Leaf of the Day: Water Oak, John Muir and Spanish Bayonet

The Water Oak, Quercus nigra, is another tree I saw on the railway track walk on Sunday that was conveniently labelled. It’s too early for the acorns to be developed to any degree but they are still a lovely shape. The other names for the Water Oak are Possom Oak, Duck Oak, Punk Oak. ( I am not entirely sure of the reason for these names, except in the duck oak case, the leaf is said to resemble a ducks foot..a bit.) It is a beautiful tree and would have provided firewood, building timber and shelter to native Americans and early settlers alike.

The railway line from Cedar Key Island ran across to the mainland and all that remains now are the broken stumps of the pilings.

We were the only ones on this little track and amongst several different species of oaks, laurels, the black mangroves and 5 million mosquitoes there was the Spanish Bayonet. A ferocious Yucca, (Yucca aloifolia) with long spiked leaves this just adds to my current run of armed and dangerous plants that can be a hazard to the careless walker in Florida.
John Muir the writer and early conservationist had time to contemplate this plant too. In 1868 he spent 3 months at Cedar Key recovering from a bad bout of malaria which had caused him to break his walk from Indiana to South America. In his account of that journey ” A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf” he gives a grim description of malaria, but also tells of the kindness with which he was nursed at Cedar Key. Having now had a close encounter with a Spanish Bayonet I know his description is accurate.

“One of the characteristic plants of these keys is the Spanish bayonet, a species of yucca, about eight or ten feet in height, and with a trunk three or four inches in diameter when full grown. It belongs to the lily family and develops palmlike from terminal buds. The stout leaves are very rigid, sharp-pointed and bayonet-like. By one of these leaves a man might be as seriously stabbed as by an army bayonet, and woe to the luckless wanderer who dares to urge his way through these armed gardens after dark. Vegetable cats of many species will rob him of his clothes and claw his flesh, while dwarf palmettos will saw his bones, and the bayonets will glide to his joints and marrow without the smallest consideration for Lord Man.

This lovely old photo of the Spanish Bayonet from a very interesting webpage about Texas plants here

Muir goes on to describe the beauty and the birds too

“During my long sojourn here as a convalescent I used to lie on my back for whole days beneath the ample arms of these great trees, listening to the winds and the birds. There is an extensive shallow on the coast, close by, which the receding tide exposes daily. This is the feeding-ground of thousands of waders of all sizes, plumage, and language, and they make a lively picture and noise when they gather at the great family board to eat their daily bread, so bountifully provided for them.
Their leisure in time of high tide they spend in various ways and places. Some go in large flocks to reedy margins about the islands and wade and stand about quarrelling or making sport, occasionally finding a stray mouthful to eat. Some stand on the mangroves of the solitary shore, now and then plunging into the water after a fish. Some go long journeys in-land, up creeks and inlets.

A few lonely old herons of solemn look and wing retire to favorite oaks. It was my delight to watch those old white sages of immaculate feather as they stood erect drowsing away the dull hours between tides, curtained by long skeins of tillandsia. White-bearded hermits gazing dreamily from dark caves could not appear more solemn or more becomingly shrouded from the rest of their fellow beings. “

We found it still much the same…


Water Oak