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Plant Focus

The Genesee Valley Oaks

Early one morning in January I met with Professor David Robertson of State University of New York at Geneseo in the Livingston County Historical Museum (Geneseo, New York). I was given a brief tour of the exhibition showcasing “The Big Tree”, a stump of what was believed to be one of the largest Quercus alba (white oak) in the country. The exhibition also shared a look into the history of the Genesee1 Valley landscape and its famous oak savanna.

Genesee Valley Oak
Quercus alba in the oak savanna at Genesee, New York

Oak savannas are ecosystems comprised of widely spaced trees (predominately oak) and prairie grasses. The oak savanna at Genesee features a collection of large, open-grown oak trees, of which the most renowned was the aptly named “Big Tree”. The trees occupy a relict oak savanna landscape associated with former Onöndowa’ga:’ (Seneca) settlement (up to ca. 1790). The Seneca tribe cleared land for hunting and growing crops, using periodic burning to maintain hunting lands. The burnings created scattered “oak openings” which allowed for the oaks seen today to achieve their large canopy and thick-trunked form.

Thick Trunks
Thick trunks on the Quercus alba in the Genesee oak savanna

During the time of the Seneca settlements, the oaks of the valley exhibited adaptations to the periodic burns. These adaptations include thick bark, sprouting ability, resistance to rotting and scarring, and fire-stimulated acorn germination. This allowed large, open-grown oaks to flourish in areas burned by the Seneca, where other species could not.

Huge oaks
Open-grown oaks flourished in areas burned by the Seneca

In the later 18th century the majority of the Seneca tribe settlements were destroyed by General Sullivan’s campaign. In 1790, following removal of the native occupants, settlers like the Wadsworth family shifted the prior stewardship patterns for oak trees, beginning with the brothers James and William Wadsworth. Rather than employing fire, the brothers stipulated that one shade tree be left per two acres of leased land, thus saving the Genesee Oaks from the axe.

Saved from the ax
Genesee oaks saved from the ax by the Wadsworth brothers

In the Genesee Valley today, grazing and mowing are used to maintain the open fields around the oak trees. However, these methods do not allow oak trees to regenerate in open conditions as fire once allowed them to. If and when the present trees die, there will be no new oak trees to take their place. Local landowners have taken an interest in preserving this unique and historic landscape for future generations by planting oak trees in their fields. However, it will be another two-hundred-plus years before we see trees the size of those standing in the Genesee Valley today.

Mighty oak in winter
Centuries in the making: Quercus alba in the oak savanna at Genesee

Editor's note: Photographer/Archivist Brian Kelley formed the Gathering Growth Foundation in 2019, with the mission to visually preserve the legacy of trees and forests, while creating awareness around the importance of preservation. To date, Gathering Growth Foundation has documented over 300 trees and forests across the U.S. Find out more at www.gatheringgrowth.org.

Photos © Brian Kelley

Wide canopy

1 The name Genesee dervies from the Seneca word Gen-nis'-hee-yo (“pleasant valley, beautiful valley”).