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The time-warp trees of Comanche country.

When university botanist Paul Buck takes core samples of sugar maple trees, there's a good chance his work might be interrupted by the buzzing posterior of a diamondback rattlesnake or the midsummer tantrum of a buffalo bull. Buck has done much of his research in the Wichita Mountains of southwest Oklahoma, a place that seems about as likely a home for maple trees as south Texas is for Eskimos.

The rugged granite Wichitas thrust up out of the prairie like some giant tumbledown tombstone. This federal wildlife refuge hosts a herd of about 800 buffalo, plus healthy populations of elk, deer, coyotes, collared lizards-and sugar maples, Acer saccharum, the same tree that gives its sweet sap for syrup in cool Vermont. At first glance-if you're hardy enough to hike into the rugged canyons to get that first glance-the trees seem totally out of place.

Buck has been studying Oklahoma sugar maples for over 20 years, poking around in forgotten little canyons, looking for trees that for a number of years the scientific community simply wouldn't allow to exist. Admittedly, it was difficult for early eastern botanists to envision Kiowa or Comanche hunters lolling about in midday heat under cool sugar maple shade. It took almost half a century for taxonomists to allow their Latin to collaborate. Researchers kept up a running battle over whether the western Oklahoma trees were Acer saccharum or Acer grandidentatum, the bigtooth maple of the southern Rockies some 300 miles to the west.

Throughout the scientific harangue, the plant scientists wondered how the trees got there in the first place. The notion still held sway that species migrated outward, sort of roaming away from home base like a wagon train full of restless pioneers. The Wichita Mountain maples, were they the bigtooth variety, would have had to take a flying leap over the eastern New Mexico plains, the Texas panhandle, and the mesquite country of western Oklahoma before reappearing in the Wichitas. If the trees were sugar maples of New England fame, they would have left the comforts of home behind somewhere along the Ozark Plateau, about 200 miles and a lot of open prairie to the east.

So for a few years at least, botanists had a neat puzzle on their hands. Was the sugar maple an uninhibited wanderer? Were the trees grandidentatum slumming eastward or saccharum venturing out onto the lone prairie? And why in the name of all that's green and growing did the maples want to put down roots in bow-and-arrow country anyway?

Then sugar maples started popping up in secluded Oklahoma canyons and valleys like mushrooms after a warm spring rain. Of course, the trees had been there all along. It was just that nobody had particularly been looking for them. They were discovered growing in limestone canyons near Tulsa along the Verdigris River, a prairie stream and a seemingly unlikely locale for healthy, beautiful stands of sugar maple. The trees there seem to favor a series of abrupt, north-facing limestone bluffs.

Entering any of these little shaded botanical niches is like taking one giant step 100 miles east into richly wooded coves in the Ozarks. Species including Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) and American smoketree (Cotinus obovatus) share the out-of-place spotlight with the maple groves. The hidden valleys contain so many diverse plants species that in the 1960s, Dr. Harriet Barclay, another University of Tulsa botanist, launched a personal crusade to save one of them from a cement company.

Barclay found Redbud Valley, one of her favorite collecting sites, under contract to become crushed limestone. The 85-acre tract along the outskirts of Tulsa included a fine grove of sugar maples. The botany professor secured a loan from the Nature Conservancy to purchase the area, then signed a personal note guaranteeing repayment. Tulsa citizens under the lead of the Tulsa Tribune responded by raising $80,000 to cancel the note. Redbud Valley is now cared for by Tulsa University as a nature-study area and as a place for the public to engage in some Wordsworthian rhapsodizing.

Although a number of eastern plant species seem to traipse up the Verdigris out of the western Ozarks, Acer saccharum isn't among the hitchhikers. The maples of Tulsa's Redbud Valley and environs show no migrational patterns. They simply occur. What you can't predict, you investigate; the disjunct maples near Tulsa, in the Wichitas, and in sandstone canyons of southwest Oklahoma inspired botanists to go poking around in almost every nearby geologic niche sheltered enough to stay moist and shady in the hot prairie sun.

As described by botanist Paul Sears in the 1930s, it became obvious that throughout the prairie country, relict plant communities were coexisting in cool, moist microclimates among grasslands where the proverbial deer and antelope once played. The time-warp trees form a sort of missing link to the contemporary landscape. Fortunately, considering Oklahoma's scarcity of public lands and rather late-blooming conservation consciousness, the remnant groves were in almost every instance given protection, albeit in often roundabout ways.

