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Quercus alba (Fagaceae, white oak) dominated sand forest/savanna, Illinois River sand deposits, Mason County, Illinois.


Quercus alba (white oak), a dominant tree of mesic and wet-mesic forests in Illinois, is uncommon in the Illinois River sand deposits. In White Oak Creek Woods Natural Area in Mason County, Q. alba was the dominant overstory species. In this small woods 10 tree species were encountered with a density of 180.4 stems/ha and an average basal area of 28.715 m2/ha. Located on an upland terrace of the Illinois River, Q. alba dominated the overstory and accounted for more than 70% of the importance value. Quercus velutina (black oak), Prunus serotina (wild black cherry), and Sassafras albidum (sassafras) followed in IV and accounted for most of the remaining stems. No oak saplings were present in the natural area, probably the result of a closed canopy due to fire suppression.

Key words: degraded savanna, forest survey, Illinois River sand deposits


Quercus alba L. (white oak), an important forest tree throughout the eastern United States, is common from Maine to Michigan and Minnesota south to eastern Texas and northern Florida (Gleason and Cronquist 1991). This species is a leading dominant of mesic and wet-mesic forests, woodlands, and savannas throughout the northern half of its range. In these communities Q. alba is commonly associated with Q. velutina Lam. (black oak), Q. rubra L. (red oak), and various species of Carya (hickories) (Braun 1950, Ebinger 1997, Tyrrell et al. 1998).

Quercus alba is well adapted to mesic habitats in Illinois; occurring in upland forests, open woodlands, savannas, prairie groves, and scattered trees associated with mesic prairies. Known from all Natural Divisions in Illinois, it is commonly listed as a component of many plant communities (Schwegman 1973, Mohlenbrock and Ladd 1978, White and Madany 1978). It is, however, not a very common component of sand area communities. Sand deposits account for nearly 5% of the land surface of Illinois and generally occur on glacial outwash plains associated with erosional events of Wisconsian glaciation in the northern half of the state (Schwegman 1973, Willman and Frye 1970, King 1981.)

Of the large sand deposits within Illinois, only the Kankakee Sand Area Section of the Grand Prairie Natural Division has communities in which Quercus alba is common (Schwegman 1973). Quercus alba is rare in the Illinois River Section of the Mississippi River and Illinois Rivers Sand Areas Natural Division. During an extended study of all dedicated nature preserves, Q. alba was not encountered. The authors know of only one forest community in the Mason County sand deposits in which Q. alba is a common overstory component. The purpose of this study was to determine the composition and structure of the overstory in this Q. alba dominated sand forest and compare the results with other sand forests in Illinois.


Study Site

White Oak Creek Woods Natural Area is located in Mason County about 6 km south of Havana, Illinois (SE1/4 NW1/4 S23 T21N R9W). This site, about 2 ha in size, is located on a sandy upland terrace about 500 m west of the Illinois River immediately south of White Oak Creek. The soils are excessively drained Plainfield sand (Calsyn 1995), part of the dune and swale topography known as the Parkland Formation (Willman and Frye 1970).

Very little is known about the history of this small tract of timber. This area, as well as the land north of White Oak Creek, was designated a good quality dry sand forest by the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory (White 1978). Most trees of Quercus alba were selectively logged in the area north of White Oak Creek in 1980 (Lerczak 2000). Registered as an Illinois Natural Heritage Landmark since 1983, this dry mesic sand forest is now designated as the Speckman-Stelter Woods Land and Water Reserve by the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission (Lerczak 2000).

The climate of central Illinois is continental and characterized by hot, humid summers and cold winters. Mean annual precipitation is 98.0 cm with May having the highest rainfall (11.3 cm). Mean annual temperature is 10.8[degrees]C with the hottest month being July (average of 24.6[degrees]C), and the coldest January (average of -5.0[degrees]C). Frost-free days range from 140 to 206, with the average being 173 days (Havana, Illinois; Midwestern Regional Climate Center. 2007).

