Lauded through the ages as a symbol of strength, the mighty oak is in trouble.
As development and suburban sprawl have risen, the once plentiful oak trees are dwindling.
A consortium of tree-minded organizations doesn't want that trend to continue, so the group is mounting a campaign to encourage communities to plant acorns that some day will be as big as the one on the grounds of the Isle a la Cache Museum in Romeoville.
When it was an acorn, about 227 years ago, the American Revolution was still fresh in people's minds. Native American tribes still roamed the Des Plaines River Valley, and French voyageurs were still working the river.
"When you think of how old it is, and you think of what this tree has seen, you realize how precious it is," said Harry Klinkhamer, an interpretive specialist at the museum.
The Chicago Region Tree Initiative, a coalition of organizations, including the Morton Arboretum, the Forest Preserves of Cook County, the U.S. Forest Service and other partners, is spearheading an effort to raise awareness about the oak tree's steep decline.
Gov. Bruce Rauner has chimed in, too. His office named this month Oaktober Oak Awareness Month, and communities and organizations throughout the state are holding programs and events to nurture and educate people about the oak.
"If nothing is done, we will not have the next generations of oaks," said Valerie Blaine, nature programs manager for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. "Those big old oaks that the pioneers saw are not being replaced."
In the 1880s, it is estimated that oaks made up 60 percent of the tree canopy in the Chicago area. Today, only 5 percent of the region's trees are oaks. There are 19 species of oaks in Illinois and, without exception, they are in trouble, Blaine said
Though its thick bark makes it resilient to some hazards such as fire and disease, the oak has fallen to other detrimental forces. Blaine and others attribute the decline of the tree to invasive species, such as Buckthorn that blocks sunlight from young trees, the splitting of woodlands and savannas into farmland, and urban development.
The demise of the oak tree spells trouble for some birds, mammals and insects. The oak is considered a keystone species, which means it provides a habitat and is crucial to the survival of entire ecosystems that find shelter in its massive trunks and branches.
"When oaks disappear, it produces a tragic domino effect – as the oaks go, so do the birds, animals and plants that need oaks to survive," said Lydia Scott, director of the Chicago Region Trees Initiative.
Homeowners, too, have had an impact on the oak's demise because they are not choosing to plant it.
Terry Cichocki, forester for the village of Northbrook, said homeowners might turn to other species to plant because they don't have the same requirements as oaks, such as full sun. Other species grow more swiftly to maturity, which also can be appealing. But oaks have long-term benefits that make them appealing.
"They have a complex root system that absorbs stormwater, and they provide organic matter from the leaf drop," Cichocki said.
When the village does its annual replacement tree planting, she said it tries to re-establish the oak. Of 450 trees it planted this year, about 100 of them are oaks, she said.
The village tends with special care its Bebb oak, which is a hybrid of a bur oak and a white oak. It stands at 3760 Sunset Lane and is believed to be more than 250 years old. It was featured in a book about the village's trees called "Gems of Northbrook." Although it's partially on private property, the roots are on village land, and the village babies it.
"We always go there and look to see if it needs to be pruned or managed for its ancientness," Cichocki said.
Oaks are being nurtured in DuPage County, too. There are 1,000 trees and shrubs in the native plant nursery at Blackwell Forest Preserve, and 235 are oaks, including swamp white, northern pin, shingle, bur, red and black, said Mike Wiseman, grounds maintenance manager for the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.
"We have been trying to preserve local genotypes over the past several years with our native trees and shrubs by collecting acorns from our oaks as well as seed from many other species in DuPage County forest preserves," he said.
Some of those oaks will replace ash trees decimated by the emerald ash borer, he said.
Researchers from the Morton Arboretum, Chicago Wilderness, the Lake County Forest Preserve District and other members of the Chicago Region Tree Initiative are working on a comprehensive analysis of oak canopy throughout the region. It will make recommendations for the future, with the goal of bringing oak canopy dominance back to the region.
Many other efforts geared to saving the oak are taking place this month in communities throughout the state. They include clearing invasive species from oak woodlands, collecting acorns, planting saplings and holding programs that educate like the one recently at the Isle a la Cache Museum.
A troop of Girl Scouts gleefully tromped through the woods outside the museum on a mission to find the old bur oak tree. They used geo caches to locate the longitude and latitude of the massive oak. The girls stretched a yellow measuring tape around its trunk to calculate its age, which they determined is about 227 years old.
One of the Scout's mothers, Marie Lange of Lockport, said she had no idea the oak tree is in decline.
"I always thought there were oaks aplenty," she said.
"I feel like when I was growing up, the oak was the only tree -– it's acorns, it leaves, its big branches," wistfully added another mother, Holly Kokonas, also of Lockport.
Others are more familiar with the tree's plight. As a volunteer for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County for 15 years, Mary Alice Masonick, of Elgin, has cleared invasive species, planted oaks, and completed other tasks related to saving the tree. She said people need to understand that mature oaks will not thrive unless young ones do.
"It's sad how rarely now you see a young oak," she said. "Somehow people aren't connecting that to have mature oaks you have to have young oaks."
Oak hybrids such as kindred spirit, a combination of an upright English oak and a swamp white oak, and crimson spire, a hybrid of a white and English oak, have attributes that might make them more conducive for planting in a yard. They require a smaller space or are faster-growing, the experts say.
Kindred spirit, for instance, "is going to look similar. It's going to have the same leaf shape, bark and fall color. It's just on a smaller scale," said Becky Thomas, co-owner of the Spring Grove Nursery in Mazon, Ill.
Those who plant an oak like the bur or Bebb oaks might not see them reach their full maturity, but planting or nurturing a young oak today is a gift to future generations, Cichocki of Northbrook said.
"When you plant an oak, you are planting a legacy tree," she said.