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Thursday, July 30, 2020

Bebb Oak

     Business required me to observe a variety of outdoor tasks Wednesday morning: water being pumped, asphalt poured, sewers sluiced, leaks detected, drain pipe laid. Which probably doesn't sound fun to you, but which was very fun for me, both because of the unexpected and thus interesting details of the processes, and the friendly, open nature of all the workers I spoke with. I'd share some of those details, but I don't want to deflate the story I have coming later. You'll just have to trust me.
     Though I can share this, since it isn't part of my story. Just to show that these few hours of fun could be topped, my host was kind enough to swing me by something I had heard about but never seen—the oldest tree in Northbrook, a Bebb Oak on Sunset that is easily as old as our country and probably older—perhaps as much as 400 years old.
    It was a magnificent tree, filling the sky and I struggled to find a vantage to see the thing in anything near its entirety. The Bebb Oak is the official Village Tree of Northbrook, a hybrid between a burr oak (quercus macrocarpa) and a white oak (quercus alba), and I spent a long time contemplating it from various angles.
    I should just leave it there, but there is one hanging obvious question—it is an obvious question, is it not? C'mon, work with me here. Well hanging for me, and I had to check it out, and might as well tell you. Apologies in advance.
    "Bebb." What kind of word is that? The Oxford gave me nothing, so I poked online, which is cheating, yes, but works.
    One hint is the Bebb oak's scientific name, quercus×bebbiana. Quercus is Latin for "oak," obviously but bebbiana is pseudo-Latin for the name Bebb—Michael Shuck Bebb to be exact, a 19th century systemic botanist. 
     Turns out he was a hometown lad, blown here from Ohio, tramping around Chicago in the 1840s and various locales around the state. Most of the biographical information on him was about his work with willows, salix bebbiana, but I pressed on, being rather systematic myself, and soon stumbled upon a letter of Bebb's to George Clinton—the botanist, not the singer from Parliament-Funkadelic—dated Sept. 23, 1873:      
     I have just found two or three splendid hybrid Oaks between Quercus alba & macrocarpa and I am not altogether sure that I have hit upon the explanation of the “miniature fruit” of olivaeformis Michx.
     How I wish I lived within reach of a large library and a large Herbarium.
      Well, there you have it. Not the most urgent issue—that required phone interviews all afternoon, for Friday's column, so you'll have to wait on that too. Which leaves us after dinner—falafel, fries and spiced carrots from Misrahi Grill enjoyed al fresco at the Botanic Garden, so it really was a full day—with nothing more profound than one glorious tree. Which should be profundity aplenty, but in case it falls short, as I suspect it might, I would direct your attention to the last line of my excerpt of Bebb's letter, where he is in the field, pining for books and a collection of dried plants to check his samples against. Since all of us have within reach the largest library and an endless herbarium at our fingertips 24 hours a day, we should pause, shake off the long familiarity that has dulled us to its wonder, and be amazed and grateful anew. 



  1. Love old trees. Oak Park has some old, huge oaks.

    1. Evanston is also known for its trees. I was so fortunate to have lived there for twelve years as an adult. Back in my kid days, Evanston also had many elm trees, but Dutch elm disease eventually killed them all...same as almost everywhere else.

      Now I live in Northeast Ohio, a very green place. But we've lost too many trees in recent years, to age and weather and various diseases. Such a damn shame.

  2. for any lover of trees, i highly recommend the novel "The Overstory", a glorious homage to the importance of the tree and a rip-roaring great yarn.

  3. You won't get this from Kass.

  4. Yes, that was an obvious question. I enjoyed this post and the tree, while also appreciating the explanation of "Bebb."

    To me, another question was just as obvious. You've lived in the leafy, suburban paradise all these years, you love trees, you've *heard* about this tree, it's the official Village Tree, yet you've never sought it out? That the answer is just as obvious -- No -- still seems like a curiosity to me.

    I imagine it's mildly pleasing for you that the official tree is named after a fellow transplanted Buckeye.

    I love seeing a swell tree like that too, and am often frustrated by trying to get one to pose for an acceptable photo. You did well.

    Not just the library and herbarium, but the technology to take a photo of a leaf and have your phone tell you what kind of tree it came from...

    1. Didn't know you could do that! One of my many failings as a Boyscout was an inability to distinguish a maple leaf from an oak leaf. Now, if I'd had an iphone...


  5. This majestic old being should be a reminder to all of us to occasionally go out and plant a tree. Pay it forward.

  6. My name is Wayne bebb born in Wales my dad was Edward bebb from snowdonia Wales loads of our relatives went to ohio in 17th century also bebbs married into the tudor family Edward bebb won the medal of honour in civil war he must be the uncle of Micheal bebb ps Henry 8th was a tudor.


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