Dwarf Chinkapin Oak Featured in Illinois' Bicentennial Exhibition

Participants of the 2015 IOS Pre-Conference Tour gather around a specimen of Quercus prinoides © Roderick Cameron

During the Pre-Conference Tour in the lead-up to the 2015 IOS Conference, participants made a remarkable discovery while visiting the Sand Prairie-Scrub Oak Nature Preserve in Mason County, Illinois. Up to that point the State of Illinois could claim 20 native oak species. A twenty-first species, dwarf chinkapin oak (Quercus prinoides), had been reported but all herbarium material submitted to back the claim had turned out to be its non-dwarf relative, Q. muehlenbergii (chinkapin oak). Our tour guide Guy Sternberg told us to be on the look-out for this oak and we had only wandered a few meters into the Preserve when shouts rang out and we all gathered around a shrub that appeared to be the illusive Illinoisan. In due course the identity was confirmed and dwarf chinkapin oak’s status as Illinois’ twenty-first Quercus species was ratified.

Twenty-one is a significant number in Illinois history: almost two hundred years ago, on December 3, 1818, Illinois became the twenty-first state of the Union. As part of the Bicentennial celebrations the Illinois State Museum has mounted a special exhibit, The Story of Illinois, consisting of selected objects from different fields, which together relate the history of the state, starting 500 million years ago and focusing on the 200 years of statehood. Among the handful of botanical objects is the herbarium sample of Q. prinoides, accompnied by the following text detailing the story of its discovery in Illinois:

 

Herbarium specimen of Quercus prinoides collected by Guy Sternberg at the Sand Praire-Scrub Oak Nature Preserve in Mason County, Illinois

New discoveries are waiting to be made

For decades, botanists and naturalists had been looking for a true Dwarf Chinkapin Oak stand in Illinois. It was believed that the Mason County sand areas were a likely place to find it, but casual observations there had been unsuccessful in the past.

Dwarf Chinkapin Oak (Quercus prinoides) is a shrubby, clone-forming oak native to eastern and central North America. In Illinois, Chinkapin Oak has been sometimes misidentified as Dwarf Chinkapin Oak, and a true Dwarf Chinkapin Oak plant had not been observed in the wild until recently. When the 2015 International Oak Society field trip stopped at Sand Prairie Scrub Oak State Nature Preserve on a beautiful October day, Guy Sternberg, an Illinois oak specialist, advised all 50 participants to be looking for this shrubby, cryptic species. Before they left, they had found not one but three specimens. It was an exciting day for Illinois botany. Despite thousands of years of human habitation and 200 years of statehood, there are still plenty of discoveries waiting to be made in the Prairie State.

Read more on the Illinois State Museum website here.