Why Native Oaks Matter, and How to Identify Them

Oaks are some of the most beneficial trees that you can plant. Learn what makes them important, and how to differentiate the many native species in our region.

This summer, our third cohort of Neighborhood Planting Captains are spreading the word about tree availability and encouraging their neighbors to sign up for trees. From the five species options that neighbors can select from, we always make sure to offer at least one type of oak. So why are native oaks important?

1.They support a tremendous amount of wildlife, serving as critical foundations for urban ecosystems.

In terms of general ecosystem support, you can’t do much better than planting oaks. Oaks support nearly 900 caterpillar species, as compared to nearly 300 for maples and about 80 for ironwood. This matters because caterpillars are critical food sources for many species of birds and other animals. Oaks also produce acorns — another important food source for urban wildlife.

2. Bigger is better! The larger the tree, the more benefits they provide.

Many oaks grow to be quite large in their full maturity, which means that they provide even more benefits: more clean air, more shade, more stormwater runoff prevention — you name it. The huge root systems of oaks also stabilize soil and prevent erosion.

If you have enough room in your yard, we always give the advice: plant a large canopy tree instead of a smaller ornamental understory.

3. Oaks are hardy, strong, and very long-lived.

These trees are tough, and can generally thrive in a variety of settings. Oaks can also live to be hundreds of years old, providing incredible benefits for generations.

Still thinking about whether an oak is right for you? Keep these tips in mind.

  • Planting trees in clusters helps strengthen them and protect them from storms. Their roots intertwine underground! (Read more: Do Trees Talk to Each Other?)
  • As always, the planting mantra is right tree, right place. Because oaks generally do grow large, make sure they are far enough away from any structures and then you won’t need to worry.
  • Not all oaks are slow growers. Both nuttall and willow oaks, for example, grow about 2 feet every year. 
  • There are a lot of options! Many different types of oaks are native in our region, so you have a lot to choose from.

We are very fortunate in Nashville and greater Middle Tennessee that many oaks are native here. Yet that can make them difficult to identify and differentiate. For some oaks, there are subtle differences between species that can be tricky to navigate, and many oaks do not have “typical” oak-leaf shapes.

                              

Fortunately, there is now a handy guide that you can use to learn many different types. This guide is provided thanks to information from the Identifying Oaks Trees Native to Tennessee publication from the University of Tennessee (David Mercker, David Buckley, Brien Ostby) and creativity from Cumberland River Compact board member Anne Hoos!

Click here to access and download oak identification flashcards.

These flashcards guide users through the characteristics and teach you how to tell oak species apart. We recommend printing these flashcards on sturdy paper, and potentially laminating, and bringing this guide out on your next hike or park visit.

                      

To learn more: Many oak tree factoids and tips are found in the new The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees book by Doug Tallamy, recently discussed in a Root Nashville/Wild Ones Middle Tennessee book club meeting.

We hope you consider planting an oak tree during the next planting season (and don’t forget to log newly planted trees on TreePlotter)! You can bring oaks to your neighborhood by applying to become a Neighborhood Planting Captain; willow oaks are included in the next availability.

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