Pretty and practical, this sturdy oak wears an elegant cloak of willowy fronds
For August, Awbury Arboretum spotlights a native tree that combines the best of two other local species to create a uniquely beautiful and beneficial complement to wilds and urban areas, alike. One of the most common American street trees (it’s said to be Thomas Jefferson’s favorite!), the Willow Oak’s natural range basically covers the eastern half of the continental US.
You’ll know it when you see it: long glossy leaves of dark green in summer — turning to brilliant gold each autumn — that shimmer in sunlight and dance gracefully in the wind. The Willow Oak is a tall tree, typically growing 60 feet in height with symmetrical branches and smooth gray bark that becomes handsomely ridged and furrowed with age.
Mature trees (15+ years) produce gazillions of petite acorns with saucer-like caps that nourish an incredible variety of wildlife: ducks, squirrels, deer, bear, turkeys, woodpeckers… Not to mention a host of others who make their homes in a Willow Oak’s mighty trunk and generous canopy.
Humans, too, have found shelter and sustenance here. Native Americans were known to use the tree’s wood and bark in hot baths to soothe aches and pains. Acorns were also a staple in many First People’s diets; they used various methods to remove bitter tannins to create a sweet, nutty, protein-rich food. American colonists would grind the acorns into flour, or roast with chicory for a coffee substitute.
Despite its natural vitality, the Willow Oak has an “imperiled” status in Pennsylvania due to its susceptibility to diseases that have practically wiped out related species (we’re looking at you, chestnut blight!). Still, this robust wonder manages to thrive in a variety of modern environments with a lifespan of 100+ years.
In fact, sometimes it’s too virile — the Willow Oak has been known to outgrow its surroundings, causing structural damage to streets, sidewalks and nearby houses (nobody’s perfect).
🌳 Five Fast Willow Oak Facts 🌳
- The first scientific observation regarding this tree was made in 1723.
- The wood has been used since pioneering days for newel posts, pulpits, pews, bar tops, wagon axles, stairs, railing, balustrades, bedsteads and flour barrels.
- Willow Oaks are especially treasured for their ability to tolerate harsh urban environments, which is why they are a common street tree in many U.S. cities.
- The tallest Willow Oak in the U.S. (as of June 2022) is in Greenville, South Carolina. It stands almost 113 feet tall and is estimated to be 152 years old.
- One of the most famous Willow Oaks is the War of 1812 “Witness Tree” at the Oxon Hill Farm in Maryland. The tree sits on the former site of the Mount Welby house, owned by Dr. Samuel DeButts, an English sympathizer who bought the land in the early 1800s. The tree “witnessed” the Battle of Bladensburg, a British victory that preceded their attack on the U.S. capital, setting the White House and other parts of the city on fire.
Learn more from author and expert Dan Sardaro’s excellent original article – including where you can find a fetching specimen to admire at Awbury Arboretum, a free public space with some truly “tree-mendous” events throughout the year.
Dan is a novice birder and author of Awbury’s 2022 “Year of Birds” series, 2018 series on Pollinators, “From Wasps to Wind” and 2019’s series on natural fibers. (He is also a former Awbury Arboretum intern.) Read last month’s Local article here.
The Arboretum’s beautiful grounds are open FREE to the public from dawn to dusk, 365 days a year. Maps available for self-guided tours at the main office, located in the Francis Cope House (Tues – Thurs, 10AM – 4PM or by appointment). Dogs on leash welcome — except not in the garden beds, please. Also available as a unique event venue. Learn more at awbury.org; follow on Facebook and Instagram.