Native Son: The Mystery of Mark Essence

Today, I find myself lamenting the late Andy Rooney (1919-2011), that inquisitive fellow who used to wrap up the 60 Minutes television show with a brief segment of whimsical satire on something quirky he’d noticed about our world.

Did you ever wonder why…there are a few deciduous trees that just can’t seem to drop their dead leaves off, even long after they’ve turned brown? Normally, deciduous trees form an “abscission zone” at the base of each leaf stem (petiole), where cells form two distinct layers that are easily separated…which allows the leaf to simply fall off the twig.

Around my neck of the woods, it’s the post oaks that often wear brown coats in the winter. Actually, many oaks and beeches (both in the same plant family, Fagaceae) frequently exhibit this trait…which incidentally, has a pretty cool name: marcescence. Pronounced as a quick, “Mark Essence,” this peculiar characteristic still has scientists baffled as to the reason some dead leaves cling to their trees. Or perhaps the trees are clinging to the dead leaves…I don’t know. Theories range from deer browse protection to delay of leaf decomposition to sexual immaturity (on 300 year-old trees…huh?), but the simple truth is we humans just don’t know for sure.

A classically marcescent post oak (Quercus stellata).

Since nobody knows for sure, and I find anthropomorphism entertaining, I figure I’ll take a stab at it.

The Stuff Theory—People love stuff. (Just ask George Carlin.) Some people love more stuff than others. And some people just can’t bring themselves to discard any of their stuff, so they’ll cling to it through rain, snow, and the howling winds of winter…until Mother Nature makes them clean their room. Marcescent trees are hoarders.

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The Greed Theory—People love money. Leaves are kind of like a tree’s currency, so trees love money, too. I mean…leaves…trees love leaves like people love money. And some people just can’t stand to part with it, so they cling to it like crazy. Which reminds me of Jack Benny…which reminds me of, “Luv leetrees luv mon e-leaves and liddle lamzy divey…a kiddley divey too, wooden shoe?” (I’ll bet only three readers got that. Liz Street was one. The rest will have to google up “Mairzy Doats.”)

This rare, cloned sport of Texas red oak bears high value U.S. currency in late autumn, and is botanically known as Quercus buckleyi ‘Donttellunclesam.’

The Apron-string Theory—“I gave birth to those leaves! I busted my buds, raised them up right, and I’m not going to let the world ruin them! They could die out there! Or get galls…or lacebugs. Or end up in a compost bin with all the others. No. No, they will stay with me forever!”

The Slacker Theory—“Dude…why would I ever want to leave this perfectly comfortable, rent-free tree? Plus…there are mushrooms out there. They’re bad news, dude. Hey, you want another brownie? Duuuuude.”

The Sheldon Cooper Theory—“I am cognizant that, in Mother Nature’s dharma, I should abscise myself and begin my transmogrification from discarded photosynthetic bio-wonderboy to humic acid hero, via the saprophytic superhighway, of course. But…I just don’t want to do that.”

Marcescence on a Texas red oak (Quercus buckleyi). This tree will shed its dead leaves in late March, as the new growth pushes off the old.

As for me, I take comfort that my theories are no worse than what anyone else has come up with for the mystery of marcescence. And, I hope to use them in the New Year…to help me abscise myself from some things and habits that need to go. I look around my studio, crammed full of books, piles of paper, painted skulls, bones, bottles, baskets, seashells, Mexican ceramics, and little jars of sand from beaches around the world. A little voice in the back of my brain yells, “Start fresh! Clear some space! Get rid of all that sentimental bric-a-brac that’s just taking up real estate around here! Out with the old, and in with the new! Let’s drop the leaves of times gone by and embrace the future with bare branches!”

As that little Type A part of my brain prattles on endlessly, the rest of brain laughs and shrugs. I think I just found a new theory: marcescent trees have Type B personalities.

I need a road trip! Let me know if you’d like me to come and speak to your group sometime. I’m low maintenance, flexible, and you know I like to go just about anywhere. No city too big; no town to small. Just send me an e-mail at and we’ll work something out.

Come out and see me at Chandor Gardens! Located in the heart of Weatherford’s Historic District, Chandor Gardens is the perfect place to get away and enjoy the simple pleasures of life that can only be found in gardens. Call 817-613-1700 or visit for details.

Posted by Steven Chamblee
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