Data Collection and Analysis

During late summer of 2004, a 75 m by 125 m section of the 2 ha natural area was surveyed by dividing the area into 15 contiguous plots 25 m on a side. All living and dead-standing woody individuals [greater than or equal to] 10.0 cm dbh were identified and their diameters recorded. From these data, living-stem density (stems/ha), basal area ([m.sup.2]/ha), relative density, relative dominance, importance value (IV), and average diameter (cm) were calculated for each species. Determination of the IV follows the procedure used by McIntosh (1957), and is the sum of the relative density and relative dominance (basal area). Dead-standing density (stems/ha) and basal area ([m.sup.2]/ha) were also determined.

Woody understory composition and density (stems/ha) were determined using nested circular plots 0.0001, 0.001, and 0.01 ha in size located at about 15 m intervals along line transects within the study area (n=20). Four additional 0.0001 ha circular plots were located 7 m from the center point of each of the 20 plot centers along cardinal compass directions (100 plots). In the 0.0001 ha plots woody seedlings ([less than or equal to] 50 cm tall) were counted; in the 0.001 ha circular plots small saplings (>50 cm tall and <2.5 cm dbh) were calculated; and in the 0.01 ha circular plots large saplings (2.5-<10.0 cm dbh) were tallied.


Ten tree species were encountered forming an overstory with an average of 180.4 stems/ha and an average basal area of 28.715 [m.sup.2]/ha (Table 1). Quercus alba dominated the larger diameter classes with an IV of 144.2 (200 possible), and an average diameter of 53.4 cm. The larger individuals of Q. alba had an open-grown form with large branches or branch scars within 4 m of the ground. Black oak, also restricted to the larger diameter classes, was second in IV (12.7) and had an average diameter of 71.3 cm. The remaining tree species were mostly in the 10-29 cm diameter classes. Dead-standing oaks averaged 11.7 stems/ha with an average basal area of 2.641 [m.sup.2]/ha.

The woody understory was sparse, being very open in most parts of the woods. The density of tree seedlings, shrubs and woody vines was high, totaling 19,000 individuals/ha, small saplings averaged 2,250 stems/ha, and large saplings totaled 1,370 stems/ha (Table 2). Sassafras albidum (Nutt.) Nees (sassafras) dominated the seedling and sapling categories with 4300 seedlings/ha, 1600 small saplings/ha, and 545 large saplings/ha. Oak seedlings were fairly common, but no oak saplings were present.


The forests of the Speckman-Stelter Woods Land and Water Reserve and surrounding land differ today compared to early settlement times. According to Lerczak (2000), Ms. Stelter, the present owner of the property, recalled her great grandfather stating that it was possible to drive a wagon through the woods in the 1840s, an indication of the openness of the woods. It also was mentioned that many oaks were present as grubs, suggesting frequent fires (Taft 1997).

The present appearance of White Oak Creek Woods compared to 150 years ago is probably due to a reduced fire frequency followed by a total absence of fire in recent decades (Taft 1997). In pre-settlement time frequent fires maintained much of this dry-mesic to mesic oak cover type, particularly along the western edge of its range (Ebinger and McClain 1991, McClain and Elzinga 1994). In general, many oak species are well adapted to fire due to their thick bark and ability to reproduce by sprouts, giving them a competitive advantage in areas of high fire frequencies. Oak densities in this pre-settlement landscape was dictated by fire frequency and intensity, ranging from low tree densities in savannas and woodlands that burned hot and frequent, to higher tree densities in closed forests where surface fires burned cooler and were less frequent (Anderson 1991, Abrams 1992).

The Illinois Natural Areas Inventory surveyed the vegetation of White Oak Creek Woods in 1976 (White 1978). Their field biologists considered the area a good quality old-growth dry sand forest due to a tree density of 292 stems/ha and a basal area of 25.4 [m.sup.2]/ha. Black oak was the dominant overstory species with 100 stems/ha and a basal area of 17.0 [m.sup.2]/ha. Ulmus americana L. (American elm), Quercus alba, and Sassafras albidum followed in importance. The area surveyed, however, was the area selectively logged in the 1980s north of White Oak Creek, not the small section south of White Oak Creek that was examined during the present survey.

