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Plant Focus

Quercus peninsularis
A Red Oak (Section Lobatae) endemic to inland ranges of northern Baja California, Mexico

The World’s Northernmost Oak?

Gerhard Sørensen-Fuglem and Cecilia Piccirilli Bjerkeset

On a forestry project we traveled to Narvik, Norway, where we were to spend a week registering important biological data on a selection of properties. This project is the first in its class and is required by the new guidelines in the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) to promote a sustainable forestry industry.

During our work we met with several landowners, and our long conversations about their forests, which included much local knowledge and history along with the scientific information they had collected, were added to our observations and records. One of the owners was further north fishing but was keen to speak with us. At the end of the call, he mentioned something peculiar he had seen, “You guys are very interested in trees; there’s an oak in Skjomendalen (Skjomen valley). I don’t remember where it is, but I saw it about 30 years ago. You should go and see if you find it!”

This northern valley is long and covered in forest, so we thought it unlikely we would find this tree or that it had survived, so we continued the work. Some days later we met a landowner while registering biological data on his property, and out of curiosity we asked if he had heard of an oak in the area. He didn’t have to think long before he responded, “Yes.” He pulled out a map and placed it on the hood of his car. Confidently, he pointed to a house on the map and said, “Go there and you’ll see it”.

The northernmost oak
The oak tree in Skjomendalen 

Walking down to the house where the tree was said to be, we could only see small shrubs and bushes. After walking a few more meters we spotted the beautiful oak. The bright green foliage and round tree crown signalized healthiness. There was no visible damage to the tree, except for the double stem. We had the good fortune to speak to the woman who had planted the oak tree back in 1970. She had also planted another oak tree, two elms (Ulmus sp.), and two maple trees (Acer sp.). The origin of the oak, a Quercus robur, is Fornebu in Oslo.

Leaves from the Skjomen oak
Leaves from the oak, with the short petioles typical of Quercus robur 

The location of the oak is 68 degrees north, making it, as far as we are aware, the most northern oak registered to date. Long and cold winters make this area unsuitable for oaks, and to add to the hostile environment both the oaks had been grazed by elk (Alces alces, known as moose in North America). However, one of the oaks survived and is now 53 years old and going strong. The climate in the valley is quite unique, and the local forestry consultant says this is one of the lushest valleys in the municipality. The microclimate where the oak stands has sheltered it and has likely had a positive effect on its growth.

The double stem on the Skjomen oak
The oak has a double stem, which may have resulted from grazing by elk when it was a seedling

We have plans to meet in person the woman who planted the oak tree. Perhaps more information about the tree may come forth. On an end note, we would like to challenge anyone who enjoys a tree quest to find an oak tree situated further north than this (click here to let us know). It would be a worthy destination. We would like to thank Markussen and Pettersen, the two landowners who led us to this majestic oak and a noteworthy side quest from work.

Photos © Gerhard Sørensen-Fuglem and Cecilia Piccirilli Bjerkeset