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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Oak Gulls and Mistletoe: Nature’s Decor | real shit

When you look at the bare branches of some oak trees at this time of year, you can see ball-shaped growths there, which almost look like nature’s Christmas ornaments.

These are galls.

Bile is an abnormal growth that is produced by a plant under the influence of another organism. Most galls lay their eggs in the host plant after insects (small cyanid wasps).

‘The Real Dirt’ is a column by various local master gardeners who are part of the UC Master Gardeners of Butte County.

Each gall-forming insect produces gall of a particular size, shape and color; No species makes its gills like any other. While the commonly seen oak shells are spherical and woody, the shells of some oak leaves are horn-shaped, star-shaped, or have small jumpers.

During the winter in Butte County, oak groves connected by twigs are probably the most commonly seen gall. These oak galls (commonly referred to as oak apple galls) form smooth round balls one to two inches in diameter and range in color from cream and light green to pink, brown and black. They have a sponge-like interior and sit in groups on the twigs and trunks of oak trees. These gills are formed when a small gall wasp lays its eggs in the tissue of oak flower buds in spring. This wasp is one of hundreds of species of gall wasp (family Cynipidae) active in the United States. The tiny wasp also collects fluid that alters the cell’s multiplication process, resulting in gall. Wasp larvae develop inside the gall until they are fully adults, at which time they release the gall through an exit hole.

Right now, oak shells can be seen in large numbers on some small trees and less frequently on healthy mature oaks. Other smaller oaks are directly adjacent to a heavily-infested one that will have practically no galls. This seedling is the result of variation in genetic susceptibility to gall wasps among oak populations. Chico’s Bidwell Park is the perfect place to see the many-gulled oaks.

There are other insects that invade or inhabit the gall during or after the initial gall-maker’s residence. Some are parasites of gall larvae; There are other insects that live harmlessly within the gall (these secondary inhabitants are called interrogators). Birds feed on the larvae growing inside the gall. And galls can be attacked by Phoma gallorum fungus, resulting in dark brown or black galls.

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