Centennial Museum gecko logo

Desert Diary
Plants/Oak Kay


The United States now has a national tree, the oak. Or does it? In English, the article "a" is singular, but to botanists, oak is plural in the sense that a large number of species fall under the name "oak". There are white oaks, black oaks, and red oaks, but that doesn't merely add up to the number "3", because each of these groups has a large number of species within it. The white oaks, for example, have more than 30 species in North America alone.

I suppose we can consider "the oak" as a genus, since all are in the genus Quercus, but this is akin to calling dogs, wolves, coyotes, and jackals of the genus "Canis" as one kind, perhaps "wolf". Would we really want to consider all of these as "the wolf", let alone as "the jackal"? We may well be confused by exactly what "the oak" is, but as Southwesterners, we're well endowed, for at least 15 species of oaks occur in the Greater Chihuahuan Desert Region. So, I guess we're Oak Kay!
pen and ink

Listen to the audio.


Contributor: Arthur H. Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a production of KTEP, National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Oak branch leafing out

Newly emerged leaves of an oak. Photograph by A.H. Harris.