When cotton was king in the Old South, the wood of the basket oak showed up in the fields as wagons, tool handles, and picking containers.

Of all the North American oaks (and there are dozens of species), none is so closely tied to the history of the Deep South as the basket oak. In the once-great cotton fields of the Mississippi River delta region, Quercus michauxii, a type of white oak, did yeoman's work.

Because the wood of the basket oak has a tendency to split cleanly along its growth rings, it yields rugged ribbons of fiber. Southern basketmakers took advantage of this trait by weaving the wooden ribbons, or splints, into heavy-duty containers for use by field hands in picking cotton. More often than not, even the heavy work wagons into which they emptied the cotton had beds and other parts made from the same strong oak. Sometimes, the handles of the hoes, shovels, scythes, and pitchforks used in the fields were of basket oak, too. The wood ranks next to hickory in surviving strain and shock, and thus frequently replaced it.

Yet, for all of its toughness, the basket oak has a sweet side, too. Hogs, cows, and country children below the Mason-Dixon line know that the basket oak, unlike most of its cousins, produces savory acorns that can be eaten as they come from the tree. Usually, other acorns must be boiled first to remove the taste of tannic acid.

Illustration: Jim Stevenson