White Oak — A Majestic Native Species
Selecting a shade tree is one of the most important landscaping decisions a homeowner can make. Unlike perennials or shrubs, which may be easily removed if they don’t work out, a tree is permanent. Because of the prominent role trees play in the landscape, much care and consideration should be given to the selection process. Of all the shade tree species available to choose from, the oak is the most beloved and treasured in America. About 400 species belong to the genus Quercus (ancient Latin for oak). All oaks are long lived and have the potential to become magnificent specimens if given ample space in the landscape.
If you only have space for one large shade tree, an excellent choice is the white oak, or Quercus alba. In his book, A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, 20th century naturalist and tree authority Donald C. Peattie wrote: “If Oak is the king of trees, as tradition has it, then the White Oak, throughout its range, is the king of kings…no other tree in our sylva has so great a spread.” Dr. Michael Dirr, renowned horticulturist and woody plant expert, expressed a similar sentiment in Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs, referring to the white oak as the “standard by which all other oaks are measured.”
White oaks typically grow 80 to 100 feet or more at maturity. Specimens grown in a forest setting generally attain greater heights than ones grown in a field or spacious lawn. Given ample space in which to spread, the branches extend parallel to the ground resulting in a massive canopy as wide as the tree is tall. This beautiful tree may be found providing shade in parks and suburban neighborhoods, standing as lone specimens in pastures, or grouped in natural stands throughout the eastern part of the United States and southeastern Canada.
MAJESTIC WHITE OAK SPECIMENS IN VIRGINIA
On average, white oaks may live 200 to 300 years but older specimens do exist and have been well documented. In fact, white oaks are said to be able to live 600 years. In Nancy Ross Hugo’s book Seeing Trees, she describes the life of a white oak as 200 years growing, 200 years living, and 200 years dying.
The largest white oak in Virginia is located at a private residence in Warfield, Virginia (in Brunswick County, which borders on North Carolina). At 86 feet tall with a 120-foot crown, it is believed to be 500 years old. In 2002, it succeeded the 460-year old Wye Oak in Talbot County, Maryland as the biggest white oak in the nation. Felled by a severe thunderstorm, the national champion Wye Oak was 96 feet tall with a 119-foot crown at the time of its demise. Just imagine – both trees were more than 200 years old when the Declaration of Independence was signed.
Albemarle County claims the distinction of having the second largest white oak tree in Virginia. It is on property belonging to the Charlottesville Albemarle Airport.
Known locally as the Earlysville White Oak, this historic tree is 75 feet tall with an 85-foot crown and is believed to be between 250 and 300 years old. It is included in Virginia Tech’s Virginia Big Tree database and the Remarkable Trees of Virginia Program.
Another ancient white oak in Albemarle County is located on the grounds of historic Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Greenwood, near Crozet. Estimated to be about 400 years old, this enormous tree is wider than it is tall. The trunk measures nearly six feet in diameter. The tree is visible to the traffic on U.S. Route 250. However, it is one of a number of large trees on the property. So, if you don’t know it’s there, it’s easy to drive by and miss seeing this remarkable white oak specimen.
CHARACTERISTICS OF WHITE OAKS
With the exception of poorly drained or very dry and shallow soil, white oaks are adaptable to most soils but thrive best in deep, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic soil with medium fertility. The tree develops a long tap root initially, which makes it difficult to transplant successfully. It is best transplanted as a very young seedling tree or, better yet, grown from an acorn. Because of its deep root system, it is fairly drought tolerant once it becomes well established. White oaks grow very slowly when young but start to grow at a faster rate once the roots begin to spread. A happy, well-planted oak tree can make a prominent presence in the landscape after 15 years or so.
- FOLIAGE — The leaves generally measure between five and nine inches long and three to four inches wide.
They occur in an alternating pattern along the twig. Each leaf is wedge shaped at the base and is arranged in five to nine rounded, finger-like lobes. The dense foliage is dark green to bluish green on top and pale or whitish-green underneath. While not noted for their fall color, white oak leaves turn deep red to purplish brown. As winter approaches, the colors become uniformly brown and many of the leaves hang on the tree until spring.
- FLOWERS – White oaks are self-fertile, meaning both male and female flowers grow on the same tree. The tiny male flowers appear first and are easily spotted on dangling, two to four-inch long tassel-like catkins. The female flowers appear later and develop in clusters of two or three bulbous-looking orbs in the axils of new leaves. Until they mature and begin to take on the initial acorn shape and characteristics, female flowers are very difficult to see because of the tree’s emerging foliage. Pollination is very sensitive to temperatures and, as a result, acorn crops vary from year to year.
- ACORNS — White oaks don’t start producing large quantities of acorns until the tree is about 50 years old.
Trees located in full sun produce more acorns than those that are shaded by other trees. White oak acorns are a preferred food for a variety of animals, including beavers, white-tailed deer, rabbits, meadow voles, wild turkeys, chipmunks, raccoons, white-footed mice, gray squirrels, crows, blue jays, mallard ducks, wood ducks, white-breasted nuthatches, and bobwhites.
