If you drive along Illinois Route 120 between Woodstock and McHenry, you have surely seen the Wolf Oak Woods property. This is the site where “that oak” lives. You know, the large bur oak whose branches touch the ground!
The Land Conservancy of McHenry County purchased the 30-acre property in late 2016, and volunteers set about clearing invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle brush from beneath and around the oaks. Nearly every Wednesday of the month, a group gathers from 9am – noon with chainsaws, loppers and herbicide to remove the non-native shrubs and vines, like bittersweet, that threaten to kill the oaks.
The problem is not limited to McHenry County. Invasive trees, shrubs and vines are killing oaks throughout Illinois (and beyond).
Efforts in Lake County and Southern Illinois, both called “Let the Sun Shine In,”are using public awareness campaigns as well as oak woodland restoration projects on public land to help more people understand that a healthy oak woodland is not a dense thicket of brush. Rather, healthy oak woods are places where sun hits the ground, nourishing native spring wildflowers, and allowing seedling oaks to grow.
Oaks are sun-loving trees, and without ample sunlight reaching young oaks, they will only last a few years. Without young oaks, there will be no oaks to take the place of the large trees that will eventually die.
Forty percent of McHenry County was once covered with oak woods and savannas. Today, barely four percent of the county has oak woods, and 84% of those are located on private land.
The remaining oaks tend to be old – 150 or more years old – and under stress. Stress comes from the choking effects of invasive shrubs and vines, improper pruning as well as soil compaction and root damage during development. When under stress, oaks are more susceptible to pests and disease such as oak wilt and bur oak blight.
Also, there are few young oaks growing to take the place of the veteran trees once they die. The choking brush blocks the sunlight from reaching young seedlings on the woodland floor in an unmanaged woods. Or, a mowed lawn is maintained under and around the oaks to keep the woods looking like a park. Either way, the seedling oaks have nowhere to grow.
Next time you drive along Route 120 between Woodstock and McHenry, be sure to look at the Wolf Oak property – it’s on the north side of the road, about one-tenth of a mile west of the light at Thompson Road. Look into history by looking past the namesake Wolf Oak to the oak woods behind, and then to the wetland behind the oaks, and then to the ridge of trees behind the wetland.
This is a sight that Native Americans and early European settlers would have seen. Wolves and bison would have seen this view too. A piece of living history for all to see!