maybe the coastal and the escarpment are the same species that grow across a wide range of climates and conditions, and, over time, developed slight differences that, while not readily apparent to the eye, do exist and allow the plant to grow from coastal Virginia to the insanely deep, rich soils of the Mississippi Delta to the rocky limestone escarpments of the Texas Hill Country and beyond.

Maybe they are different species from different ranges that eventually grew toward one another and the ones in the middle sort of melded into hybrid version of the two. And since oaks hybridize in nature, that’s a real possibility.

So I’m standing under this glorious tree, freezing, when I realize that I’m experiencing déjB vu. I had the musings with myself under the famous Goose Island live oak, down in the little Texas coast town of Lamar just north of Corpus Christi. It’s a fabulously beautiful tree, about 45 feet tall and 90 feet wide; a veritable Medusa’s head of far-flung, snaking branches. Magnificently adapted to its environment, it’s described by folks in that locale as “more than 1,000 years old.” Located a few hundreds yards from the beach, so it’s a coastal live oak, I assume.

I wonder what would result if I took acorns from each and planted them at the feet of the other? Ecological chaos at best; a few undramatic seedling deaths at worst, I suppose. But who has time for all that? I’ve gardens to plant, weeds to pull, talks to give, and a child to bring up the best I can. So perhaps I should just accept the wonderful quandary for what it is, and learn to love the trees just the way they are and not for what I want them to be. Just like Larry Schaapveld said.

Hmmmm … I wonder if that works for people, as well.

About the author: Steven L. Chamblee is Chief Horticulturist at Chandor Garden in Weatherford. He is also a contributing editor to Neil Sperry’s GARDENS Magazine, where his writing appears each issue. For more information, visit

Classes come to Chandor Gardens! We’re hosting some great classes out here this spring. (There’s still a few spaces left in Water Wise Garden Design!) Go to to check it out!

Mark your calendars for the Parker County Master Gardeners PLANT SALE on April 21. Details next month.

Come out to Chandor Gardens and see us sometime. From the Metroplex: just take I-20 west to exit 409, hang a right, go 2.1 miles and hang a left on Lee Avenue. Head straight twelve blocks and you’re driving in the gates. Call 817-361-1700 to let us know you’re coming and we’ll light the incense and show you around. You can always go to for a picture tour and more information.

Posted by Neil Sperry
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