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.

If you are building a house on a site that has a large white oak, it behooves you to protect such a valuable tree during the construction of the house. Fence out a large area outside the drip line of the tree to protect it and its roots from damage.

White oaks are valuable to wildlife, providing both food and shelter. Acorns produced on the trees are eaten by a variety of wildlife, including deer, turkeys, squirrels, birds and insects. Sometimes wildlife can so heavily consume these acorns that there are few left to generate new trees. Not all acorns are sound (in one study only about 20 percent were good), and insects damage many of them. It's been said that it takes 10,000 acorns to produce one tree; all the rest are consumed, damaged or infertile.

Oak trees are commonly as much as 25 years old before they begin to produce acorns, and good crops of acorns appear at intervals of two to 10 years, though some years may produce no acorns, and production by trees growing near each other can vary widely.

About 30 cavity-nesting species of birds live in openings in white oak trees, as do squirrels, flying squirrels, raccoons and other hole-nesting wildlife. About 270 species of wildlife will use woodlands with large cavity trees, dead trees and large logs on the ground.

A large, old tree with dead branches, hollow trunks or other cavities will play host to the most creatures, and dead snags are valuable too. A wide range of ages among the white oaks growing in a common area will contribute to the habitat needs of a variety of wildlife species. Some animals, like barred owls and raccoons, want cavities as high off the ground as possible. Wood ducks will nest in cavities of trees along streams.

Other trees in my yard include a healthy shingle oak and several hackberries. None of them approach the majesty of the big white oak. A redbud grows in its shade. The redbud, my only success in planting new trees anywhere near the white oak, leans precipitously in an effort to catch sunlight not blocked by the big oak.

The white oak is the best known and most commercially valuable tree of the oaks. Oaks themselves account for about two-thirds of all the commercial timber cut in Missouri. According to the Conservation Department's Missouri Conservation Trees and Shrubs, lumber from white oaks sets the 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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