This stately, massive-trunked shade tree is a wonderful addition to large yards and parks. Its upright branches form a broadly pyramidal shape and dense, rounded crown. The glossy, green leaves provide interesting fall color, morphing from orangish yellow to yellowish brown and finally to dark red. The tree grows 60 to 80 feet tall at a slow to medium rate and is native to southern swampy areas and low woodlands of the Mississippi River Valley. It prefers full or part sun and moist, well-drained, acidic soils ranging from sandy to silty clay loams. As the common name suggests, it tolerates wet soils and occasional flooding. Although its native range lies slightly to our east and south, swamp chestnut oak is being offered through our nursery to accommodate species that are shifting north. It’s especially valuable for creating wildlife habitat because its acorns provide excellent mast for deer, foxes, turkeys, squirrels, and other species. The acorns fall to the forest floor to become part of what is called "hard mast," the various nuts that are eaten by wildlife. Hard mast is especially important as a fall and winter food for many game species, including turkeys and deer. Years with less hard mast result in lower wildlife numbers. Oaks in general provide more benefits to more kinds of wildlife than any other genus of North American trees, according to research by Dr. Douglas Tallamy and others. Over 100 vertebrate species eat acorns, and others use oaks for browse or shelter. Myriad insects find shelter and food in the leaves, trunks, branches, and roots of oak trees; this rich array of invertebrates in turn provides food for birds, bats, amphibians, and many other creatures.
Swamp chestnut oak typically produces nuts after about 20 years of growth. The scaly-capped acorns grow singly or in clusters of 2 or 3. Many sources say the nuts are sweet tasting and can be eaten straight from the tree, unlike other acorns. Good crops occur every 3 to 5 years, and the acorns are dispersed by wildlife, wind, gravity, and water. Squirrels are especially good disseminators because they tend to hoard more than they eat. This species is also called cow oak, because cattle particularly relish the nuts. Another common name is basket oak, because the wood splits easily into long strips and is excellent for making baskets.
Swamp chestnut oak is especially well-suited for meadows and naturalized areas, ponds, woodlands, and rain or shade gardens. It’s an excellent specimen tree, especially in urban areas. No matter where you plant it, allow for 25 to 60 feet of space for it to spread. It may be susceptible to oak wilt and chestnut blight.
Native habitats include wet soils of bottomlands and along swamp borders and streams.
Grows 60-80’ tall and 30-70’ wide.
Needs 4+ hours of sun.
Prefers moist, well-drained soils, including clay, loamy, and sandy. Tolerates compaction, drought, and occasional flooding.
Yellow-green, 2-4” male catkins and reddish, spiky female flowers appear on the same tree April-May, followed by 1-1/2” acorns in late summer to early fall.
Oval, 4-8” leaves have wavy margins with rounded teeth, or small lobes. The green hue morphs into orange yellow, then yellow brown, and finally dark red in fall.
Trunk reaches 2-3’ in diameter. Bark is light gray with deep, irregular furrows and broad, flaky ridges. Bark sometimes appears reddish brown. The tree forms a deep taproot.
Host plant for larvae of 477 moth and butterfly species, including the northern hairstreak and the sleepy and Horace's duskywing butterflies. The acorns are eaten by woodpeckers, blue jays, rough grouses, ducks, small mammals, wild turkeys, and deer. Deer tend not to browse the tree.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
The nuts can be roasted, dried, ground into a powder, and used as a thickening agent in stews or mixed with grains for making bread.
The hard, durable, medium-brown wood is considered second only to that of the best white oaks. It’s used in various types of construction. Special outgrowths of cells in the xylem vessels block water movement. This makes this wood more watertight than red oak and more suitable for casks and ship building. It’s also used to produce furniture, veneer, boards, fence posts, agricultural implements, and wheels.
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