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The Homeowners Column
Oaks in the landscape
State Master Gardener Coordinator
Many years ago I spent time camping in the fabulously rugged country of Alaska and Canada. I loved just about every minute. Predictably I yearned for a hot shower and a soft bed sans rocks; however, a surprising longing emerged that I blame on my Midwestern roots. I missed oak trees. Granted the North Country has plenty of trees, but at high altitudes the trees must thrive in a windy snowy world. When there's lots of wind and snow it's best to grow straight and tall, keep your arms to your side and have lots of little leaves. The North Country is adorned with the furry green telephone poles of spruce and douglasfir trees.
I missed the grand oak trees of The Grand Prairie. The lone wolf trees with their impressive silhouette framed by a wintery sunset. I missed trees with burly outstretched arms. Trees that could return the hug from any tree hugger. I am reminded of this longing each autumn when the trees slowly relinquish their leaves and bare their branches in the buff.
Many people could name a few different oaks; perhaps white, red and pin come to mind. However there are twenty oak species native to Illinois: bur oak, chestnut oak, chinkapin oak, overcup oak, post oak, swamp chestnut oak, swamp white oak, white oak, black oak, blackjack oak, cherrybark oak, northern pin oak, northern red oak, nuttall oak, pin oak, scarlet oak, shingle oak, shumard oak, southern red oak, and willow oak. Illinois is a geographically long state with plenty of different ecological niches for diversity. Some oaks are found in just a few areas such as far southern Illinois.
Oaks can be excellent choices in the landscape. In addition we are learning more and more how these native oaks are vital for insects, birds and other wildlife for food, shelter and a nice place to raise the kids. For more information about tree and bird connections, check out the book Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy.
White oak is one of my favorite trees for its durability and splendor. Its wine red fall color is a show stopper in autumn and as a young tree it hangs on to its leaves until spring. With the past few years of drought and bone-chilling cold, I was amazed that my 15-foot tall white oak still managed to put on six inches of new growth. White oaks can reach 75 feet tall and almost as wide with their broad rounded shape. Obviously this is not a tree for a small area. Oaks are known for their large size. However cultivars with smaller sizes and more columnar habits are available. Oaks do have acorns which can be annoying if they rain down on sidewalks so placement in lawn areas is best.
Except for the far southern species most of the oaks would do well in east central Illinois. We do see problems in our area with iron deficiency in pin oaks that are native to areas with acidic soils. Oaks generally do better with spring planting. Most prefer well-drained to dry soils, but as the name implies swamp white oak does fine in wetter areas and is often used in urban areas along streets.
I talk to a lot of people about selecting trees for their landscape. When I mention oaks as an option I often hear them lament, "Oaks? They grow sooooo slow. I know they get big someday, but I'll never see it." In a hundred years someone will gaze at my white oak and admire its strong outstretched branches. A home for a myriad of birds and beasts. I can't think of a better legacy.
For more information about selecting trees, check out UI Extension website "Selecting Trees for your Home" http://urbanext.illinois.edu/treeselector