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Skill Share: Radical Botany - Week 2- plant/human communities and the White Oak

Go outside and look out to the horizon if you can, and notice the most prominent plant, possibly a giant White Oak which was plentiful and extremely valuable to human survival for thousands of years in Cascadia. If you live in the forest and cannot see the horizon, look up. You will see the teacher trees, the mother plants. Plants live in communal support of each other. We can learn from the plants.
The Oregon White Oak
The Oregon White Oak
Radical Botany #2 - Week of January 19 - 26 - Cascadia

Plants as teachers and The White Oak

Radical Botany: Arising from or going to a root or source; Arising from the root or its Crown: radical leaves. Favoring or effecting fundamental or revolutionary changes in the current practices.

Plants communities/human communities- the plants are our teachers

If you are looking for a good teacher for learning about plants, look to the plants themselves. All knowledge that would lead us to live rightly on the Earth can be found with the plants. You only need to possess excellent powers of observation and do what the plant ask you to do. If you know and understand the plant teachers, you will never be hungry, unsheltered or unclothed. You will surely be a person who lives a prosperous, abundant life.

You have only to go outside and look about you. If you spend enough time observing the plants you will learn that they live in systemic communities. Each plant lives in a community of its own and has about it other plants that create a network of support. Whether to support its structure or to attract nutrients, plants live in community.

Humans could learn from these communities but most human hold themselves above nature. Many humans think they are separate from nature, from the earth.

Go outside and look out to the horizon if you can, and notice the most prominent plant, possibly a giant White Oak which was plentiful and extremely valuable to human survival for thousands of years in Cascadia. If you live in the forest and cannot see the horizon, look up. You will see the teacher trees, the mother plants. Plants live in communal support of each other. When humans start slicing away this support through such practices as clearcutting, slash and burn and chemical herbicide use, they put plant communities and other biological communities at risk. We are all connected, we should hold each other up.

When we enter a plant community, the plants will try to bring us back to balance.
The plants will sense we are out of balance and try to heal us. The plants have not forgotten that we are all part of the same community. What we need to learn is how to identify what healing is occurring and give it support through our actions and the way we care for our bodies and minds.

"Because plants are firmly rooted in the soil and cannot run away from their enemies, they have long been considered passive in interactions with other organisms. This view has been falsified by several decades of research on plant pathogen and plant herbivore interactions" - Marcel Dicke, "Plants in Action".

One of my favorite passages in Shetphen Harrod Buhner's book "The lost language of plants-The Ecological importance of Plant Medicines to Life on Earth", is a story about the interaction between deer and plants in a meadow.

Harrod Buhner writes about researchers asking the question "why don't deer eat meadow plants down to the root when grazing"?

The researchers watched the meadow for several seasons taking all sorts of samples. In the end they found that the plant itself controls the deer, sending off an aroma and plant chemistry that tells the deer it is time to eat, then when the deer has eaten just to the top of the stem, the plant sends off a chemical that is bitter. The plant receives a good trimming that allows it to build better plant structure, the deer receives nutrients and both are healthier for the grazing. What is most amazing in this story is that the plant is able to switch its chemical output almost instantaneously.

Now if all this is true, why would you, a human, be surprised that when you enter a forest, the plants would not want to bring you to balance in their community?

Plants teach, and compel and push us to go back to our true nature. Plants want us to return to community. When we walk in the forest and we are covered by synthetic chemical smells, smells of plastic, and petro and synthetic hormones and medicines, the plants will begin raining down upon us a curtain of plant substance chemicals. The plants will clean the air and water for us. The plants will try to bring us back to the earth. The community we all belong to is connected to all living and non-living things on this planet. Until we find our way back we will live in chaos.
Don't believe me? Go into the forest and find a Red Cedar. Sit under the tree for an hour and see how you feel. You will not only feel changed biologically and psychologically, you will feel connected to the place.

THE OREGON WHITE OAK (Quercus garryana)

When I look across the skyline I still see the White Oak. These trees have been here in Cascadia for thousands of years. The acorns of the White Oak were an important food source for native peoples. Where ever you find these trees you will also find a vast ecosystem of food, healing plants and pronounced animal, insect and plant communities. For instance, if you look up into the branches of the White Oak in the fall and winter you will see mistletoe, at its base you will find small herbs, sweet flowered ground covers, and sumac (also known as poison oak).

