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  • Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

    In Quercus Veritas

    by Mike Cox
    Mike Cox

    When 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.

    Turns 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 lookout towers.

    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.

    Scientifically 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.

    “This Lilliputian Jungle,” naturalist Roy Bedichek wrote of the Ward County Havard oak stand in his classic book Adventures with a Texas Naturalist, “is as much a natural curiosity as the Painted Desert or the wonder areas of Yellowstone.” While Bedichek’s observation is true enough, the Painted Desert and Yellowstone are a bit better known.

    In fact, most visitors come to the state park at Monahans to play on the acres of Sahara-like sand dunes rising as high as 70 feet, not to see the Havard oaks. However, for those who are interested, the “forest” is readily accessible from the paved roadway that winds through the park. The species is found elsewhere in the Southwest, but the acreage covered by the trees in Ward County is the largest anywhere.

    Too small for climbing, swings or tree houses, these little-known trees play a vital part in the park’s ecosystem, adding stability to the sand dunes that attract thousands of visitors annually. Without the extensive root system of the Havard oaks, the dunes would be just so much blowing sand.


    © Mike Cox - June 27, 2012 column
    More "Texas Tales"
    See “Rabbi” Moore: Cowboy Cartoonist
    by Mike Cox
    On a typical Sunday, Roger Todd Moore arrives at his friend’s 1875-vintage stone ranch house in southwestern Travis County by 8:30 a.m. and puts on the coffee. By 9 or a few minutes after, once everyone has gotten about as attentive as they will get, he clears his throat and in his deep, West Texas voice starts reading. Today, it’s from the Tao Te Ching...
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