Amphibians On The Farm

Teeny tiny baby toads have emerged on our farm this week. I’m not sure how many there are (dozens, hundreds?) but there are more than I’ve ever seen. Members of the new generation are currently smaller than garden peas.

That huge boulder on the right of this picture? A small piece of driveway gravel. The giant shellbark hickory shell on the left? Just a little acorn.

Frogs and toads are some of the most delicate members of our ecosystem when it comes to herbicide and pesticide exposure. One study from the University of Pittsburgh found that even at low levels, the common herbicide RoundupĀ® killed 71% of tadpoles, and at normal use levels, the same herbicide killed 79% of all frogs within a day. Because we are an organic farm, herbicides like these have not been used on this land since my husband and I purchased it in 2015. The transformation has been significant and astonishing. After three years, the fireflies returned to our fields in breathtaking numbers. The gathering of butterflies and birds has been more gradual, but the steady increase each year has been noteworthy. After five years I started to notice more reptiles and amphibians. A snake took up residence in my garden, then it raised offspring there. Frog and toad sightings have gradually become more common, and my issues with other pests (insects, voles, etc) are significantly declining as their predators increase. A full seven years after transitioning this farm to organic and regenerative methods, this toad population boom has arrived. The ecosystem is balancing.

Not only are the tiny little toads adorable, they are true garden allies. They eat insects and garden pests like slugs, beetles, and flies. They don’t harm plants, and they don’t bite (they don’t even have teeth).

So what can you do to increase the population of frogs and toads in your garden? First of all, adopt an organic approach to land management, and stop spraying herbicides and pesticides. You can also create a toad habitat in your garden, which should include water, shelter, and native plants. Birds&Blooms offers a detailed guide to creating your own toad habitat. I find that my toads enjoy hanging out in a less formal toad habitat (my potted planters and seedling trays).

Check out this cute little chamomile seedling


Thank you for taking the time to consider the needs and wellbeing of these important amphibian neighbors. I wish you a bountiful summer!

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The Promise of the New Year

Last night we bid farewell to 2021. It was an intense year for me, packed tightly with highs and lows. I built a garden, I tried my hand at market growing. I read many books, I studied, I wrote. I re-launched my photography business. I stayed home, I traveled, I met new friends, I reunited with old ones. I lost a loved one to cancer. I’ve lived through days filled with uncontainable joy and gratitude and days that flattened me. I haven’t made as much progress towards my goals as I wanted to make, but I have made significant, measurable progress towards those goals. This morning I woke up with the urge to start the new year with hope, with purpose, and with new life. I spent the day planting seeds.

It’s too early in the season to start most of the garden plants that might readily come to mind. If I started my tomato seeds this early, they’d take over my house by the time the last frost has come and gone. But there are certain kinds of seeds that benefit from an extra early start. Many native plants and medicinal herbs retain their own sense of the seasons, and must experience winter before they will consent to sprout. It’s called cold stratification, and it usually takes about two months. Certain other plants may grow very slowly from seed, even though they don’t need cold stratification. This category includes perennial herbs such as sage. I’m starting those seeds now as well.

Seeds planted in tiny soil blocks.  Twenty individual cubes of soil, each with a single seed resting on top, arranged to form a larger rectangle resembling a baked brownie.

My current preferred method for cold stratification when growing transplants is to plant the seeds that need it in tiny cubes of freestanding compacted potting soil called soil blocks. In this configuration, about 240 seeds can be started in a single growing tray, which I then cover with parchment paper and slide neatly onto a shelf in my refrigerator. There it will chill for about two months, with an occasional re-moistening now and again. In March, I’ll transfer them to my regular grow light setup and finish germinating them alongside the familiar tomatoes and marigolds.

One full tray of planted soil blocks, ready to load into the refrigerator! Note: I’ve labeled these with post-it notes, but only because I couldn’t find my label of choice (sharpie on masking tape). These will be replaced with something more sticky and more water resistant ASAP. There are few things more frustrating for a grower than raising a bunch of beautiful and healthy plants that you can’t identify because the label failed.
a day's work of seed planting
An honest day’s work! That little device in the bottom-left is the soil block making tool.