When European settlers first arrived in Cascadia they found most of the valley's of Western Oregon and Washington filled with White Oak forests. The trees are found on dry, rocky slopes of bluffs sometimes on deep rich, well-drained soil and low elevations. As you head south from Eugene, the species of oak trees are slightly different and they are named "Black Oak".
The White Oak tree is recognizable by is deeply round-lobed oak leaves and it's light grey bark, with thick furrows and ridges. The tree can grow to be 100 feet or taller.

The acorns of the White Oak were eaten by the local native peoples such as Salish and Kalapuyan peoples. They harvested the acorns, soaked them to remove the bitter tannin, and pulverized them into a type of flour. These acorns were easy to store through the winter and were not prone to spoilage by mold, moisture or cold. The food from the acorn mash was high in proteins, carbohydrates and nutrients. All acorns contain large amounts of protein, carbohydrates and fats, as well as the minerals calcium, phosphorus and potassium, and the vitamin niacin. Total food energy in an acorn also varies by species, but all compare well with other wild foods and with other nuts. (Wikipedia: acorns). It is important to remove tannins by soaking overnight in water. Since tannins, which are plant polyphenols, interfere with an animal's ability to metabolize protein, it is important to remove them before consuming the acorn.

The bark of the White Oak was one of the ingredients in the Saanich "4 barks" medicine used against tuberculosis and other ailments (Turner and Hebda 1990).

Creatures that make acorns an important part of their diet include birds, such as jays, pigeons, some ducks and several species of woodpeckers. Small mammals that feed on acorns include mice, squirrels and several other rodents. Such large mammals as bears, and deer also consume large amounts of acorns: they may constitute up to 25% of the diet of deer in the autumn.

If you live in Portland, there is a beautiful specimen of the White Oak in a park near People's coop off of Powell street and 22nd avenue. Go sit under this tree and prepare to be taught. It is the mother of many trees in Portland. I found true grounding under this tree.

Next time: Leaning the lay of the land: floods, volcanoes and ocean uplifts - Plant: Oregon Grape


Turner, N.J. and R.J. Hebda. 1990. Contemporary use of bark for medicine by two Salishan native elders of southeast Vancouver Island. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 229: 59-72
"respiratory ailments were treated with bark of Abies grandis, Arbutus menziesii, Cornus nuttallii, Prunus emarginata, Pseudotsuga menziesii and Quercus garryana;"

Reading list:

1. The Botany of Desire -A Plant's-Eye view of the World - Michael Pollan
2. Botany in a Day: Thomas J. Elpel's Herbal Field Guide to Plant Families, 4th Ed. (great book for learning how to "key" plants.
3. The Lost Language of Plants - The ecological importance of Plant Medicines to Life on Earth - Stephen Harrod Buhner
4. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast - Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Alaska - Pojar and Mckinnon
5. The Herbalist: Joseph E. Meyer- First edition was 1918- Meyerbooks, Publisher; Rev Upd edition (May 1, 1986)
6. How to stay alive in the woods - Bradford Angier Copyright 1956
7. Plant Spirit Medicine: Healing with the Power of Plants Eliot Cowan, 1995

Books that will fit in your backpack or emergency gear:
The Hebalist, How to Stay alive in the woods, Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast.

"Everything on the earth has a purpose, every disease an herb to cure it, and every person a mission."
-Mourning Dove [Christine Quintasket] (1888-1936) Salish

Thanks for this post 20.Jan.2008 12:54

Jody Paulson

I'm reminded of the Ojibway Prayer:
Grandfather, look at our brokenness. We know that in all creation only the human family has strayed from the sacred way. We know that we are the ones who are divided and we are the ones who must come back together to walk in the sacred way. Grandfather, sacred one, teach us love, compassion, and honor that we may heal the earth and heal each other.


graphic of Oak Leaves 19.Jan.2008 21:06


A graphic of the White Oak and the Black Oak leaves. Black Oakes are also found in Cascadia..a few in upper Willamette Valley. Most from Southern Lane County down to Norther California. White Oaks are found from British Columbia. Not much difference between the two as far as food sources. There is a difference in what plant communities you find around the tree...one exception..you will find the dreaded Poison Oak around both trees - SUMAC! YIKES!
Oak Leaves - Oregon White Oak and Black Oak
Oak Leaves - Oregon White Oak and Black Oak

I love this 20.Jan.2008 09:23


I LOVE this Radical Botany business!