No other forested areas in the Illinois River sand deposits of Mason County were found to contain more than just a few individuals of Quercus alba. All have been closed canopy dry sand forests on dune deposits where black oak and Quercus marilandica Muench. (blackjack oak) were the leading dominants along with a few hickory species in low numbers (Jenkins et al. 1991, Coates et al. 1992, McClain et al. 2002). One closed forest, Burton Woods, located on a terrace of Salt Creek in Mason County, was dominated by Celtis occidentalis L. (hackberry) and Quercus macrocarpa Michx. (bur oak) (McClain et al. 1993). Quercus alba was absent from this wet-mesic forest though many mesic species were present: Gleditsia triacanthos (honey locust), Ulmus americana, Platanus occidentalis L. (sycamore) Ulmus rubra Muhl. (slippery elm), Juglans nigra L. (black walnut), and Quercus bicolor Willd. (swamp white oak).

Rodgers and Anderson (1979) used Government Land Office survey records from 1821-1824 to determine the pre-settlement vegetation of Mason County. In all community types (prairie, savanna, open forest, and closed forest), black oak was the dominant woody species and usually accounted for more than half the IV (300). Blackjack oak was second in IV in open canopy communities (prairie and savanna) while in open and closed forests hickories and maples were second and third in importance. Quercus alba was not common, being occasionally recorded in savanna (IV of 14.05 out of 300), open forest (IV of 19.46 out of 300), and closed forests IV of 11.18 out of 300). These forests were mostly on the western edge of the county adjacent to the Illinois River and its backwater lakes where decreased fire frequency may have permitted the establishment of mesic to dry-mesic forests.

In the Kankakee Sand Area Section of the Grand Prairie Natural Division, Quercus alba occurs in dry-mesic sand savannas on the lower slopes of dunes and in the swales between the dunes (McDowell et al. 1983, Johnson and Ebinger 1992). On these sites the vegetation is a savanna with an understory of native prairie species (Johnson and Ebinger 1995). Management burns are used to maintain an open overstory in these sand savannas.

received 4/2/08

accepted 8/26/08


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Ebinger, and G. S. Wilhelm (editors). Proceedings of the Oak Woods Management Workshop. Eastern Illinois University, Charleston, Illinois.

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Calsyn, D.E. 1995. Soil survey of Mason County, Illinois. Soil Report 146, University of Illinois Agricultural Experiment Station, Urbana. ix+211 pp.

Coates, D. T., S. E. Jenkins, J. E. Ebinger and W. E. McClain. 1992. Woody vegetation survey of Barkhausen Woods, a closed canopy sand forest in Mason County, Illinois. Erigenia 12:1-6.

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Gleason, H. A. and A. Cronquist. 1991. Manual of vascular plants of northeastern United States and adjacent Canada. 2nd edition. The New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, New York, USA. 910 pp.

Jenkins, S.E., J.E. Ebinger and W.E. McClain. 1991. Woody vegetation survey of Bishop's Woods, a sand forest in Mason County, Illinois. Transactions of the Illinois State Academy of Science 84:20-27.

Johnson, K. C. and J. E. Ebinger. 1992. Effects of prescribed burns on the woody vegetation of a dry sand savanna, Hooper Branch Nature Preserve, Iroquois County, Illinois. Transaction of the Illinois State Academy of Science 86:105-111.

Johnson, K. C. and J. E. Ebinger. 1995. Effects of different fire regimes on the ground layer vegetation of a dry sand savanna, Hooper Branch Nature Preserve, Iroquois County, Illinois. Erigenia 14:37-40.

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Lerczak, T. V. 2000. Proposal to register Speckman-Stelter Woods in Mason County as an Illinois Land and Water Reserve. Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, Springfield, Illinois. ii+14 pp.

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McClain, W. E., M. A. Jenkins, S. E. Jenkins and J. E. Ebinger. 1993. Changes in the woody vegetation of a burr oak savanna remnant in central Illinois. Natural Areas Journal 13:108-114.