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Pawpaw : The Indiana Banana

A pawpaw fruit may not look creamy and tropical from the outside. In fact, it looks more earthy, like a freshly dug potato. The intoxicatingly tropical scent beckons you to look closer, and when you do, you’ll find this fruit filled with rich and creamy mango-banana flavored custard. The experience is uniquely tropical for an Indiana native tree fruit. In fact, the pawpaw is the only member of its plant family to survive this far north. Its true name is Asimina triloba, of the family Annonaceae. Its relatives are all tropical, and include the Custard Apple, Soursop, and Chermioya. The pawpaw itself is native to most of the Eastern United States.

Pawpaw fruits ripen during the month of September. Though I’ve planted over 50 pawpaw trees, only two have begun to fruit. These two trees are grafted with named pawpaw varieties. Grafted trees will grow and bear fruit faster than seed-grown trees, and the fruit is predictable- if you graft your tree with wood from another tree that bears delicious pawpaws, your tree will produce identically delicious fruit. The downside of grafted trees is they reduce genetic diversity. I prefer to keep most of my trees wild on this farm to preserve more genetic diversity, but it is nice to have a few special grafted trees mixed in. I harvested a total of six pawpaws this year from my two grafted trees, though I could swear I had 8 on my trees at one point. Humans aren’t the only pawpaw lovers!

A pawpaw sliced in half, showing the creamy interior flesh and few large seeds

To enjoy the fruits, slice in half lengthwise. Remove the seeds and set them aside. The seeds are very large and easy to remove. Use a spoon to scoop out the creamy flesh. Do not eat the seeds or the skin.

If you’d like to grow a pawpaw tree for yourself, plant the seeds right away and keep them watered until winter. Pawpaw seeds will not germinate if they dry out. They are not extremely flood tolerant, but they do prefer moist soil and they can handle occasional standing water. They may need irrigation while they become established, during their first three years of growth. It is my understanding that they do not need irrigation after they reach 3 years old, except perhaps during times of extreme drought. They grow well in part-shade, but they fruit best with more sun. This is a native wild tree that grows successfully in the woods without human intervention. Beyond a little water and a little sun, this tree doesn’t ask for much. I never spray mine with anything, nor do I apply any special fertilizers. I just top-dress with a little mulch now and then, and the trees are happy.

Enjoy pawpaws as soon as possible after harvest. They will keep in the refrigerator for a few days, but this is not a long-keeping fruit. You may wonder why you never see this local delicacy in grocery stores, and that is why. The fruits are delicate and they do not ship well or keep a long time.

A scoop of pawpaw flesh on a spoon.  Looks like ice cream.

Though this fruit has enormous culinary potential and is delicious in a wide variety of dishes, I personally have not developed any pawpaw recipes yet. I’ve simply never had more pawpaws in my possession than what I could eagerly devour fresh, cold, and straight up, so I’ve never experimented with preserving them or baking them into things. People do freeze the pulp for winter use in a similar manner as with persimmons, so if you have a bounty, you could give that a try. I look forward to the day when my 50+ trees all come into fruit and I can finally experiment with pawpaw recipes galore.

The Ohio Pawpaw Festival is a great place to immerse yourself in pawpaw culture. There I’ve tried pawpaw beer, pawpaw wine, pawpaw salsa, pawpaw burritos, pawpaw cakes, fresh pawpaws, and more. The festival also features an educational component with pawpaw-related lectures and demonstrations.

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The Strawberry Moon

Tonight is a full moon, but not just any full moon. In the Algonquian languages, the group of languages spoken by all the original inhabitants of Johnson County (the Miami, Lenape, Kiikaapoi, and Kaskaskia nations), the full moon of June is called Strawberry Moon. This moon is celebrated because it coincides with the strawberry harvest, and the beginning of the local fruit season. People often think that this farm is named after strawberries, but it’s actually named for this moon, this time of year. The beginning of the fruit harvest. Today I’m celebrating the Strawberry Moon more fully than ever before, because we finally have native wild strawberries growing on our land!

