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
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.
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
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
"Texas Tales" June
27, 2012 column
| Related Article
“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