Any search for sturdy, long-lived, trouble-free shade and street trees should start with the oaks. Of the more than 600 species worldwide, many are native to the South. They thrive in such a wide range of habitats, it's hard to find a place where one or more species won't grow. Some are evergreen. Deciduous species often display terrific fall color. Massive trunks and limbs, handsome bark, and picturesque winter silhouettes are the norm.
Acorns, however, are their most distinguishing feature. These nuts held by cuplike caps provide vital sustenance for a host of wildlife, including deer, wild turkeys, wood ducks, quail, squirrels, and rabbits. Those produced by species in the white oak group (Q. alba, Q. bicolor, Q. macrocarpa, Q. montana, and others) mature in one year and can be eaten by humans. Those in the red and black oak group (Q. coccinea, Q. palustris, Q. rubra, Q. velutina, and others) mature in two years and are too bitter with tannin to be palatable. Leaves of the first group have rounded lobes; leaves of the latter have pointed lobes.
BEST OAKS FOR THE SOUTH
Here are our choices for the best oaks to plant or conserve in Southern gardens.
Q. acutissima. SAWTOOTH OAK. Deciduous. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. Native to China, Korea, Japan. Moderate to fast growth to 3545 ft. tall and wide, usually with open, spreading habit. Deeply furrowed bark. Bristle-toothed, shiny dark green leaves are 37 in. long, a third as wide; they look like chestnut (Castanea) leaves. Foliage is yellowish on expanding, yellow to yellowish brown in fall; it may hang on late into winter. Fairly tolerant of various soils, though it prefers well-drained acid soil. Stands up well to heat and humidity. No serious problems. Good shade, lawn, or street tree. Should not be planted near unmanaged or natural areas, as its abundant seedlings crowd out native oaks, and its acorns are less nutritious for wildlife.
Q. alba. WHITE OAK. Deciduous. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. Native from Maine to Florida, west to Minnesota and Texas. Slow to moderate growth to 5080 ft., taller in the wild. Pyramidal when young; in maturity, a majestic round-headed tree with massive limbs, often broader than tall. Leaves are 48 in. long, dark green above, lighter beneath, with deep, rounded lobes. Light gray to brown bark is attractively ridged and furrowed, beautiful in early morning or late afternoon sun. Folklore has it that when the emerging leaves are as big as a mouse's ear, it is time to plant corn. Fall color varies from russet red to wine-red. Best in rich, deep, moist, preferably acid soil. One of the handsomest oaks, useful for timber, flooring, and barrel making but not widely planted because of its ultimate size and slow growth. Where it occurs naturally, however, it is among the most cherished of trees; it is the oak associated with treaty signings and other historic events.
Q. bicolor. SWAMP WHITE OAK. Deciduous. Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8. Native from Quebec to Georgia, west to Michigan and Arkansas. Slow to moderate growth to 5060 ft., rarely taller, with equal or greater spread. Shallowly lobed or scalloped leaves are 37 in. long, a little more than half as wide, shiny dark green above, silvery white beneath. Fall color usually yellow, sometimes reddish purple. Bark of trunk and branches flakes off in scales. Needs acid soil. Native to wet sites but tolerates drought.
Q. buckleyi. TEXAS RED OAK. Deciduous. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. Native to Texas. To 1530 ft. with nearly equal spread; makes either a low-branching, multitrunked small tree or a multistemmed shrubby clump. Yellow-green leaves, to 4 in. long, are deeply cut into five to seven sharp-pointed lobes; turn maroon and scarlet in fall. Gray-brown bark is smooth in youth, develops narrow ridges and shallow fissures with age. Adapts to various soils; tolerates drought.
Q. coccinea. SCARLET OAK. Deciduous. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. Native from Maine to Florida, west to Minnesota and Missouri. In deep, rich, acidic soil, grows at a moderate to rapid rate, reaching a possible 6080 ft. tall, 4060 ft. wide. High, light, open-branching habit. Bright green leaves are 36 in. long, a little more than half as wide, with deeply cut, pointed lobes. Foliage turns scarlet where fall nights are chilly. Scaly gray-brown bark. Deep roots. Good street or lawn tree. Fine to garden under.
