Maybe we should have had this mystery plant back at Thanksgiving. Some people think the leaves of this little tree resemble a turkey’s foot, which for me would require a good bit of imagination.
I suppose the middle lobes look a bit like the turkey’s toes on the sides, and of course the points of the lobes are quite sharp, like claws. The leaves typically have a prominent bristle tip at the end of each lobe, though sometimes these are worn away as the season progresses.
Whether you see a turkey’s foot here or not, this is a tree you have probably seen somewhere down here in the South, commonly associated with longleaf pine. It’s one of the first trees I learned as a budding botanist, and one of the easiest for anyone to remember, I think.
It occurs from southeastern Virginia (barely) all the way to eastern Louisiana (barely), and well into Florida. The ecologists say this is a shade-intolerant species, meaning its seeds cannot sprout in shaded conditions.
This species really loves the sun. Interestingly, though, when you find a seedling plant on a bright day in the summertime, its leaves will generally be held at a vertical angle, as even sun-loving plants can get burned.
The base of the leaf blade is tapered down to the base, forming a “V.” The mature leaves are smooth and glossy, and quite smooth below, free of any hairs.
My students sometimes want to confuse this leaf with that of Spanish oak, Quercus falcata, whose leaves are delicately downy along the entire lower surface. And Spanish oak has a rounded or bell-shaped leaf base.
Our mystery plant is typically a smallish tree and often gnarled. Older trees produce sizeable acorns, which take two seasons to mature. In the autumn, the leaves turn a bright, glossy, reddish-brown, seemingly all at once, and this is when the plants are the most conspicuous, visually.
Though the tree’s foliage doesn’t really compare with the spectacular displays in the earlier autumn it forms bright, cheery patches of color well into the cold months. Eventually all of these old leaves will fall away, as this species is totally deciduous.
Of course, right now the leaves are just starting to unfold and expand, so they are very tender and bright green. A sort of chartreuse.
The biology of this plant is very interesting. Whenever a fire goes through a stand of this species, the tops invariably die, but the individuals will resprout vigorously from the base. However, with repeated fires this oak will be killed.
It stands to reason that the huge numbers of this tree we see in many of our high-ground longleaf pine ecosystems now, especially in dry sandhills, is in response to modern, active fire suppression, which has very much rearranged the natural makeup of many of our landscapes.
John Nelson is the curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina. As a public service, the herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, go to www.herbarium.org, call 803-777-8196 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Answer: Turkey oak, Quercus laevis