- BARK – The bark on mature white oak trees is whitish or light ashy gray in color and appears as small, overlapping scaly plates. On older specimens, the bark may be furrowed with rectangular blocks.
- PESTS – White oaks are subject to attacks by leaf eaters such as gypsy moths, oak leaf caterpillars, and gall-forming insects. Galls, which are abnormal growths on leaves and twigs, develop in response to several species of gall wasps. They provide both food and shelter to the wasp larvae. While the galls are unattractive, they don’t actually harm the tree. In general, none of these pests pose any serious threat to the tree.
- DISEASES – White oaks may be susceptible to canker-forming bark diseases, root rot, oak blister, and irregular brown areas on leaves and shoots. However, Virginia Cooperative Extension Publication 426-610 gives the tree an excellent rating with regard to freedom from disease problems.
- GERMINATION – White oak acorns germinate as soon as they fall from the tree. However, several factors hinder the rate of germination. For example, the sweet, nutritious acorns are a favorite food of many animals and are quickly eaten as soon as they fall from the tree. In years of light acorn crops, the nuts are quickly consumed by animals or destroyed by insects, leaving no acorns available to germinate. The chances of germination increase only during years of heavy nut production.
- USES — During the early history of this country, wood from white oak trees was a vital commodity. Strong, heavy, fine-grained, and durable, the wood was not prone to splintering if broken by impact. Unlike red or black oak species, white oak heartwood has microscopic, bubble-like obstructions called tyloses, which block the pores and make the wood water and rot resistant. These characteristics made the wood a fine choice for wine and whiskey barrels as well as for shipbuilding. Today, white oak wood is used for lumber, firewood, furniture, paneling, flooring, fence posts, mine timbers, caskets, shingles, barrels, and railroad ties.
ARGUMENTS FOR PLANTING A WHITE OAK IN THE LANDSCAPE
So, in this age of instant gratification, why plant a tree that’s not going to mature in your lifetime? Think of it this way: The tree you plant today will be a gift to your children and your children’s children – a living legacy for the generations that follow you. Think of it as an investment that will, in time, increase the value of your property. Think of it as a way to support wild life species in a truly significant way. In his book, Bringing Nature Home, author Doug Tallamy, Professor of Entomology at the University of Delaware, informs us that oak trees are responsible for supporting 534 species of Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), far more than any other native tree or plant. While birds and other animals are dependent on the insects that feed on oak leaves, the acorns provide an important food source to a broad range of animal species.
If those arguments don’t convince you to plant a white oak, perhaps this one will. Oak trees in general are in decline as the result of land development, invasive species, climate change, extensive deer browsing, and many other factors. Planting a tree that is native to the area will benefit the environment and promote biodiversity more so than any shrub, perennial, or annual could ever do.
If you have ample space to accommodate a large tree and are inspired to plant a white oak, give considerable thought to its placement in the landscape. This is not a tree that should be planted in a tiny yard or under a power line. A fully mature white oak specimen requires a great deal of space, perhaps as much as a quarter to half acre for the really ancient ones. Before planting a white oak, imagine what the tree will look like in 100 or more years. Imagine the amount of shade it will provide. Imagine the wildlife it will support and the impact it will have on the natural world around it. Imagine how beautiful that tree will become and how inspiring it will be to passersby and generations to come. Just imagine….
“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.” William Blake
A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America (Peattie, Donald Culross, 1948).
Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs, an Illustrated Encyclopedia (Dirr, Dr. Michael A. 1997).
Remarkable Trees of Virginia (Hugo, Nancy Ross and Kirwan, Jeff, 2008)
Seeing Trees, (Hugo, Nancy Ross, 2011)
Albemarle County Native Plants Database Website (www.albemarle.org/NativePlants/)
“Bringing Nature Home” Website (This website supports the lecture series and book Bringing Nature Home by University of Delaware Professor Doug Tallamy) (www.bringingnaturehome.net/what-to-plant)
“Facts about the Earlysville Oak and Other Big Trees in Virginia,” Daily Progress Newspaper Article dated March 30, 2013 (facts-about-the-earlysville-oak)
”Forests of Virginia: Importance, Composition, Ecology, Threats, and Management,” Virginia Master Naturalist Publication 465-315 (pubs.ext.vt.edu/465/465-315)
Remarkable Trees of Virginia Program website (treesvirginia.org/outreach/remarkable-big-tree-programs)
“Selecting Landscape Plants: Shade Trees,” Virginia Cooperative Extension Publication 426-610, (pubs.ext.vt.edu/426/426-610)
U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service Website (www.nrcs.usda.gov)
Virginia Department of Forestry Website (www.dof.virginia.gov/tree/)
Virginia Tech Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation Website (dendro.cnre.vt.edu/dendrology)