Q. falcata. SOUTHERN RED OAK, SPANISH OAK. Deciduous. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. Native from Virginia to Florida, westward to southern Illinois and Arkansas. Moderate growth to 7080 ft., eventually with rounded crown as wide or wider than tree is tall. Dark green leaves 59 in. long, sometimes longer, with sharp-pointed lobes varying in number from three to nine. Fall color not usually significant. Dark gray bark has deep, narrow furrows. Best in acidic soils, but tolerates relatively poor and dry soils. The related cherrybark oak (Quercus falcata pagodifolia) grows on occasionally flooded sites.
Q. fusiformis. TEXAS LIVE OAK. Evergreen. Zones MS, LS, CS; USDA 7-9. Often compared to live oak (Q. virginiana), as it is evergreen, similar in size and form, and a regional icon. However, it has a distinct natural range from northern Mexico into Oklahoma, so it is more cold hardy than Q. virginiana. Tolerant of high heat as well, it is drought tolerant, growing 2050 ft. tall and 25 40 ft. wide. Grows in well-drained, alkaline to slightly acid soil. It can form thickets when roots send up new sprouts, resulting in the classic oasis in a sunny field of bluebonnets.
Q. glauca. BLUE JAPANESE OAK, EVERGREEN OAK. Evergreen. Zones LS, CS; USDA 8-9. Native to Japan, China, Taiwan. Moderately slow growth to 2030 ft. (rarely 40 ft.) tall and about half that wide; upright, oval form. Foliage grows in a dense mass, making this tree an excellent choice for a screen. Leathery, wavy-margined leaves to 5 in. long, 2 in. wide; dark green above, silky gray beneath. New leaves are especially handsome, often bronzy or purplish green. Smooth bark. Prefers well-drained, fertile, slightly acid soil but tolerates heavy clay.
Q. glaucoides (Q. laceyi). LACEY OAK. Zones MS, LS, CS; USDA 7-9. Evergreen. Native to the Texas Hill Country and central and southern Mexico. Rounded form to 2025 ft. tall, 2030 ft. wide. Bluish green leaves to 6 in. long, half as wide, smooth edged or very subtly toothed; new growth is pinkish. Textured gray bark. Tolerates heat, drought, alkaline soil. Moderate water.
Q. gravesii. CHISOS RED OAK. Deciduous. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-8. Texas native to 40 ft. tall, 35 ft. wide. Lobed leaves are smaller and less deeply indented than those of Q. texana. Dark green leaves; blackish bark. Foliage often turns bright yellow and red in fall. Tolerates drought and limy soils.
Q. hemisphaerica. DARLINGTON OAK, LAUREL OAK. Zones MS, LS, CS, TS; USDA 7-11. Evergreen in Coastal and Tropical South, deciduous elsewhere. Native to sandy uplands on the Coastal Plains and piedmont from southern Virginia to Florida, eastward to East Texas and southeast Arkansas. To 50 ft. or more in height, somewhat less in spread. Narrowly oval, smooth-edged, leathery leaves are shiny dark green, 14 in. long, 11 in. wide. Adapts to acid or alkaline conditions. Q. laurifolia, also called laurel oak or diamondleaf oak, is similar but needs acid soil and is native to floodplains. Both are useful street trees, being taller and less spreading than Q. virginiana.
Q. lyrata. OVERCUP OAK. Deciduous. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. Native to wetlands of central and southern U. S. from Delaware, east to southern Illinois and south to northern Florida and southeastern Texas. To 4060 ft. high and wide with broad, rounded crown. Deep green leaves, 610 in. long and 4 in. wide, have five to nine rounded lobes and soft white undersides; turn yellow-brown, or sometimes orange to red, in fall. Burred cap covers most of the acorn. Prefers moist, acid soil. Good for wet areas. Tolerates flooding.
Q. macrocarpa. BUR OAK, MOSSY CUP OAK. Deciduous. Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8. Native from Nova Scotia to Pennsylvania, westward to Manitoba and Texas. Rugged-looking tree growing slowly to 6080 ft. high and at least as wide. Deeply furrowed dark gray bark. Leaves are glossy green above, whitish beneath, 410 in. long and half as wide, broad at tip, tapered at base. Yellowish fall color. Large acorns form in mossy cups. Similar to Q. bicolor but faster growing, more tolerant of adverse conditions. Needs lots ofroom. Acid or alkaline soil.
