Oh, no, not the oak

That water oak in your yard? Don't trust it.

They're for the birds - and the bees. Oak trees, as it turns out, well ... they interbreed.

"Oh, my God, they're incredibly promiscuous," said College of Charleston botanist Jean Everett. "Water oaks are notorious."

They do it the same way other species do, at least the bees' part. When the oak flowers produce pollen, it gets moved from tree to tree.

And something about oaks makes it easy for the species to intermingle. The mixed trees will have traits, such as leaves, of both, making identification problematic.

What Jeff Jackson of the S.C. Native Plant Society thought was a young water oak in the Sullivan's Island maritime forest, stopped him short when he looked closer at the leaves: They looked as much like a Darlington oak.

The phenomenon is unusual in the plant world, but not unique to oaks. They apparently are just good at it.

"They don't do it all the time," Everett said. "But they do it."

Bo Petersen

FOLLY BEACH - When sea oats are in the way, you want them to stay there. The beautifully awned plants root as deep as 10 inches, anchoring the sands around them.

That's why 1,000 sea oats clumps were to be installed this weekend around the sand fences at the newly renourished Folly Beach County Park. They won't be far from home: They come from the maritime forest on Sullivan's Island. And that's even better.

Species vary region to region. Locally grown native plants already are adapted to the changeable Lowcountry coast. When landscaper Jeff Jackson of Lowcountry Roots saw the reedy clumps lying along the route of the nature trail he is opening through the Sullivan's Island forest, his first thought was, "We've got to be able to use it somewhere."

Jackson is president of the Lowcountry chapter of the S.C. Native Plants Society. Chapter members, along with other volunteers, were scheduled to carefully trowel a foot deep around the sea oats clumps, transfer and replant them Saturday. The effort is volunteer, at no cost to the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission or the public.

The fences, installed last year after the park beach was renourished, are beginning to gather blown and drifted sand, forming the dunes needed to help hold together the new beach. Vegetation like sea oats is the next step.

"The transplanting comes at a perfect time (of year)," said Andy Hammill, commission assistant director for capital projects. It's fortunate that the mature native plants could be rescued and used where they are needed, he said.

These oats arrive with tales to tell. The "unwanted" Sullivan's Island forest is more than 100 acres of land built up over the years because of offshore north-to-south sand flow blocked by the Charleston Harbor jetties. It is establishing where a former maritime forest stood that provided the famous palmetto logs for nearby Fort Moultrie that withstood a nine-hour British cannonball barrage in 1776.

Some once-beachfront homeowners, among other island residents, want to see it trimmed back because of the loss of seascape view and the arrival of coyotes.

Sea oats are a pioneer plant, the sort of thing that gets a foothold in a place so other plants can arrive to replace it. The transplanted sea oats come from the rear rows of the dunes, where the forest is taking over from them. They would have been lost anyhow.

The forest that some have called scraggly, unkempt woodlands is becoming something of a native wonder. Just off the trail a big red cedar curves out sideways from the roots like a sprawling live oak. Near the sea oats harvest stands a multitrunked black cherry likely regrown from a stump of Hurricane Hugo damage. A toothache tree nearby is a host plant for the giant swallowtail butterfly, the black and yellow striped insect that is the largest butterfly in the country.

"Someone asked me, 'What are you going to plant out there?' And I said, nothing. Almost everything out here produces a berry," Jackson said. "Lots of songbirds. It's quiet, away from traffic. The public just can't get to places like this any more. Most would be behind a security gate."

Bob Trussler, who lives a few blocks from the trail, walks his dog out there regularly. Yes, he's seen a coyote. He's also seen deer and a bald eagle.

"It's a little adventure here all the time," he said. "I wish there were more of it."

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.