Unmitigated Gall

What's in a gall?

A gall is a nodule that grows on a plant in reaction to the presence of certain sorts of microbes and insects. Galls are an example of the way that plants have co-evolved with other living things in order to accomodate one another. The gall both protects the rest of the plant from the intruding organism and provides that organism with food or shelter.

Who creates galls?

Most directly, plants grow galls, which are made out of their tissues. However, the intruding organism triggers and sometimes directs the growth of the gall. Galls may therefore be thought of as collaborative projects.

Generally speaking, galls are not harmful to plants. As is true for all parasites, gall-inducing organisms depend upon the existence of their hosts, so it would be counterproductive for them to cause significant damage. Galls can weaken a plant if they are overabundant, but such overabundance is rare and may be interpreted as a breakdown in the normal host-intruder relationship.

Great galls

Some of the biggest galls are commonly found on oaks in the United States: oak flake galls and gouty galls. Both kinds of gall are induced by small wasps.

The wasps that create these galls are called cynipids. They have complex life cycles which involve two sorts of galls. In the spring, the female lays her eggs on oak leaves, producing small galls near the leaf veins. In the first half of summer, adult wasps emerge from these galls and mate, after which new eggs are planted on young oak twigs, producing the twig gouty galls, which after a year or two in turn produce another generation of wasps in turn.

Oak flake galls are formed int he spring when a female gall wasp lays her eggs on newly formed oak leaves. These galls are about one eighth of an inch wide, with smooth light coloring on the upper leaf surface and a dense covering of white hairs on the underside of the leaf.

Gouty galls are much larger, irregular balls that can grow up to 3 or 4 inches in diameter on the smaller branches of an oak. They are solid and woody and have many larval chambers near their centers.

Garish Galls?

Wyman's Gardening Encyclopedia states that gouty galls are "unsightly" and advises that "infested twigs should be cut promptly." Well, unsightliness is in the eye of the beholder. When one becomes aware of the intricate biological relationships responsible for gouty oak galls, one may discover a different sort of beauty in them. Aesthetically speaking, are they really any more unsightly than walnuts, pecans or other similarly-sized nuts?

It's important to remember that the galls themselves are not harmful to oak trees. In any case, control of gouty galls is very difficult, requiring harsh chemical solutions that are environmentally harmful, destroying the complex habitat that the oaks provide. In this process, an entire tree has to be treated at an enormous expense. The insecticides used are often ineffective anyway, and cutting away young twigs as they become more infested may be much more harmful to the oaks than the galls ever could be.

Writing From The Gall

return to irregulartimes.comInstead of attacking these galls and the trees that they grow on, we can use them for practical purposes instead. For example, a rich brown calligrapher's ink can be made from the gouty galls found on fallen branches under old oaks. Here's one recipe:


Gather the gouty galls from dead and fallen branches and crush them into a fine powder. Add the water and sitr. Allow this mixture to stand outside for 2 days in the sun, covering in case of rain. Add the copperas and stir, then let the mixture stand as before. Finally, add the gum arabic, stir and run the ink through a sieve to remove particulate. The ink is now ready to be used. Pour into small bottles for convenience.

Apparently, there's something about the tannins found in the gouty galls that is important in the way that this oak gall sun tea works as an ink. It's possible that other portions of oak trees, such as acorns, could have similar properties, but the galls are by far the easiest to collect because of their large size.

The point is this: natural things we take for granted or degrade as unsightly often prove to have remarkable properties, if only we study them for a short while. Oak galls are by no means the only biological wonders to be found in our own backyards. Re-connecting with the power of the life that silently surrounds us, we may find ways to insinuate ourselves into secret sources of growth that remain hidden to dull eyes. With a simple change in perspective, humanity may be able to shift its relationship with nature from one of invasion to one more like the peaceful co-existence of the gall.

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