I started these strawberry plants from seed over the winter, and they have grown really prolifically. Strawberry seeds require a process called cold stratification in order to germinate. This is a fancy way to say that the seeds need to go through winter before they will sprout. That makes a lot of sense if you think about the life cycle of a strawberry. The seeds are in the fruit, and if they sprouted as soon as they hit the ground in June or July, the plants wouldn’t have time to get big and strong enough to survive winter before it comes. So the seeds are patient. Gardeners can place moistened seeds in the refrigerator for a couple of months to convince the plants that winter has passed, and then give them an early start under lights. The plants are incredibly tiny and fragile at first, so they must be watered from the bottom or with a very fine mister until they gain some size.

Since these plants are so young (strawberries are perennials), they don’t have fruit on them yet. But they do have flowers! And flowers are the promise of fruit. Notice how the flowers shown are white, not yellow. You may have seen another plant that looks very similar. Mock Strawberry (Potentilla indica, formerly Duchesnea indica) looks very similar and even bears little red fruits. But the fruits of the mock strawberry have very little flavor. The Mock Strawberry has yellow flowers, and the fruits are round with little bumps on them. If you look really closely at the fruits, you may be able to tell that they don’t really look like strawberries, but they have duped even some experienced foragers. Admittedly, I’ve never actually tasted a native wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), but I’m told that the flavor is phenomenal. I look forward to acquiring some first hand experience on this subject soon. šŸ˜‹

Unlike Alpine Strawberries (Fragaria vesca), our native strawberries send out runners. Runners are like long stems that sprout baby plants along them. This is one way that the plants reproduce themselves. Some gardeners prune the runners back, but I am not doing that this year. I’m excited for the plants to spread and reproduce themselves. I don’t think it’s possible to have too many strawberries.

This image shows the mock strawberry, Potentilla indica. This is not a strawberry. It’s not native here, but it is very common. You can see that the leaves look very similar. The fruit is red and round with bumps on it. The fruit is white inside, not red inside like a strawberry, and the flowers are yellow.

Although I’m still currently strawberry-less, you need not feel sorry for me. I’m writing this article powered by a full belly of black raspberries. Black raspberries are another amazing native fruit plant!

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Brood X and The Knifelike Ovipositors

Cool band name, right? Brood X is indeed musical, and their infrequent performances are loud and memorable. They are 17 year periodic cicadas. They are due to emerge any day now.

During the last cicada summer, 17 years ago, I was a student of Computer Science, and I subleased an apartment in Bloomington while I worked a local internship and took summer classes at Indiana University. The campus there is natural and semi-wooded, and when the cicadas emerged, they did so in force. I didn’t have a garden at that time, but I didn’t notice any obvious damage to the plant life on campus. For the most part, all I noticed was the deafening sound they produced. I had to wear ear plugs to go outside, because my ears physically ached from the collective volume of cicada mating songs.

Now I find myself in another natural, wooded setting. And this time, I’m responsible for the care of a young orchard. I’ve tried to read and prepare as much as possible for the upcoming cicada emergence, and I hope I have done well enough. I have learned that cicadas are native insects, that they play an important role in our ecosystem, that they’re fascinating and unique, and that they should be revered and protected rather than feared. I have read that the cicadas do not eat anything from the garden, nor do they feed on the foliage of trees or shrubs, nor do they harm humans, livestock, or pets. Insecticide sprays are neither needed nor effective against them.

Cicadas do, however, lay their eggs in trees. To do this, they slice open pencil-width twigs with their saw-shaped ovipositors and lay their eggs inside. This shouldn’t cause any long term problems for established trees, where all the pencil-width twigs are located near the extremities of the tree. But it could spell big trouble for young trees like mine where the main trunk falls within the cicada’s preferred size range. The official recommendation to prevent damage is to wrap the whole tree lollipop-style to keep the cicadas out. But with nearly a thousand trees to wrap, the amount of fabric I would need to accomplish this could break my annual budget.

