Nuttall Oak: Most Valuable Player

Is this Nashville’s favorite oak? Learn more about what makes the Nuttall Oak so wonderful in Part 4 of our species highlights.

Blog written by AmeriCorps service member Esmeralda Figueras

At least 537 new Nuttall Oak trees have been planted in Nashville since fall of 2018, according to the campaign’s TreePlotter map of newly planted trees. This is more than any other species of oak! (Honorable mentions also go to the willow oak and swamp white oak.) And there are many more Nuttall Oaks soon to be added, as the Nuttall Oak is one of 5 selected species planted through the Neighborhood Planting Captain program this fall.

Landscapers favor the Nuttall Oak because they are fast-growing, sturdy trees that tolerate a wide variety of soil conditions and have few pests. Nuttall Oaks also provide shade in summer, beautiful color in fall, and food in winter, making them amazing trees for an urban environment. Keep reading to learn more!

Food for thought

There will be no sweet trees in this blog post — in fact, acorns are extremely bitter. The bitterness comes from tannins, a group of chemical compounds you’re probably familiar with, even if you don’t recognize the name. Most plants have tannin in them; tannins are what makes tea leaves bitter and witch hazel astringent. You may have seen lakes or rivers that were very red, probably in an area with lots of oaks or pines — that was tannin, too!

Acorns are still a good food for humans, if you remove some of those tannins. Traditionally, indigenous people would place the shelled acorns in a bag or a basket and then leave them in a stream with running water for a few days. You can also soak them in a pot of warm water, changing out the water every few hours until the acorns taste palatable. At that point you can roast them or even make them into cookies.

Wildlife

Of course, if you think that’s too much work, you can always leave the acorns on the ground for wildlife to enjoy. In the wild, Nuttall Oaks tend to grow in marshy bottomlands, which might explain why Nuttall acorns make up around 70% of the winter diet for both mallards and wood ducks. They’re also an important winter staple for deer, turkeys, and squirrels. 

Oaks are also popular with pollinators. Native oak trees like the Nuttall Oak are host to at least 557 species of moths and butterflies in the US. Imperial Moths, Banded Hairstreak, Edward’s Hairstreak, Gray Hairstreak, White-M Hairstreak, Horace’s Duskywing, and Juvenal’s Duskywing are just a few of the butterflies and moths that lay their eggs on Nuttall Oaks, and grow up munching on its many-lobed leaves. This is an amazing thing about oaks! Being host to so many species makes these trees MVPs of our urban ecosystems.

Identifying Nuttall

You’ll have to pay very close attention if you want to correctly identify a Nuttall Oak! Oaks can be some of the hardest trees to classify to the species level, even for experienced botanists and arborists. There are 20 species of oak tree native to Tennessee, and plenty of non-native and hybridized oaks have been planted in Nashville. To distinguish Nuttall Oaks from the rest, you’ll want to look for leaves with 5 to 7 irregularly-sized lobes which are pointy, but not as pointy as Pin Oak. You can compare Nuttall and Pin (and Shumard and Scarlet) Oaks with this handy guide.

Since it’s winter, you might not find any leaves on the tree to examine, but there are still other clues you can use! Nuttalls have dark, egg-shaped acorns about an inch long, with a cap that comes a third of the way down. Often, these acorns are striped. Older Nuttall Oaks have light gray bark with shallow fissures, but the young trees being delivered through the Neighborhood Planting Captain program of the Cumberland River Compact in support of the Root Nashville campaign don’t have this feature yet. Instead, they have speckled light gray bark with dark red twigs.

Planting

Nuttall Oaks are strong, resilient trees that grow well in a variety of landscapes. They prefer full sun. They grow faster than other oaks, sometimes growing as much as two feet a year and reaching maturity at just 30 or 40 years. A mature Nuttall Oak tends to be 40-60 feet tall with a spread of 35-50 feet, a rounded crown, and little to no low-hanging branches. In autumn, the leaves turn orange and red. Acorns take 2 years to develop from the time of pollination. Like other oaks, Nuttall Oaks support many kinds of butterflies, birds, and other wildlife.

Oak overstories in neighborhoods near you

These nutty trees are a popular landscaping choice and native to the area, so be on the lookout for them in your community! Can’t find any, and wish you had more of them in your neighborhood? Learn how to get an oak of your own through our Neighborhood Planting Captain program, or reach out to hello@rootnashville.org to put your name on the waitlist for more free tree opportunities.

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