Oaks, Our National Tree

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Oaks, Our National Tree

Categories: Blog, Garden Guru

Oaks are the official national tree of United States of America and the dominant tree throughout Greater Kansas City.  They are considered the frame of civilized society– a whole book written on that subject: Oak: The Frame of Civilization by William Bryant Logan.  They are also the MOST important plant to the local web of life, providing sustenance to countless creatures from beneficial insects to birds and deer.  “Sturdy as an oak” is a phrase that captures the spirit of these trees — they recall vitality, strength and longevity.

Chinkapin Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii) was the magnificent tree that crowned the bluffs of our region and were experienced by Louis and Clark when they first explored where downtown Kansas City now stands.  The picture above is of a magnificent Chinkapin Oak at historic Elmwood Cemetery in Kansas City and is probably a presettlement relic tree!   Their name reflects that their acorns were the lowest in bitter tanins and thus the easiest to prepare for human (Native American) consumption.  Chinkapin Oaks were spared the ax because their wood warps when cut and dried.

Chinkapin Oaks turn orange brown to burnt red in the fall like this one in the Powell Gardens parking lot arboretum of native trees.  Note the short, tooth-like lobes down the sides of the leaves.  Chinkapin Oak is in the white oak group, with rounded lobed leaves and wood that holds water.

Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra) is the largest oak in the metro and throughout the entire Midwest and Northeast.  It’s lumber is still very valuable for flooring and its large acorns hoarded by many species of wildlife from Red-headed Woodpeckers to squirrels.  This picture is of a magnificent Northern Red Oak in Forest Hills Cemetery with our Senior Gardener Jesse Stauffer-Baum for scale.

Northern Red Oaks turn bronzy yellow to bronzy red in the fall based on the season and the genetics of each individual tree.  This photo is from a wild tree near Powell Gardens’ chapel.  They are in the red oak group so have sharp-pointed leaves with bristle tips and the wood does not hold water so cannot be used for barrels.

Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) is our second largest local species of oak and this is a magnificent tree in Budd Park in Northeast Kansas City — one of the finest examples of this tree around.  Bur Oak has a golden-olive-tan fall color at best.  Bur Oak is in the white oak group.

Bur Oaks got their name from their large acorns with a bur-like fringe.  They have the largest local acorns, some the size of golf balls!  This magnificent, long-lived tree was planted along the quarter-mile allee in front of Powell Gardens’ Visitor Center.  One day that will be a magnificent sight as the trees mature!

White Oak (Quercus alba) has the best fall color of our locally native oaks as this beautiful tree at Linda Hall Library shows.  This tree is only 20 years old and goes to show they can grow fast when planted in the right site with appropriate soil.

Here is a closeup of the beautifully deeply lobed leaves and gorgeous fall color of White Oak — from a tree in Powell Gardens’ parking lot arboretum.  It is the namesake of the white oak group with round lobed leaves.

Post Oak (Quercus stellata) is one of our most sculptural and sturdy local oaks and this is an ancient “trio” grove behind Linda Hall Library.  Post Oaks were one of the few trees that shrugged off the catastrophic ice storm of 2002 and thrive in heat and drought.

The Linda Hall Library trio grove provided inspiration for a trio grove of Post Oaks planted in our parking lot — in more than 150 years it may look like the LHL grove!  Who says shade trees can’t touch and must be planted more than 30 feet apart –some of the most beautiful groves of oaks throughout the region were planted artistically by Mother Nature (with help from squirrels and Blue Jays) in marvelous clumps.  Post Oaks usually have glorious fall color in shades of red and are in the white oak group.  The golden shrub to their left is Prairie Willow (Salix humilis).

The large tree still green (this picture was taken Saturday, November 9) to the right of a magnificent white-barked Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) is a Cherrybark Oak (Quercus pagoda).  Cherrybark Oak is the second largest oak native to the American South  — second in size to the iconic Coast Live Oak (Quercus virginiana).  Cherrybark Oak is native from Southeast Missouri to the Gulf of Mexico but is fully hardy here.  We have recently discovered more trees around the metro than previously thought and the one pictured is probably the largest and one of 4 in Budd Park.  The largest oak in North America is the California White or Valley Oak (Quercus lobata) from the Central Valley of California.

Here are the largest Cherrybark Oaks at Powell Gardens — a row in our old nursery.  Cherrybark Oak can have no (green) fall color or can turn shades of golden to orange-brown.  They get their name for their black, flaky bark (looks like its covered in black potato chips) that is similar to the wild Black Cherry.  They are in the red oak group.

There are 20 species of oaks native to Missouri and Kansas and to cover them all would be too much for a single blog!  What a magnificent fall it has been at Powell Gardens and throughout Greater Kansas City.  I know many folks did make time to observe trees this fall.  An almost complete collection of native oaks can be observed at Powell Gardens — I believe we are only missing just one of the 20 species, the Water Oak (Quercus nigra).   Consider planting an oak, national tree, frame of civilization, and frame of our local biodiversity.  It will be a lasting legacy for generations to come.