The Mighty White Oak

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Published on: Nov. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 4, 2010

A mighty white oak tree spreads limbs muscled like baseball-batting wizard Mark McGwire's arms over the yard at the back of my house, a giant that embraces much of the property in a mantle of shade. The tree is about 11.5 feet in circumference at chest height, and we think it is well over 100 years old.

White oaks are large, slow growing trees that like exposure to full sunlight and need a lot of space. They have been described as majestic trees that are handsome, durable and long-lived. In an open area like a lawn, white oaks are wide-spreading with a thick trunk and gnarled limbs, but in a forest they usually develop into trees with straight trunks and smaller crowns.

Our white oak is an ideal wildlife tree, home and way-station for a variety of creatures. Gray squirrels nest in it, chasing each other in spiraling ascents and feeding on its big crop of sweet acorns. Nuthatches work its bark in a never-ending search for food, wending their way, upside down, from the top of the trunk to the bottom. Several varieties of woodpeckers pick over its acres of bark for food. Chickadees, house wrens, cardinals and blue jays are frequent visitors.

The base of the tree is large, as are the limbs projecting off of the trunk. When we first moved into the house 13 years ago, we hung a tire swing from one of the limbs for our young son to use. The rope soon girdled the bark on that limb and killed it. Since then we have simply enjoyed our oak's beauty and shade, though it exacts a price by putting us to work in the fall with leaf rakes.

White oaks are tenacious and will grow and prosper in ground that is wet, moist or even dry. Our yard is something of a drainage, and the big oak stands right on the edge of that portion of the yard where the water drains across. The yard can be wet--almost muddy--in rainy weather, but in late summer it usually turns hard and dry.

White oaks are important lumber trees, but they also make great trees to have in residential neighborhoods. Their leaves range from blue-green to dark green in summer and turn a wine color in fall. The trees are sensitive to disturbance, such as at a construction site, and can be hard to transplant because of a deep tap root.

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