On Camp Salmen’s Bayou Liberty trail, just behind the Salmen Monument and Razza Flagpole, is a tall Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) with a huge, round burl right at face level. If you are unfamiliar with a burl, this one is a weird, lumpy, dish-shaped thing, about 20 inches in diameter. It would probably make someone a very interesting decorative bowl, which is often what woodworkers want to do with these things. Alas, the tree is in a publicly owned nature park, is in fine shape, being put to good use and is thus, unavailable.
For those who have not noticed them or don’t know much about burls, they are odd misshapen bark-covered lumps sticking out of an otherwise normal looking tree. Burls are the tree’s response to a localized disturbance in their bark like a mold infection (the most common cause), a virus, a bacterium, an insect infestation or perhaps a wound. They are more often found on a tree’s roots and usually don’t become evident until the tree happens to be uprooted. The most famous burls I’ve ever seen are on the oaks on the ancient LSU Indian Mounds up the hill from Tiger Stadium, but these are more than likely caused by the spirits who reside there.
When you cut into a burl, instead of the regular layered grain of alternating dark and light colored wood caused by the tree’s seasonal growth, the pattern is usually quite convoluted and interesting, with twists, swirls and ripples. Certain species of trees make more attractive burls than others; some respond to irritants in different ways, with different patterns. Of course, oaks, being tough as nails, polish up nicely and their burls are a fine addition to furniture and other small presentations of the woodworker’s art.
Though it’s strange to think that one organism’s malignancy can be another’s treasure, some covetous woodworkers are thoughtless enough to have actually cut burls off of living trees! This makes the tree susceptible to disease and early death. Worse yet, trees that are more valuable alive than dead have been cut down just so some greedy goon can get to a high-up burl. The problem has gotten so bad in California’s Redwood forest with people sneaking in to the woods to do these dastardly things, state foresters have to ask the public to insure their burl purchases are from legitimate sources.