Young trees wrapped for cicada protection

Instead, I am attempting a compromise. I cut long strips of floating row cover fabric, about 3″ wide. I am wrapping multiple layers of these fabric strips around the main trunks and any branches that are within 3/8″-7/8″, the cicada’s preferred size range. Maybe the cicadas will be able to slice through the fabric and do their damage anyway, but I think it’ll be difficult for them. Row cover fabric is stretchy and a little clingy, and I can’t slice through it very easily with my pocket knife. I think it’s likely that the serrated ovipositors will get stuck in these fabric layers, and that they’ll quickly become frustrated and move on to a bigger tree. There’s a whole forest nearby, after all.

I think it unlikely that many cicadas will emerge in the field where the young trees are planted. Since that field had no trees last time the cicadas emerged, it’s unlikely that any eggs were laid there. Perhaps some cicadas will travel from the woods to the field of young trees, or maybe I’ll get lucky and they’ll all stay in the woods. I’ll be monitoring the situation closely and taking copious notes so I can be prepared the next time they return, 17 years from now.

For more information:
“Emergence of the 17-Year Cicada” by Purdue University
“Brood X is almost here. Billions of cicadas to emerge in eastern US” by CNN

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Celebrating A Job Well Done

In 2017, I received an EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) grant from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. This grant pays part of my costs for the tree seedlings and seeds I needed to purchase to transition this land from corn/soy fields into tree crops and other perennial crops. It came with some restrictions, but the only restriction that concerned me was time. It was a huge project, and the grant required it be completed in only two years. Well, luckily for me I was awarded a one year deadline extension last year, because I fell a little short of that deadline. But today I planted the last tree and I can finally say it is complete!

These are the projects I’ve completed in the past three years, under guidance of my encouraging and knowledgeable NRCS representative and with help from my wonderful husband.

  • Grown a buckwheat cover crop in my three non-flooding fields, to help shade out weeds and provide good summertime forage for pollinators (but for one summer only).
  • Planted a permanent pasture grass blend in the same three fields, consisting of mixed grasses and legumes. This planting will reduce erosion on that land, keep the soil aerated so it can absorb maximum water, add biomass to the soil (mulch), and someday provide food for sheep, when we are ready for them. The clover included in the planting mix will also provide food for pollinators for years to come, and nitrogen to naturally fertilize the grasses.
  • Planted a native plant food forest on our two acre riparian flood plain. This project doubles as both an orchard and a wetland restoration. The soil is no longer bare, but now contains a tree every 10-12 feet, mown grasses down the tree rows, and strips of native herbs and wildflowers blossoming between rows. Not only does this planting help to clean and filter flood waters, reduce erosion, and create food and habitat for pollinators and wildlife, but when fully established, we expect these two acres of diverse native plant species will generate thousands of pounds of food per year with minimal human intervention.

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The American Persimmon

It’s persimmon season! Diospyros virginiana, the American persimmon, is one of my personal favorite fruits. The American persimmon tree is native to a large part of the United States, including south and central Indiana. It is related to the commercially available Asian Persimmons (Diospyros kaki), and to several other trees commercially grown for fruit and timber. This is a low-maintenance tree that is easy to grow organically, and the fruit is an important food source for local wildlife (and for local fruit-loving people). I have planted a few dozen American persimmon trees here at the farm, but while I wait for them to mature and become fruitful, I forage fallen ripe persimmons every September from an established tree in town. I leave all the smooshed ones for wildlife to enjoy, and only take the whole fruits with their skins in tact. Share and share alike.

I grew up enjoying American persimmons in pureed form, usually baked into a regional delicacy called persimmon pudding (though the texture of this dish is more like a brownie than pudding). I have also enjoyed this fruit made into persimmon ice cream and persimmon cake, and both are delicious. Recipes usually call for added sugar in these desserts, but personally I don’t think they need any sugar at all. The fruit is sweet enough all by itself! I can imagine countless other uses for this fruit, if only I could ever get enough of them to try out all the ideas. When fully ripe, American persimmon is very sweet with a soft grainy texture similar to fresh dates. But instead of a date flavor, it has a delicious persimmon flavor. The fruits are round, sized between one and two inches diameter, with one or more seeds in the middle. The seeds are large, and resemble pumpkin seeds. The unripe fruits are very astringent, so you definitely want to make sure you only harvest fully ripe persimmon fruit. It is commonly said that you must wait until after a frost to harvest these fruits, but that is only a myth. The easiest way to harvest is to wait for the ripe fruits to fall naturally to the ground, and simply pick them up. If you own the land the tree is on, you can spread sheets of fabric underneath the tree to speed harvesting and keep the fruits clean.

