The Mighty White Oak

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Published on: Nov. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 4, 2010

standard for all of the oaks. Its wood, twice as dense as pine and used for furniture, flooring, cabinets, railroad ties and barrels, is second only to walnut in unit value.

The light-brown, hard, durable wood makes good barrels for aging liquor and wine because the cells of the white oak contain a plasticlike material that makes them water-tight. Some of the best logs are used as veneer for paneling and furniture.

The state champion white oak tree grows near Millersville in Cape Girardeau County. It is 120 feet high, 207 inches in circumference and has a spread of 121 feet. According to the Conservation Department's Missouri Trees, white oaks live in every county in Missouri.

White oaks have male flowers in yellow-green catkins (drooping unisexual flowers) while the female flowers are inconspicuous. The acorns mature in one year (red oaks require two years) and are sweet. They were eaten by Native Americans, but they had to be boiled in water to make them palatable.

If not crowded, a white oak will develop a symmetrical crown and a pretty shape. They commonly grow from 85 to 100 feet high, with a spread of 85 feet or more. White oaks can live to be 300 years old, which means that a single tree can cast shade on multiple generations of the same family. The trees are hardy but slow growing. Their long life span makes them the king tree in most areas.

Our big tree shades the north side of our house. We have a screen porch that is a wonderful place to sit and read a book or newspaper or enjoy the beauty of the tree. In spring and early summer the yard is full of bird songs. The central air unit also is shaded by the big tree, saving us money on our utility bill.

The downside of our big white oak--and of living in an established neighborhood with large trees--is a constant rain of bark and dead limbs that must be removed before lawn mowing, though, in truth, the shade is so dominating that there is not much grass growing close beneath the tree. In spring the tree drops catkins in my gutters, and the patio furniture is covered with thick, yellow pollen. Keeping the screen porch swept out is an unending job. Leaves, dirt and other litter reappear within days.

And there are leaves. I can only laugh when someone tells me they bag up the leaves at their house and haul them to a compost site. Our backyard is shin-deep in leaves from our towering white oak, the hackberries and the other oaks. Were we to bag them, we would start bagging in November and still be bagging in February. Instead, I mulch the first dusting of the lawn with a mower, but then we are forced to turn to raking and burning.

With both myself and my wife raking at a good clip, we can do the whole lawn in about four smoky hours. Come spring there will be still more raking to do because leaves will have mysteriously accumulated over the winter. I complain about this leaf work, but I have lived in both new neighborhoods and old ones and wouldn't trade my yard for some subdivision where there are no trees. Raking leaves is a small price to pay for such a handsome and durable companion to our home.

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