As I was out walking the other day, I noticed that acorns are beginning to fall. A sure sign that winter is on its way, acorns are an important source of food for 18 types of birds and many small mammals. Acorns that are uneaten have a chance at becoming an equally important part of the ecosystem. Here in Tampa Bay, 395 species of butterflies and moths use oaks as a caterpillar host plant. Indeed, according to Doug Tallamy, a professor at the University of Delaware and author of The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees, oaks are the single most important tree in the natural food web in 84% of the counties in North America. Dr. Tallamy also points out that despite its reputation as being too large for most residential sites, several native oak species typically grow to be less than 30’ tall. (These include two of our locally native oaks, Chapman’s oak (Quercus chapmanii) and myrtle oak (Quercus myrtifolia.)
In addition to their ecological importance (or perhaps, because of it), oaks have been culturally cherished as a symbol of strength, knowledge, and endurance since the time of ancient Rome. As we prepare to celebrate Veterans Day, I think it’s interesting to note that the US military uses oak leaves a symbolic representation of strength: various corps in the US military incorporate oak leaves in their insignia (see, for instance this article and this one) and the US military also uses oak leaves to designate rank for certain pay grades. Oak leaves are also an integral part of the designs for the Congressional Medal of Honor, the United States’ highest military award for valor.
Veterans Day is a day to recognize the valor and sacrifice our veterans have made. Please remember them when you happen upon an oak tree. Better yet, plant one to honor a veteran in your life and see how it will also #NurtureNative.