Plant an oak, the tree that’s all heart

Want a gift that really spreads the love? Plant an oak tree. I know this isn’t the sexiest idea but hear me out. I’ve got 5 great reasons why oak trees are the lovingest of all the plants you can grow.

Looking up the trunk of a mature Black Oak tree.

A Black Oak (Quercus velutina) matures at 100 years of age. If this black oak has any luck, it can live to see 200.

REASON #1: Oaks are the ultimate sharers. Sitting under an oak tree in late fall, you’d assume they’re the bread baskets of the woods from the rain of acorns. Many critters, small (squirrels) to large (black bears), rely on this bounty in fall and winter, delivered exactly when all the other popular foods, from grasses to twigs to fruit, have vanished with the last warm rays of summer. But oaks don’t stop there. Their leaves sustain the most amount of caterpillars of any tree species in North America. And caterpillars turn into one of two things: cute winged beasties or lunch for birds. It’s a win-win. In the words of Douglas W. Tallamy from his influential book Bringing Nature Home: 

Oaks are the quintessential wildlife plants: no other plant genus supports more species of Lepidotera, thus providing more types of bird food, than the mighty oak.

A close-up of red oak acorns.

Over 100 species of vertebrate wildlife are known to eat acorns in North America.

REASON #2: When they’re not feeding, they’re sheltering. Oaks are also the ultimate critter condos. Birds, squirrels and raccoons nest in them. Insects like walkingsticks and katydids grow up on oak leaves. Gall wasps develop exclusively on oaks. Though the bulbous galls they create aren’t pretty, the gall itself won’t harm the tree.

Looking up into the canopy of a Black Oak tree.

Black Oaks, like this one, aren’t popular ornamentals but they’ll leave you awestruck if you’re lucky to find one.

REASON #3: They may remind you of home, too. Oaks are found all over southern Canada and most of the U.S. It’s even the national tree of the United States. We have about 10 native oaks in Ontario, including Black Oak (Quercus velutina), Red Oak (Quercus rubra), White Oak (Quercus alba), Hill’s Oak (Quercus ellipsoidalis), Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) and Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor). If you want to grow your own oak from an acorn found in a neighbour’s garden, keep this in mind: Red and White oaks are probably the two most popular oaks used ornamentally in this neck of the woods. Red oak acorns germinate in the spring after spending a nice, long, cold winter. White oak acorns germinate days after falling from the tree in the fall so you know for sure it’s viable and can plant it where you want right away with some confidence.

The twig of a Red Oak showing its leaves and petioles.

If you really want to push the Valentine’s Day theme, choose a Red oak. Besides its fabulous red fall foliage display and its red-tinged wood, this tree sports distinctive red petioles (the stem that attaches the leaf to the twig).

REASON #5: In fact, they take neighbourliness to the extreme. White, Red and Swamp White Oaks, in particular, aren’t terribly picky about where they set down roots (except they all need full sun) which is why it’s likely you whiz past one of them on your morning commute. They’re all remarkably tolerant of air pollution, poor soil drainage, drought and even compacted soil, so they’re often used in public landscaping projects, lining highways or casting leafy shade along a suburban street. I’ve spotted Red Oaks used to green up the buffer strips around parking lots.

So how’s that for a tree that’s all heart?

Here's a Red Oak showing off its great form just feet from a parking lot.

Here’s a Red Oak showing off its great form just feet from a parking lot.

11 thoughts on “Plant an oak, the tree that’s all heart

  1. Pingback: Ministry of the fence 7 gardening ideas for fighting climate change

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