Although I have grown up enjoying this fruit for as long as I can remember, the only fresh, whole American persimmons I have ever encountered are those I have gathered myself. This is a fruit meant to be eaten soon after harvest, and does not store well. American persimmons are usually processed and sold as frozen pulp, or as baked goods. I do enjoy eating them fresh, when I can get them. This year, I decided to dry some of the persimmons I gathered so that I can enjoy them all winter. I washed them, split them in half with my fingers to remove the seeds, then laid out all the pieces of persimmon flesh onto dehydrator trays in a single layer. I dried them at 130 degrees for about 12 hours. Dehydrator time and temperatures need not be very precise, and if you typically dry tomatoes and other fruits in your oven or in the sun, I think a similar method would work as well for persimmons. The dried persimmons turned out chewy and sweet and wonderful. I have read that the seeds can be roasted and added to coffee, and that the leaves can be dried and used as tea. I have not tried these uses yet myself, but I did dry the seeds for future recipe experiments.

American Persimmon Fruit Prepared for Drying
American Persimmons de-seeded and ready for the dehydrator! A nice tray of lemon balm from the herb spiral awaits the dehydrator in the background. And that knife on the cutting board turned out to be totally unnecessary!
Dried American Persimmons
Finished dried persimmons and persimmon seeds.

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Oaks of Indiana

An oak is a beautiful, long-lived tree. They don’t erupt in floral fireworks in the spring, but their autumnal display is second to none. They’re planted in parks, back yards, and campuses for their generous shade, farmed for their highly valuable lumber, and climbed by adventurous children and young-at-heart alike. The oak belongs to the noble Fagaceae tree family, along with Beeches, Chestnuts, and Chinkapins. Roughly one year out of every three, an oak tree is capable of producing a huge crop of healthful and delicious nuts that sustained many civilizations throughout human history.

Did you make a confused face when I mentioned oak nuts? Yes, we are talking about acorns!

Acorn Uses

Oak Leaf with AcornsAcorns are not suitable for fresh snacking like pecans are, but after some simple processing (involving soaking the nuts in water to remove their bitter tannins) they can be ground into a versatile and gluten free flour that can be baked into cakes, cookies, breads, and more. They can also be made into porridges, soups, and beverages. Their culinary use is more similar to grains than the nuts that might more commonly come to mind, although their cultivation requires none of the ecologically destructive tillage practices and deleterious sprays that are commonly employed in grain farming. The extensive root system of the oak tree helps to protect soil from the forces of erosion, which in turn protects clean water. The many leaves of the oak tree filter the air of the carbon that we have too much of, and infuse the air in turn with plenty of the oxygen that we need more of. Since these trees grow all by themselves and produce plentiful acorns in the wild, we know they won’t be high maintenance as crops. This is Earth-positive agriculture at its finest.

Aside from a few fun experiments with acorns, I haven’t really cooked with them in quantity. But that’s all about to change. For me, 2020 is to be the year of the acorn. I bought a new nutcracker so I can process them in bulk, and gathered all the publications I could find on the subject. Over the past month, I’ve been searching for oak trees everywhere I go, and keeping a detailed log of the species, location, and approximate age of each tree that I find, and noting whether or not the tree is producing acorns this year. My hope is to collect a sampling of acorns from every native oak species to experience and compare all the available flavors, and to collect a large quantity of acorns from trees of the easier-to-process white oak group for recipe experimentation and general winter sustenance. I probably won’t realistically gather acorns from every single native oak species this year, but eventually, I aim to collect them all.

