Home Gardening Garry Oak: Deep Roots in the Pacific Northwest

Garry Oak: Deep Roots in the Pacific Northwest

Garry Oak: Deep Roots in the Pacific Northwest
Garry Oak on Vashon Island

Greene, E.L., Illustrations of West American oaks, t. 36, fig. 1 (1889-1890) [G. Hansen]
Greene, E.L., Illustrations of West American oaks, t. 36, fig. 1 (1889-1890) [G. Hansen]
True confession: I’m a collector of plants. I can (and do) have a greenhouse of flora, weeds, seeds, bulbs and starts, with nary an inch of space to spare, but that doesn’t mean I can’t find room for one more specimen should the opportunity arise. One summer I recall a ridiculous self-inflicted edict; I told myself I could not buy or secure any new plants until all of my other potted plants were rooted in terra firma.  Ha! That lofty aspiration lasted all but a few days.

Garry Oak seedlings
Garry Oak seedlings leaving the greenhouse in my little red wagon

Last week in the greenhouse, I did notice my taproot-cramped Garry Oak seedlings were pining (so to speak) for a forever home in the ground. These wonderfully beautiful oaks, the only native oak to Washington, have a very limited range within the state. Surprisingly, the hand of man and woman created and encouraged the tree’s unique habitat and ecosystem. Indigenous people of the region would start brush fires to clear the understory around these oak groves. The annual practice promoted the growth of an important vegetative food source: camas tubers. As the practice declined, so did the range of the groves. Firs trees would quickly encroach and begin reforestation. Bye, bye Garry Oak? Not so fast…

Greenhouse with cover crop of buckwheat
Greenhouse last spring with a cover crop of buckwheat to be tilled in before planting began.

I became more familiar with Garry Oaks on three occasions: first, my discovery of one massive tree here on Vashon Island;  secondly, on a side trip to Marrowstone Island where I found a gnarly grove sidling the road on Indian Island (near Port Townsend); and finally, when I came across some striking south Sound groves on the way to Steilacoom.

Garry Oak on Vashon Island
Magnificent Garry Oak on Vashon Island in the town of Burton

Moved by their scarcity, beauty and native status, I started collecting Garry Oak seedlings as I found them for sale; first at the Chimacum Corner Farmstand, and then, here on Vashon at the Land Trust native plant sale.  No fan of containers, the trees needed to be planted outside sooner than later. I chose the north end of my front field, flanking a handsome screen of firs.

big dipper grove
Plotting, pacing, placing and planting

For now, trust me, the arrows are pointing to some promising little transplants.  I look forward to posting photos of the trees when you can actually seem them.  As the proverb goes, “Great oaks from little acorns grow.” (Good thing I’m patient and hopefully long-lived.)

oak trees plantings

On clear nights, I can see the Big Dipper and North Star from my back porch. I thought it a fitting tribute to my favorite collection of stars to plant the oak seedlings in a similar formation. Neither perfectly spaced nor properly scaled, the grove will look just fine from eye level, plus this time, the stars will have something to gaze upon.

big Dipper
big Dipper

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  1. I am certainly envious of your greenhouse and all it’s contents! I had one MANY years ago, but I could not afford to heat one here–the winters are way to harsh….so I live vicariously through others.
    I love that you are adding some of those rare oaks to your place. And though you might not live to see them in their full glory, future folks will certainly enjoy and appreciate your efforts.
    I have a terrible time getting my DH to understand that it’s important to plant for the future. He’s one that thinks if HE doesn’t see it grow up, why bother? I point out that the HUGE maples that line our drive (that HE enjoys so much!!!) were planted by someone that would never see them fully grown. Sometimes a wife has to point these things out–and no, it’s not nagging. LOL!
    Have a wonderful week

    • Sue, you are so right. In fact, I’ve been percolating an idea for quite awhile, a blog post entitled “Yesterday, I Planted a Tree for Someone’s Tomorrow.” For I rarely go a week without thanking the stalwart farmers and pioneers who planted the treasure trove of trees I enjoy today, especially my hammock fenders, the Black Locusts. As for my greenhouse, I don’t heat mine, but then again our winters are mild, and it mainly extends the shoulder seasons of growing by a month or two. Here’s to the huge maples that line your drive and the one that has anchors mine!