Q. michauxii. SWAMP CHESTNUT OAK. Deciduous. Zones US, MS, LS, CS: USDA 6-9. Native to moist areas, mostly in the coastal plains from New Jersey south to northern Florida, west to eastern Texas and north into the central Midwest. To 5080 ft. tall and 3050 ft. wide with a narrow, rounded crown. Shiny, dark green leaves, up to 11 inches long, are broad at the tip, narrow at the base, with large rounded teeth, wavy edges, and soft gray undersides; turn dark red in fall. Perfers moist, acid soil. Good for wet areas. Tolerates flooding.
Q. montana (Q. prinus). CHESTNUT OAK, BASKET OAK. Deciduous. Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8. Native from southern parts of Maine and Ontario southward to South Carolina and Alabama. Moderate growth to an eventual dense, rounded form, 6070 ft. tall, 50 ft. wide. Large, edible acorns are prized by wildlife. Bark often quite dark, even nearly black, becoming deeply furrowed with age. Unlobed leaves with coarse, rounded teeth are 46 in. long, 13 in. wide; in fall, they change from deep yellowish green to yellow or orange. This tree needs acid soil; it tolerates poor, dry, rocky soil but looks better and grows faster with good soil and adequate water. Does not tolerate poor drainage.
Q. muehlenbergii. CHINKAPIN OAK. Deciduous. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. Native from New England west to Minnesota and Texas. Moderate growth during early years, slowing with age. Reaches 80 ft. or more in the wild, with an even greater spread; usually smaller in cultivation, and slender until middle-aged. Leaves are 6 in. long and 3 in. wide, with coarse, sawtoothed margins; dark glossy green above, silvery beneath. Fall color varies from yellow brown to rust brown. Scaly gray bark. Grows in a wide range of soils, including clay and dry, rocky limestone.
Q. myrsinifolia. JAPANESE LIVE OAK. Evergreen. Zones MS, LS, CS; USDA 7-9. Native to Japan, China. To 2030 ft. tall and nearly as wide; usually round headed in age. Narrow, glossy, dark green leaves 24 in. long, toothed toward tip; purplish when new. Smooth dark gray bark. Grows well in almost all soils. Unlike most oaks, it is graceful rather than sturdy; typically identified as an oak by its acorns. No serious problems. Most cold-hardy evergreen oak that is commonly cultivated.
Q. nigra. WATER OAK. Deciduous. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. Native to lowland stream banks throughout southeastern U.S. Moderate to fast growth to 5080 ft. tall and not quite as wide, with conical or rounded canopy. Dark green, slightly 3-lobed leaves 14 in. long, broader toward the tip; turn yellow to brown in fall, hang on late. Dark gray bark is smooth in youth, rougher with age. Limbs subject to breakage by wind, snow, ice. Tolerates many types of soil, but not alkaline soil. Provide moist to wet conditions. Used as shade and street tree. A favorite host for mistletoe (Phoradendron serotinum).
Q. palustris. PIN OAK. Deciduous. Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8. Native from Massachusetts to Delaware, westward to Wisconsin and Arkansas. Moderate to fairly rapid growth to 5080 ft. tall, 2540 ft. wide. Slender and pyramidal when young, open and round headed at maturity. Smooth brownish gray bark becomes shallowly ridged with age. Lower branches tend to droop almost to the ground; if the lowest whorl is cut away, branches above will adopt same habit. Only when fairly tall will it have good clearance beneath lowest branches. Glossy, dark green leaves, 36 in. long and nearly as wide, are deeply cut into bristle-pointed lobes. In fall, leaves turn red and then russet-red; may hang on in winter. Needs plenty of water; tolerates poorly drained soils. Widely used as a lawn and street tree. Needs acid soil. 'Green Pillar' is columnar to 50 ft. tall by 15 ft. wide and has very glossy, dark green leaves.
