Outstanding Oaks

Oaks attract a variety of wildlife, and every region of the United States supports at least one species of oak tree. Here's how you can propagate oak trees, encourage young oaks to grow and keep mature oaks healthy. 

Oak trees create a wildlife haven, they provide food and provide good cover. Acorns serve as nutritious forage for animals and birds when fattening up for winter. They provide critical calories through winter (when snow doesn't cover them). And they feed birds and animals the following spring, after the nuts lie dormant all winter.

Here's a short list of wildlife that love oaks.

  • Wild turkeys
  • White-tailed deer
  • Squirrels
  • Ruffed grouse
  • Wood ducks
  • Songbirds

Most botanists put the oak count at about 80 species and subspecies. The four types below are predominant across the country.

  1. White oak is the most widespread oak. Found in the eastern half of North America from Canada to Florida. White oak acorns are highly palatable to wildlife. There are many variations of white oak (swamp, Arizona, California, Oregon and others). 
  2. Bur oak is the predominant oak of the nation's midsection. It inhabits forests, savannahs, pastures, river breaks and river bottoms. The bur oak is very hardy (especially resistant to fire) and drops sweet acorns that wildlife relish. 
  3. Black oak is a very common oak of the Midwest and eastern U.S., especially in the Appalachian states. Black oak acorns are second only to the white oaks in nutrition value and attractiveness to wildlife. 
  4. Northern red oak is a handsome oak that grows all the way from Maine and the Great Lakes states and, despite its name, into the Deep South. This oak grows faster than other species, so it's valuable in establishing new stands. 

Growing oaks from acorns 

  • Pick up mature acorns from the ground, discarding ones with rot, mold or holes and gather more than you need as some will be bad and others won't grow.
  • Put acorns in a bucket of water and then discard the floating ones — they're hollow.
  • Stratify acorns (replicate winter) in a refrigerator for 8 or more weeks.
  • Plant acorns in early spring, about three times as deep as the acorns are long, in rich, organic, enhanced soil in a seedbed that's outside and in a sunny location.
  • Water regularly, but lightly. 
  • Weed out small, inferior seedlings after the first, second and third months. Don't crowd seedlings.
  • Transplant seedlings after the first autumn frost, or care for them another year and do it next fall. 

Or to get a head start on getting oaks going, go to a nursery and purchase seedlings or saplings of an oak variety native to your area. Encourage your young oaks to grow by providing them with enough sunlight. Oaks are a successional species, meaning they are among the first trees to take over after a fire, logging, a windstorm or other forest disturbance. Young oaks need sun. Older, taller oaks get it by being at the top of the canopy. 

You can also help oak trees already on the landscape using these methods.

  • Only trim dead branches when oaks are dormant in late fall or winter; otherwise the fungal disease known as oak wilt can enter and attack.
  • Cut back brush and tall grass around oak seedlings that sprout in sunny areas.
  • Remove mistletoe and other parasitic vines that attack your oaks.
  • Use a controlled burn to remove excessive underbrush and create open woodland that turkeys will frequent and forage in. 
  • Never add or remove soil below an oak. Oaks thrive in a natural environment.
  • Avoid using weed killers and other herbicides around oaks.
  • Only water young trees for the first couple years, and only if needed. After that, watering is too much of a risk. Too much moisture encourages attacks from fungus and disease.
  • Protect young oaks with netting or caging to keep deer from eating leaves.
  • Protect young oak trunks with hard plastic tubing so bucks can't rub their antlers on the bark.
  • Unless it's unsafe, leave dead oaks for the habitat they provide to bug-eating songbirds and woodpeckers, as well as cavity nesting birds. 
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