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4 Oak Trees for Every Landscape


Welcome to the hot, sweltering days of July!  How nice would it be to seek relief under the shade of a mighty oak in your own back yard?  There’s a saying that goes:

The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago; the second best time is now.

In other words, it will take some time before you reap the benefits of a newly-planted shade tree, but the twenty-years-older-you and future generations will thank you for your time today.  The good news is that most oak species have a moderate to fast growth rate, up to two feet per year.

Your personal comfort is only one of many beneficiaries of oaks, however.  Their acorns in the fall provide winter food for wildlife.  Oaks, like all plants, suck carbon dioxide out of the air and replace it with oxygen.  In wild landscapes, they constantly replenish nutrients in the soil when their leaves drop to the ground in the fall.  If you rake the leaves up and put them on the curb for yard waste collections in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, the leaves get turned into LeafGro (along with grass clippings and other yard waste).  When planted on slopes, the roots of an oak tree help to hold the soil in place so that it doesn’t wash down into streams and rivers.

Almost everyone is familiar with pin, white, and willow oaks.  All three are native to Maryland and are fairly common in urban landscapes.  However, there are dozens more species out there, many of them also native to the mid-Atlantic.  There is literally an oak species to fit every situation.  I’ve highlighted a few of the lesser-known species below.

swamp-chestnutSwamp Chestnut Oak

Do you live near a stream and a have a site that occasionally floods?  Quercus michauxii, better known as Swamp Chestnut Oak, tolerates occasional flooding well, is native to much of the East Coast, and provides a beautiful reddish-bronze fall color.

nuttall-oakNuttall Oak

Have a site that stays damp most of the time?  Quercus nuttallii, or Nuttall Oak, might be the perfect tree for you.  This species is native to the Mississippi River valley, so it has great heat tolerance compared to many northern-based species.  They have large acorns that your local wildlife will appreciate, and boast reddish leaves in the fall AND in early spring.

chestnut-oakChestnut Oak

How about that spot at the edge of your yard that always seems dry and barren, and everything you have tried planting there seems to die a horrible death?  Quercus prinus, or Chestnut Oak, is tolerant of such poor soils (though you should still water regularly during the first year in the ground to get the tree established).  This species also provides large acorns and typically turns multiple colors in the fall.

chinkapin-oakDwarf Chinkapin Oak

Now I know some of you are reading this thinking, “There’s no room left in my yard for a shade tree.”  There’s an oak for you, too!  Quercus prinoides, or Dwarf Chinkapin Oak, is another Maryland-native oak that gets only 15 to 20 feet high.  It will tolerate poor, dry soil, and still provides plenty of acorns to feed your critters.

So plant an oak tree today to enjoy tomorrow.  Whether you go with the tried-and-true willow oak or explore the obscure, you won’t be sorry you did.

by John Shearin, Woody Plant Manager

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