Q. phellos. WILLOW OAK. Deciduous. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. Native from New York to Florida, westward to Missouri and Texas. Fast to moderate growth to 5090 ft. tall, 3050 ft. wide. Superior lawn or street tree. Oval to rounded form with upswept branches. Smooth gray bark becomes shallowly ridged in age. Smooth-edged leaves are bright rich green, 25 in. long, 1 in. wide; they look more like willow (Salix) leaves than oak leaves. Foliage turns yellowish or russet-red before falling. Most delicate foliage pattern of all oaks. No serious problems. Tolerates poor drainage. Needs acid soil. 'High- tower' is pyramidal, has shiny, dark green leaves, and resists mites. 'Shiraz' is also pyramid shaped; leaves turn red in fall.
Q. polymorpha. MONTERREY OAK, MEXICAN WHITE OAK. Evergreen, semievergreen. Zones MS, LS, CS, TS; USDA 7-10. Native to Mexico and southernmost Texas; however, it is a reliable landscape plant for Hill Country and Dallas landscapes. In the cooler zones, it will lose its leaves like a deciduous oak. Resistant to oak wilt. Drought tolerant. Leaves are 35 in. long. Grows relatively fast, reaching 45 ft. tall and 35 ft. wide at maturity.
Q. rhisophylla. LOQUAT-LEAFED OAK. Evergreen. Zones MS, LS, CS, TS; USDA 7-10. Native to Mexico, this large-leaved oak is a good heat- and drought-tolerant choice. Grows 40 ft. tall and wide.
Q. robur. ENGLISH OAK. Deciduous. Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8. Native to Europe, northern Africa, western Asia. Moderate growth rate; reaches 90 ft. tall in the wild, but in gardens typically grows 4060 ft. tall, 30 ft. wide. Rather short trunk and very wide, open head in maturity. Grayish black, deeply furrowed bark. Dark green leaves grow 34 in. long and half as wide, with rounded lobes; they hold until late fall, then drop without much color change. Takes acid or alkaline soil.
Q. r. fastigiata, upright English oak, is narrow and columnar (much like Lombardy poplar, Populus nigra 'Italica') when young, then branches out to a broad, pyramidal form at maturity. Both Q. r. fastigiata and the species are prone to mildew. Selections in the Fastigiata Group include 'Regal Prince', which is similar in height but slightly wider. It is a cross between Q. r. fastigiata and an oak from the southeastern U.S.; it's adaptable and resistant to mildew.
Other mildew-resistant selections include 'Crimson Spire', a columnar form to 45 ft. tall and only 15 ft. wide, with red fall color; 'Rose Hill', with particularly attractive glossy foliage; and 'Skyrocket', an excellent performer with the same form as 'Crimson Spire' but with yellow-brown fall foliage. 'Concordia' grows about 25 ft. tall and wide, with golden foliage. 'Kindred Spirit', a hybrid between columnar English oak and Q. bicolor, grows 35 ft. tall, 6 ft. wide, with good disease resistance and tolerance to wet soil and drought.
Q. rubra. RED OAK, NORTHERN RED OAK. Deciduous. Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8. Native from Nova Scotia to Pennsylvania, westward to Minnesota and Iowa. Fast growth to 6075 ft. tall, 50 ft. wide in gardens (over 100 ft. tall in wild) with broad, spreading branches and round-topped crown. With maturity, bark becomes quite dark and fissured. Dark green leaves to 58 in. long, 35 in. wide, with sharp-pointed lobes. New leaves and leafstalks are red in spring, turning bright red to russet red in fall. Smooth gray bark. Prefers moist, fertile soils. Stake young plants. High-branching habit and reasonably open shade make it a good tree for big lawns, parks, broad avenues. Deep roots make it good to garden under. Usually fairly trouble free. Needs acid soil.
Q. shumardii. SHUMARD RED OAK. Deciduous. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. Native from Kansas to southern Michigan, southward to North Carolina and Florida, westward to Texas. Similar to Q. coccinea but slightly less cold hardy. Smooth gray bark. Dark green leaves turn yellow to red in autumn. Tolerates drought and a wide range of soils, including both acid and alkaline types. 'Panache' has dark green leaves that turn orange-red in fall. 'Prominence' is dense with up-sweeping branches and red fall color.
