cartoonist friend Roger
T. Moore, a West Texan with a sense of humor as big as one of the dozens of
wind turbines looking down on his ranch, told me that the largest oak forest in
North America covers some 40,000 acres near Monahans,
it sounded like a setup.
Yeah, right, I laughed, downloading a mental
image of the sand hills and flat scrub brush country. And Alpine
has miles of shell-covered beaches. No, really, he said. Check it out.
out that Moore wasn’t
pulling my proverbial leg. Not many people know it, but Ward County does indeed
have the U.S.’s largest concentration of a species called the Havard oak. (The
name honors American botanist Valery Havard, 1846-1927, a U.S. Army surgeon who
did extensive field work in the Southwest. And remember, it’s HAVARD, not HARVARD.
We’re talking little trees, not ivy towers.)
But don’t go envisioning
a primordial Hansel-and-Gretel-like forest in far West
Texas, a tall stand of trees only occasionally penetrated by a shaft of sunshine.
Smokey the Bear and his bruin buddies hang out elsewhere. There are no wildfire
The tallest Havard oak only makes it to three feet, though
to survive in the arid landscape of this part of Texas,
the plant sinks its roots as deep as 70 to 90 feet in the silica dunes that give
Monahans Sandhills State Park its name. That deep, the roots of the miniature
trees are able to find enough water to keep them going.
known as Quercus Havardii, and more commonly called shin oak or
simply shinnery, the nursery-size trees constituting Ward County’s “forest”
produce acorns as big around as a quarter. Ground squirrels and other small animals
find them quite tasty, especially in a part of the state where there are not a
whole lot of choices in the critter feed category. Wildlife from birds to lizards
also uses the mini-thickets of Havard oaks for shelter from the sun or predators.
Shin oak, by the way, is not shorthand for short, as in something that
rises only shin-high. The term actually comes from the French word “chene,” which
means oak. They may be vertically challenged, but Havard oaks stay around a long
time. In fact, plant biologists have determined that they can live up to three
centuries, perhaps longer.