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McDowell, B. J. Newman and J. Ebinger. 1983. Survey of the woody vegetation of the Kankakee Sand Area Section of Indiana and Illinois. Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science 93:187-193.

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William E. McClain (1), Loy R. Phillippe (2), Daniel T. Busemeyer (2,3), and John E. Ebinger (2) *

(1) Department of Botany, Illinois State Museum, Springfield, Illinois 62706

(2) Illinois Natural History Survey, 1816 South Oak Street, Champaign, Illinois 61820

(3) Present address: Golder Associates Ltd., Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2P 3T1.

* Author for
Table 1. Density by diameter class (stems/ha), basal area
([m.sup.2]/ha), relative density, relative dominance,
importance value, and average diameter for the woody species
at White Oak Creek Woods Natural Area, Mason County, Illinois.

 Diameter Classes (cm)

Species 10-19 20-29 30-39 40-49 50+

Quercus alba -- -- 11.7 29.9 64.0
Quercus velutina -- -- -- -- 6.5
Prunus serotina 18.1 2.1 -- -- --
Sassafras albidum 17.1 -- -- -- 1.1
Robinia pseudoacacia 9.6 2.1 -- -- --
Morus alba 8.5 -- -- -- --
Maclura pomifera 2.1 -- 1.1 1.1 --
Ulmus americana 2.1 1.1 -- -- --
Celtis occidentalis 1.1 -- -- -- --
Juglans nigra 1.1 -- -- -- --
 Totals 59.7 5.3 12.8 31.0 71.6

 Total [m.sup.2] Rel.
Species #/ha /ha Den.

Quercus alba 105.6 24.577 58.6
Quercus velutina 6.5 2.611 3.6
Prunus serotina 20.2 0.284 11.2
Sassafras albidum 18.2 0.466 10.0
Robinia pseudoacacia 11.7 0.240 6.5
Morus alba 8.5 0.094 4.7
Maclura pomifera 4.3 0.322 2.4
Ulmus americana 3.2 0.098 1.8
Celtis occidentalis 1.1 0.010 0.6
Juglans nigra 1.1 0.013 0.6
 Totals 180.4 28.715 100.0

 Rel. Av.Diam
Species Dom. I.V. (cm)

Quercus alba 85.6 144.2 53.4
Quercus velutina 9.1 12.7 71.3
Prunus serotina 1.0 12.2 12.9
Sassafras albidum 1.6 11.6 14.1
Robinia pseudoacacia 0.8 7.3 15.6
Morus alba 0.4 5.1 11.8
Maclura pomifera 1.1 3.5 28.0
Ulmus americana 0.4 2.2 18.2
Celtis occidentalis -- 0.6 10.9
Juglans nigra -- 0.6 12.3
 Totals 100.0 200.0

Table 2. Density (individuals/ha) of the woody understory
species at White Oak Creek Woods Natural Area, Mason
County, Illinois.

 Small Large
Species Seedlings Saplings Saplings

Sassafras albidum 4300 1600 545
Celtis occidentalis 1700 100 25
Quercus alba 1100 -- --
Quercus velutina 800 -- --
Carya texana 300 200 95
Ulmus americana 300 -- 15
Prunus serotina 200 100 375
Morus alba 100 -- 45
Cercis canadensis 100 -- 20
Asimina triloba 100 -- --
Carya tomentosa -- 50 --
Ulmus rubra -- -- 145
Robinia pseudoacacia -- -- 75
Crataegus mollis -- -- 5
Tilia americana -- -- 5
Fraxinus lanceolata -- -- 5
Juglans nigra -- -- 5
Cornus drummondii 200 200 10
Toxicodendron radicans 7700 -- --
Rubus allegheniensis 1200 -- --
Ribes missouriense 900 -- --
 Totals 19000 2250 1370
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Article Details
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Author:McClain, William E.; Phillippe, Loy R.; Busemeyer, Daniel T.; Ebinger, John E.
Publication:Transactions of the Illinois State Academy of Science
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1U3IL
Date:Jul 1, 2008
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