Oak Tree Groups

Oak Leaf VeinsAccording to Wikipedia, there are around 600 species of oak trees, encompassing a multi-continental native range and spanning multiple oceans. Here in Indiana, we have quite a few native species of oak trees from the white oak group and the red oak group. The white oak group produces the sweetest nuts that ripen about six months after the tree flowers, and these nuts require less processing (soaking in fewer changes of water), since they contain lower levels of bitter tannins. The red oak group produces nuts that are higher in tannins, and ripen about 18 months after the tree flowers. Because of the higher tannin content, acorns from red oak trees require more work to process the bitterness out of them (you soak them in extra changes of water). However, all acorns are edible as long as you process them until they are no longer bitter. We have planted one hundred Swamp White Oak trees in our wetland food forest in anticipation of their delicious acorns, and so far they are thriving more than any other tree species we have planted. We also inherited a beautiful mature Bur Oak tree that grows on a steep slope between our high and low fields, and that tree is loaded with acorns this year. Most trees in the White Oak Group have rounded lobes on their leaves, and most trees in the Red Oak Group have pointed lobes on their leaves. However, this is not a 100% hard and fast rule. If you have space for an oak tree on your land, be sure to select a species that is native to your area. Native trees are usually easier to grow and more beneficial to your local ecosystem. Although you might notice some bite marks on the leaves of your oak tree, or an occasional acorn with a hole in it, please don’t spray as these are not usually a serious problem for the tree, and are a sign that the tree is supporting the vibrant web of life in your community.

Indiana Native Trees of the White Oak Group

  • Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa). A splendid tree with a very nice form and especially nice acorns. It is a very adaptable tree whose native range includes all of Indiana, and also dips down as far south as Texas and reaches up as far north as Canada.
  • Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana). Native to upland regions of eastern and southeastern United States, including the southernmost parts of Indiana.
  • Chinkapin Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii). Native to all of Indiana and several neighboring states. Prefers upland soils.
  • Dwarf Chinkapin Oak (Quercus prinoides). Native to all of Indiana and several neighboring states. Prefers dry, acidic soils.
  • White Oak (Quercus alba). A huge oak tree native to all of Indiana, as well as most of the eastern United States.
  • Overcup Oak (Quercus lyrata). A great lowland oak tree native to several southeastern United States, including a very small area of southern Indiana.
  • Post Oak (Quercus stellata). Native to southern Indiana and most of the southeastern United States. A smaller oak tree that prefers dry soils.
  • Swamp Chestnut Oak (Quercus michauxii). Native to a small section of southern Indiana, and several Southern, Eastern, and Southeastern United States. Very similar to Chestnut Oak, but native to lowland regions instead.
  • Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor). Native to lowlands across all of Indiana, and a few neighboring states.

Indiana Native Trees of the Red Oak Group

  • Black Oak (Quercus velutina). Native to all of Indiana, and to a huge range encompassing much of eastern United States. Adaptable to multiple soil types.
  • Blackjack Oak (Quercus marilandica). Native to dry soils of southwestern Indiana, and several southeastern United States.
  • Cherrybark Oak (Quercus pagoda). Native to a tiny corner of southwestern Indiana, but mostly to southern states. Thrives in moist bottomland soils and tolerates occasional flooding.
  • Northern Pin Oak (Quercus ellipsoidalis). Native to uplands of northern Indiana, northern Illinois, and a few other northern states.
  • Pin Oak (Quercus palustris). Native to moist but well-drained soils across all of Indiana, and to our neighboring states to the west, south, and east.
  • Red Oak (Quercus rubra). Native to all of Indiana, and a huge range encompassing most of the eastern United States and parts of Canada. Adaptable to multiple soil types.
  • Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea). Native to splotches of southern, northern, and central Indiana and most of the northeastern United States. Grows best in well-drained, acidic, dry or sandy soils.
  • Shingle Oak (Quercus imbricaria). Native to most of Indiana, as well as our neighboring states to the west, east, and south. Adaptable to many soil types.
  • Shumard Oak (Quercus shumardii). Native to most of Indiana and to the south. Adaptable to multiple soil types.

Side Note

One notable “oak” we thankfully do not have in Indiana is “poison oak”! Poison Oak is not related to oak trees at all. Its in the same genus as (closely related to) poison ivy and poison sumac, and its plant family curiously also includes cashews, pistachios, and mangoes! Poison “oak” is named such only because the leaf shape vaguely resembles the shape of an oak leaf. The similarities end there.

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