"And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write; I once more smell the dew and rain, And relish versing. O my Only Light, It cannot be That I am he On whom Thy tempests fell all night".
- George Herbert.
THE veteran oak, which has weathered many gales, is the time-honored symbol of hardihood. The flowers which bloom between its mighty roots have served rhetoricians, since the memory of man goeth not to the contrary, as symbols of tender grace and helpless, evanescent prettiness. So the idea of the forest-trees themselves bourgeoning forth into blossoms is to the unbotanical public almost a contradiction in terms, perhaps even involving a trace of absurdity, as if some war-worn veteran were to take his walks abroad with a knot of ribbons at his throat, and a lace-trimmed parasol forming a background to his weather-beaten visage.
Nevertheless, all the forest-trees bloom. After the long, bitter December nights, and after the beating tempests of the equinox, they, too, like dear, quaint George Herbert, "bud again." They respond fully to the call of spring, and break forth not only into tender leaf, but into blossom, too.
But the floral efforts of the trees receive little attention from the public at large. Their flowers are, as a rule, small, green, and inconspicuous, and appearing, as they do, just when we are looking for the bursting of the leaf-buds, they are often mistaken, by the casual observer, for half-unfolded leaves; and they are often almost inaccessible, growing on the swaying tops of upper branches.
Even when one gathers these tree-blossoms, and examines them closely, few of them are found to look at all like flowers, as that term is "under-standed of the people." For "a flower" to the laity means a cluster of delicate or brilliant little leaves, generally conspicuous, and often fragrant. But "a flower" to the botanist may mean a bunch of tiny greenish or brownish threads, insignificant-looking and odorless.
Few of the blossoms borne by the forest-trees have either petals or fragrance.
Many sorts are what botanists call "naked," having neither calyx nor corolla.
Many sorts are also what botanists call "imperfect," - that is, having either stamens and no pistils, or else pistils and no stamens.
One flower may be a pistil or cluster of pistils, surrounded by a few scales, and its "affinity" is a bunch of stamens and a scale or two; and these two incomplete blossoms may grow, not only on separate branches, but in separate trees.
As these forest-tree flowers have, generally speaking, neither bright colors, nor honey, nor fragrance, we surmise that their messenger is the wind, which blows when and where it lists, and is not to be coaxed by the methods which "take" with insects.
And because the wind is their go-between, these blossoms appear, sometimes before the leaves issue from the buds, and almost always before they expand, for foliage would be seriously in the way of pollen as it flew from bough to bough or from tree to tree. The stamens are borne in long, drooping dangles or "catkins," which sway with the lightest breath, so that the pollen is shaken out even by the faintest zephyrs of a spring day.
The pollen of most forest-trees is light and dry, so that spring breezes can easily detach it from the stamens and carry it fast and far.
Fig. 9. - Blossoms of the Butternut (Juglans cinerea).
And their stigmas are more or less branched and hairy, so that they can readily catch the pollen as it flies by.
By time the tender leaves are large enough to cast their shadows on the ground, the pollen messages of the trees have been delivered by the wind, and the precious seed is set (Fig. 9).
The walnut, butternut, hickory, oak, beech, hazelnut, and ironwood trees are all what botanists call "monoecious." That is to say, their stamens and pistils are borne on the same tree, though not in the same blossom. The stamens of all these trees grow in little, close clusters, which are dotted, like rosary beads, all down the length of a slender, pendulous cord. Each stamen cluster is partly covered by a scale or hood, which in a measure prevents the pollen from being washed away by spring rains.
On the walnut, two or three of these stamen-chains come out of one bud; on the oak, six or seven issue from a single ring of bud-scales (Fig. 10). Indeed, as a rule these dangles, which are each and every one a whole community of associated stamens, grow in family groups, so that the idea of fraternity and cooperation is carried throughout.
Fig. 10. - Blossoms of the oak. a, pistillate; b, staminate.
But the pistillate flowers of the forest-trees are less gregarious. They grow singly, or in small, compact clusters, which almost invariably terminate the branches and tip the twigs, so that they are in the best possible position to catch some of the wind-blown pollen as it flies by. Those of the walnut, "pig-nut," and hickory are bright-green, like the unfolding foliage. At the heart of each is a single pistil, forking into two plume-like heads, which look downy, but prove unexpectedly solid to the touch. The pistil plumes of the butternut are dull-red, and might easily be mistaken for a pair of unfolding baby-leaves (Fig. 11).
The pistillate flower, or little nut, of the beech tree is one green ovary, capped with three threadlike styles, and walled about with scales which will become the bur of the nut one of these days. The young acorn is a three-celled ovary (and thereby hangs a tale), containing the first beginnings of six seeds, and capped by a stigma which forks into three. Around its base is a little scaly covering, the acorn-cup that is to be.
Fig. 11. - Details of the blossoming butternut.
a, a cluster of pistillate flowers; b, one stamen bearing scale detached from the staminate flower-chain; c, a single stamen. (All magnified).