  2. I thank you, the future thanks you, and the overlighting spirit of the Garry Oak also surely thanks you, for planting these beauties! I was rather shocked to hear Sue’s observation about her husband not understanding the need to plant for the future. Perhaps it’s a non-gardener thing — and the world is less and less interested in gardens, I fear.

    Years ago I talked with a USFS archeohistorian who was gathering evidence for native Americans as the ‘founders’ of the giant sequoia groves in California, as they burned underbrush to encourage acorn production by local oaks. ???

    • Wow, Kathy, that’s fascinating. Those Sequoia groves are imagination-benders, almost otherworldly. What a wonderful discovery to know ancient practices encouraged, if not secured the Sequoia’s existence, longevity, and remarkable size.

  3. Nice to see the greenhouse doing its thing. You have the Kingdome of hoop houses.

    Good to hear your Garry oak arrived via the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust’s annual native plant sale. The Land Trust celebrates its 25th birthday this year. Heaven only knows how many trees and shrubs on the island got their start from land owners who bought them over the years at the January sale. It’s a very large number, I’m sure of that.

  4. In 1967 our family property was purchased on Salt Spring Island. When brush cutting the top acre to build the cottage, the man hired to do the clearing saw a tiny Garry Oak seedling, no bigger than yours, in the bottom corner of the acre. He chose to cut around rather than over the seeding (and did the same with two Grand Fir seedlings in a top corner). All these years later the tree is magnificent, a beautifully formed mature specimen about the size and shape of your example from Burton. The tree’s 50th birthday is now near. Well worth the wait. Must be time to bake a cake.

    • What a great story Mike. I love that what one man chose to do, created a beloved gift for many to enjoy for many a year. I have some Grand Fir seedlings myself. I can hear them now, “Get us out of these pots!”

  5. A right treat, this post (oaks are one of my totems, so it’s always nice to come across a story about them). I recently read a book about forests and folklore/fairy tales, and one of the points the author kept making (she writes from and about Great Britain, but I assume her point is valid elsewhere in the world) is that woodlands do better with human intervention, as I suppose the story of the camas tubers shows. How lovely to plant out in constellations! Make sure that’s recorded somewhere in the historical annals of the island, so that, 150 years from now, people will still know about it.

    • Hi Anne, as you can see I share your love of oaks. The other day I realized I had planted about four varieties on the property without much thought; it just happened that I came across some handsome seedlings at various times — all of which found their way home with me, to be planted, nurtured, and loved. Currently I have the Garry Oaks, some low growing Deer Oak, a Shumard Oak (I think), and a mystery oak (to be determined). Warm regards, Tom

  6. Tom,
    I just noticed your report about your Garry Oaks. I would love to see them. I think we were on the same track at the same time, because I also got a bunch of bare root garry oak specimens and planted them a few years ago. It likely was 2015, and now I have been adding to them with other oaks. You will have to see them sometime. Perhaps in 2035 when they are about 5 feet tall!

    • That was a good laugh Daniel, so true, so true. I have unfortunate news to report about the oaks. They died. We had a stinging hot spell and I didn’t water them enough and they baked in my front field. Perhaps they were in shock from the transplanting. I hope to plant some more, for now I have a couple unidentified oaks that survived, both purchased at a local plant sale. Keep me posted about your towering crew. 😉

  7. I have a number of Garry Oak volunteers on my one third acre in Lacey, Washington. Seem to like my sandy soil. Also a nice grove of older oaks nearby. Also volunteer Madrona. Both beautiful trees!

    • Dan, mine didn’t make it unfortunately. My fault for not watering during an extremely hot week. I’ll give them another try very soon, and keep them watered during drought this time. That grove sounds lovely!

  8. I’d love to plant a lot of Garry Oak trees if I could find some acorns. Nobody seems to sell them. And I don’t know where to find a tree on public land where I could gather some acorns. Do you know?


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