Norman Knight: What’s happening to our old oak tree?

“What is going on with the oak trees?” I wondered to Becky.

“I’m not sure,” she said, “but something is clearly wrong.”

From our vantage point on the road we could see, just beyond the open field containing our vegetable garden, several oak trees including “The Big Oak Tree.” All of the oaks were in the full green of summer, but, curiously, every tree was splotched with patches of dead brown leaves. These lifeless leaves and branches — almost twigs, really — appeared on the ends of larger limbs. Some had fallen and were lying on the ground around the trees.

These oaks border the woods like a welcoming committee into the forest. The biggest and oldest, the one that dominates the scene, Becky and I refer to it as the “The Big Oak Tree,” and we both know which tree we mean when we say it.

This great white oak spreads out and shades the east edge of the field and branches into the woods. From the beginning of our time here we have held this tree in special regards. We marvel at its wide base and enjoy estimating how old it might be. We look to it to judge spring’s progress, and we measure fall’s color palette by its canopy. Many family pets lie buried beneath its quiet shade.

Certainly, we are not Druids who considered oaks sacred, but we do consider The Big Oak Tree a special gift from God. And now it, too, was displaying these brown dying branches.

“I wonder if it could be due to cicadas laying eggs?” Becky postulated.

“Could be,” I said, “but weren’t we assured by the media that cicadas were harmless? ‘Cover small saplings’ they advised, but otherwise there is nothing to fear from cicadas.”

Still, we wanted an answer to our question.

I went to Professor Google and found lots of information on oak tree diseases. Then Becky suggested we contact Sarah Hanson at the Johnson County Extension Office, so we did.

As always, Sarah was helpful. She also was curious as to what the causes might be. She had been in contact with other extension offices and had discussed this very problem. It could very well be cicadas. She offered to share some photos of cicada-damaged branches, and she did. She also forwarded guidance from Purdue entomologist Elizabeth Barnes: “If you check the dead twigs you should be able to confirm it by looking for rows of small holes usually with cracks between them.”

Becky and I gathered some dead branches and compare them to the pictures Sarah sent. Sure enough, there were small, puncture-like holes in a line along the stems of the Big Oak Tree’s fallen branches that were similar to the marks in the photos.

So cicadas were the culprits, after all. Good call, Becky.

From other information we gathered we learned the die-back of tree branches caused by insects, disease or weather is called “flagging.” The experts also assured us the damage caused by cicadas laying eggs is temporary, minor and not harmful to the tree. The loss of dead branches even can be thought of as “pruning” which is in fact healthy for the tree. All good information to know.

Our time with the cicadas has been an interesting experience. Living through this event somehow makes me feel like I am participating in nature’s plans.

In seventeen years Becky and I as well as The Big Oak Tree will do it again. Let’s see. In seventeen years I’ll be … whoa. If I make it, that will be even more reason to celebrate.

Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to [email protected].