Dr. Barclay's trees were saved through her crusading zeal. Trees in the Wichita Mountains gained protection through the efforts of Teddy Roosevelt, who urged the establishment of a forest preserve there just after the turn of the century. Maple groves in western Oklahoma sandstone depressions, collectively and colloquially called the Caddo canyons, owe their vitality to the harshness of the surrounding plains.

One of those canyons, scooped out of flat prairie bisected by old Route 66 (now Interstate 40), is administered by the Oklahoma Division of State Parks and serves as a favorite overnight retreat for the ubiquitous travel trailers that scurry between the coasts. Another of the redrock canyons containing a fine maple grove is a popular Methodist summer youth camp and spiritual retreat. Maples in these canyons are statuesque trees reaching up some 70 feet and measuring over two feet in diameter at chest height. They share the canyon floors with an eastern deciduous forest in miniature, achieving top billing over red and American elms, hackberry, box elder, and eastern black walnut.

Overshadowing aU are vertical sandstone walls the color of a Comanche warrior's favorite facepaint. Sloping terraces above the rock hold dense groves of eastern redcedar, blackjack and post oaks. Beyond are prairie grasses, plowed fields, cactus, yucca, and usually a buzzard making lazy circles in a sky that wraps around the land like a big blue fist.

Sugar maples in the Wichitas are rarely as imposing as their cousins in the redrock country. The trees are almost brushy in appearance, with some minor adaptation in leaf patterns, a reminder of the trees' long geographic isolation. Yet they're most definitely sugar maples, Connecticut Yankees in cowboy garb.

Paul Buck found that the sugar maple groves occupy the roughest, rockiest, thinnest soil in the mountains. Yet the groves reproduce vigorously enough to form 20 percent of the total forest. These rocky soils are associated with steep, shaded canyons and subject to seepage from the granite cliffs. The trees linger for the same reasons sugar maples flourish in the redrock canyons and along the limestone bluffs near Tulsa: they enjoy protection. When a drier climate invaded the Southwest and throttled the forests once living there, the maples were protected against excessive temperatures and hot winds. Humidity remained higher, evaporation lower, average air temperatures a bit below the outside norm. Spaceship earth had fashioned several neat little time capsules, for some relict trees far rougher than their beauty might imply.

It seems amazing the Wichita Mountains haven't been the object of more scientific curiosity. Refuge naturalists laud the area as an "island in a prairie sea," a kind of continental navel where the wooded East meets and mingles with the arid West. The area until recent years was hidden away in a broad brown blanket of geographic isolation. The mountains rise above the plains like a cyst on a fat man's flank. Travelers from the East are amazed that any mountains are here at all, much less quiet groves of chinkapin and Shumard oak, tall stands of eastern redcedar, and the flaming autumn leaves of sugar maples.

Summer heat can strike like a sledgehammer, and from certain angles in August's midday glare you wouldn't think a scorpion could survive. But the canyons, slick cliffs, and rock faces are dotted with seeps and springs. Lovely little rockbottom streams flow at least seasonally and in a wet year may hold water all summer. And in autumn, while rutting bull elk spar with blackjack shrubs, the canyons catch fire with fluttering maple magic. It isn't a bit unusual to find a majestic buffalo scratching its ponderous hump on one of the little maple trees.

From the vantage point of Mount Scott in the Wichitas, you can look out over some 25 miles of cracked, eroded rock and grassland ranging north to Canada's boreal forest and south to the Texas Gulf Coast. Clumps of woodland here and there seem to have been added as an afterthought. Yet if the Comanche-country maples are relict stands from a preceding, cooler clime, then these plains-only 50 years ago the bleak epicenter of the Dust Bowl-were a few thousand years before that a moist, cool forest that might easily have mirrored present upper New York state.

Maybe these maple groves remain to remind us that the world isn't as dormant as we sometimes think. The trees' autumnal splash of red or gold against the copper and wine of October bluestem meadows is like a handshake across the millennia. When I think of botanists like Paul Buck out there in the Wichitas' blowtorch August heat, core-sampling maples and attempting to make some sense of it all, it reassures me that some of us will always be curious and that some things seem bound to endure.
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Title Annotation:Oklahoma sugar maples
Author:Lantz, Gary
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jul 1, 1990
Previous Article:Growing gold in Cass County.
Next Article:Resurrection of a forgotten forest.

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