Any discussion of great shade trees for home gardens has to start with the oaks. Oaks are tough, adaptable, long-lived, strong-wooded, and tolerant of heat, cold, and drought. Most are also beautiful. But as with any large group, some oaks are gems while others are losers. Here is a relatively little-known gem that is getting rave reviews for its looks and ease of growth -- Nuttall oak.
Native to the American Southeast and Midwest, Nuttall oak (Quercus nutallii) is quickly replacing some other oaks, such as pin oak (Q. palustris), red oak (Q. rubra), and Shumard red oak (Q. shumardii), because it combines all of their good points while lacking their weaknesses. It quickly grows into a pyramidal tree 40 to 60 feet tall with a strong central leader. It accepts most soils, even alkaline or wet ones. It drops all of its leaves cleanly in late fall. Nuttall oak leaves plenty of head room beneath its branches, making it an excellent lawn, patio, or street tree. It doesn't develop surface roots and won't invade water lines.
Maples are rightly recognized as the best shade tree for fall color, but Nuttall oak is no slouch. Its deeply lobed leaves turn bright red in mid- to late fall, usually after the maples have dropped. I took these photos last week at Aldridge Botanical Gardens in Hoover, Alabama.
Now you may think that a tree with a nutty name like Nuttall oak would be hard to find at garden centers and nurseries. Not necessarily, young Skywalker. Because of the tree's quick growth and pleasing shape, wholesalers like growing it and retailers like selling it. You just have to ask for Nuttall oak by name. It's a good choice for USDA Zones 5-9, which includes all of the South except tropical South.
Don't Plant This
Probably the most widely planted oak is pin oak (Q.palustris), named for the fact that before people made pins from steel, they made them from pin oak. (See, this is the kind of interesting trivia you just won't find in other blogs.) Pin oak owes its popularity to its fast growth, pyramidal shape, and red fall foliage.
Unfortunately, it also suffers from two major flaws. First, its lower branches hang all the way to the ground, making it impossible to walk, mow, or park a car beneath it. Second, it absolutely requires acid soil. If your soil is the least bit limey, pin oak's leaves will be yellow in summer instead of green. The lack of chlorophyll responsible for the yellow means the tree can't make food from sunlight, so it slowly starves to death. Even lime leaching from nearby concrete can cause this. So plant Nuttall oak instead.