Q. stellata. POST OAK. Deciduous. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. Native from Florida to Massachusetts, west to Kansas and Texas. Slow growing to 4050 ft. tall and wide (may reach 100 ft. tall). Forms dense, round canopy and stout, picturesque branches. Leathery, dark green leaves are large (to 8 in. long), with straplike lobes that give them a cruciform appearance. Fall color is not usually brightit varies from yellow to brownbut leaves hang from branches through winter. Distinctive gray bark with scales, ridges, furrows, cracks. Tolerates dry, rocky, and sandy soils; takes acid or alkaline soil.
Q. texana (Q. nuttallii). NUTTALL OAK. Deciduous. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. Native to bottomland hardwood forest from east Texas to Alabama. This species has shot to the top of many a landscaper's list from relative obscurity just 10 years ago. It combines fast growth, pleasing form, tolerance of many soils, and bright red fall color. Grows to 70 feet tall with a symmetrical, rounded form. Glossy green leaves, 49 in. long, have 5 to 9 deeply cut lobes. Unlike most oaks, will grow in poorly drained, compacted clay and seasonally flooded areas.
'Charisma'. To 5060 ft. tall, with open branching habit. New foliage emerges maroon to chocolate colored before changing to deep green in summer. Good red fall color.
'Highpoint'. To 6070 ft. tall, with dominant central leader. Leaves emerge bronzy red, turn green in summer, and then change to bright yellow and red in fall.
'Sangria'. Grows 6070 ft. tall, with dominant central leader. New foliage emerges deep burgundy, changes to dark green in summer and yellow-orange in fall.
Q. virginiana. LIVE OAK. Evergreen. Zones LS, CS, TS; USDA 8-11. Native from Virginia to Florida, westward to Texas. Signature tree of the South. Moderate growth to 4080 ft. tall, with spreading, heavy-limbed crown up to twice as wide. Very long lived; with age, bark becomes very dark and checked. Smooth-edged, quite narrow leaves, 15 in. long, shiny dark green above, whitish beneath. Old leaves are all shed in spring before new growth emerges. Tree is often draped with Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides). Thrives on moisture and does best in deep, rich soil, though it tolerates most soils, including alkaline ones. Also tolerates salt spray; makes an excellent tree for the beach when planted in groups back from the dunes. Widely used as street tree in native range. Needs lots of space. 'Boardwalk' is pyramidal in shape, as is densely foliaged 'Cathedral'. 'Highrise' is columnar to upright oval in form and ideal for streets or limited spaces.
Nothing is more important to success in growing oaks than choosing a species well adapted to your local soil and climate. For example, some oaks tolerate the salt air along the coast; most don't. A common mistake is planting acid-loving oaks, such as pin oak (Q. palustris) and red oak (Q. rubra) in alkaline soil. Trees quickly develop chlorosis (yellow leaves with green veins) and eventually die. Good oaks for alkaline soil include Texas red oak (Q. buckleyi), Texas live oak (Q. fusiformis), Chinkapin oak (Q. muhlenbergii), Monterrey oak, (Q. polymorpha), Nuttall oak (Q. texana), Shumard red oak (Q. shumardii), and post oak (Q. stellata). Those that tolerate wet or poorly drained sites include Q. hemisphaerica, Q. laurifolia, Q. lyrata, Q. falcata pagodifolia, and Q. michauxii.
Plant oaks where you expect them to stay. Large, established oaks are very sensitive to disturbance or compaction of the soil. Don't park vehicles under the canopies of oaks. Don't pave beneath them. Don't pile or spread soil there. Don't cut roots.
Many insects and diseases attack oaks, but damage is seldom serious. Infestations of the large red-and-blue spotted gypsy moth caterpillars in the Upper South can defoliate entire trees. Wrapping trunks with single bands of duct tape smeared with a gummy paste called Tanglefoot provides control. The most serious disease, a fungus called oak wilt, has killed many trees in Texas. Spread by beetles attracted to wounds in the bark, it causes trees to defoliate and die. Methods of prevention include limiting any pruning to before February 1 or after June 30 and quickly painting fresh wounds with wound dressing or latex paint.