Stillwater News Press

Outdoors

July 6, 2014

The Outdoor Almanac: Cast iron forest, an under appreciated plant community

STILLWATER, Okla. — Stretching from southeastern Kansas, through central Oklahoma and into central Texas, the Cross Timbers forest is an under appreciated plant community.

Millions of people live within its extent, as the cities of Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Dallas are carved from the ancient trees. The forest is dominated by two species of oak, the post oak and the blackjack oak.

While typically small in stature, many of these trees are very old, sometimes hundreds of years.  In fact, the Cross Timbers is one of the largest old growth forests in the United States. Although the wood has been used for building and fuel, the twisted growth and short height of the trees is not a highly desirable wood for most commercial applications.

Other common trees within the Cross Timbers include: American elm, hackberry, western soapberry, cottonwood and redbud.

Early Europeans noted in some areas the tree cover could be very dense and difficult to travel through by horse. The famed American author, Washington Irving, called the area a cast iron forest.

Others noted you had to cross through the timbers to reach open prairie. However, the Cross Timbers is not only made up of tree cover, but many prairie openings historically occurred within it. Many of these have been converted to homes, pasture or row crop fields.

The remaining prairie is under siege by eastern red cedar, due to nearly a century of fire suppression. The increase in eastern red cedar is problematic not only for prairie flora and fauna, but also the human communities within the Cross Timbers, as fire intensity is changing, putting homes at risk.

Eastern red cedar also is altering the structure and composition of the forested portions of the Cross Timbers as it increases shading on the forest floor. The Cross Timbers has provided abundantly for man for many generations.  

From Native American tribes to European settlers, and now all of their descendants, the stately oaks and grassy openings have supplied food, shelter and quality of life.

Dwayne Elmore is Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension wildlife specialist in the department ofnatural resource ecology and management.

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