The Most Important Tree You’ll Ever Plant

Every spring, I am asked to recommend trees for specific spaces, trees that will not drop too much so-called trash, trees that will have pretty flowers, trees that are engineered to fit into tight spaces.

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But, really, the best tree to plant is an oak. Any oak will do.

If you have the space and there aren’t any power lines or other utilities or structures that could interfere with branches or roots, there is an oak that’s perfect for your soil and space. I recommend them over other trees because they provide plenty of shade that can save as much as 30 percent on your home’s cooling costs in the summer and have a lengthy list of wildlife they support.

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Though many oaks grow slowly, they also are excellent compartmentalizers, which means they are some of the best in the tree world at walling off fungi and other pests before they can destroy the entire tree. The following is a short list of oaks that will grow quite well in our area with very little care.

Bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa), very slow growers, are what I call a good picnic tree. They thrive in moister soils, but will also do fairly well on drier sites. They aren’t very tall–maybe 100 feet maximum–but they rarely get more than 70 or 80 feet. Their branches can spread at least that width. They also have the largest acorn of all the oaks.

A mature, wide-spreading bur oak.

A mature, wide-spreading bur oak.

Swamp white oaks (Quercus bicolor) is an excellent choice for sites with poor drainage, but not standing water. Their bark is grayish and shaggy, similar to the white oak, but their acorn is much larger. They can withstand more compacted or clayey soils and they are faster growers than most other oaks. They can reach heights of about 60 to 80 feet.

White oaks (Quercus alba) are great for more upland sites. They prefer drier soils. Topping out at about 100 feet, but reaching ages of 450 years, they are a great choice as a legacy tree. Their shaggy, gray bark is striking in winter.

Northern red oaks (Quercus rubra) are also good choices for upland sites. These tall, straight oaks can get up to 150 feet tall, but usually reach heights of about 120 feet. They are faster growers than many other oaks. Northern reds make an excellent dominant canopy to support understory trees, such as spicebush (Lindera benzoin), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), and witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana).

Red oak leaves in autumn.

Red oak leaves in autumn.

If you have a space in your yard for a tree that could support it, choose an oak. You’ll be rewarded with reduced energy costs and more diverse wildlife in your yard.