Happy Oaktober! October is celebrated as Oak Awareness Month across the state of Illinois. The oak deserves attention since it is our state tree and has been a major majestic component of our landscape for centuries. But, now, its population is in decline and needs our interest and support.
Due to their natural ability to survive the reoccurring fires in the native Illinois prairie landscape, oaks became a predominant species in the landscape.
When European settlers arrived here in the early 1800s, oaks dominated the majority of the wooded landscapes in the area. While oaks were more tolerant of fires, less hardy species would be suppressed during the prairie fires, leaving oak woods and savannas in much of northeastern Illinois, often along or near streams and rivers.
The abundance of oaks was significant as it signaled micro-ecosystems where other plant and wildlife species did well, too. For example, oaks support over 500 species of caterpillars, while non-native plants may not host any.
As settlement progressed, many oaks did not survive. Now, as the native oak stands mature, natural losses continue to occur. Also over the years, there has become less favorable growing conditions for new seedlings to become established and older trees have more types of competition.
More non-native invasive species, such as buckthorn and honeysuckle, have become prominent and can choke out new desirable plant growth trying to become established. Natural fires no longer exist in the landscape to reduce competition.
Other factors such as construction damage, compaction from lawn mowers and foot traffic, trunk damage, etc., also contribute to the decline and death of the native oaks.
In the 15-county northeastern Illinois region, less than 20 percent of the pre-settlement oak stand still exists, according to the Morton Arboretum Regional Trees Initiative. Much of that acreage is in smaller, more fragmented areas that are more susceptible to loss.
Oaks may appear to be in trouble in terms of maintaining their prominence in the landscape.
However, individuals and communities can undertake plans to enhance the recovery of oaks in the landscape. That is what Oaktober is all about. Plan now to add to the oak population in your home landscape and in your community.
Each of us can help create an increased awareness of the situation and do things to correct it.
For example: learn about oak tree species and select an appropriate one to plant in your yard; work with your local officials to review ordinances to enhance planting of native trees such as oaks and promote species diversity in new plantings; collect acorns and plant them in pots to plant out into the community; or help in other ways.
At The Conservation Foundation, our Conservation@Home members are encouraged to plant and protect native plants, including oaks.
To learn more about how to become a member or other information, see the website theconservationfoundation.org or phone 630-553-0687, ext. 204.
Also for more information, see the Morton Arboretum’s tree initiative site at mortonarb.org/science-conservation/chicago-region-trees-initiative.
• John Church is the Kendall County program director at The Conservation Foundation.